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

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A key concern of the Cinema School recently has been to encourage greater integration across the different tracks (production, screenwriting, animation, critical studies, interactive). How has this game helped to support this goal?

Tracy Fullerton: This was part of the mandate given to the committee that initiated the project. The school is making an integrated effort, of which this game is only one part, to bridge divisional barriers and encourage thinking, working and team-building across the school. One way the game does this is simply by eliminating divisional identifiers on the site. We give students an area to talk about their skills so they can find each other to work with, but we don’t identify them as coming from any particular part of the school. Also, more directly, we have cards in the deck that reward them for working interdivisionally, and even across other universities.

In the first few weeks of play, we had a writing student who had never done any programming pick up GameMaker on the advice of other students, teach himself some simple coding, and make a simple video game. We have a group that has created a transmedia ARG, and interactive students who have tried their hand at creating an animation flip book. The game rewards groups equally for either trying something new or adding a person with know how to the team, so it is up to players how to approach and solve a problem.

One thing that stands out to me about this project is that it isn’t mandatory. Students don’t get graded on their work, and they don’t have to participate if they don’t want to. How has this worked in practice, and what was the thinking behind making engagement optional?

Tracy Fullerton: Yes, this is a voluntary experience. We were very clear about this from the outset of the design. In fact, when we first showed the game concept to some of the staff, the reaction was “great, we can use this to make students do things we want them to do, like fill out these forms or go to this office, etc.” But we very nicely pushed back on those ideas because we wanted the game to have an energy that could only come out of students’ passion for making media together. It was important that it not feel in any way like an assignment or an extension of the orientation process. We felt that the tone and the sensibility had to recognize personal expression as being intrinsically motivated. Incoming SCA students have already self-selected as creative individuals, so for that kind of student, the idea of taking away that intrinsic motivation could actually be potentially harmful to their development as creative professionals.

Jeff Watson: We actually went to some pretty extreme lengths to keep the game a secret around the time that we were launching it. This was a bit nerve-wracking at first, because only a handful of students even noticed that the game existed at all. But in the end, this strategy paid off. It made the game a “pull” experience, drawing students in of their own accord. Players gradually began to appear at the Game Office, and they did so because they were curious and they wanted to be involved. As more and more students came in, the game acquired more and more evangelists, since each new player was personally invested. This approach is well-trod territory for marketers and ARG designers, but is something new in education, and we’re excited to be breaking that ground.

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How do you deal with students who aren’t willing or able to get involved in creative production? Are there ways to engage that don’t require large investments of time or social capital?

Simon Wiscombe: We figured that the level of engagement would vary from person to person, so this came up during our design sessions constantly, and we created four tiers of engagement. The top tier is for those who engage in all the ARG elements along with making creative projects–these are our “hardcore” players who seem to be able to solve all of our puzzles in a fifth the time we estimated they would. The second tier is for those who engage in the projects and enjoy creating, but aren’t necessarily interested in scouring SCA or the website for the hidden ARG clues. To tackle the last two tiers, i.e. those who wouldn’t engage as much as the others but still wanted to feel a part of the community, we drew from some inspiration we took from old photographs of the SCA in the 1960s and 70s. Jeff was particularly interested in one photograph of a space known as “the Bullpen.”

Jeff Watson: The Bullpen was the central workspace of the Stables, the building which used to house the cinema school back in the day. It was a wild, unruly place, covered in graffiti, littered with junk, and full of creative energy. We felt like that kind of space was missing from the SCA of today, and so we decided to re-create it — virtually, as a kind of social networking system on the game’s website.

Simon Wiscombe: In the Bullpen, players are can comment on both deals and cards, participate in impromptu discussions, and upload pictures. Some of this is publicly visible through the site’s “Photoblog” feature, but much of this discussion is kept in a walled garden, both to create a safe space for venting, and to extend the “exclusive” and “mysterious” narrative that envelops the game. Finally, there’s a whole slew of other forms of engagement, much of which we can’t track (but we know is going on), such as collecting sets of cards, lurking on the website, participating in deals without registering for the game, and so on.

Essentially we wanted to foster an awesome interconnected community of already amazingly talented people, and it seems to be working for players at a variety of engagement levels.

What roles do faculty and staff play in this process? How might the kinds of playful interaction the game is encouraging shift the relations between students and faculty? How have faculty integrated aspects of the game into their own curriculum?

Tracy Fullerton: When we designed the cards for the game, we purposefully included some prominent faculty, past and present, in the deck — as you know, since you’ve given your own card out to students as part of our “Hey, Henry convergence” meet-up. It’s a nice opportunity for us to involve faculty from all over the school in the game. We’ve found that the faculty have a tremendous curiosity and interest in what’s going on in the game. Some are participating on the site, commenting on deals or cards, joining in the general discussion. Some are coming to the class to hear speakers, and some have helped with deals. It’s an interesting opportunity because in this situation there are no predefined power structures. The game is presented by the mysterious “Reality Committee” which may or may not be comprised of faculty, it is very unclear. So the faculty are free to participate at any level they feel comfortable.

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What aspects of this game could be ported to other educational contexts, and how does a game like this scale?

Simon Wiscombe: This type of game can be modified, with very simple tweaks, for any creative endeavor. We’ve had discussions about how we could specify it to any of the film school’s departments (interactive media, film, animation), or how we could port it to art, music, dance, or theater schools. At its core, it’s a game that relies on fostering and promoting the creativity of its participants through prompts that eventually lead to projects. What form those projects take could be anything. And in regards to scale, while this game was designed specifically with 130 or so players in mind, it could easy be for smaller or larger groups, although one would likely have to rethink its purpose. For smaller groups, I’ve found it’s great as a brainstorming or creative sprint tool, and larger groups might embrace the idea of maximizing collaborators. This game is fairly simple in its construct, so I’m sure there are methods of applicability we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

I have to ask: Early on in the game, you asked me to meet some students at a “secret location” on campus and give them some “Shared Universe” game cards — which also happened to have my picture on one side. What did they end up using those cards for?

Jeff Watson: Well, so far, your card has been used in 5 different Deals (see the card’s archive page here. Each of these Deals spins the notion of “Shared Universe” In a different way. For example, in the Justification for the stunningly-photographed music video, “Space Bound,” , the players explain that the characters and story elements in their music video cross over with characters and story elements from a “Character Artifacts” project they previously created in the game. Other projects, such as the 10-part transmedia extravaganza, “Chronoteck”, use the “Shared Universe” card to link together multiple projects across many platforms, connecting artifacts such as the fake Facebook group, “Stop Chronoteck!” to other story-rich artifacts such as the fake promotional video for the “Chronoteck Tach C,” a new brand of cell phone that “receives messages from the future.” It’s a daily thrill for us to see amazing transmedia projects like these emerge out of our game.

Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey — a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

Jeff Watson is a PhD candidate in Media Arts and Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His research focuses on investigating how mobile and social media can enable new forms of storytelling and participation. Reality Ends Here (A.K.A. “The Game”) is Jeff’s dissertation project. He can be found online at http://remotedevice.net or via @remotedevice on Twitter.

Simon Wiscombe is an experimental game designer, Annenberg Fellow, and MFA candidate in the Interactive Media Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His research focuses on exploring the idea of meaningful interactions and experiences through the blending of games and reality. You can find him at http://www.simonwiscombe.com or on twitter via @simonium.

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