Big Games with Big Goals

Last September, the Project nml team went to the Come Out and Play Festival in New York City, cameras in hand, ready to document the so-called Big Game Movement. The finished product, the latest in our series of films for the Project nml exemplar library, recently went up on the web and will be relevant to my many readers who are interested in the serious games movement more generally. What’s a big game? Here’s the provisional definition offered by some of our supporting materials:

Games for big groups of people in real world spaces (such as a park or the

streets) that use mobile communication technologies like cell phones to link

people together in gameplay.

In its early chapters, the film both shows some of the large-scale public games staged in Manhattan during the festival, including Cruel 2 B Kind, a game developed by Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost, which becomes the central example running through the piece. It also offers some historical analysis of the emergence of the Big Games movement (Future GAMBIT director Philip Tan discusses how today’s Big Games relate to Assassin and other live action role play games and c3 researcher Ivan Askwith talks about their relations to alternate reality games). As Askwith notes, McGonigal turns out to be the key connector between the world of ARGS (such as I Love Bees, The Beast, and The Lost Experience) and the world of Big Games, in part because of her interest in using games to promote greater social interaction and spatial exploration:

What Jane McGonigal really kind of brought to the mainstream in ARGs was the idea that rather than just being online and using email and going to webpages to find information, you would actually have to in real life play in the game yourself. You would go out, you would do something, you would be somebody and interact with other people in real time. Her idea was that games could be a communal activity, which is something they stopped being when we started playing video games like Mario Brothers where you would sit at home by yourself.

As the documentary continues, McGonigal becomes a key spokesperson describing the kinds of learning which can occur through engagement with these kinds of large scale games:


Jane McGonigal:

There are a couple different categories of skills that I think players leave the game with. The first is just really basic familiarity with mobile computing technologies.

A lot of players who had come to play the game had never even used the sort of texting function of a cell phone. They didn’t know how to switch from numbers to letters on their cell phone pads, right, and people came and played the game and suddenly knew how to use all the features of their cell phone that they had been ignoring.

For “ilovebees”, which was the game that we did in 2004 with 42 Entertainment, we involved a lot of GPS navigating. For a lot of players that was their first experience working with GPS coordinates and going out to navigate physical space with this kind of virtual data to make them feel like really powerful users of the technology. Anyone who played that game now is clearly an expert and could go out and continue to feel like an expert when it comes to using technologies in real life.

For me, it has to do with how you are able to be an effective citizen in massively networked culture. So, are you able to collaborate with people at a really big scale. For Cruel 2 B Kind, one of the design choices that I made was the idea that, after you got killed, instead of getting thrown out of the game, you actually worked with the people who killed you.

You have to make decisions together in real time, all 40 bodies moving together, with the same goals, with the same purpose and to execute the strategy that was collectively decided upon. For a lot of the players, that part of the game got really hard, and was hard to keep everybody together, was hard to have everybody stay involved. For some game designers that would be a sign that it was a bad- maybe we should make the game so that you’re only working in small teams, right, but because Cruel 2 B Kind was a research game, one of the goals really is to see how we can bring players into this sort of unfamiliar sort of future forward-looking social interaction. You know, as we look at all kinds of collective intelligence applications unfolding on the web, and smart mobs where people are, you know, individually becoming part of a large mob, how can we take all of that and teach players how to have massively scaled real time collaboration face to face. You’re sort of learning skills for the future is one way to think about it.

The players will be the people who were first on the scene, the first people to learn these skills and techniques and hopefully 10 years from now, they’re going to be the people who are in charge of companies, and in charge of non-profits, and in charge of community groups- the real leaders and innovators.

Another game designer, Mattia Romeo describes how playing some of these games changed the ways he thought about the urban landscape:

One game that I enjoyed very much was “Conqwest”, which was game that Frank Lantz and I worked on for the cell phone company, Qwest, and that one involved teams of players from local high schools, going, gaining control of certain territories of downtown by taking pictures of these semicodes, these stickers with information that were spread out throughout the space. One of the great things about that experience was that, because the stickers were of a certain size, the players’ experience of the city got broken down to that size. The entire city became spaces this big that contained an object of this size, which was an amazing experience to watch people have that- all of the sudden, they’re used to seeing the city in terms of like, “There’s a store here and there’s a street here, and there’s this restaurant that I go to,” and all of the sudden it was, “That lamppost is just the right size, or has a little opening in it that’s just the right size to be able to fit one of those things in there and so it just changed their perspective of the city immediately and where they played it.”

Late in the film, Jane McGonigal describes her desire to move players from role-playing games (based on fantasy) and towards real-playing games (based on real world identities and challenges.):

In a role-playing game, everybody has to agree to live in the same fantasy world, and people’s fantasies actually probably differ more from one another than we might expect, so it’s actually not as inclusive as it could be. You have to be able to project your inner vision of this fantasy world or this fictional world. You have to really act as if you believe it in and it can be really hard for people who just want to experience more like the interactions, social interactions- it can put them off.

The reason why I don’t do any role-playing games is- I don’t design role-playing in my games is because I prefer people to be themselves in the game world because when the game is over, you are still yourself, and so, anything that you learn in the game, experience in the game, and want to bring into your everyday experiences, it’s much more possible that you’ll be able to do that because you’re yourself, you’re not this, sort of, dark shadowy figure. So I consider my games to be real play, rather than role play.

In her own research into the player communities that emerge around ARGS, she has found that teams that formed to solve puzzles in fictional games are increasingly pushing to apply their collective intelligence to try to confront real world challenges (from tracking down the identity of the Washington DC sniper to documenting examples of campaign finances abuse). McGonigal’s more recent projects have pushed her to identify ways that these groups might more fully realize their ambitions, trying to use game play to spark greater political awareness and civic engagement. When Jane was in Cambridge recently, we had a conversation about World Without Oil, a new ARG which explores environmental and energy related topics, which will launch later this month. McGonigal described the project in some depth during an interview in Gamasutra:

It’s a different kind of ARG — a collaborative alternate reality. There’s a lot of content creation on the part of players that is not traditional to ARGs. What is traditional to ARGs is that there are characters and a full life online, which people who are starting to poke around the website now are finding. There are hints of how you might find these characters. There’s a chat transcript posted amongst a bunch of characters. Maybe you could send them a message.

Maybe you could find out how they met under these mysterious circumstances, find out what it is they’ve been told that makes them think something terrible is going to happen on April 30th. That sort of investigative poking that happens before April 30th will be much like I Love Bees. Those coordinates went up a number of weeks before you had to show up at the payphones. Your job was to figure out what the hell you had to get ready for. It’s same way here. There’s no information really on the surface about what you’re being asked to prepare for, but there are ways you could start to figure that out.

When the game launches, the internal narrative being generated by the puppet masters will be specifically about how the country is falling apart. Every player who signs up can start to tell stories about their part of the country. The game will respond. In traditional ARGs, there’s a lot of pushing of the system to see how far it can go. If I get on the phone with a character and I tell her something crazy, will the puppet masters build that into the story? Will the puppet masters have to kill off the character? How much of an impact can I have?

The World without Oil game is really going to let people use any means necessary to drive the story, to test the limits, everything from posting, documenting things with photo, video, to live flash mobs. You get to decide what’s happening, and by documenting it, you force us to build it into the story.

The sort of end game is, does the country recover? The characters might all be dead by the end of the story depending on what the players do. We’re keeping it pretty flexible because the idea is that when you start to play you join as a puppet master. In that way, it’s sort of the first collectively puppet-mastered game ever. We’re giving away more power but holding the reins enough so that it’ll be a satisfying experience. We’re taking you to the next level.

If we want it to be collective, why don’t we let the players run it collectively and see what they come up with? The subject of the game is a very real scenario. If we did suffer an oil shock, it would be the ordinary people, the players, who would be ultimately shaping what the hell happened, whether we descend into chaos or whether we band together. It’s better to see what the people really think and want to do now. Play it before you live it.

As always, the Project nml films are funded through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation as part of their ongoing efforts concerning Youth and Digital Learning. Watch here for the roll out of other films in the series, including work that is currently being completed on Wikipedia, dj culture, and Anime fandom, among other topics.

Anna van Someren supervises the production of all of the films in this series with our graduate students working as primary producers on the individual titles.

In this case, the primary producer for this film was Deborah Lui, a first year CMS masters student. Lui is a 2003 alumna of MIT with a double major in architecture and management science, and a minor in theater. Deb has long been fascinated by the relationship between space and performance. As an undergraduate, Deb explored this interest by working as a researcher with the Interactive Cinema Group at the MIT Media Lab, and through the MIT Eloranta Undergraduate Research Fellowship, studying the relationship between performance and architecture in theater. Following graduation, Deb has gained experience in the arts (working at the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre) and design (with Tom Ip & Partners Architects in Hong Kong). She has continued to pursue her interest in theater by working with several amateur and semi-professional performing groups as a director and an actor.