By Zoey Poll
Flash Invaders, a free phone game popularized in France, seems today like a perfect lockdown pastime: The objective is to walk around one’s city and snap photos of street art. It’s a distinctly outdoor activity and one with a devoted coterie of players whose interactions are largely limited to the virtual realm.
But when lockdowns first began early this year, its developers weren’t so sure. It wasn’t clear yet how the coronavirus could be spread, and encouraging people to explore their surroundings seemed like a bad idea in the midst of widespread lockdowns. “Should we take it down?” Adrien Chey, a software developer at the company, recalled wondering in March.
The Flash Invaders team kept the app live but added a stay-at-home reminder. “Doctors, delivery workers, some people had to keep working, and to prevent them from playing seemed cruel,” Mr. Chey reasoned. “They should be able to have this little moment, the small pleasure of playing the game.
Indeed, the game has been a solace for its players, turning solitary walks into treasure hunts. To win points, players collect images of mosaics by the anonymous French artist known as Invader that are installed in Paris and cities around the world.
There are over 1,000 mosaics in Paris, where the first pixelated alien invaded the Bastille neighborhood in 1996. The retro tiles have long rewarded attentive Parisians with interludes of color in the otherwise muted city, mostly on street corners but also under bridges and on out-of-the-way curbs. During the pandemic, new mosaics have popped up. Invader visited Marseille in August, giving locals dozens of new octopi and other Mediterranean-themed mosaics to collect. Ms. Aubert thought the invasion was a little clichéd — all those sun-soaked bottles of pastis — but was impressed that the artist made it beyond the Vieux Port and into the working-class districts in the north.
The app doesn’t generate any revenue, whether from ads or the sale of its users’s geolocation data. That approach sets Flash Invaders apart from games like Pokémon Go and Landlord, which generate revenue when users visit certain sites or make in-app purchases. Players can also keep their identity private. “It’s important to us that you can be anonymous,” Mr. Chey said, like the artist himself.
While most players are French, anyone in the 79 “invaded” cities can easily play, from tiny Visby off the coast of mainland Sweden to Tokyo and Miami. New Yorkers can collect a pizza slice topped with pepperoni invaders; Italians in Ravenna can claim their own sacred aliens, complete with gilded halos, a cheeky tribute to the original city of mosaics.
The community is cooperative; there is, after all, nothing to win.