Adults love games, from watching professional sports to tilling virtual, animated farms on Facebook. Seven years ago, two NYU graduate students who were exploring the digital frontiers of play decided to make gaming mechanics the subject of their Master’s theses. Their project combined three elements: Players’ actions in the real world (they called it “physical space”), the connective fabric woven by mobile devices capable of mapping positions plus the fun possibilities of social-networking software that links friends and friends-of-friends. They named the project for a bouncing, chasing tag game: Dodgeball.
Dodgeball was partly a crowd-sourced city guide--in its earliest incarnation, to East Village bars near NYU. But it meant to do more: improve the nightlife of its young users, in real time, by helping them find a good time. Users would alert the system to their whereabouts with a text; Dodgeball would broadcast this to friends and connections who had checked into the system within a 10-block radius so everyone could meet. It was “technology that facilitates serendipity,” said co-founder and lead developer Dennis Crowley. The founders weren’t sure they could draw investors and were planning their job hunts when, a week before graduation in 2004, The New York Times devoted a feature story to Dodgeball, which said it “transformed daily life into a giant video game.” Today Crowley recalls, “We looked at the big write up and said, ‘What are we doing interviewing for jobs? This should be our job.’ ”
Dodgeball eventually spread to 22 cities (including Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Denver, New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Madison and Minneapolis–St. Paul), pulling in tens of thousands of users. Google acquired it in 2005.
ITP was fertile soil for Dodgeball’s founders. They experienced large, urban games like PacManhattan, played on the city grid (costumed ghosts chased a live Pac Man, guided from afar via cell-phone contact). Crowley worked on tricky programming problems there, like how to circumvent cell phones’ processing limitations to accomplish sophisticated ends. Inspiration came from studying social software with Professor Clay Shirky and building hardware for Professor Tom Igoe. Crowley has returned to ITP to teach mobile-device computing and design.
Today, the so-called “location-based social networking” pioneered by Dodgeball is fast-growing and Crowley, with others, runs a second startup, FourSquare, with a staff of dozens, six million users and tens of millions of dollars of investment. It all began at ITP, where, Crowley says, students “are on the cutting edge of everything.”