making the ARG

The 42nd ARG Netcast was posted yesterday!

It sounds great – it was really quite a group of people gathered together at the 42 offices, sitting on the floor and on comfy couches, chatting about games and trust and the importance of a good narrative. I am honored, once again, to be a guest on the ‘cast, the first time being back in the sunny days of June of this year for World Without Oil. I feel quite grateful to be a part of something that is developing and growing more substantial by the day — the process of such things fascinates me, even when I am not always eloquent nor knowledgeable about how such things come about. Sometimes I really enjoy hearing people talk about this stuff.

I feel like there were some great things said about trust, and about puppetmasters not trying to be more clever than their players (especially in the sense of causing a feeling of competition between the PMs and the player community). In a slightly doofy way, I also enjoy that this group of people with a fairly complex set of histories was able to come together and speak so passionately and intricately about what is truly a burgeoning art form.

I especially liked that I was coming into the ‘cast a few seconds after actually working on some things. Those tasks were then resumed once we finished recording. Making the ARG is really the most important thing, for me. There’s a time for meta, naturally, but the sheer pleasure of game theory, to me, has always been a visceral one. Digging in the dirt. First-hand eyewitness reporting.

Ain’t no time like the present, after all.

The PM team behind World Without Oil was graciously asked to appear in Episode 27 of ARGNet’s Netcast, and it’s up now!

Find the netcast here!

If you’re hip to the ARG community, there’s a buncha familiar voices, including my own. :) I even come up with a new band name in this episode!

It was surprisingly fun to do the ‘cast, and it was nice to get the gang together again to talk about the project. We met up on our sekrit PM conferencing line later to have drinky things and sort of put the whole project to rest (the team is still working on the archive, of course), which I think brought a satisfying sense of closure to things, at least for me.

It was a great experience, and I am still so utterly impressed with the player base. Our hopes and dreams can be so dazzling and rosy-colored, but as Jane discussed here, it was fascinating and heartening to see the darker side, too. It might even be because we were all playing inside an alternate reality that the players had the freedom to really play with unhappy circumstances, or the boundaries of their comfort zones. Good stuff. Could talk about it for hours.

But hey, at least you can go listen to an hour of it.

I was just explaining to my friend Ali what Neofuturism was, and I was cribbing notes from the Neofuturist’s mission statement to do so. So I scrolled down and caught the link to Greg’s rules, and thought again just how often and how intensely the theatrical stage and the art involved in putting on a play is so very close to the process and art of making an ARG.

Greg’s Rules that I especially liked:

Rule #1: Don’t create good theater. You must intend to create GREAT theater. We don’t need any more perfectly good productions of perfectly good scripts. You are setting out to do something great or it’s not worth doing.

I would say that the pitfall of this rule is in how you approach it, primarily because it’s easy to consider that everything you create is gonna be “great.” That’s why there are other rules to help supplement this one, and to help define what can be defined as more than “perfectly good.”

Rule #12: Do not suspend your audience’s disbelief. Involve the audience. Make sure you remind them that they are watching live theater. Q: Why do people go to the theater? A: To have a visceral connection with live performers. Take that ball and run with it. If you want to suspend the audience’s disbelief, make a movie. Movies accomplish this much more successfully.

Now, if you know me at all, you know I love TINAG, so why on earth would I select this rule as a highlight? I think that while it’s very important for an ARG to never acknowledge to itself that it’s a game, it’s also important for the Puppetmasters to be very aware of the boundaries and emotional structure of the narrative. There should be a sense of motion or movement in terms of the ‘audience’ (players) interacting with the ‘actors/script’ (characters/game), a vitality that indicates awareness of the chemistry, the give-and-take – even if there’s no e-mail/chat element to the ARG! The ride may be on rails, but the Puppetmaster should strive for honesty in the dynamic so that it can feed the idea of there being an unexpected result, of the characters inside the game having a recognizable human quality that the audience can immediately relate to.

If you’re letting go of the pretense of enforcing an alternate reality, of forcing the immersion, you make it that much easier for your players to fall down that rabbithole.

Rule #17: Change the material world. A small part of the world should be somehow altered by each performance. Something should be destroyed, consumed, built, adorned, or the space itself should be newly endowed by the end of each night of the show. Leave the stage a mess.

I have nothing to say to this rule but: YES.

Rule #23: Establish ritual through repetition. Give the audience a ritual or repetitive pattern with which to identify. Create a shared history for the audience. Once a ritual is established, you can speak volumes through tiny variations on a theme. The art is in the details. There’s nothing better to than feeling part of an inside joke.


Rule #25: Unify the audience. Give the audience shared experiences which create faith and trust in each other. Create an event that brings disparate people to identify with each other through their mutual, but individual, experience of the show.

People who have been through an ARG with a well-formed community are nodding their heads enthusiastically after reading Rules #23 and #25. Again, a Puppetmaster doesn’t really need to enforce a community’s identity: it’s best to let the players define that space for themselves. Lots of details, and things-that-have-a-pattern can really give the players somewhere to rest their brains in the social space of the game, and gives them an organic framework and vocabulary that they can use to communicate with each other.

I’d like to point you to a post that Jackie wrote in response to the recent publication of a Whitepaper on ARGs, created under the auspices of the Special Interest Group for ARGs at the IGDA.

It is cogent and well-expressed.

I’d like to point you to this, which is a definition that allows for worlds of possibilities.

Thank you, Brooke.

And that’s really the crux, isn’t it? What do you have, if you cannot inspire wonder? Your innovations and your grandiose promises mean nothing if your heart is not tethered tightly to the experience. Your products and your marketing fall flat if the memories you’re engendering grow flat and metallic with time.

Nostalgia is not weakness.

Love may be ephemeral, but it may also be the very thing that saves your game from being a shill-tastic collection of hyperlinks and hoopla.

Swiped from a Metafilter AskMetafilter post: Ordeal by Cheque, a short story told entirely in checks written out to various people in various amounts, over a certain amount of time.

Quite possibly one of the earliest and tiniest ARGs ever!

(I mean that tongue-in-cheek, though. It’s a nice mystery story, really, in a unique format)

Math Champion and Professional Grilled Cheese Innovator Andrea Phillips recently wrote an article for Gamasutra about the representation of women in the gaming industry. Additionally, it’s been Slashdotted, which is just giddy-making.

What’s exciting and more than a little weird for me is getting a mention in the article, in the game developers section. I sent the link to my mom in e-mail yesterday, nearly adding a P.S. recommending that she print it out and stick it on the refrigerator door.

It’s been a couple of very stressful weeks for me, you see, capped this past Monday evening with being the victim of a hit and run on Belmont Ave. as I was coming home from the grocery store. When your car is totaled, there’s not much that can fix that except big piles of money, but this article sure put a dent (ha!) in the dark cloud that’s been hanging over my head recently.

The original team for the A.I. game was almost entirely male, but since then, the rolls of ARG development have grown to be studded with high-profile women: Brooke Thompson, Krystyn Wells, Jane McGonigal. At Mind Candy, our staff is roughly 30% women — and though the actual ARG production team varies in size, it’s been as much as twice that for some arcs.

I feel like I am in fine, fine company.

I have a stack of Games magazines piled high on my living room radiator. I really oughta see about moving them in the next day or two, as the temperature here in Chicago has dropped into the low 20’s, and the heat’s due to be kicked on any time now.

But they remind me that my life, the long and the short of it, has been far from the straight and the narrow.

I used to believe that grade school and junior high were somewhat unpelasant blurs – shyness and awkwardness punctuated by stacks of books checked out through my mom’s library card, secret worlds explored at recess with backpacks full of rations and hand-drawn maps. Truth be told, I felt a little dull, but not in a bad way. Just, you know, not truly rebellious, not running away from home, not getting into fistfights at school.

When I got into acting, I thought perhaps my life might begin to have a bit more texture, the womanly curves of a life warm and supple and full of a kicky excitement. I treasured those moments of wonder, and I tried to keep them clutched close to me – imagining crushes and limelight and adventure and being discovered and inspiration and Hollywood, all wrapped up in my Coca-Cola rugby shirt and my $5 canvas shoes from Zayre.

High school was even better – boys and dances and notes passed and cliques formed and weekends drenched in scripts and character work and mixtapes and boys and movies. I thought, more than once, “I am on my way. I am improving.”

It’s only recently that I’ve taken another look back over my shoulder and seen a pretty clear path to my heart’s desire here. I see myself, shivering, toes cold from padding across the wooden floors of my dad’s childhood bedroom, to grab another Mad, another Cracked, another Games. I’d click on that old-fashioned light switch with a dry, solid clack and I’d read until I thought my eyeballs would fall out. I’d shyly pencil in the crosswords and rebus puzzles, I’d smirk dryly at the political satire that mostly passed over my head with every “Spy vs. Spy.” I’d fold the back page of Mad and get grossed out by the artwork. Occasionally, I’d be cajoled into coming downstairs to read in the living room with everyone else – my Dad, my Gma, and my brother engaged in a fierce board game showdown.

Every Easter for a while, my Mom would wake us up and show us the first stage of a scavenger hunt throughout the house – pieces of brightly-colored construction paper cut out in egg shapes with clues written on them, like: “The next treasure will be found where clothes are folded and ironed,” and Tyler and I would run down to the basement to the laundry room, and the next hint would have us scrambling up to the attic, hunting amidst the covered furniture pieces and boxes for shiny foil-wrapped candies and scented erasers and notepads and water guns and Silly Putty until we’d get to the end and wonder why we rushed. The journey was always so joyous.

We had an Atari 2600, and we also had the Atari computer, and I’d play with BASIC (oh the horrid music I’d write!) and saving simple text files. I was put into some sort of accelerated program in grade school called PROBE, and we did the paper version of Oregon Trail, and we created labyrinths with household materials and and and …

I guess what I am saying is, I am sometimes surprised that I somehow landed in this world of alternate reality gaming. How random it is to have been transported down this very personal rabbithole into a fresh sense of wonder: I get to see people play and discover and share, and it’s all done in this wicked sidelong glance to our daily lives. A stopgap to the madness of drudgery, the pain of other things that ache our hearts and tax our spirits. Fluffy or intense, this way of narrating our surroundings into something new seems to settle on me like a familiar mantle. It feels right, and exciting.

And yet, my background is textured, not dull. Full of wonder and discovery. Puzzly and narrated by someone with a sense of humor. All these things I’ve known and done have been apparently leading up to something like this. At least, it feels that way.

A few years back, two good friends of mine gave me a tarot pendant as a Christmas gift. Inscribed on the reverse of the card image is

The Ace of Wands is the culmination of the suit. Wands are associated with great enterprise and glory.

It suits me. Shut up, it does.

The stage play Noises Off starts off with a terribly rocky dress rehearsal for a farce being performed by a theatre company with more than its fair share of problems – distracted actors, disgruntled techs, and an overbearing director.

The production I saw several months ago really pointed up those awkward silences that occur when some actor has forgotten her cue. Deer-in-the-headlights is the best description for the glaze that occurs for the poor souls on stage. The near-obsessive tic of eyes flicking towards the door that’s supposed to have opened unexpectedly 30, 45, 55 seconds ago.

It isn’t until you get to the second act that you literally get to see the other side of the action. For fancier playhouses the entire stage rotates until you see the backstage area in all its weird, ramshackle barrenness. For the house we saw it in, we had to memorize our seat number, gather our coats, and walk through the stage right set door to the back, and find our new seats.

It’s now the play, in its entirety – every lecherous moment, every hysterical hissed whisper for a missing prop, the preening and pinning and smoothing before sweeping out into that brilliant light and projecting one’s voice to the back of the house.

In the current ARG I am playing, Last Call Poker, there are updates scheduled for Wednesdays and Saturdays. From experience, every single other day of the week those puppetmasters are surely scrambling and tweaking and even occasionally finding the rare moment to breathe and try to view the game as a whole, as a color, as a single note pressed on a piano keyboard.

I crave those 7 days far more than I thought I would have.

I love to play, to be the player – a contributor, a helper, a moderator, a lurker. But I desire and feel my fingers itch insanely for that backstage grit, for that abject horror of a missed cue and the air high-fives when you come to the dressing room after nailing that monologue. Sometimes, there’s bouquets of flowers, but really, it’s the grime of old makeup, the smell of astringent and hairspray, the scratchy wool of period costumes, the clean sweat of a rigorous third act, the absolute discipline and 500% given from waking moment to narcoleptic coma. The accolades are the game. The game is everyone. Moment to moment.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: being a puppetmaster is the best drug I’ve ever been on.

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