In a New York Times article yesterday (I have archived the printer-friendly version if the actual link has already passed into the NYT archives), Warren St. John wrote about five New York university graduate students spent a day running around Manhattan playing virtual Pac-man.

Connected to players via cell phones, the players communicated with players back on campus, who coordinated the game board and delivered information to the ground players about the other players’ movements.

“Virtual Pac-man” is, of course, a novel concept, since Pac-man is a video game and what the students were actually doing was translating the forms and rules of the game into real space. This form of real space gaming, which has been big in Europe and is slowly being imported to America, challenges the definitional boundaries of “virtual” in a new way. For the players are performing “virtual” tasks in real space that originally only exist in a “virtual” environment. You might even say they were plan “UNvirtual Pac-man” in some respects, although the “pellets” Pac-man was “gobbling” did not appear in real space.

In my TLC331 class, I recently taught a session on the impact of video-gaming on society. As you can imagine, the students in my class were engaged in this class discussion more than on most topics, and we raised some interesting questions about gaming and violence, the “nerd subculture” and even whether video gaming is beneficial to human development.

The class was divided on this last argument, some arguing that a certain amount of fine motor skill dexterity was encouraged by game play and others arguing that the same skills could be developed playing more socially interactive sports.

The news media has produced arguments to support both positions. Most recently, I came across an ABCNews article that suggests a correlation between video game play and surgical precision. Another interesting article found in MIT’s Technology Review suggests that playing video games develops “continuous partial attention needed for today’s society." And of course, there are hundreds of books and magazines decrying the evils of video game violence and isolation, on example being the John Naisbitt book “High Tech/High Touch” that I had my students read for class.

The Pac-Manhattan example is intriguing to me. Not only does the marriage of real space and virtual space push the boundaries of technical development (the inability of the players to use GPS because of building interference should raise a few eyebrows), but there are also some very useful navigational skills being developed.

In short, I’d be willing to bet that whether one played the role of Blinky or Pac-man, game players would certainly be more likely to be fluent with the directional ins and outs of Manhattan after the conclusion of the game. Having to make fast and frantic decisions about how to avoid capture (or better, how to trap someone) would certainly push a player to develop a new understanding of the urban geography the game board was transposed upon.

In fact, this sounds like a fabulous way to learn how to get around. Maybe we should commission a series of games for new residents or visitors under the objective or forcing people to learn the lay of the land in one day. It’d be like a crash course in local geography.

And since not knowing one’s way around seems to contribute rather heavily to traffic congestion and even accidents, I think city councils could be persuaded to buy in to such an event. And funding? What cellular provider wouldn’t line up for the rights to provide Pac-man and his pursuing ghosts with their brand of cell phones and wireless communication devices?

In the classroom, educators have learned to be highly innovative in mixing entertainment with learning. Perhaps our city planners and social engineers can take a page from this book.