V. New Directions
[Studio] execs are mired in next-quarter earnings, and ARGs and other transmedia extensions require time to take root and build active, invested communities. It is decidedly a long-term investment, the fruits of which [may] not be fully realized until a significant period of time post-launch. As such, most studios aren’t willing to make the investment needed to bake those components in from the beginning or allocate the funds/resource necessary to ensure their ongoing success (Gennefer Snowfield, Transmedia LA 2010).
Perhaps if ARGs weren’t so demanding on marketing budgets, studio executives would be more willing to “bake them in from the beginning” and hang onto them for the long term. One way around this problem is to develop replayable, ongoing ARGs that engage fans in practices rather than the mere consumption of additional layers of a property via interactions with puzzles and in-game characters. Unlike the labor-intensive PM-centric traditional ARG model, such solutions have the capacity to produce the bulk of their content and interactivity through the emergent effects of a ruleset. These kinds of ARGs might not be the future of storytelling; but perhaps they are the future of story facilitating.
Over the past few years, several major ARG projects have attempted to engage fans in the co-creation of narrative content by using a ruleset to structure and guide participation. One of the most well-known of these projects is World Without Oil (Ken Eklund et al, 2007), a collaborative production game that invited players to speculate about what their lives would be like in the event of a sudden oil shock. While this game retained many of the characteristics of the traditional ARG, including an event-driven and time-sensitive structure, it shifted the emphasis away from the collective solving of puzzles and toward the production of content.
In this manner, it effectively turned the tables on the players – instead of in-game events alerting participants to the existence of new PM-created content to decode and analyze, the fictional events that structured the overarching narrative of World Without Oil signaled the players to imaginatively engage with the story world and create – and share – their own content. Unlike previous efforts at “user-submitted content,” which often merely offered players a chance to upload their own media artifacts as a kind of bonus activity, in World Without Oil, the players had no other option – collaborative production was the game, full stop.
Further, the content the players submitted would feed back into the game system and in turn was incorporated into the evolving narrative, minimally as an entry on the individual player’s profile page, and maximally as a curated or “featured” item on the game’s home page. A simple and flexible set of rules governed the players’ participation: they could create one of several types of media artifacts; they could work within the bounds of the fictional world or strike out on their own; they could choose to build on the work of other players or make reference only to their own imaginings; and so on. In short, the players were given enough structure such that they knew generally what they were supposed to do, but enough freedom to approach things in a manner that best suited their own interests and competencies.
In his seminal essay on Linux, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (2000), Eric Raymond noted that “[it] may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.” But by providing players with a sandbox within which they can meaningfully engage with the world of a media franchise or institutional cause, game designers do more than just streamline the production process. They also win hearts and minds. As veteran ARG writer and player Andrea Phillips told me in a recent interview, “once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker” (Watson 2010).
World Without Oil and other early collaborative production ARGs such as the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society’s SFZero (2005) were among the first of a wave of games to articulate simple rulesets via social networking platforms in order to structure participation. Games like Top Secret Dance Off (2008), Superstruct (2008), and Evoke (2010), all designed by World Without Oil collaborator Jane McGonigal; Must Love Robots (2008), designed by Jim Babb and Tanner Ringerud; and, Austin Hill and Alex Eberts’ Akoha (2010), further iterate the design of online collaborative production games, adding in new elements such as achievement badges, unlocks, leaderboards, and other player profiling and progress-tracking systems. In some cases, these games, such as SFZero, Top Secret Dance Off, and Akoha, limit or eliminate their structural dependence on time-sensitive events, resulting in ongoing game activities that further lower the bar to entry by doing away with the need for “Story so Far”-style summaries.
These kinds of games draw heavily from casual game design, and reflect an awareness of the powerful affordances of social networking platforms to construct asynchronous and persistent play activities. Further, since the challenges in these games are individual rather than collective, players can effectively customize how and when they participate according to their own desires, available time, and range of skills – an impossibility in traditional ARGs designed to be played by a “hive mind.” And since the experience is also inherently social – the point of these games, after all, is to share content and co-create narratives – powerful collective intelligence effects emerge nonetheless, as metadata-rich knowledge archives are produced from the aggregate of the players’ contributions and interactions (Institute for the Future 2009; Shirky 2008).
Many similar games and activities have appeared over the past few years that do not operate under the aegis of ARGs or pervasive games, but are nonetheless good illustrations of this kind of participation design. Kongregate, for example, is a website for independent video game designers that is itself a game, awarding players points, badges, and collectible Magic-like game cards in exchange for playing other players’ games, having their own games played or rated, and accumulating friends on the network. By adding these layers of game play to what otherwise would be yet another banal social networking hub for Flash programmers, Kongregate not only motivates additional acts of collaboration and production, but creates valuable brand identity and allegiance that extends across the entire range of player-produced games hosted on its servers. This kind of productive social metagaming promises to explode over the next couple of years as Facebook’s Open Graph and other (perhaps more legitimately “open”) social media standards take hold (Messina 2009; Schell 2010).
Of course, studios and other large media companies aren’t always well-received when they attempt to enter domains of independent or fannish production. In such gift economies, to paraphrase Lessig, the studios’ money is poison. And while “corporately endorsed produsage or the commercial harboring of produsage communities may enable a wider variety of remixing and mashup activities to take place” (Bruns 2008, 324) within a studio-friendly intellectual property framework, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find examples of industry-sanctioned fan production sites that have failed.
Fortunately, then, collaborative production is not the only way of getting around the accessibility, replayability, and scalability problems inherent in traditional ARG design. Experience designers like Jeff Hull build ambient location-based narratives that retain much of alternate reality gaming’s tried-and-true transmedia storytelling componentry, but drop its dependence on time-sensitive events and collective problem-solving. Hull’s The Jejune Institute (2009) is literally embedded into the fabric of the Bay Area, narrating the evolution of a strange New Age self-help cult through diverse physical and virtual artifacts, including websites, guerilla poster art, a low-powered radio broadcast station, and a physical “headquarters” space on an upper floor of a downtown office tower. The goal, Hull writes, “[is] to present . . . interactions everywhere across the civic realm, so that trap doors and side hatches exist all around you, all the time, [fused] into the urban landscape” (Watson 2010). Players who tumble into The Jejune Institute‘s trap doors discover a world waiting there for them to explore – a kind of off-kilter transmedia theme park that is meant to be visited and experienced rather than analyzed or “solved.”
Finally, it’s important to note that, for some use cases, there is good reason to make ARGs less accessible, less replayable, and less scalable. Massive player populations are not always a good thing. As we have seen, such mega-games are not only expensive to run and maintain, but often have to make critical creative compromises in order to broaden their appeal. In cases where the aim is to create or mobilize an elite core of players who can then go on to evangelize for a brand or cause, difficult-to-access once-in-a-lifetime events that cater to small crowds of self-identified “lead users” can actually have much more impact than campaigns designed to attract hundreds of thousands of participants. As Dena (2008b) notes, in many cases “[designers] could improve the ‘accessibility’ of ARGs but to do so would remove important triggers to hard-core player production and enjoyment.” The trick, of course, is to continue to find ways to appeal to a hard-core population that is extremely savvy about storytelling and game design. In this respect, the elite or hard-core ARG must by necessity remain an elusive and dynamic form.
By moving away from the time-sensitive and event-driven structure of traditional ARGs, designers can create more open-ended games that work better as engines for asynchronous participation and community building. Doing so ultimately means replacing a text-centric storytelling mentality with a systems-centric story facilitating approach. This kind of approach is not an abdication of authorship or aesthetic responsibility; rather, it is a shift from the domain of literal content creation to that of procedural content creation. Such a shift has the potential to break the designerly logjams that have afflicted ARGs since the early 2000s, moving mass-audience iterations of the form toward more accessible, replayable, and scalable designs.
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Jeff Watson is an interdisciplinary media practitioner with a background in screenwriting, filmmaking, and game design. His doctoral research in Media arts and Practice at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts focuses on investigating how ubiquitous computing and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and civic engagement.For more insights from Jeff Watson, you can check out his website or follow his Twitter flow.