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The City of Play Festival

on Wed, 09/11/2013 - 00:00

We all like to play. We did it as kids, whether it was pick-up football games, board games that challenged our minds or even something as simple as Hide and Seek. We continued through high school, through college and on into adulthood. As our lives progress, however, the amount of time that can be used for play dwindles, often taking a backseat as other responsibilities arise. But what if we could find the time to play while balancing the new social realities of adulthood and enhancing the neighborhoods in which we now live? Pittsburgher Adam Nelson has found just such a way with the City of Play Festival, an annual one-day celebration of the “best games in the world” that enables anyone to play, socialize, make new friends and see the city of Pittsburgh in a new and different way.

“Four years ago I was working as a teacher at summer camp, and part of my job was to go play with the students,” Nelson explained in August 2013. “I realized it had been four years, five years, since I’d gone out to play for no reason. Without trying to win or without trying to advance in some sort of league ranking. And I realized that I kind of missed that. So I came back to Pittsburgh and decided to see what I could do to create those opportunities to play. I started Obscure Games, which was a weekly session of new and strange and unique sports and other kinds of games that I was researching and designing. And then I got a seed award from the Sprout Fund to produce the first Festival of Games, which was at that point called the Steel City Games Fest. That was 2010, and we had a very good first year of the festival, and we’ve just been doing it ever since. It’s really grown in terms of its mission, its scope, over the last few years.”

City of Play is similar to other urban game events held in cities across the nation, most notably the Come Out and Play Festival in New York and San Francisco. While the idea is to give attendees the opportunity to play games as adults in the same ways that they did when they were kids, these festival are also designed around the communities in which they are held, transforming them into “urban playgrounds” in the process. Thus while “enjoyment” is a main ingredient of such gatherings, social interaction and the chance to experience city life in a different way are also key elements for both the Come Out and Play Festival and its Pittsburgh counterpart City of Play.

The City of Play Festival, for instance, is divided into three sections—Field Games, Social Games and Street Games. “I chose field games because we tend to grow out of the idea of playing field sports, those types of pick-up games, or we grow out of the idea of creating new ones or inventing new ones,” Nelson said in regards to the first category. “I choose games that really allow anyone of any athletic ability or athletic skill or really any physical ability to participate in them in some way. The games that we’ve chosen, they can be difficult, they can be played at a high level, but you can also play them at a low level—non-competitively or non-aggressively—and still get the experience of the game.”

Social Games, meanwhile, are designed to breakdown the natural barriers that inevitably exist between people unfamiliar with each other and force players to interact in ways that they might not under normal circumstances. Adam Nelson cites Bottleneck, which was part of the 2013 City of Play Festival, as a prime example. “What I love about this game is that even before I started playing, I was immediately making friends,” he explained. “Not necessarily real, lifelong friends, but friends within the game. And the friendships within the game were so quick and so strong that immediately upon making those friendships we linked arms. This game pushed everyone who was playing to go beyond the boundaries of ‘We’re strangers, we shouldn’t interact with each other in this way,’ to, ‘No, we’re both playing this game. I know who you are in this game, I know who I am in this game, and in this game we’re supposed to be friends so let’s act like friends.’”

Lastly, there are Street Games. “I chose Street Games because they force us, through playing the game, to look at our urban environment in a new way,” Nelson said. “One example is called Object Get, which is a game in which an object is constantly tweeting its location and your goal is to find that object and take it from whoever’s currently holding it. What this does is it changes the idea of moving around the city, and it changes the common routes that a person may take. So it might push you to go down a road or through an alley or cut across a parking lot that you wouldn’t normally do in your everyday experience of moving around the city. But because this game relies on you getting to this object as quickly as you can, you’re going to take some shortcuts. And that will push you to explore places in the city that you may not have otherwise had a chance to go into.”

Although the City of Play Festival is only held once a year, Adam Nelson organizes additional “play” opportunities throughout the Pittsburgh region on a regular basis. Hambone’s Pub in Lawrenceville, for instance, sponsors Pub Games every Wednesday evening, while Flagstaff Hill in Oakland is the Sunday afternoon setting for Outdoor Games. City of Play likewise operates games during the Three Rivers Arts Festival, sponsors a 5k marathon called City Spree Race and participates in the annual Extra Life Gaming Marathon fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network. All of these events incorporate Adam Nelson’s overall mission of not just giving adults the opportunity to find the same sense of enjoyment that they did when they were kids, but to challenge them both socially and from a civic responsibility aspect as well.

“Part of the foundation of City of Play is this belief that games and play generally can do more than just be fun,” he explained. “I believe that if you make a city more playful, you basically invite citizens to interact with it, and the more that you encourage that interaction between the citizens and the physical space of the city, the more that you connect them to the policies that are going to affect those physical spaces. So the more that you encourage the interaction with streets and sidewalks and parks, buildings and vacant lots and that sort of thing, the more that you encourage people to get involved in the process of deciding what happens to those things, get involved with city government, get involved with local community groups. That sort of thing.”

Once a year, the city of Pittsburgh becomes an urban playground thanks to Adam Nelson and the City of Play Festival, but it’s the potential of making Pittsburgh an even better place to live year-round that may be the event’s greatest legacy.

Anthony Letizia

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