Buzz-napping. Cutting purses. Bung diving. Whatever you call it, pickpocketing has slipped unnoticed into the game designer's bag of go-to mechanics. It makes sense from a game design perspective. Pickpocketing allows players to collect small sums of money without unbalancing the game. It sets up interesting mission possibilities like stealing keys or items. However, the act itself is usually simple and uninvolved - a tertiary mechanic at best. Which begs the question, how do pickpocketing systems stack up to real-life pickpocketing techniques, and what could developers learn from the historical record if they wanted to expand or improve implementation?
A Varied Mechanic
Stealing is one of those videogame actions that can either be very simple or a large component of the world depending on context. In Saints Row the Third the Boss harvests money just by bumping into people on the street, and never risks being caught. Corvo in Dishonored can steal pouches with a button press, but only remains undetected if he stays out of the NPC's sightline. The original Assassin's Creed had Altaïr follow along behind characters for nearly five seconds before fleecing them - a tricky prospect - but all the subsequent games replaced this with a two-second meter where the player avoids detection by walking away as soon as the job's complete. Thief 4 has a meter-based mechanic that seems to combine Dishonored with Assassin's Creed. However, probably the most extensive pickpocketing system of the last few years was in Skyrim, which included an algorithm to calculate the player's chance of stealing an object based on its weight, value and whether the target sees the player. In addition, in Skyrim the player was only one part of a vast thieving network - training his skills as part of the Thieves' Guild and selling any stolen items to a fence. While many of these games hit on one or more themes of the pickpocketing experience, Skyrim depicted the system from start to finish.
The Golden Age of Pickpockets
Due to Oliver Twist's affect on the popular consciousness, when most people think about pickpockets they generally picture Victorian children's gangs. While this isn't wrong, highly trained pickpocketing outfits were alive and functioning over a century before Dickens conceived Fagan and the Artful Dodger. Pickpocketing had its greatest period of innovation in the 18th century during the Georgian and Regency periods. During this time, London swelled with new residents as the country transitioned from a more feudal economic model, based around agriculture, to a capitalist system that involved manufacturing goods and providing services. Common people who previously farmed and lived off the land abruptly had to learn about managing money. Cobblers and barrel-makers that were the only source of goods in their small town found themselves subject to market forces and competition. Poverty relief efforts that previously assisted the working poor - family support, parish charity, and gleaning a lord's fields - turned out to be less viable in the city or vanished entirely.