Yury Gitman, Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena
Noderunner is a game that transforms a city into a playing field. Two teams race against time to access as many wireless Internet nodes as possible. To prove that they have successfully connected to an open node, each team must submit photographic proof to the Noderunner weblog. During game play, the weblog becomes a busy scoreboard tracking the competing teams in real time. After the game, the photos provide visual documentation of the path taken by each team and public spaces that have free wireless connectivity.
Each four-person team was given a WiFi-enabled laptop, a digital camera, taxi fare, and two hours to get from Bryant Park in midtown to Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan, both free wireless parks. Teams earned points by taking their portraits in the exact spots where they were able to connect to wireless access points. They also earned points by using scanning software to sniff all the nodes along the way, even those that were password protected or too weak to transfer pictures. The teams collected logs recording hundreds of closed or weak nodes, but scored more points when they were actually able to use a node to upload a picture.
The simple rule set forced players to develop strategies for planning the most rewarding routes within the city. For example, the East Village was a popular route destination because it offered a large number of open nodes. Participants also needed technical savvy to troubleshoot connection problems and upload pictures despite fragile signal. Spending too much time on a weak node could have been the difference between winning and losing, so teams moved quickly through the city with a combination of running on foot and riding by taxi. An additional link was established between the teams and a central ‘headquarters’ location where the progress of the competitors was plotted on an 80-foot map of Manhattan and where photographs taken by the teams were projected on a large screen. Urban photography gave spectators a new appreciation of the city’s open nodes, and the winning team popped champagne in celebration.
Noderunner's playing field is the available WiFi spillover in a densely populated area. The density of this spillover is so great that it can be used as a legitimate wireless network. For example, in New York City it is now easier to find an open and free 802.11 hotspot than it is to find a public restroom. New Yorkers with WiFi enabled laptops are becoming accustomed to stumbling on open access points made available by their neighbors, pubic parks, cafes, bars, and not just their work places. These well-traveled cultural spots have never before experienced Internet connectivity, nor has the Internet ever enjoyed such seamless integration into a city’s actual architecture and social fabric. Noderunner sessions highlight overlaps between information and the urban environment, encouraging the use of public spaces for creative endeavors. As wireless access becomes more prevalent in our cities, this paradigm offers new opportunities for applications that treat public space as an interface. This work draws on spatially based games like tag, scavenger hunts, and hideand- go-seek, as well as graffiti art, skateboarding, and urban bicycling that characterize cities like New York.
Recently, new technologies have expanded the scope of these activities, spawning a diverse community of artists, entrepreneurs and activists developing location-based models for social movements, advertising, urban services and pervasive gaming. Instead of making our video games look more realistic, we now have the ability to turn our reality into a video game, a city’s infrastructure into a play space. Our cities are becoming game engines and software, as citizens collectively program, code, and update the place where they live.
This diverse collective action means that even in the same city, like New York, Noderunner’s playing field is in constant flux as WiFi continues to proliferate. At first glance this would appear to make Noderunner easier but as WiFi spreads, new legislation, use patterns, and technologies emerge. Will new security measures limit open access despite an increase in nodes and improvements in transmission distance? Played over time, Noderunner games help answer these questions by providing empirical data about our culture’s adoption of wireless technology.
Noderunner is in itself an exemplar of an emerging culture. A culture where smart and wireless environments are as much an object of play as a grass field or an open lake. The open wireless movement is being built by the end-users, one node at a time. Drawing on the original spirit of the Internet, WiFi enthusiasts embrace open standards, peer-to-peer dynamics, and user-centered innovation. As artists, we combined game design with the existing culture of the open wireless movement. Instead of creating an artificial game environment, we tapped into the revolution that was already happening around us. Our goal was not just to contribute to a new genre of public art, but also to actively engage the general public in a vital cultural and technological transformation. Noderunner is continually reinvented by the citizens who build the network and run the streets. The game is an entrance point to the political and social movements behind wireless. We offer Noderunner as celebration of free and open wireless connectivity and as a symbol of the city’s cultural flexibility and potency.
Noderunner was created by Yury Gitman and Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena for an exhibition called "We Love NY: Mapping Manhattan with Artists and Activists" (Eyebeam). The exhibition was produced by Eyebeam, a new media arts organization, and curated by Jonah Peretti and Cat Mazza. Like other Eyebeam R&D projects, Noderunner is a form of empirical research and political engagement as well as an art project. Noderunner was developed in collaboration with ( New York City Wireless), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free wireless Internet, and supported by a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts. Carlos and Yury continued the development of Noderunner in the Eyebeam artists-in-residence program. Future plans for Noderunner include the development of a platform to support games in cities around the world.
Yury Gitman and Carlos Gomez, edited by Jonah Peretti