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Jane is EducaRed

Jane is Serious about Games

WWO’s particular friend Jane McGonigal has announced a presentation at the EducaRed conference in Madrid, Spain beginning November 26. Her subject: serious games – i.e., games that are actually about something, that connect people to real-world problems, and that give its players useful knowledge and skills. What kind of games should young people be playing more of? What kinds of collaboration skills and collective intelligence will they learn by playing the right games? One of the serious games she cites is World Without Oil (the other is SuperStruct). Inspiring stuff. Watch her 7-min video.

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Lose the game, save the world

Lose the game, save the world?

Via Philip Trippenbach’s blog, I found OILIGARCHY, a fun (and instructive) little flash game by WWO friend Molleindustria. Or should I say, “a playable commentary on the oil industry” as Molleindustria terms OILIGARCHY in their excellent dissection of their own game. OILIGARCHY, it seems to me, is a model for these types of games in that it’s transparent about its biases.

My own play result surprised me a bit, in that I did “good.” I dispossessed and killed relatively few people, and left ANWR and Iraq alone.  At game end, I weaned America off its oil addiction, set it on a course toward a better and sustainable quality of life, kept my board of directors happy (and if not happy, more perplexed than angry) and even made a killing (which Molleindustria points out is not hard) and retired happy. Instructively, the secret seemed to be (spoiler): I declined to spend cash to rig the U.S. political system. Hmmm….

ARGFest on Flickr

The ARGFest Photo Pool on Flickr

I’m here at ARGFestoCon in Boston, mingling with the faithful and visionary members of the Alternate Reality Game tribe, and the central theme seems to be the future of this genre. Quo vadis?

I wouldn’t go so far as to offer a consensus view or even suggest that there is one, but I think these views hold a good deal of currency:

  • The future is bright for interactive experiences of the ARG type. (Wikipedia)
  • ARGlike experiences are the most affective media experiences out there, period.
  • The ARG idea is growing fast and people are cognitively exploring its frontiers. As a result, the actual term “alternate reality game” has hit its cognitive limit, and new terms are about to emerge to describe these experiences.

To date, ARGs have basically fallen into two camps: (1) commercially funded endeavors that tell a story for (ultimately) a marketing reason – often to augment a movie or game story; (2) homegrown endeavors where ARG players use the ARG form to tell their own story (or extend a movie or game story in a fanfic way). As a non-entertainment, storymaking (as opposed to storytelling) experience, the World Without Oil game is on the fringe of the conversations.

I moderated a panel that discussed Serious ARGS (ARGs used for serious purposes such as education and training) and also Independent ARGs (non-commercial ones). Panelist Alice Leung, of BBN, described how DARPA is funding research about the effectiveness of ARGs to grow long-term collaborative behavior in organizations. Panelist Brian Clark of GMD Studios gave us an insight into further possibilities in this area: he described an inquiry he had received from a university interested in establishing a 4-year collaborative experience that an entire class of students would play together during their time at the university. Such an augmented reality is a fascinating idea that opens up a treasure trove of possible projects and clients.

In my view, however, all these approaches are missing one of the fundamental strengths of ARGlike experiences: the immersive power of storymaking. All of the above are storytelling projects, where people who like to tell stories use the ARG form to people who like to experience them, and there is a level of abstraction or detachment that’s inherently present. In World Without Oil, the players pretty much wrote the story collaboratively. As a result, in WWO there is no abstraction, no external reward, no comfort zone of “oh good, I found what the gamemasters wanted me to find.” There is only the person directly inside the “what if?” reality, and the journey is inward.

It’s been fun hobnobbing with my fellow wizards in the wonderful land of ARGz, but some of my best conversations have been with the players. One introduced herself as “just a player,” but the game designers present quickly corrected her: in the ARG world, the player is “the player,” we are “just the game designers.”

by Leigh Alexander

Here with the “games for social change” crowd at G4C, a big question on everyone’s mind is funding. Not surprising then that the first question in the Q & A was about the cost of making an ARG. The basic answer is that a traditional ARG can be fairly expensive ($250K-$500K), mainly because you need to develop the transmedia story that you will then hide all over the Internet and real world.

WWO, however, was “only” $88K – not pocket change, but not out of the realm of possibility for social change organizations, or for corporations that want to help social change organizations get their message out (and get a little exposure in the process). The price break, of course, comes because almost all the (massive amount of) content was developed by the players themselves. So it’s not only inherently more interesting, it’s inherently cheaper. Yeah! Here’s a gamer news report about the 88K number from Leigh Alexander on Kotaku (thanks, Sarah!)

Meanwhile, out in the real world, GM declares the SUV to be dead, killed by $4 a gallon gas. Too bad they didn’t play WWO, I guess; they might have seen this coming a year ago.

What can videogames learn from alternate reality games? And vice versa? Brandie Minchew summarizes the two discussions at SXSW here in her article at ARGNet. One of her conclusions: “Serious games have found a niche in the game world as game designers turn society’s search for ‘fun’ into a dialog about social and political issues.” This echoes a point I like to make: World Without Oil was a really fun game, just a different flavor of “fun” than what we’re used to finding in a game. Exactly the kind of fun you get from a really good dialog?

Jane McGonigal (or should I say, mPathytest) speaks out about the potential of gamers in The Christian Science Monitor yesterday.

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.