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No one has epitomized our yo-yo economic thinking lately than Thomas Friedman, who followed a column urging let’s go shopping with another urging thrift. This is the dilemma du jour: which companies do we bail out, and which do we leave to drown?

Make every recession a smart one

Make every recession a smart one

Phrased another way, how do we have a smart recession?

The answer I think is pretty commonsensically clear: we bail out those things that lead to the future we want to have, and let the others paddle on their own.

Case in point: U.S. automakers. Are they leading us to the future? This is a no-brainer: one glance at their sales figures answers this question. If any question remains, consult The Economist, which states flatly that the future for automakers are how well they sell in India and China. Bad news, Ford and GM: China has fuel efficiency standards and India is implementing them. Turns out the years the Big Three spent opposing fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. were a bad career move and the argument that they needed low standards to be competitive was exactly wrong.

There’s a crowdsourced component to this as well. In these econocalyptic times, people are being more cautious with their money. There’s a commonsense logic at work, which is why people aren’t buying gas-guzzling American cars or cheap lead-encrusted Chinese cra- uh, goods. The econocalypse has forced people to begin thinking ahead and making the future part of their calculations. Now, if we can just extend this thinking into what sort of economy we stimulate going forward (and what kind we don’t waste our dollars on), the recession will not be another example of “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Photo by oxmour via Flickr.

The depo man does the job

The Petro Razor imposes, the depo man disposes

Signal of the times: Malia Wollan of the AP posted a story this weekend about the growing epidemic of abandoned boats. More and more pleasure boat owners are no longer able to afford slip fees, and more and more commercial boaters are being driven out of business by the double whammy of fuel costs and a sinking economy. Just as I reported earlier about hot SUVs, the solution seems to be depo men – paying people that take your vehicle out and burn it or sink it for you.

Wollan quotes Buck Bennett, a natural resources manager in Georgia: “I’m not an economist, but when putting 500 gallons of fuel in a shrimp boat costs more than the boat is worth, that is a sad thing.” Bennett knows of over 150 scuttled boats on Georgia’s coast, and guesses that’s only a fraction of the actual count.

The credit crisis dominates the news today, but invisibly for most people. What we can see, however, is how the credit crisis is concatenating with others, especially the oil crisis of 2008, and self-exposed industries are going under. US auto industries insist on making big cars right up to the end, and now their bailout is (rightly) looking less and less likely; with hulks littering the waterways, the marine industry is effectively dead.

When hulks littered the streets in the World Without Oil game, after the Petro Razor made its cuts and people walked away from cars, boats and houses, it seemed unreal – such was our mindset in 2007. In 2008 it not only seems more real, it is really happening. Photo by sunface13 via Flickr.

5 questions in 5 min = 50 points

5 questions in 5 min = a big +1 for Jane

WWO’s own Participation Architect, Jane McGonigal, continues her business-of-ARGs evangelism in this article in Businessweek, and answers five questions posed by Businessweek about Alternate Reality Games in this 6-min video. As Jane notes, it’s important for businesses to take note of and get involved with the sort of massively peer-peer learning, collaborative brainstorming, and shaping of win-win futures that alternate reality games can spark – not just for their own business success but for the improvement of quality of life in general. Or as Jane puts it, “increasing the odds of us collaboratively inventing a future that we all want to live in.” Go Jane!

Real play, not roleplay

Immersive real play, not roleplay

I’ve been aware for some time that I play games differently from some other people. I like immersion reality. What does that mean? It means games which try to construct a fully realized simulation of a situation, and value play that is “in game.”

This is different from immersive meaning “engrossing.” I find basketball and chess engrossing, for example, but they are not immersive; they don’t simulate anything, they are constructed specifically to be games.

When I play non-immersive games, I am constantly thinking about the rules. When I play immersion reality games, however, I am hardly aware of rules. When I play chess, narrative is distracting; it doesn’t help to know that the rook once was called “rukh” and was a warrior instead of a castle. If I play an immersive reality game such as World Without Oil, however, narrative is key; it’s central to the game; it’s the best narratives that drive the game forward.

In my view, various Alternate Reality Games score variously on the “immersion reality index” or IRI, and this doesn’t necessarily depend on the relative “reality” of the game scenario. In the ILoveBees ARG, the character of Melissa was an Artificial Intelligence from the 26th century that had been damaged and spun back in time to crash-land on the website of a Napa Valley beekeeper in 2004. As realities go, that’s pretty far out there. But as written by 42 Entertainment and portrayed by actress Kristen Rutherford, Melissa was very plausible, and led to immersive player interactions such as this one.

There’s nothing wrong with a game that scores low on the IRI. People are very comfortable playing games that are essentially outside themselves, where there’s a level of abstraction between them and the game action (as there is in most video games). In low-IRI games, it’s fine to leave your morals and your emotions off the playing field. But for me and for a lot of people, games that score high on the IRI are the easiest and most satisfying games to play, because they give me a full-mind workout.

The lack of abstraction means something more: immersion reality games are effective learning experiences. They simulate life, after all, which is the most effective learning experience of all. It’s this aspect of high-IRI games, simulations and “thought experiments” that is attracting so much attention to games such as World Without Oil, and the prospect of extending games like it into civic, social, and cultural arenas. Photo by -Kj. via Flickr.

As gas prices dip below $2 a gallon in parts of the U.S., the question arises: will Americans be fooled? Not if they actually pay attention to the forecasts: “Although prices may stay low for a time, ‘it is becoming increasingly apparent that the era of cheap oil is over,’” says the Financial Times about a report to be released this week by the International Energy Agency, according to this report from IEEE Spectrum. The IEA forecasts oil back to $100 a barrel and up as soon as the recession-caused glut passes.

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

Oil is fleeting, but wind is forever

Long-term, the IEA forecasts oil rising to $200 a barrel by 2030 – or it would forecast such a future, except that, in their words, “current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.” As Bill Sweet of IEEE goes on to explain, “ultimately the IEA is saying that what it is predicting to happen will not actually happen because it cannot happen.” The IEA is acknowledging that you cannot just extend the graph out for another 20 years, that the reality the graph depicts derails the graph’s own underlying assumptions about prices, economic and population growth, and so on.

This is a remarkable statement, and worth repeating: the world’s energy “business as usual” will not survive for two more decades, and the energy infrastructure as we know it will be changed by the turmoil caused by market pressures on oil supply. This of course is not news to those familiar with the World Without Oil game. But it is news to see it openly said by as august an agency as the IEA. Lesson: it’s not a moment too soon for the U.S. to embark on radical reconsiderations of its energy future (pdf). Photo by maistora via Flickr.

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What if the whole world could vote? The American election via The Economist

The Economist magazine ran a cool democratic experiment in which they created a Global Electoral College online and allowed the world to vote on the American election. The result: Obama sweeps the world, capturing 9,115 out of a total of 9,875 electoral votes. Which explains my inbox, crammed with election excitement and good wishes from friends outside the U.S.

Curious to see the McCain-leaning red states around the world: Iraq, predictably, but Algeria? The Congo? Cuba? Click on through to check out the interactive map.

More and more people interested in serious games for the public good

More and more people interested in serious games for the public good

A fortnight ago I had further occasion to speak about the World Without Oil game, first at The Conversation, a very cool conference focused on independent filmmaking and storytelling, and then at WebbyConnect, the also cool Webby conference. One was in Berkeley, and the other in a Ritz-Carlton hotel right on the beach… you can probably guess which was which.

Scott Kirsner, a prime mover at The Conversation, has a great summary of it here. WebbyConnect doesn’t seem to have a good online record, but Shira Lazar’s video interviews capture some of the vibe; none with me (pout) but a nice one with Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment covers the Alternate Reality Game space.

I spun my message different ways for the different audiences, but at core it’s always the same these days: serious alternate reality games like World Without Oil tap into the power of questions. “What if an oil shock came?” The beauty is that you don’t have to know the answer. With a serious alternate reality game, all you have to do is frame the question in the right way, and let the people answer.

This is so important for people who are keyed to issues (like the indie filmmakers at The Conversation) but also to people who are trying to figure out how to really leverage the web (the WebbyConnect peeps). They shy away from the big, hard, unanswerable question that’s at the heart of their message, when they now have a tool in hand that can make that question’s apparent unanswerability work for them. Like judo, the serious alternate reality game uses the question’s weight against it.

Over and over again at these conferences, people brought up the word “authentic” as a goal. It’s a strange thing to say about a fictional adventure, but it’s true nevertheless: World Without Oil was authentic, in the aggregate one of the most authentic things I’ve ever experienced. But we are so used to storytelling now, as opposed to storymaking, that the idea of a storyteller giving up their admittedly inauthentic narrative never even sees the light of day.

Big props out to the great people I met at these conferences: good to see Peggy Weil and Lance Weiler again, great to meet people like Scott Kirsner, Wendy Levy, Elina Shcop, Christina Schroeder, Chris Armijo, Chet Gulland, to name just a few. I had a great time sitting in the grass at The Conversation and talking games with a circle of interesting people over lunch, and sitting with Nadine Bartz and Horst Liebetrau on a perfect balmy oceanside evening. The word about games is getting out there: maybe games will save the world sooner than I thought. Photo of The Conversation by jdlasica via Flickr.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.