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Asilomar

Instigating a retreat

…at the Creativity and Collaboration retreat, coming up this weekend in Asilomar, CA. The retreat’s for the creatives that work in the museum and exhibit space, and even in this stressed economy (because of the stressed economy?) it sold out quickly.

C2 has brought in people from outside the exhibits field to act as “instigators,” a role I’m pretty happy to take on. I’m the games (or play) instigator, along with Harley DuBois of Burning Man, Kate Shaw of LucasArts, and storyteller Tierney Thys. Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkenson from the Exploratorium’s Learning Studio round out the field of presenters. Very nice company to be in.

I’m designing a new game to run during the retreat (the idea of 100 people coming for these reasons is certainly an inspiration) called Faces In The Crowd – a kindler, gentler version of my game Spy School from Come Out & Play 2006… with invaluable assistance from Nina Simon of Museum 2.0. And feeling strangely calm about it all. Photo by yuzu via Flickr and Creative Commons.

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Fear is a lack of imagination

Fear is a lack of imagination

Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.

Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.

We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry

This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.

Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.

This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.

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.

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.