Atlantic Cities

Turning Your Commute Into an Arcade Game

Turning Your Commute Into an Arcade Game
chromaroma.com

Commuting may vie with showering as the day's most perfunctory task.

But regular transit riders recognize there's at least some bit of craft to subway travel. If you know where the exits are at your destination, you can place yourself in a good spot on the arrival platform. Positioning yourself within the car, deciding whether or not to hop on the express, figuring out where to direct your glance so as not to offend someone — all these elements of the metro ride require some finesse as well.

Still at the end of the day, as this New York subway poem reminds us, our efforts earn us little besides the right to do it again tomorrow.

A Foursquare-style program based in London transforms the commuter's lament into something more like an arcade game. Chromaroma uses a commuter's metro card (called the Oyster) to track a player's movement through the London Underground system. Unlike Foursquare, which only shows where a person arrives, Chromaroma follows the entirety of a player's travels through the Greater London area. As a result, players can chart their movements onto three-dimensional maps that can be published on Twitter or Facebook.

Chromaroma players accumulate points with each journey and can earn awards for completing specific tasks, such as altering a daily commuter route, as well as missions, some of which follow an evolving story line. The idea is to expand a person's transit horizon; or, as the creators of the game described it during a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to inject "the often mundane process of commuting with a sense of playfulness, encouraging people to explore the city and ally themselves with strangers."

The game relies on the cooperation of the Transport for London agency, which manages the data kept by Oyster cards. This transfer of data means updates to Chromaroma scores lag 48 hours behind actual player movements, creator Toby Barnes explained in an interview with the Guardian. While real-time tracking would be nice, the matter of privacy continues to rouse debate. Although entrance into the game is voluntary, Transport for London seems hesitant about opening up its data further. In an August blog post at the Chromaroma site, creators lamented the agency's guarded stance when it comes to releasing data, but assured its users that privacy is a paramount concern:

There are the usual excuses regarding opening up data – what if someone’s wife sees that their husband is going to see his mistress?, for example. Our answer has always been, "stop being marriage counselors and run a transport system that we can be proud of." There already are, and will always be, safeguards in place that protect people’s privacy. ... We’ve always worked with the 48-hour delay on published travel data. ... Privacy is of utmost importance to us and always has.

The creators of Chromaroma hope to bring their game to other transport modes, and ultimately they want to export it to other cities around the world. That way teams from various cities could challenge one another — sort of like a Commuter Olympics. It may not sound like the most thrilling competition ever arranged. But then again neither does curling.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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