I wrote a post on the Unforums yesterday that I’d like to preserve here. A member asked the community if a newbie could conceivably jump into a game during its middle, or whether it was more advisable to try and catch a game at its beginning.

Understanding and sympathizing with the natural anxiety that lead to that question is not difficult. I know that had I not been grabbed by some of the very shiny stuff I was seeing in the Beast, I would’ve never made it past the first day I joined Cloudmakers.

Oh, and the day I joined Cloudmakers? May 6th, 2001, the very night of the A.R.M. rallies taking place in three major cities in the U.S.: New York, Los Angeles, … and Chicago.

I wish I could tell you I’d just hopped up and gone to that little bar hosting the event in my own hometown, and even helped with the puzzle solves, got myself a legitimate anti-robot militia armband. But, no. I sat and watched those IRC logs flood in, transcripts of cellphone conversations – it was mind-blowing, honestly, the sheer amount of information and speculation flooding into my inbox every single minute.

I was nearly a month late to the game, if you’ll notice. Cloudmakers itself formed on April 11th, and the rabbit holes had been languishing for a while before that. Sure, I freaked out over the massive amount of story that had already ‘happened,’ and I felt sad for the puzzles that were all marked ‘SOLVED,’ but I also found myself instinctively finding things to re-read and absorb. The story was intensely good, and the material was solid, and did not crack when I poked at it. It would be there the next day when I came back, persistent and consistent. I could trust in the universe to remain – I could allow myself to become a citizen, because it was still inviting me.

Instead of getting cranky in the thread (which is sometimes my wont) and shaking my fist and spouting off about how there really are no rules (no really there aren’t so shut up man just can it already can’t you see that I am trying to write a blog post?), I said:

I’d say the #1 rule for newbies is: don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

People will tell how How Things Are and How Things Are Supposed to Go, but:

if ARGs are alternate realities

held together by the sinewy and sometimes ethereal-looking net of a ‘Game,’

… then you will find that much like Life, ARGs generally work a bit better when you’re not forcing them to fit your pre-conceived notions.

Basically, use common sense, retain your sense of wonder, and for goodness’ sake, respect the real-life laws of your own country and/or the country hosting the ARG.

All the rest is rabbit holes and narratives on crack. Mmmmmm!

I discuss ARGs a great deal in my spare time, and get into these lovely, meandering meta conversations not meant to save the world, save a newbie, or save the genre. And many times, someone newer to the world than I will tell me that they’ve looked at the Cloudmakers archive of the game, at the Trail, and they just can’t believe that we played through that without our heads exploding. The implication is that of course one could never hop onto that horse mid-stream: go from your normal, predictable life into the midst of a strong community that had ‘already solved everything.’ It simply must be better to wait for a new game to come along, so that you’re ‘ready’ for it.

Oh … really?

It constantly amazes me to enter some of these Meta discussions and find out how wrong I’ve been doing things, this whole time. Heh.

“Where are you off to?” [Momo] asked.

“To our play class,” Franco told her. “That’s where they teach us how to play.”

Momo looked puzzled. “Play what?”

“Today we’re playing data retrieval It’s a very useful game, but you have to concentrate like mad.”

“Is it fun?” Momo asked, looking rather doubtful.

“That’s not the point,” Maria replied uneasily. “Anyway, you shouldn’t talk like that.”

“The point is it’s useful for the future.”

This quote is taken from Michael Ende’s Momo, a book everyone really should read. It’s as old as I am, and easily my favorite book.

To those denizens of the Unforums who don’t truly understand why I have issues with someof the uses of “We” and “Us,” read the quote again. Actually, you should purchase the book and read the whole thing, cover to cover. Ach, you think I joke, but I am quite serious. It’s an amazing little book.

The children in the book are in a play class because their parents have opened accounts with the Men in Grey, who have promised them that the more they hurry, the more time they save into a time account at their bank — this is time that they’ll have later on. That time that they’ve been saving can definitely be cashed out later, like paper money, or candy bars from a vending machine. (Except the Grey Men were totally lying. Time saved is time lost, don’tcha know.) But, their instructions were fairly simple: Eschew those things that are time wasters. Bring others up to speed as quickly as possible, and tell them How Things Run, because that way, we’ll learn how to play better. Efficacy in day-to-day living would obviously mean that everyone gets along better and has a better quality of life, right?

Clearly, this would be the case! Instead of the slow, sexy burn of discovery, We’ve got rules to get us past that first hurdle of discomfort. No more discomfort! No more mystery! Data Retrieval ARGs would be so handy – clearly-delineated Rules of Engagement. Updates that the Old Skoolers can predict with ease. Forum threads moderated into oblivion, with at least 50 emoticons to choose from — y’know, when linguistic nuance just won’t do.

The point is, it’s useful for the future.

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.

We’re sick of viral marketing, and ARGs are why

We KNOW that marketers will eventually give us all of the details on their products if they want to sell them, so why should we care to solve silly puzzles in order to learn trivial product details? Seriously: why?

Don’t you worry your 8-bit head over it, dude. You’re already at the end of the Consumer Spectrum the viral marketers are pushing people towards. You’re not necessarily being marketed to, if recent efforts can be construed as “typical,” but you can still enjoy a free game. You can still ignore it. For free!

Anecdotal: I played Halo: Combat Evolved and liked it a lot. I was planning on purchasing Halo 2, but it wasn’t until I participated in several puzzle relay situations with the Unfiction community during ilovebees that I seriously considered purchasing an XBoxLive subscription – which is incidentally about to renew itself sometime next week, for another year.

Also: Our Colony? Not an ARG. Origen? Not an ARG. That’s been pointed up in the article’s comment section anyhow, and with some vehement eloquence by ARG fans.

I was just taking my usual jaunt through websites this morning at work, occasionally exclaiming to myself and my co worker Tania about how awesomely this pot of coffee turned out today, and I dove right into Metafilter. There was a thread for Rosa Parks yesterday, with Metafilter’s trademark linear constellation of single periods to indicate a moment of silence, a show of respect. Scattered amongst the stops were various links to interviews, a bit of the ol’ MeFi cynicism about Parks’ impact and associations since her famous refusal to acquiesce to segregation, and then, this comment by dhartung caught my eye:

Rosa Parks is the answer to “What can one person do?”

Cranberry, you should read the PDF linked by spock. It was, in fact, what an entire community did, carefully choosing Parks as the perfect symbol. She wasn’t even the first person to be arrested. By marshalling their forces, sticking together as a group over the course of a year of personal hardship, the community of Montgomery was forced to concede — and the civil rights movement was given a morally energizing victory, one that still resonates today, where many others have been forgotten.

In many ways we don’t have a language for community action; we need to have symbolic heroes.

Now, you may think for just a shining, glowing second that I might be suggesting that ARGs are a sure-fire way to bridge that gap, a way to create a working vocabulary for those things that we do as a group in order to further a cause, to progress, to fix, to heal a wound, to solve a problem.

I’m not sure I could claim that, and back it up. We still look to our leaders, our heroes, whether they are self-selected, appointed by those who control resources, or whether they emerge suddenly through circumstance or serendipity.

But I do wonder sometimes, when we’re furiously working in IRC to solve a cipher and putting together over 200 assets to make a story, if we’re somehow striking flint and getting the sparks of that language of community, in spite of our propensity for singular symbols.

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.

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.

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