Category Archives: Games

if:book review 1: game culture

I’ve chosen ‘game culture’ as the theme for this first review post, for all that many of these posts could just as easily be tagged another handful of ways. But games have always hovered at the fringes of debates about the future of the book.
Consideration of serious video games; repurposing of existing games to create machinima, and cultural activities arising out of machinima. Dscussion of more overtly cross-platform activities: pervasive gaming, ARGs and their multiple spawn in terms of commercialization, interactivity, resistance to ‘didactic’ co-optation and more. There’s a lot here; as per my first post on this subject, I’d welcome comments and thoughts.
In February 2005, Sol Gaitan wrote a thoughtful piece about the prevalence of video games in children’s lives, and questioned whether such games might be used more for didactic purposes. In April 2005 Ben picked up an excerpt from Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, which pointed to further reading on video games in education. In August 2005, four British secondary schools experimented with educational games; someone died after playing video games for 50 hours straight without stopping to eat; and Sol pondered whether the future of the book was in fact a video game.
Between February and May 2006 the Institute worked on providing a public space for McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory – not strictly a game, but a networked meta-discussion of game culture. Discussion of ‘serious’ games continued in an April analysis of why some games should be publicly funded. In August 2006, Sino-Japanese relations became tense in the MMORPG Fantasy Westward Journey; later the same month, Gamersutra wondered why there weren’t any highbrow video games, prompting a thoughtful piece from Ray Cha on whether ‘high’ and ‘low’ art definitions have any meaning in that context.
Machinima and its relations have appeared at intervals. In July 2005 Bob Stein was interviewed in Halo, followed later the same month by Peggy Ahwesh in Halo-based talk show This Spartan Life. Ben wrote about the new wave of machinima and its relatives in December 2005, following this up with a Grand Text Auto call for scholarly papers in January 2006, and a vitriolic denunciation of the intersection between machinima, video gaming, and the virtualization of war (May 2006). In September 2006 McKenzie Wark was interviewed about Gamer Theory in Halo. Then, in October 2007, Chris mentioned the first machinima conference to be held in Europe.
Pervasive gaming makes its first appearance in a September 2006 mention of the first Come Out And Play festival (the 2008 one just wrapped up in NY last weekend). It’s interesting to note how the field has evolved since 2006: where pervasive gaming felt relatively indie in 2006, this year ARG superstar Jane McGonigal brought The Lost Game, part of The Lost Ring, her McDonalds-sponsored Olympic Games ARG
Earlier, overlap between pervasive gaming, ARGs and hoaxes was foreshadowed by an August 2005 story about a BBC employee writing a Wikipedia obituary for a fictional pop star – and then denying that they were gaming the encyclopedia. I wrote my first post about ARGs and commercialization in January 2007, following this with another about ARGs and player interaction in March. The same month, Ben and I got excited about the launch of McGonigal’s World Without Oil, which looked to bring together themes of ‘serious’ and pervasive gaming – but turned out, as Ben and my conversation (posted May 2006) to be rather pious and lacking in narrative.
Since then, both marketing and educational breeds of ARG have spread, as attested by Penguin’s WeTellStories (trailed February, launched March 2008), and the announcement of UK public service broadcaster Channel 4 Education’s move of its £6m commissioning budget into cross-platform projects.
I’m not going to attempt a summary of the above, except to say that everything and nothing has changed: cross-platform entertainment has edged towards the mainstream, didactic games continue to plow their furrow at the margins of the vast gaming industry, and commercialization is still a contentious topic. It’s not clear whether gaming has come closer to being accepted alongside cinema as a significant art form, but its vocabularies have – as McKenzie Wark’s book suggested – increasingly bled into many aspects of contemporary culture, and will no doubt continue to do so.

this is a game. no really, it is

looking for headless
This morning, I received an envelope through the post. It contained two chapters of a pulp murder mystery, along with an invitation to a private gathering with the same title as the booklets: Looking For Headless. The gathering will take place in an anonymous City of London complex of rooms for hire by the hour.
It feels like the rabbit hole for a promising ARG. The accompanying letter describes how Georges Bataille formed a secret society, Acéphale, in 1938. Now, in 2008, two Swedish artists have discovered a Bahamas-based offshore company named Headless, which they have been investigating for the last year. At the meeting, I presume, I and the other invitees (whoever they are) will learn more.
A key characteristic of an ARG is the convention ‘This Is Not A Game’. Puppetmasters work to sustain the illusion that the game’s elements are part of the ‘real’ world – that’s a real person who emailed you, this is a real corporate website. Though players know the game is a game, there’s stil a thrill at the edges: should I phone that company, is it in-game, will I just get some confused receptionist? What’s real, who is complicit? But here the program is running backwards. Headless is, in fact, real. Owned by the Sovereign Trust Gibraltar. Little other information is available. Goldin+Senneby, the artist duo behind the project, state that they are interested in business as fiction, and in acts of withdrawal perpetrated through corporate structures.
ARG-like, the edge is ambiguous. The art-world jargon the artists use to discuss the project feels – perhaps deliberately – like yet another act of withdrawal. The two chapters of ‘Looking for Headless’ I received contain real transcripts of real detective reports, use the real names of real people, are authored by a real person – John Barlow . Though he has never met the people who commissioned him to work on this project, Barlow has scripted himself into the story. But parts of it are pure fiction. Reading the first two chapters of Looking for Headless is unnerving: which parts of this happened, and which did Barlow invent? In a story about the shadowy realm of offshore tax management, it is hard to be certain. Have the meeting’s invitees, as – it is implied – the reincarnation of Acéphale – Headless – been incorporated into a game, an art project, a work of fiction, or something altogether more sinister?
Today, Barlow left for Nassau, Bahamas to continue his investigation of Headless. He’ll be blogging his experiences here. It is not clear whether he will be blogging factual accounts, or embroidered ones. Or if, caught between pervasive, digitally-mediated self-narration and an emerging sphere of digital storytelling whose core insistence is that a game is not a game, we have lost the ability to tell the difference.

expressive processing: post-game analysis begins

So Noah’s just wrapped up the blog peer review of his manuscript in progress, and is currently debating whether to post the final, unfinished chapter. He’s also just received the blind peer reviews from MIT Press and is in the process of comparing them with the online discussion. That’ll all be written up soon, we’re still discussing format.
Meanwhile, Ian Bogost (the noted game designer, critic and professor) started an interesting thread a couple of weeks back on the troubles of reading Expressive Processing, and by extension, any long-form text or argument, on the Web:

The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book…
…in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.

more compelling than choice

The first two major ARGs to play out, The Beast and ilovebees, surprised their creators: the collective intelligence of thousands of players was taking down in hours puzzles that the puppetmasters had expected the community to wrestle with for days. And in order for the game not to go stale, new challenges – sometimes created on the fly – had to keep coming. If the content fizzled out, or the puzzles were too easy, the players would become restless and lose interest.
I was reminded of this by the recent discussion on this blog about hypertext. ‘Boring’ is such a loaded word; and yet so much of the Web feels, to me, deeply boring. Even the interesting stuff. Internet addiction is all about clicking across link after link, page after page of content, unable to tear oneself away but still strangely bored. Faced with infinite places to go, all content becomes undifferentiated; lacking in narrative; boring. Much like the paralysis consumers face when confronted with 15 near-identical types of pesto, choice of content made as easy as a click here or there reduces it all to a blur.
I found myself pondering easy choice, supermarket paralysis and internet addiction in the context of the exciting promise and strange underwhelmingness of much hyperfiction. Then, yesterday, interactive game creator and SixToStart ARG writer James Wallis said something that flipped the light on. “Writing for interactive is different to print writing,” he said. But this isn’t in the way someone habituated to storytelling on paper might expect. For such, ‘interactive’ might suggest an exciting opportunity to cast off the formal shackles of one-page-after-the-next. (Certainly, when I first came across HTTP, that’s what it seemed to promise me). “When you think of interactive, you think of the Garden of Forking Paths, non-linear narrative and so on. But if you want people to stay interested, that doesn’t work at all.”
Instead, he says, writing for interactive takes a more or less linear narrative, and makes the reader/user/player work it. In an ARG, a crucial piece of information might be hidden behind a login that needs to be hacked; the story’s progression might depend on a puzzle being solved to reveal a code. The payoff of interactivity, the thing that gives the story a hook that it couldn’t get otherwise, is less about ‘choice’ or a pleasure of diverging from linear narrative, than a sense of active contribution to the progression of that narrative. Of course, because an ARG plays out in real time, players may solve things ‘too’ quickly or take the story in a new direction – then, to avoid shattering the ‘This Is Not A Game’ illusion the puppetmasters must create new content to reflect that divergence.
Earlier, in a comment on the hypertext discussion, I found myself pondering emotional involvement – as measured by whether a story can move you to tears – in the context of interactive narrative. Games that eschew development of ‘characters’ in favor of making you, the central protagonist, the ‘character’ that develops. Tearjerking moments in 1983 text-based adventure games. How does a character or situation creep up on us so that we care enough to be sad when they’re gone?
Perhaps it’s easier to let this happen when you’re being swept along by a movie, or barely noticing as you turn page after page. I can’t prove this, but it feels as though having to make empty, consequence-free choices about where a narrative goes next pulls me back from imaginative involvement to a more meta-level, strategic, structural kind of thinking, that’s inimical to emotional absorption. It’s a bit like something pulling me back from an exciting moment in my book and inviting me to contemplate the paper. Forcing me to choose between narrative possibilities, when that choice has (as in the supermarket, faced with the rows of pesto choices) no consequences, and implying too – as the supermarket does – that choice were in itself a positive addition to my experience, in fact undermines my ability to relax into that experience. Compare that to a hidden group of puppetmasters evolving a narrative on the fly to fit around an amorphous, self-organizing group of players, going to extraordinary lengths to avoid rupturing the story’s consistency, and you can see that here are radically different kinds of ‘interactive’.
Making you work for the next chunk of story, or making you the central protagonist. If these are two narrative tools that demonstrably help make stories work in a digital space, are there more? And are they perceived as markers for quality interactive fiction? Or are game-like narratives still considered somehow a ‘lower’ art form, nerdy and plebeian, unsuitable for ‘serious’ writing or consideration as powerful narrative? I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.


We were recently alerted, via Grand Text Auto, to a new hypertext fiction environment on the Web called Hypertextopia:

Hypertextopia is a space where you can read and write stories for the internet. On the surface, it looks like a mind-map, but it embeds a word-processor, and allows you to publish your stories like a blog.

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems. The authoring tools they’ve developed are simple and elegant, allowing you to write “axial hypertexts”: narratives with a clear beginning and end but with multiple pathways and digressions in between. You read them as a series of textual screens, which can include beautiful fold-out boxes for annotations and illustrations, and various color-coded links (the colors denote different types of internal links, which the author describes). You also have the option of viewing stories as nodal maps, which show the story’s underlying structure. This is part of the map of “The Butterfly Boy” by William Vollmann (by all indications, the William Vollmann):
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
It’s always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges’ explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the central character, a Chinese double agent in WWI being pursued by a British assassin who has learned of his treachery, recalls a lost, unfinished novel written by a distant ancestor. It is an infinte story that encompasses every possible event and outcome for its characters: a labyrinth, not in space but in time. Borges meant the novel not as a prescription for a new literary form but as a metaphor of parallel worlds, yet many have cited this story as among the conceptual forebears of hypertext fiction, and Borges is much revered generally among technophiles for writing fables that eerily prefigure the digital age.
I’ve always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext -? insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices -? possible pathways though the maze -? soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.
I can, however, see the appeal of hypertext fictions as puzzles or games. In fact, this may be their true significance in the evolution of storytelling (and perhaps why I don’t get them, because I’m not a gamer). Thought of this way, it’s more about the experience of navigating a narrative landscape than the narrative itself. The story is a sort of alibi, a pretext, for engaging with a particular kind of form, a form which bears far more resemblance to a game than to any kind of prose fiction predecessor. That, at any rate, is how I’ve chosen to situate hypertext. To me, it’s a napkin sketch of a genuinely new form -? video games -? that has little directly to do with writing or reading in the traditional sense. Hypertext was not the true garden of forking paths (which we would never truly want anyway), but a small box of finite options. To sift through them dutifully was about as fun as the lab rat’s journey through the maze. You need a bigger algorithmic engine and the sensory fascinations of graphics (and probably a larger pool of authors and co-creators too) to generate a topography vast enough to hide, at least for a while, its finiteness -? long enough to feel mysterious. That’s what games do, and do well.
I’m sure this isn’t an original observation, but it’s baggage I felt like unloading since classical hypertext is a topic we’ve largely skirted around here at the Institute. Grumbling aside though, Hypertextopia offers much to ponder. Recontextualizing a pre-Web form in the Web is a worthwhile experiment and is bound to shed some light. I’m thinking about how we might play around in it…

books and the man, part III: the new patronage

In the first ‘Books and the man’ post I took the example of Alexander Pope to argue that the idea of ‘high’ literature is inseparable from economic conditions that enable a writer to turn himself into a brand and sell copyrighted material to his readership. In this post I want to look at what happens to creative work in a medium whose very nature militates against copyright.
The internet encourages artists to give stuff away for free, and to capitalise (somehow) on abundance and reproducibility. Ben’s recent roundup of copyright-related readings quotes Jeff Jarvis to this effect: “It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for.” So the answer, says Jay Rosen, is advertising: “Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users”. But while this works just fine for regularly-updated information-type content, how are works of imagination to be funded? As media professor Tim Jackson pointed out some years ago in Towards A New Media Aesthetic, the infinite reproducibility of content on the web threatens the livelihood of artists and writers to a degree that critics such as Keen believe will bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Keen’s wrong. There were artists before there was copyright, and there will be afterwards. Leaving aside my speculations about experiments such as Meta-Markets, cultural forms are starting to emerge online that make use of the internet’s mutability, endlessness, unreliability and infinitely-reproducible nature. But they’re not ‘high art’, in the sense that Pope pioneered. Rather, they hark back to an earlier period of literature when aristocratic patronage was the norm, and there was little distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art except in the sense of being calibrated to the tastes of the target audience.
I’ve written here previously about the ways in which alternate reality gaming is the first genuinely net-native storytelling form. I complained that this exciting form was emerging and was already being colonised by the advertising industry, through sponsorship and similar. Where and how, I wondered, would the ‘independent’ ARGs emerge?
I’d like to eat my words. Calling for ‘independent’ ARGs invoked the perspective of those cultural assumptions of ‘independence’ that both created and were created by the scarcity business model of copyright. In doing so, I ignored the fact that the internet doesn’t use a scarcity model – and hence that the concept of ‘independence’ doesn’t work in the same way. And internet users don’t seem to care that much about it.
I asked Perplex City creator Dan Hon whether he thought there was a bias, or any qualitative difference, between ‘independent’ and sponsored ARGs. He told me that ARG enthusiasts don’t reall care: “It’s normally the execution of the game that will have the most impact.”
So for enthusiasts of the internet’s first native storytelling form, the issue of whether corporate sponsorship is acceptable (an idea which would beanathema to anyone raised in the modernist tradition of authorship) is completely meaningless. If anything, Dan reckons ‘independence’ counts against you: “There absolutely isn’t any value-laden bias towards indie-ARGs – in fact, if anything there’s a negative bias against them. Many players […] are quite happy to give warnings that the indie args are liable to spontaneously implode just because the people behind them are “too indie”. A quick nose around the ‘ARGs with Potential’ section on the Unfiction boards turns up enough ‘This looks like a dodgy indie affair’ style remarks to back up this statement.
So while the arts world “was divided between shock and hilarity” when Fay Weldon got jewellers Bulgari to pay an undisclosed amount for frequent mentions in a 2001 novel, there are no anxieties in the ARG community about seeing advertising converge with the arts. Perhaps one could argue that ARGers are typically computer gaming enthusiasts too, and if they can cope with expensive Playstation games they can cope with Playstation-sponsored stories.
But. Take a look at Where Are The Joneses?, a collaboratively-written, professionally-filmed and Creative Commons-licenced online sitcom devised by former Channel 4 new media schemer David Bausola. Not an ARG; but a near-perfect instance of bottom-up culture. Written by its community, quality-checked by the production team, funny, absorbing, released on open licence – and an advert for Ford Motors.
If you catch him in an expansive mood, David will tell you that the marketing industry will survive only if it stops trying to influence culture and just starts making it. The flip side of that is that vested interests will, increasingly, explicitly find their way into creative works produced online. And, in my view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A glance at some of the scions of the pre-eighteenth-century canon gives a hint at the role that aristocratic patronage played in the arts. To hear some of the anti-internet rearguard speak, one might think that To Penshurst was written independently of the relation between Sir Robert Sidney and Ben Jonson; one might think that the arts has always been unsullied by power; that the encroachment of the the latter (in the form of commerce) on the former is a sign of our imminent cultural disintegration.
But contrary to Keen’s assertion that the mechanisms of copyright are indispensable to cultural dynamism, the English cultural renaissance that gave us Shakespeare, Bacon, Sidney, Donne, Marvell et al was largely driven by aristocratic patronage. Copyright hadn’t been invented yet. And if the world of art and culture is to survive in a post-copyright environment, it may be time to look furthe back in the past than the eighteenth century, and re-examine previous models. Which means looking again at patronage, which in turn, today, makes a strong case for embracing the advert. With the distinctions between brand patronage and creative culture already collapsing, it may be time for artists to wake up to the power they could wield by embracing and negotiating with the vested interests of corporate sponsors. If they do, the result may yet be a digital Renaissance.

stencil hypertext

Not sure if it’s been washed away yet, but folks in the Bay Area should keep an eye out for this charming urban hypertext:

The mission stencil story is an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure story that takes place on the sidewalks of the Mission district in San Francisco. It is told in a new medium of storytelling that uses spraypainted stencils connected to each other by arrows. The streetscape is used as sort of an illustration to accompany each piece of text.

More images and some press links on this Flickr photoset.
(Thanks sMary!)

benevolent conspiracy

“Fuel prices jumped this week, led by gasoline which gained over a dollar a gallon on average. Oil distributors pointed to several “renegotiated” delivery contracts as proof that a long-rumored shortfall in the supply of U.S. oil has finally arrived. Oil producers were tight-lipped about the adjusted contracts, and as I write this it’s still unclear how extensive the shortfall will turn out to be.”
And thus the stage is set for World Without Oil, the social consciousness-raising ARG (alternate reality game) launched today by Jane McGonigal and associates. I’m already in flagrant violation of the “this is not a game” convention that governs all ARGs, but since this something I and others here at the Institute aim to follow closely in the coming weeks and months, we’ll have to treat the curtain between fact and fiction as semi-transparent.
From the perspective of our research here, I’m deeply intrigued because the ARG is an entirely net-native storytelling genre, employing forms as diverse and scattered as the media landscape we live in today. ARGs don’t rely on a specific software application, game system or OS, rather they treat the entire Internet as their platform. Players typically employ a whole battery of information technologies — email, chat, blogs, search engines, message boards, wikis, social media sites, cell phones — in pursuit of an elusive narrative thread.
The story is usually spun through cryptic clues and half-disclosures, one bread crumb at a time, by the game’s authors, or “puppetmasters.” To have any hope of success, players must work together, sharing clues and pooling information as they go. The whole point is to make the story into a group obsession — to mobilize players into problem-solving collectives where they can debate and test different hypotheses as a smart mob. It’s sort of like surfing an alternate version of the net, using all the social search tactics of the real one.
Of course, the net is a murky territory, full of conspiracy theories, identity traps and misinformation. ARGs take this uncertainty and make it their idiom. The game (remember, it’s not a game) might involve websites that to the casual observer look perfectly real — a corporate home page, a personal blog — but that are in fact a part of the fiction. ARGs use the playbook of spammers, phishers and social reality hackers like the Yes Men to create a fictional universe that blends seamlessly with the real.
But we’re not just talking about an alternate net here, we’re talking about an alternative world. ARGs frequently assign tasks that pull players away from their computers and propel them into their physical environment (the phenomenally popular I Love Bees had people running all over San Francisco answering pay phones). This couldn’t be more unlike the whole Second Life phenomenon (which, as you may have noticed, we’ve barely covered here). Instead of building a one-to-one simulacrum of the actual world (yeah yeah, you can fly, big whoop), this takes the actual world and tilts it — reinterprets it. There’s imagination happening here.
World Without Oil takes this in a new direction. McGonigal has been talking for some time now about using ARGs for more than just pure play. She believes they could be harnessed to solve real world problems (for more about this, read this recent long piece in SF Weekly by Eliza Strickland). Hence the premise of oil shocks. The WWO website was set up by ten friends who met in the chaos of the Denver Airport during the blizzards this past December. During that time, they bonded and got to talking about citizen journalism and the potential of the web for organizing masses of people to deal with crises without having to rely solely on big media and big government. A weird tip about an impending oil crisis on April 30th got their paranoid wheels turning and they decided to set up a central hub for netizens to send reportage and personal testimonies about life during the shocks. Today is April 30 and lo and behold: the shocks have arrived!
The idea is to collectively imagine a reality that could very likely come to pass, and to share information and ideas — alternative energy innovations, new forms of transport, new forms of community — that could help us get through it. It’s an opportunity for self-reeducation and perhaps the forging of some real-world relationships. There’s even a page for teachers to guide students through this collaborative hallucination, and to learn something about energy geopolitics as they do it.
As an entry to the serious games movement, this has to be one of the most innovative efforts out there. But I find myself wondering whether simply getting everyone to report from their corner of the crisis — postcards from the apocalypse –will be enough to create a full-blown ARG phenomenon. Is this participatory in quite the right way? While I ecstatically applaud the intention here of repurposing a form that to date has been employed mainly as a viral marketing tool (the first ARG was built around Spielberg’s “A.I.” in 2001), I worry that the WWO construct seems to have been shorn of most of the usual mystery elements — the codes, clues and crumbs — that make ARGs so addictive. There’s a whiff of homework here, something perhaps a little too earnest, that could prevent it from gaining traction. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
Still, even if this fails to take off, I think this is an important milestone and will be important to study as it unfolds. WWO suggests what could be the ideal dystopian form for the cultural moment: a mode of storytelling that taps directly into the present human condition of networked information blitz and tries to channel it toward real-world awareness, or even action. The ARG adopts tactics long employed in military war games and conflict exercises and turns them (at least potentially) toward grassroots activism. WWO is trying to rouse, as Sebastian Mary put it in a previous post, our “democratic imagination. In SF Weekly piece I link to above, McGonigal puts it this way:

“When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that’s when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game.”

children_of_men_poster-764466.jpg Many people I know loved the film “Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuarón because they felt that it showed them, with the cutting clarity of allegory, the way the world really is. The premise, that the human race has lost the ability to reproduce itself (a dying world, without children, slowly self-destructing), was of course implausible, but all the same it felt like a layer was being peeled away to reveal a terrible truth. Probably the most unsettling moment for me was the lights rose at the end and we exited the theater into the street. Everything looked different, fragile, like something awful was being hidden just beneath the surface. But the feeling soon faded and I filed the experience away: “Children of Men”; a brilliant film; one of the year’s best; shamefully overlooked at the Oscars.
What would “Children of Men” look like as an ARG? What would a networked tactic bring to this story? Would it be simply dispatches from a dying world, or could we do something more constructive? Could the darkened theater and the streets outside somehow be merged?
Our first stories were oral stories. When we were children our parents read to us aloud stories that we listened to over and over again until they were embedded in our unconscious. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Reading became a ritual of call and response: a physical act. In the classroom too, teachers read aloud to us. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Call and response. At recess we ran out into the playground and re-eanacted the stories — replayed them, spun new ones. Those early experiences hearken back to earlier cultures — oral, pre-literate ones where the word was less the realm of contemplation and more the realm of action. ARGs seem to tap into this power of the oral story — the spark of the imagination and then the dash, together, into the playground.

gamer theory update

Gamer Theory 2.0 is nearly there, we’re just taking a few extra few days to apply the finishing touches and to get a few last visualizations mounted in the gallery. The print edition from Harvard is available now.
For those of you in the city, there’s a great Gamer Theory event planned for tonight at the New School followed by drinks in Brooklyn at Barcade — a bar (as the name suggests) fitted out as a retro video game arcade (have a pint and play a round of Rampage, Gauntlet or Frogger). Here’s more info:
what: McKenzie Wark will present, and lead a discussion of his new book Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press). Jaeho Kang (Sociology, The New School for Social Reseach) will act as the respondent.
where: Wolff Conference Room, 2nd floor, 65 5th avenue (between 14th and 13th streets)
when: 6-8PM, Wednesday 18th April 2007
then: drinks & games at Barcade, 388 Union Ave Williamsburg (L train to Lorrimer st, take Union exit)

“spring_alpha” and networked games

Jesse’s post yesterday pondering the possibility of networked comics reminded me of an interesting little piece I came across last month on the Guardian Gamesblog by Aleks Krotoski on networked collaboration — or rather, the conspicuous lack thereof — in games. The post was a lament really, sparked by Krotoski’s admiration of the Million Penguins project, which for her threw into stark relief the game industry’s troubling retentiveness regarding the means of game production:

Meanwhile in gameland, where non-linearity is the ideal, we’re at odds with the power of games as the world’s most compelling medium and the industry’s desperate attempts to integrate with the so-called worthy (yet linear) media. And ironically, we’ve been lapped by books. How embarrassing. If anyone should have pushed the user-generated boat out, it should have been the games industry.
…Sure, there are a few new outlets for budding designers to reap the kudos or the ridicule of their peers, but there’s not a WikiGame in sight. Until platform owners have the courage to open their consoles to players, a million penguins will go elsewhere. And so will gamers.

springalpha.jpg Well I just came across a very intriguing UK-based project that might qualify as a wiki-game, or more or less the equivalent. It’s called “spring_alpha” and is by all indications a game world that is openly rewritable on both the narrative and code level. What’s particularly interesting is that the participatory element is deeply entwined with the game’s political impulses — it’s an experiment in rewriting the rules of a repressive society. As described by the organizers:

“spring_alpha” is a networked game system set in an industrialised council estate whose inhabitants are attempting to create their own autonomous society in contrast to that of the regime in which they live. The game serves as a “sketch pad” for testing out alternative forms of social practice at both the “narrative” level, in terms of the game story, and at a “code” level, as players are able to re-write the code that runs the simulated world.
…’spring_alpha’ is a game in permanent alpha state, always open to revision and re-versioning. Re-writing spring_alpha is not only an option available to coders however. Much of the focus of the project lies in using game development itself as a vehicle for social enquiry and speculation; the issues involved in re-designing the game draw parallels with those involved in re-thinking social structures.

My first thought is that, unlike A Million Penguins, “spring_alpha” provides a robust armature for collaboration: a fully developed backstory/setting as well as an established visual aesthetic (both derived from artist Chad McCail’s 1998 work “Spring”). That strikes me as a recipe for success. In the graphics, sound and controls department, “spring_alpha” doesn’t appear particularly cutting edge (it looks a bit like Google SketchUp, though that may have just been in the development modules I saw), but its sense of distributed creativity and of the political possibilities of games seem quite advanced.
Can anyone point to other examples of collaboratively built games? Does Second Life count?