Monday, 17 November 2008

My thoughts on alternate reality gaming

Lately, I've been doing a bit of thinking about Alternate Reality games. I was introduced to them last year but in the last few months I've heard about them at a conference (see previous entry for thoughts on ECGBL), watched two very different ones unfold, and been along to the Sandpit during the London Games festival. I've also been lucky enough to have had conversations about them with Justin Pickard and Juliette Culver, who have been involved with Superstruct and Operation Sleeper Cell respectively.

Now Superstruct is similar to World Without Oil (and both are projects that Jane McGonigal has been helped create and run) in that it involves imagining yourself in an alternate reality crises - in this case it is 2019 and the combination of five different superthreats mean the end of the world as we know it by 2042. Players are encouraged to write their own stories about their experiences in this possible future, and to discuss possible superstruct solutions with each other in order to extend the human races survival horizon. Operation Sleeper Cell is a bit different, as it is a spy-themed game that requires players to solve a series of puzzles with the ultimate aim of helping to raise money for Cancer Research UK (click here to donate money or sponsor a player). Meanwhile, the Sandpit describes itself as "pervasive gaming night" since you actually need to show up and play in the same physical location as other people, while the games themselves ranged from competitive storytelling in the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to chasing "Mr. Smith" around the streets of Soho.

I'm going to talk a bit about my reactions to these different types of games but first I want to point out that the common theme running through seems to be that they attempt to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Now this sounds kind of cool, but I think it also raises some interesting ethical points. First off, there is the issue of turning a crises into a game - maybe it's only fun if you haven't lived through something similar - which came up at ECGBL. Then there is the "this is not a game" tag, which can lead to feeling "A bit thick". Michael Abbott thought he was helping out a legtimate games blogger, but turns out she's a character from an ARG. I've been talking to Justin about this, and we seemed to agree that just because pixelvixen707 turned out to be a fictional character doesn't mean the exchanges that occurred were any less valuable. I mean, I doubt whatever she said in terms of games criticism is any more or less valid than anything else on the web, assuming the writers have done their homework. But what we didn't agree on was whether we would feel betrayed if we had been on the receiving end of such a stunt. Justin reckons that what he would have gained from the interaction would end up counterbalancing any sense of betrayal he might feel, but I'm not so sure. I mean, I see how ARGs want you to question the divide fiction and reality, and how in order to do so they need to "plant" characters in real world forums but would it have been so hard to let Abbott in on the secret first? Would that mean having to let everyone in on it? How much do people gain from this sort of "fake authenticity" (thanks to Justin for coining the phrase) in terms of player experience and how much do they have to lose from it in terms of real world experience? Unfortunately, while it might make the game more intriguing, I have a feeling that Abbott is going to be a little more cautious the next time he is approached by a blogger who is just starting out and may be less likely to give them the time and energy he would have done othwerwise.

So what about the ARGs I've been paying a bit more attention too? Well while the games I outlined earlier are all rather different but they all contain an element of blurring the line between reality and fiction. In Superstruct's case, by using the internet as a platform, player's create their own narratives to fit in with the scenario of the game. Now while I am capable of stringing sentences together, I haven't attempted any form of creative writing since I was in school so I'm not sure this appeals to me that much. I know it's about envisaging my own future but I'm not very good at that either, despite repeated attempts from my supervisor to get me to do so. I find it difficult to picture where I'll be in 10 years time, let alone to imagine the skills and knowledge I may have acquired by then, so it's no surprise that I've avoided completing my SEHI profile. Instead, I've been checking the updates, having a look at some of the discussions people have been having and thinking that it would actually feel a lot like work and less like fun for me to take part in Superstruct on a more active basis. And I guess I can't help thinking about whether any of these debates and ideas will make a serious difference in the real world.

I've been a bit rubbish with Operation Sleeper Cell as well. I've signed up and had a look round, even solved a couple of puzzles but I haven't really got going with it. I guess I prefer the way the game is puzzle based, but when I don't know how to solve one I tend to give up. It's not clear where I can go for help even though there are forums you can look at and ask questions on (whereas I guess I want a "hint" type button that I can go for right there and then). I suspect it would be a bit more fun to play the game in a group with some friends, and that would also help with the trickier puzzles too. What I'm less keen on are the missions where you have to reconstruct a bond theme/dress as a spy/make a cake and take photos to send to the Agency. I'm guessing this is where we get the blurring of reality and fiction? Maybe I'm just not all that creative, but again this seems like an awful lot of (not always relevant) work for someone who's favourite video game genre is the point and click adventure!

The Sandpit is quite different to these other two games in that it is really several games occuring in one evening, and does not require the internet as a platform. What is interesting in this case, is the way the games occur in public spaces with only the players knowing what is going on. I had a lot of fun here, it reminded me of what it felt like to play games as a kid playing in the neighbourhood (though Soho is a very different neighbourhood to the one I grew up in...). But it was obvious that other people were a bit confused about what a bunch of adults were doing running after a man in a mask and guarding vats of goo from people in different coloured bowler hats. One woman asked whether we had just been watching a fight as a group of players ran off down the street, while all of us would go quiet when the police walked by. So now we're back to the ethics of carrying out an activity that not everybody knows about.

I guess ARGs are still a developing medium and perhaps it's not always the correct term to apply, but there are some interesting issues emerging from these forms of gaming. In terms of education, it is clear there are ethical issues that need to be considered if you were going to try and adopt this sort of approach. I think it's also fair to say that this form of gaming does not necassarily appeal to everyone's tastes, so while it may be engaging and active, and get people to collaborate (or at least play together), some thought needs to be put into who would get the most of learning in this way. It would seem, as with digital games, there is a lot of potential here but a fair amount of work still needs to be done before the educational applications are clear. Despite being interested in them though, I don't think that ARGs are going to be the main focus on my PhD so the next post will see a return to a focus on video games and what I've been playing.