A Virtual Bullpen?: How the USC Cinema School Has Embraced ARGs To Shape The Experience of Entering Students (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I was sent a pack of collector's cards -- with my picture on them! -- and asked to show up in the courtyard outside the USC Cinematic Arts facilities so that I could pass them out to students who showed up and said "convergence." I camped out and soon small clusters of students started showing up, enthusiastically saying "convergence" and waiting for me to hand them their tokens. Very quickly, I gave out of cards and for the most part, the students did not mind. In fact, a bunch of those who arrived later hung out and started a conversation, which kept growing until at its peek I had twenty or so undergraduates sitting all around me asking questions about transmedia storytelling, fan culture, new media literacies, spreadable media, and an astonishing array of other topics from my blog. This photograph was shot surreptitiously by Tracy Fullerton, one of my Cinema School colleagues, who was staking out a vantage point not far away. heyhenrygroup.jpg

All of this cloak and dagger stuff was part of an innovative game -- an Alternate Reality Game of sorts -- which is being conducted amongst the entering Cinema School undergraduates this year. If my own experiences are any indication, the game is proving to be enormously successful at getting students involved, excited about entering the Cinema School, more aware of its resources, more connected to its faculty, more engaged with its research, more connected across different divisions. It is also getting them involved in collaborative and production like activities than most entering students who have had to wait for a bit before they would be allowed to take production classes. I've seen lots of discussion over the past few years about the potentials of using ARGS for pedagogical purposes. But, this is the first time I've seen such a large scale experiment in integrating ARG activities across an entire school to orient entering students to a program and to serve a range of instructional goals. The passion the game is motivating in USC students is palpable. And I can tell you that many of the faculty, who have gotten pulled into the game through one play mechanic or another, are feeling a real pride in their school for its willingness to embrace this kind of experimentation and innovation.



I've wanted for some time to share with you some of the insights of the people most involved in this project -- Jeff Watson, Tracey Fullerton, and Simon Wiscombe, who wish to be identified here as the "co-designers/conspirators" behind the Game. In this interview, they tell us more about how the game came about, the design and teaching goals shaping it, the core mechanics, and the impact it has had on the school and especially this remarkable group of entering students. I have a feeling we are going to want to track its impact for the next four years to see what kind of difference it has made in their relations to each other and to the school.

The three of you have been co-conspirators in the development of an alternate reality game which has captured the passions and interests of the incoming students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts this fall. Can you give us some background on the project? What got it started?

Tracy Fullerton: The project actually came out of a committee established by the dean of the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) in 2009 after a full faculty retreat. The charge for that committee was to envision the future of the SCA, and one of the key initiatives was to establish a "gateway experience" for incoming students that introduced them to the changing media landscape, the history and future of the school, the possibilities that can emerge from the SCA network of current and past students, and the importance of bridging the divisions of the school while they are here, both socially and academically.

The gateway course was envisioned as introducing a new kind of social networking for SCA students, both on and offline, that would become critical to their involvement in courses and with each other. As the class developed, it became clear that a game layer would be a perfect way to achieve all of the goals set out by the committee without falling victim to the general survey or lecture class tradition we wanted to move beyond. So, while the curriculum for the gateway class and the game aren't "officially" linked, they are intertwined in vision and purpose and serve to bring students from all divisions together in multiple ways that will purposefully drive the social dynamics and the cross-media collaboration.

From its inception, the gateway class was envisioned as having a companion social network, which linked to a digital library of information about media history and theory and SCA's past and future. The design of the card game, with its "high touch" in-person mechanics, is just the beginning of implementing that vision. On each card, history and theory are linked to practice with a piece of knowledge on one side and a prompt to creative practice on the other. This bridge between theory and practice, like the ones we hope to forge between divisions here, is a critical statement at the heart of the game.

Jeff Watson: As an iMAP PhD student, finding ways to bring together theory and practice is central to my doctoral research. Over the past couple of years, I had been looking for a dissertation project that would enable me to put into practice my research into transmedia interaction design and alternate reality games. I wanted this project to be something that played out in the real world and had a tangible and measurable impact. I didn't want it to be a demo or a proof of concept. I wanted to play with real stakes, real players, and real outcomes. I wanted the project to be able to fail if it wasn't designed properly. So when Holly Willis, the chair of the Future Committee, came to me with the mandates that Tracy just outlined and asked if I would be able to come up with a pitch for an ARG that could be played by all the incoming students of the SCA, I jumped at the chance. This was a real design challenge that touched on all the corners of my research, from participatory culture to social and mobile media to interventionist art practice.

What were the core learning goals for the design and deployment of this game?

Tracy Fullerton: The core learning goals for the game are all around fostering the kind of complex skills that are sometimes called 21st century skills. Of course, these skills, such as team-building, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and innovation, are not unique to the 21st century and they have been at the heart of the curriculum here at SCA for a very long time. The difference here is activating students right from the start of their SCA experience with the knowledge that these skills are critical building blocks to their success as media makers, and also that the development and improvement of these skills is something they need to take responsibility for themselves from day one.

The game wraps these learning goals into a kind of induction into the SCA culture of networking and support which is something students certainly leave USC with, but we wanted to use the game to start surfacing these ideas for them earlier in their development.


Jeff Watson: When we first met to brainstorm what we wanted students to be able to discover through this game, we filled up a 16 foot whiteboard and still felt like we hadn't scratched the surface. On top of the kinds of building block skills Tracy just mentioned, faculty members from each division of the SCA had very granular lists of the kinds of things that they felt Cinematic Arts students should be aware of as they commence their tenure as undergraduates. Writing professors wanted the game to encourage the exploration of character and story; production faculty wanted to make sure all students acquired basic knowledge about cameras, editing, and safety; critical studies pushed for more opportunities for analysis, historical contextualization, and reflection; animation wanted to make sure their students would have more ways to connect with students from other divisions; and interactive media pushed for a deeper integration of notions of iterative design and systems thinking. At the end of the meeting, I took a picture of the whiteboard with my iPhone. It was a crazy tangled bird's nest of inspiration.

To make sense of it all, we took the mass of ideas generated during that whiteboard session and started looking for connective tissue. We noticed that all the learning goals we had brainstormed fell into one of three broad categories, which we ended up calling Literacy, Craft, and Social. Literacy goals were those that pertained to knowledge of all kinds: from highly local lore about the school and its resources, to basic understandings about the history and theory of media-making. Craft goals were those that had anything to do with the act of making -- from writing prose to shooting video to designing board games. Finally, Social goals were all those that related to the discovery of and connection with peers, alumni, faculty, and the broader community. Since the "content" of each of these categories of learning was agnostic with respect to the various divisions of the SCA, the first challenge of breaking down divisional/disciplinary boundaries had been met. The question became how to make a game that would motivate players to traverse the networks of Literacy, Craft, and Social goals that we had identified for inclusion. This became the starting point for our prototyping.



Can you describe some of the basic mechanics of the game?

Simon Wiscombe: The game is, at its core, a project creation game. When players elect to join, they're given a pack of cards containing green "maker" cards (e.g. "30 second short," "Board Game," etc.), pink "property" cards (e.g. "About love", "In the SCA Courtyard", etc.), and one orange "people" card (which contains the name of one first year undergrad in the USC film school). These cards can be combined together or with other players' cards to make a "Deal," the simplest of which is composed of one maker card and one property card -- although an almost unlimited number of property cards can be attached so long as there are enough connectors. After laying out a Deal, players go out and actually create it (i.e. "A 30 second short about love in the SCA courtyard"). They then submit it to the site, and justify it in the game office -- at which point it's uploaded, they get points for the Deal, and everyone in the game can see it.


Jeff Watson: This whole process is outlined with pictures and video on the game website . Since it's such a highly visual interactive experience, readers who want to get a good sense of how it feels to play should head over there and check out the intro materials.

Simon Wiscombe: Yes, visit the website -- it explains everything and also showcases the amazing work the players have created so far.

What relationship does this game have with other alternate reality games which have been used for entertainment or training purposes in the past?

Jeff Watson: The "meat" of this game is structured creative improvisation. As Simon has described, the core interaction here involves players trading, sharing, and combining collectible playing cards in order to generate creative prompts known as "Deals". Responding to these prompts by submitting completed artifacts results in advancement on the game's various leaderboards, unlocking special game content. This special content constitutes what might be called the "sauce" on the meat of the game.

This "sauce" is the closest we get to "traditional" alternate reality game content. For example, toward the end of the second week of gameplay, we sent clues to several players who were leading in key Deal-making categories. The clues provided the players with a time and a location and nothing else. Bravely enough, the students showed up. Once there, they were greeted by a formally-attired Oud player. Accompanied by the Oudist, the players were transported without explanation to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Once in the museum, the players encountered two alums of the SCA, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago (designers of critically-acclaimed games such as Flow, Flower, and Journey), who were wandering around in the darkness wearing sequined masquerade masks. Upon discovering them, the players were presented with a special game power which enabled them to score additional points on subsequent Deals, and were then treated to 90 minutes of informal discussion about game design, art, and media making.

In short, our approach uses a rule-based play system (the card game) to drive the bulk of the experience, and employs more traditional ARG techniques around the edges, as rewards and tonal elements. This approach is in many ways a practical implementation of the ideas and critiques I presented last year on your blog in my essay, "ARG 2.0". In most "traditional" ARGs, our "sauce" is the full meal. The player experience in such games unfolds around a kind of scavenger hunt activity wherein game runners moderate and manage player communities as they plow through a sequence of puzzles, curated action prompts, and side-quests.

While this logistically-complex structure is appropriate for certain team-building and talent sourcing applications, we wanted to make something that would have the capacity to perpetuate itself without relying on the constant generation of puzzle and narrative content by game runners. More importantly, we wanted our game to emphasize an active engagement with media-making: while scavenger hunts might help to build social bonds and search/analysis skills, we felt that they are inherently about solving puzzles or responding to prompts created by someone else -- and as such are a kind of consumption-oriented form of play. We wanted to make this game about the players' creativity, not ours.