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War of the Worlds: Philadelphia

December 22, 2014

War of the Worlds

If selected for Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challege funding, a pair of Drexel professors will turn Philadelphia's iconic public spaces into an interactive citywide game inspired by H.G. Wells's science fiction classic "War of the Worlds." 

The next act for the professor who put Pong and Tetris on Brandywine Realty Trust’s 29-story Cira Centre office building could be an alien invasion of Philadelphia. Drexel University’s Frank Lee, PhD, an associate professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and Adrienne Mackey, an adjunct professor in the College and director of Swim Pony Performing Arts, have a vision of turning Philadelphia’s iconic spaces into a citywide videogame inspired by H.G. Wells’s science fiction classic, “War of the Worlds.” 

Their goal is to have Philadelphians imagine a city under siege – attacked so suddenly and decisively that only a committed, connected effort by citizens will save it. “War of the Worlds: Philadelphia,” Lee and Mackey’s public art concept, renews H.G. Wells’s classic Martian invasion story in a way that merges play and theater on a massive scale while creating a shared civic moment and a unique experiment with the game player as a performer.

The project was recently chosen by Mayor Michael Nutter as the city’s submission for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, a $1-million initiative to support temporary public arts projects that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships and drive economic development.

Philadelphia’s entry is up against many others from major cities across the country, that are all vying for the grant’s two years of funding for their projects. Lee has a proven track record of bringing people together around video game-style public art displays over the past two years. But this project will be an even larger undertaking, according to Lee.

“What began as a nugget of an idea for a citywide game has become so much more,” Lee said. “‘Worlds’ has evolved into a new form of art and entertainment: a hybrid between games and theater.  I've always been fascinated with merging physical play, such as tag and hide-and-seek that we use to play as kids, and digital games into a new form of interactive art at a grand scale. ‘Pong on the Cira Centre’ and ‘Skyscraper Tetris’ were early examples of this new kind of interaction, and I see ‘Worlds’ as the natural progression of this art form.”

If the project is selected for funding, Lee and Mackey will work with partners from Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to engage the city in a storyline that unfolds through several large-scale public events, a number of neighborhood activities and continuously, online, throughout the year.

“It's an opportunity to remind a citywide community the power of live artistic expression,” Mackey said. “My goal as an artist is to tell stories that are joyful, connect us as humans, and elevate our lives beyond the pedestrian and every day experience. Bringing Philadelphians into a massive, collaborative storytelling setting is an exciting chance to reach people that would never be reached through traditional channels.”

“Worlds” will turn civic places, such as City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Independence Mall and Citizens Bank Park into sites of play that combine information from a mobile app, an online community, live performance and player actions into part of the story. The games will bring people together to perform synchronized actions in designated locations to stave off the alien attack.

One event, that the team calls “invasion day,” will require thousands of players to gather at a location and jump, in sync, in order to thwart the invasion. A special app, designed for the event, will track their movement and as more people begin jumping, the Cira Centre will begin to light up, indicating how close the group is to achieving the vibration level necessary to defeat the alien invaders.

Smaller-scale neighborhood events will use the game as an entry into civic, digital, film and literary education. Plotlines will involve well-known people and sites like Derrick Pitts at the Franklin Institute who will explain the physics of a Martian landing; a National Park Service representative will express concerns about preserving cultural artifacts like the Liberty Bell; Mayor Nutter will convene a special cabinet session while councilmembers will tweet information about the invasion from City Hall.

The overarching goal of the public arts challenge and Lee’s team is to get people to interact with their city in a new way.

“Through collaborative play involving thousands of citizen players on site and online, I think people will engage across age, race, class and neighborhood lines for a common cause,” Lee said. “While this is just a playful way to get people interacting, it’s an example of how uniting us in a shared, cultural experience can help develop the civic skills of problem solving, cooperation and communication; skills don’t go away when the game is over—regardless of the outcome.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies will select finalists in February 2015 and the grantees will be announced in May. For more information about the Public Art Challenge visit: