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Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

World Without Oil figured into a talk I gave earlier this month at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, as a guest lecturer for the UW Museology program. “Transforming Museums: Can Museums Learn From Games?” summarizes a lot of my philosophy about games and my outlook for the role of serious games in our common future. You can listen to the talk via this MP3 file and view the slides via this SlideShare presentation; the talk is about half an hour and there’s another half-hour of Q&A.

My thanks to Nina K. Simon for recommending me to the Museology program and to Whitney, Maya, Kylie and her sister Kari, and the other welcoming folks in Seattle.

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For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

The always-interesting James Surowiecki’s column in the Jan 26 isue of The New Yorker is, on the face of it, about Obama’s $100B tax-rebate stimulus package. But scratch the surface and you’ll see that it’s also about the key role that narrative plays in our lives, a lesson at the heart of the World Without Oil game.

Surowiecki describes how the context of a tax rebate shapes its actual use. The easy analogy is the difference between $20 you find on the street and $20 that you earn. From an economic (top-down) point of view, they are identical $20 bills – they are fungible, as economists say. But the actual boots-on-the-ground feel of the two is very different: the found $20 is a windfall, a lucky break, and apt to be spent in a celebratory way. So it is with tax rebates, Surowiecki says, and he marshals some great examples that indicate that Obama’s plan for the tax rebate (by reducing withholding) is a smart one.

Surowiecki mentions what happened when Bush the Elder reduced withholding in 1992: even though in this case there was no actual saving to the taxpayer (taxes due were the same, just the amount withheld was less) people felt that their incomes were greater and thus tended to spend the money.

I find this remarkable, as money derives its value precisely from its fungibility, its lack of narrative, if you will. If you can (verbing alert) narrativize money, you can narrativize anything. Just another example of the power that narrative has for us humans…  and an indicator of why games and “what if?” projects that get people to narrativize an issue, as World Without Oil did with oil dependency, can be a powerful force for actual real-world change.

You can read Surowiecki’s column here (may require registration). Photo by goldmember

The change doesn't happen all at once

The change doesn't happen all at once

Jane McGonigal blogged recently about “experience grenades” – games like World Without Oil that can be worldview-changing for their players. Why “grenade”? Experiencing the game is like pulling the pin, she says. Playing the game isn’t necessarily any big thing. It’s sometime later that the “experience” goes off and your worldview gets changed.

This of course is nothing new: I think many of us have had a “grenade” experience with a really great book, movie or other work of art. But I believe the game experience inherently packs a more powerful explosion. Books and movies put a layer of abstraction between you and the experience that games don’t; in some sense you are always “in” a game in a way that you never are with a book or movie. And ARGs in particular really enhance being “in the game.” (There’s no avatar, for one thing; it’s really you.) When there’s no set narrative except the one being created by the players – a la Superstruct or SF0 or World Without Oil – the immersion gets stronger still.

This concept is important for decisionmakers to internalize as they ponder funding for a game. Traditional metric structures for assessing impact do not carry over well to the game sphere, precisely because of phenomena such as the experience grenade. Just as socially collaborative projects such as Wikipedia are revolutionizing how business gets done, alternate reality games are revolutionizing what activism is and what brands do – and yeah, that change is arriving right now, with explosive force. Photo by Stephen Poff via Flickr.

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.

Speaking of crises, I’m trying to clean up my desk. Here’s something easy to pitch out: a letter from Newt Gingrich. According to the envelope he needs my help to send a message to Congress:

Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.

Strangely, he doesn’t mention that Drilling Here will net a nationally insignificant amount of oil, Drilling Now won’t yield that insignificant amount of oil for 8 or 10 years, and the Less we would be Paying would be about six cents per gallon. He also neglects to mention that we would be drilling in ecologically sensitive areas and all the profit from drilling would go to oil companies. Too bad this isn’t the World Without Oil game, where our hardheaded players put a natural check on unsupported, unsupportable emotional fantasizing.

Rewarding good players

Rewarding good players

And now I pick up a letter from the CEO of United Airlines, urging me as an airline customer to support efforts to curb oil speculators, whom the airline industries define as people who don’t actually use oil, i.e. people who are not them. I guess I can understand why the airlines would want to get the other bidders in the room out of the room, but would that really lower oil prices? Oil futures are different from other commodities futures: owners can’t sit on oil, to drive up its value; just because you pay more doesn’t mean it’s worth more; when the contracts come due, speculators need to sell their oil futures to someone who actually uses oil. If at that point the speculator paid too much for the oil, they take a loss. (We may see speculators taking such losses later this year, in fact, if oil prices don’t rise again.) Again, too bad this isn’t the World Without Oil game, which naturally invoked collective intelligence to examine claims such as the United Airlines letter for accuracy. But then again, maybe this letter actually supports the World Without Oil results; in the game, the airlines couldn’t adapt to the abrupt rise in oil prices, made bad decisions and went bankrupt.

At this point I am reminded of Jane McGonigal’s keynote at SXSW: Reality Is Broken: Games Can Fix It. In it, she listed four ways in which games do better than reality in generating happiness. I think that World Without Oil adds a fifth point to her roster: Games don’t reward people for sloppy play. Photo by Now and Here via Flickr.

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.”

Friday wrapup: a month’s worth of headlines. They could all be part of the World Without Oil game (and many are dead ringers for ones that were) but no, they’re from our local paper, the San Jose Mercury News. Read ’em and weep, as they say… (thanks Deb for the clipping services)

A month\'s worth of World Without Oil

In this Gamasutra article, game designer Ian Bogost talks about performative play – play which has an affect outside the game world, upon the real world – and uses the World Without Oil game as an instructive example. This is just one of several instances lately where I have been talking or thinking more about how WWO brought reality and an alternate reality together for people, such that they could find it easier to change their lives in preparation for an oil shock.

by Education Week“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” says Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.” Nice article about Alternate Reality Games in Education by Katie Ash. Reminder: you can find WWO lesson plans for high school teachers at http://worldwithoutoil.org/teach

at the New Yorker Conference \If you want to get a solid picture of what World Without Oil signified to the world, listen to WWO’s participation architect, Jane McGonigal, at the New Yorker conference earlier this month, “Stories from the Near Future.”

What Jane’s saying is that games have turned a corner from Escapism to Engagement (not just WWO, but it’s perhaps the most potent example) and… well, she tells it way better than I do, so check out the vid.

People surging into cars in a transit stationThis just in from Jane McGonigal (otherwise known as mPathyTest) who’s in New York for the Stories From The Near Future conference: an article in the New York Times titled “Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders To Mass Transit.” Apparently, gas prices are motivating people to take transit in record numbers, catching transit planners by surprise. “Nobody believed that people would actually give up their cars to ride public transportation,” says the executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. “The whole NYT article reads like a KalWithoutOil report,” Jane says.

The biggest surges are occurring in metro areas in the South and West – the very strongholds of American driving culture. The article says Denver ridership is up 8%, for example, and several routes now run at capacity at rush hour.

Now this is no surprise to WWO players. Player Ararejul explicated this very situation in her video posted from Denver, titled “Is Public Transportation Ready?” Posted over a year ago, I might add. “This was the first thing our players predicted and documented when gas hit $4 a gallon,” Jane notes. “Dude, WWO seriously worked as a forecasting device.” One that looked not to the past for answers, nor to experts, but to the future and the collective imagination.

Photo by caribb via Flickr.

On the left, the World Without Oil fiction; on the right, the realityNina Simon works on cool museum stuff (like the Spy Museum [cue theme music]) and posted a thoughtful post-mortem on World Without Oil some months ago in her richly ideated blog, Museum 2.0, pointing up the game’s educational side. She’s presenting museum-quality newtech ideas at a museum conference this week and sent me the slide above with this note: “Your pic on the left. On the right, cellphone pic we took yesterday in SF. Using it in upcoming presentation. Sometimes I wish games didn’t have to be so real.”

WWO finalist in Environmental Art at 01SJ01SJ is the Zero One art-on-the-edge digital festival here in San Jose, and it’s chosen World Without Oil as a finalist for its Environmental Art award. That is so cool as to render me speechless. We are shoulder-to-shoulder with such WWO simpaticos as The Miss Rockaway Armada and The Yes Men. See the entire list of finalists here. And if you’re in the area, come on down to the 01SJ Opening Ceremony in San Jose on Wednesday, June 4 – that would be a great way to celebrate the first anniversary of the close of the World Without Oil game.

Webby logoYowza, folks. WWO is up for an Academy Award (not that Academy, its interactive sister: the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, aka The Webbys). World Without Oil is a finalist in the Games category, which if nothing else gives us trifecta honors: won for Activism at SXSW, nominated for Environment at the Stockholm Challenge, and now for Games at the Webbys.

If David Bowie et al groove on WWO, that’s cool. The thing I’d really like to win, though, is the People’s Voice Award for our category. Because WWO was all about the people’s voice, in a way that no game has ever been before. And this is the year for serious games. And although you might read that WWO was “Ken’s game” or “Jane’s game” or whatever, we all know that’s basically not true. It’s PeakProphet’s game and Blueski’s game and MsGeek’s game and Burnunit’s game and RockLobster’s game, and on through two thousand more player names and 1,500 player stories.

If you need convincing, check out our Lesson Plans: players’ stories are now at the center of immersive high school teaching. If you find us worthy, please go vote People’s Voice for World Without Oil: http://pv.webbyawards.com/

(register -> websites -> entertainment -> games -> World Without Oil)

with Steve PaikinGames make us happy. A simple enough premise when the game is football or soccer or chess or Monopoly. Can the idea be extended? Can it get serious? Can it get real? Can it go global on the Internets? Why not?

Jane McGonigal talks ARGs, WWO and happiness with Steve Paikin of The Agenda (Canada’s biggest news magazine). Roll tape!

Finalist, Stockholm Challenge 2008!Cool beans. The Stockholm Challenge has selected World Without Oil as a finalist in its 2008 program, in the “Environment” category (subcategory: Energy and alternative technologies). The Stockholm Challenge is all about using Information Communications Technology (ICT) to help counteract social and economic disadvantage. If you look at the finalist list (and you should) you’ll see two main areas: groups that are extending known technologies into underdeveloped regions (often in innovative ways) and groups that are coming up with new technologies or approaches for serving the public good (WWO is in this second area). Here’s the WWO brief at the Stockholm Challenge.

I find three other game approaches among the finalists, both in the Health category: Freedom HIV/AIDS,which uses mobile games to raise awareness in India, and Reach Out Central (Australia) and SmartUs – Games in Motion (Finland), both aimed at health awareness. This is a good showing for serious games, folks, showing their rise globally. I look forward to meeting all the finalists in Stockholm during Challenge Week, May 19-22. The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) does select winners in each of its six categories, but it seems the real prize is to meet and share ideas and aquavit with some really innovative and dedicated people from all over the world.

WWO Lesson Plans
Or almost complete, anyway – finishing touches this week. Teachers, have at it! Your comments welcome.

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?

Lesson Plan Six - World Without OilUpdate: Lessons 4, 5 and 6 are now online, and the last plans are in editing and will be posted soon. See the Overview page for teachers!

In case you haven’t seen it…

League of Extra Ordinary ScientistsJane McGonigal has exciting news – she’s announcing “The X2 Club” this week, a massively multiplayer science game. She says X2 is “an alternate reality game, light on fiction and heavy on real-world data, that scientists will play” and that the game “combines collaborative forecasting (World Without Oil-style) and prediction markets with RSS feeds of scientific journals and popular science publications.” Should be the sort of thing that many WWO players can get their teeth into: a fiction with fact close underneath.

Ken Eklund at VIEW 08VIEW is a conference for digital artists and animators, and as such they take an interest in games and other interactive storytelling. In between the sessions on developing realistic behaviors for 3D food in Ratatouille and capturing acting nuances in Beowulf, there was time for me to explain what alternate reality games are and how serious ARGs such as WWO will save the world. You can find a short summary here. How’s your Italian?

AppRising logoGeoff Daily at AppRising has his way to prepare for an oil shock: broadband everywhere.

World Without Oil is part of Issue 115 of The Escapist, “Crowdsourcing to Victory.” My favorite part of Nova Barlow’s article: “The last week was an agony of sorts – no one wanted the game to end, but I had to end it. It was really hard.”

Evelyn Rodriguez tells why here. Evelyn:

Weave us into a possible future, let us picture ourselves in the middle of a plotline, rather than just spout out more statistics in a news item.

Nice way to sum up what’s so appealing about the Serious ARG.

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.