The first day back at work after the long break has, by now, proved a grim reminder for millions that using public transport in a major city can be a miserable experience. It’s crowded, uncomfortable, and it can be slow and confusing. But if we all use our private cars then the cities become unliveable. So policy-makers agonise about how to promote what they call ‘modal shift’ – getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, public transport and their feet.

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to make this happen; it’s arguable that ‘smarter travel’ programs deliver modest gains, but in any case they require a lot of hands-on intervention and resources, and it’s possible that the gains evaporate when the input slackens off.

New Tube Trains for London but public transport remains grim. © TFL
New Tube Trains for London but public transport remains grim. © TFL

But what about making public transport into an enormous game for one or more players? That’s the idea behind Wend, a project of the digital production company Mudlark. The game will gather information from users’ movements and mode choices, then weaves them into a game-like narrative with intrinsic incentives and rewards. Unlike other transport and exercise apps, the emphasis in on entertainment and delight rather than information about CO2 emissions saved or calories burned.

The development has won funding from the prestigious EU Horizon 2020 fund, and builds on the sensors within smartphones to know where users are and what kinds of travel mode they are using. Matt Watkins, creative director at Mudlark, puts it rather well: “We know that the simple presentation of health data or ecological metrics only motivates users to change by a minute degree.

People have a much stronger urge to be entertained and to share that entertainment with others. They want to compete and to be enchanted with what they see and hear in a digital experience. They want the sense of magic that comes from the way technology can change our perspective on something in a radical way, in a way that feels seamless and obvious at the same time.”

Wend builds on Mudlark’s experience with Chromaroma, a previous transport-based game that used data from Oyster-card swipes rather than the users’ locations, and was therefore limited to journeys on TFL.

I played Chromaroma for a little while and wrote a few blog posts about it. In the end I gave up, because it really wasn’t much fun. I’d hoped that it might provide a bit of “re-enchantment” for my public transport travel, but it didn’t do much for me. I know others felt differently, and Chromaroma did have a band of dedicated players.

Perhaps Chromaroma was just ahead of its time, and the capabilities of the smartphone to track, map, share and publish was just what it was waiting for. Of course there are lots of issues to be dealt with, not least about ownership and governance of all that personal data.

Many potential users could be put off by the possibility that their footsteps would be sold off to the highest bidder. Conversely, if Wend isn’t going to be paid for by advertisers and others who want this kind of data, who is going to pay for it?

I’m optimistic that the smart people at Mudlark will work something out that deals with these questions, and I’m hopeful that it will be possible to do something that really does provide a bit of re-enchantment. I’d encourage them to be bold, and perhaps a bit surreal, in their thinking. The Wend board on Pinterest is encouraging in this respect.

Not every game has to be about racking up more points than someone else, or someone else’s team. I am mindful of how compelling story-based games can be, and I’m impressed by this re-enchantment initiative by the rather wonderful artist Jeremy Deller.

I may be the last person left alive who remembers the weird 2G ‘lost cat’ mobile phone game trialled in Helsinki as part of a strange program called FLexible Information and Recreation for mobile Telephone users (FLIRT). So here’s to Psychogeography, the game, coming soon to a phone near you.