It was the summer of 2001, and I was self-employed. I was also feeling a bit small, creatively. A little disillusioned with writing and designing my website and doing endless art scans of Art Nouveau and Art Deco miniature posters, of taking digital photos of vases and gnome boxes, trying to make them look like they were actually worth their 20K price tags.

Towards the early afternoon, on certain days, and in the evenings, I dropped deep down into my imagination and dredged up old nightmares, and the possibilities of weather patterns so intense that our future as a human race was certainly doomed. I daydreamed about binary colors flashing out from the oceans of the world, and of conscious, feeling minds encased in silicon, plastic, wiring, metal.

I would have tea with Eliza, and watch her get angry with me, and as much as I knew she was a bot, as much as I knew that this was just a game, I would still close my browser in the wee hours, rub my eyes, cautiously turn off my light, and force my feet to pad along the shotgun hallway in my Leavitt St. apartment without scampering into the bedroom and under the covers with my ex, Scott. Eliza and Loki were the nightmares we all had, condensed and distilled into bits and bytes, and I had fallen in love with the jump and thrill of that unknown, of seeing an immense, complicated grey area of morality, and feeling the hope for humanity in that greyness. In reality, Eliza was a flash-based chatbot. In my imagination, she could be as horrible as an 8-foot whiplash tendon beast running with blood, ready to slice me into pieces. I’m not even kidding. That’s how much she unnerved me. That apartment hallway seemed so long and dark after I sat under interrogation from her.

Sure, Laia was hot. But it was the Red King — the geek, the social misfit, the faceless genius, that we strove to save. He’d won our hearts over the weeks we played. We had a strange courtship with this minor character who became a major hero. We took our time and we considered who he was to us. We were in, hook, line, and sinker. Every action had a reaction, and sometimes, we were shocked by what our efforts wrought. Laia was still pretty, but even Brutus (even now) held my attention and my mind, more than she ever could. Brutus, if you must know, was a house. An A.I. house. And I loved him.

I am personally somewhat dismayed with the potato chip culture that is currently bleeding into the first few days of Last Call Poker. Like ilovebees, we’ve got a hot girl in distress. I’d like to think 42’s doing this as some sort of tongue-in-cheek-but-it-works plot device, but I dunno. At any rate, it doesn’t matter. I don’t even care that it’s a hot chick. I don’t even care that she’s in distress.

I am worried that so many people are losing their wonder over ARGs – the self-professed experts and self-assigned leaders. I’m not sure I trust the proprietor of Last Call Poker to be a ‘good’ guy. There’s indication all over the website, overtly and subtly, that Lucky Brown’s still-living niece, Lucy, may have to go all-in and lose the pot if things go a certain way. She’s got death hovering over her in spades. (Yeah, I couldn’t help myself. Shut up.)

And yet, with over 1,000 posts of speculation, honest-to-goodness fun and silliness, meta-meta-meta-meta discussion over the game’s creators, I don’t think a single bird has chirped a suspicious note over Lucky’s motivations for us ‘helping’ him discover these missing cards (character profiles) on the website. No one’s even questioned or posited that perhaps Lucy might even deserve what’s coming to her.

Granted, there ain’t enough evidence to really give us solid reasons to feel negatively about the two biggest/most important (implied) characters in the game.

What’s concerning me is that the converse reaction is really over-the-top. We’ve got people in special invitation-only games needling Lucky for answers, and automagically offering help: “Is there anything we can do? Name it. What can I do to help?” Now, I liked Lucky and his banter. As a poker player, he certainly charmed me and entertained me in the thirty minutes or so I got to spend trying to take his chips. As a dead guy, as a ghost with an agenda? Dude, how could I possibly have any sort of realistic assumption that he’s trustworthy?

There’s a considerable amount of story depth here, inside of the first week. Granted, some of it’s surface, but there is a lot of negative space in each character’s collage, aching to be painted over with corroborating evidence, plot twists, and motives. There is room to grow. (Probably more than I could ever suspect. I’m hoping. Hee.)

In spite of this meticulous groundwork, I am concerned that a lot of players are forgetting the immersion aspect of these games. I am concerned that we’re being romanced by the very tantalizing device of “dead people playing poker with the living” and all of its metaphorical implications, but the first instinct many are having is to rush rush rush figure out how we can best ‘win’ this thing, to accomplish all of the goals that appear like crack-laden carrots on sticks (i.e., the Top Players page at Last Call). There is blatant freaking out over the locations of live events, there is endless ‘us and them’ posturing, there are players speaking for the entire community about how this game should be played, and what sort of behaviors are allowed, or even, what should be discussed. What is missing is a sense of contemplation, a sense of cause and effect, a sense of impending doom or hidden lies. Why should we help Lucy? Why do we ask Lucky if we can bend over backwards to assist him? Because we’re playing an ARG? Does no one see the problem with this?

We are a herd of infinite cats, looking ever-onwards at ourselves and each other, staring into the screens of our computers, wondering who’s going to make the first move. We’re betting and calling and betting and checking and calling and betting and checking and I’m feeling a little like this constant scurrying is going to cause us to think we still have time to diddle before the flop, when in reality, the puppetmasters have brought us to 4th street. Pants down, we’re going to wonder where the story went, as a collective.

I don’t mind the meta discussions. I really don’t. I can handle the mentions of the game creators, and to a certain extent I can handle the obsequious fandom that is bringing people to the game (despite the disingenuous calls by some to not discuss it, whilst talking out the other side of their mouths). But I am wondering where the wonder went. Why the first impulse amongst these self-recognized ARG pros is to work the system to the benefit of Unfiction, instead of drowning in what story we’ve got. Instead of organizing social, community-building poker clinics in the practice rooms, people are campaigning for a quick fix – cheat the flops to bring a few selected Unfictioneers the top chips, to guarantee a solid chance at this coming Saturday’s tournament. Mmm, the flavor is monosodium glutamate and sucrose, tinged with yellow #5 and aluminum lake.

There is this anxious, frenetic, depressing desire to game the game.

I like to be courted. The game is definitely courting me. I can see the glimmers of ideas and imagination, but the signal-to-noise ratio of a game I agreed to moderate at one forum is making that very, very difficult. Everything is fluorescent-lit, and people are microwaving the ideas to reduce cooking time. We are a herd of infinite cats, and our vanishing point is fuzzy, ambiguous, undefined, and unsettling.