Hive Mechanic: democratizing game design for smart and playful cities

Hive Mechanic is an authoring tool for making neighborhood games and playful activities to embed in public space. No coding skills are necessary. What will you make?

Just connect “cards” in our editor to create activities in the real world, including branching stories, SMS scavenger hunts, interactive art with RFID objects, and participatory Smart City visualizations to project on city buildings.


Recent projects, and what you can make.

How does it work, and what is the technology?

Get involved and some history

Our goal is to democratize design for local play — including for libraries, art centers, neighborhood museums, and grassroots community projects. Created by the Playful City Lab at American University.

What can you make? Our recent work…

A Sculpture that Talks Back (2020 — Reston, VA). To accompany this 50-foot surrealist sculpture, we designed an “oracle” to engage with visitors by text message. The oracle sends annotated photographs (similar to polaroids), revealing the hidden history and philosophy of the artwork. More playfully, the oracle picks different “readings” of paired poetry and remixed images of the sculpture for each visitor. Featuring mounted signs with QR codes that start the text message conversation. In collaboration with artist Sue Wrbican and the Greater Reston Arts Center.

Crowdmapping DC Alleys (2020 — Washington, DC). We joined a group of architects to reimagine the 246 miles of DC’s alleys. Residents from across the city contacted our system by phone (no apps required), sending in photographs that were classified through conversation rather than forms. Meanwhile, in the gallery photographs were automatically printed as they were sent in from the streets, and displayed on the wall to provide an unfolding visualization of DC alleyways. In collaboration with El Studio, the DC Alley Project, and the DC Architecture Center.

Listening Stations across the City (2019 — Washington, DC). Our installations to surface local history were at the front desk of neighborhood libraries and in a repurposed payphone inside the Smithsonian. Callers could leave recordings, conduct interviews, or hear professional oral histories. When necessary, we used wifi hotspots with VOIP adapters to patch in old-fashioned analog phones, all tied to our network. Such hardware is easily coordinated by Hive Mechanic. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum at the DC Public Library.

Scavenger Hunt — with raffle and interactive truck (2018-2019 – Adams Morgan, Washington, DC). At the longest-running neighborhood festival in DC, we created a transmedia scavenger hunt on local history. We find that paper maps are often the best starting point for an experience, coupled with historic photographs that are sent to visitors’ phones. To reach crowds, nothing beats getting on the music stage with a raffle that happened to circulate history photos of nearby streets. In collaboration with the Humanities Truck and the Washingtoniana Archive.

How does it work? Cards and a metaphor…

Designed for non-programmers, our card system means that anyone (from librarians to community artists) can create a branching story or neighborhood treasure hunt. More advanced programmers can tap into our open-source code. Paper cards are used to help newcomers conceptualize good feedback loops and fun choices for players. Then in the online authoring tool, the card system allows non-programmers to organize the content and interactive experience. Meanwhile, the Hive Mechanic server organizes the live game — including to coordinate players, send text messages (with services like Twilio), check on city data services (via API), and coordinate with installations like our tiny Raspberry Pi computers embedded in physical space.

Hive Mechanic screen shot

Our web interface for Hive Mechanic is how you create a game or activity — no special apps required. Our tool is designed to be visual and to help democratize game design; it is simpler than tools like Scratch and ARIS, with a hint of the internet of things like IFTTT.

During gameplay, players can send many kinds of information to the game server, from texting a photo to more advanced coordination with mobile apps (e.g., Unity). Meanwhile, other game “satellites” will also be contacting Hive Mechanic with timers, motion sessions, or emerging city data. And the game engine can also push content to public space, such as changing a projection on a wall next to a mural, or a hidden speaker, or an iPad at a farmers market.

Prototyping cards that mimic the online interface

Soft skills and creativity are especially important for good design; we believe they can be systematically boosted — and made more accessible to non-traditional designers. We repeatedly tap into the framing and systemic power of… playing cards. As a metaphor, playing cards have nearly universal legibility, and can convey ideas similar to the blocks in visual programming languages. In our workshops, print versions of the cards are used before pivoting to the online interface. For game design, paper prototyping is a fundamental technique that is useful for engineers and non-technical designers alike.

What else? More ideas for activities

Escape room puzzles for groups at a farmers market, where each person receives a part of the puzzle and everyone must come together in public space to solve the puzzle

Audio tours outside a museum to provide authentic voices of artists and residents to accompany fixed installations

• Use metro cards as interactive game pieces (e.g., tap your bus card at this farmer’s market booth — and hear this week’s clue)

• Smart city data, e.g., weather forecasts of rain (or high pollution, or a late bus) turns on a blue light at the bus stop — and sends a text to local business owners

Recent collaborators

Get involved (and some history)

Our raw code is freely available, and skilled developers can always branch the project for their own goals. We are also looking for collaborators in cities and communities around the world to design with us. For select projects, we host the server installation as well. Be in touch with your ideas, or just to explore!

Maker and educator guides are coming soon. Our maker guide will focus on independent learning and experimentation within the tool. Our educator guide focuses on leading sessions of students (of any age) who are creating their own activities using Hive Mechanic.


• 2018: Ideation phase, thanks to seed funding from American University, including prototypes with Raspberry Pi

• 2018: Alpha testing of prototypes (hard coded, i.e., not yet using the core interface)

Software development began by Audacious Software in 2019. Two technical versions tested; one was selected for our beta.

• Workshop at the AU Global Game Jam (Feb 1, 2020) — the first with Hive Mechanic

• Release of open-source code on GitHub

Full stack launch — first exhibits launch running the full Hive Mechanic stack (Spring 2020)


Developed in partnership with Audacious Software, the AU Humanities Truck, the AU Game Lab, and the Leimert Phone Company. A project of The Playful City Lab.