Category Archives: Personal Research

Technology Considerations in ARGs

So clearly this blog is concerned about technology and ARGs. But in creating an ARG, what are the kinds of considerations that designers have to take into account? When I

Smartphones are such an awesome device to use in ARGs.

was creating my game two months ago (it feels like a lifetime ago), this was a question I had to ask myself. I go to a school that is by most measures pretty well-off. I cannot fathom a student not having a laptop or a cell phone. It’s also fairly uncommon for that phone not to be a smartphone, whether it’s an iPhone, Droid, or some other version. However, even on a campus where wealth and technology seems fairly wide-spread, I still got comments from participants in my game that they believed that my game relied too much on the use of smartphones.

When I designed the game, I specifically attempted to avoid this. At first, I thought players could track their clues with QR codes. But then a friend told me a nightmare of a project she had dealing with QR codes, and I decided against it. Additionally, I thought that it would be unfair to those players without smartphones to read the QR codes. Thus, I opted for tinyurls instead. However, it seems as though the players with smartphones were able to just type in that URL in their smartphone to access the points. I had thought that would be an option, but I never thought of it as a disadvantage for those without smartphones since I had explicitly designed this element of the game with those sans-smartphones in mind.

What this shows me is that even in a place where smartphones are almost ubiquitous, there are still going to be those without them. How, then, should ARGs take these people into considerations? ARGs want to push boundaries, to contact and interact with people in new ways. But should they use the lowest common denominator in order to make sure that they include those without that technology?

I also had an element of the game that required me to text the different teams clues. If I had done this puzzle ten or maybe even five years ago, would this have been possible? Suppose half of the teams had cell phones, and half didn’t. It would be so much more immersive to send players a text and would make it a much better game, but what about those without phones? How does the game account for those people?

I don’t really have an answer for that question. I attempted to decrease the reliance on newer technology to include more people, but even my attempts didn’t satisfy all players. I just think it’s an important aspect that game designers need to keep in mind– what happens when we want to be on the cutting edge but not all of our audience is? Do we make the jump and sacrifice that demographic or do we stay in the safe zone and risk losing those who expect more technology-involved games?

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Augmented Reality v. Alternate Reality

So when I was researching graduate schools I wanted to apply to next fall (I’ve now decided to attend Georgia Tech, woohoo!), I came across this idea of Augmented Reality. This sounded a lot like alternate reality, which is clearly my focus, so I did a little bit of research on it and discovered some really cool stuff. Augmented reality is kind of self-explanatory when you think about it, but it’s basically using technology to  augment reality. You reach some sort of physical checkpoint and using technology, whether it’s a smart phone or some kind of totally crazy glasses, you see more information through this technology– maybe it tells you information about the site.

Anyways, when I read about this, my mind totally clicked into “How can this be used for games?” So of course I’m thinking about using this for clues and having people running around with this technology looking for clue checkpoints that will send them on to the next clue.

Ultimately what I think this could really be used for is to make learning really fun. Make learning into a game that uses this technology with clues and checkpoints for students to run around, learn about certain buildings or historical facts, and then race off to another. I see it as being a totally educational and technological version of National Treasure. Yes, that really super cheesy movie with Nicholas Cage. Whatever, I totally adore that movie. It’s so entertaining. Imagine what we could do by mixing augmented reality technology with alternate reality game design with educational frameworks. I think it would just be such a cool idea for kids to learn this way, like a scavenger hunt for knowledge that also uses technology.

I think in researching ARGs and new technology, we should not only be thinking in ways that it can create better entertainment but also how it can create a better society. Super cheesy and idealistic, I know, but if you had the chance to learn American history through a scavenger hunt, wouldn’t you?

This is Not a Game… or Is It?

Though it was not my very first introduction to ARGs, I distinctly remember first hearing the phrase “This is Not a Game.” For those of you well-versed in ARG history, you will know that this phrase comes from the famous and venerated The Beast back in 2001. I actually still have the article that I read for class where I heard about this phrase. I’ll copy in the text:

“All of these immersive strategies reached a climaz in May 2001, when the cryptic disavowal “This is Not a Game” flashed briefly in red letters across the screens of millions of prime time television viewers, carefully embedded in a national commercial for the film A.I. This message has since become the mantra for both players and developers of immersive entertainment. To “TING” a game now means to explicitly deny and purposefully obscure its nature as a game, a task that has become increasingly difficult as immersive players grow more savvy about TING techniques. One of the most interesting post-Beast developments in the immersive genre has been the unusual TING methods devised by games that, unlike the Beast, do first announce and publicize themselves as games (usually to attract a paying player base) and then, only later, try to destroy the game-reality boundaries.” — Jane McGonigal, “This is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” (2003)

I love the idea of immersive game play. The first time I read about The Beast I was in total awe. How on earth could an entire network of clues be sustained and hidden at the same time? The idea of how much work it would take to maintain that just boggled me. And now having created and launched my own game, it boggles me even more.

However, as much as I love the idea of immersive game play and the idea of TING, my entire thesis is basically working against this model. My game framework clearly and boastfully claims itself as a game in order to reach out to as many people as possible. As a promotional technique, it has to reach out to as many people as possible or else it’s not doing its job. This is quite clearly then not TING-esque. In fact, it’s the opposite of TING. And that kind of makes me sad. I am in awe of  The Beast and it would be an absolute dream to work on something as ambitious as that in the future. I think working on something like The Beast would be a career high for me.

But on the other hand, in the way that the ARG genre is shifting, I don’t think that all games can take this approach. TING approach can only be taken by a select few special games. If every game takes it on, it no longer becomes special or exciting. Even more than that, it just seems like the immersive game design industry is turning to what McGonigal refers to in her quote– the backtrack method. Create a game world, and then somehow try to destroy those boundaries that separate the game from reality.

The way that I think that I would deal with this in my own work is to compromise. Create a game that clearly announces itself as a game in order to attract a mainstream audience that will play the game. But then inside the game, in the inner layers, hide rabbit holes to a deeper level of the game that will absolutely thrill the hardcore players. The casual players won’t have to know a thing about it, but the hardcore players will adore having this inner secret of the game. This is something that I attempted to introduce into my own game, but with only one Game Master, this proved exceedingly difficult.

ARGNet wrote an article about “A Fond Farewell to ‘This is Not a Game.'” I’m so torn– while I think that the ARG framework is moving in this new direction, I refuse to believe that ARGs will give this signature up. I want to root for games who do this. Will they be able to compete with the larger, self-declaring ARGs? In player-base size, no probably not. But in richness and satisfaction? Absolutely. If I ever get to the point in my career where I can create a game that employs the TING technique, I will absolutely take that chance. Because I believe in This is Not a Game.

Puppet Masters: The Importance of a Team

Over the past four weeks, I have been in a chaotic state of panic and creativity as I launched my own version of an alternate reality game. I should note that the game that I created and launched was not a true ARG in many ways, but it did create an alternate reality for my University over the span of a week. I will be writing more posts on it later, I’m sure, but I wanted to simply post about the most important thing that I learned over the course of creating and implementing the game: the importance of a team when creating a game.

I feel like maybe this is obvious to some people– if you’re creating a large scale game, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to do all of the planning, implementing, logic-ing. That is clear. However, I think that no matter what the scale of a game is, even a game made only for a small university of only 2400 people and that had under 200 players, a game team is absolutely vital. There is just too much to do, too much to account for that a single person, no matter how brilliant and prepared they are can take care of.

I had help during my game, for sure. I was constantly bouncing ideas off my advisors and another thesis student. However, bouncing ideas off of people is different than having people intricately involved in the game design. If nothing else, having a team helps you with checks and balances. Just having someone there to say, “Hey are you sure that’s a good idea?” or “Maybe if we phrase it this differently, it won’t confuse as many people.”

My game only ran for a week and had under 200 players, and yet any alternate reality game that is launched requires so much attention to detail and so much involvement that no matter the scale, there needs to be a team of at least two or three people working on it. Several semesters ago, I worked on a project at an even smaller scale that the game that I just launched. It was so small that people didn’t even know it was a game and we had no one follow through to the end. We had a blast making it, but even still, it would have been impossible to pull off what we did if it was just one of us.

The technology that I used could have benefitted so much from a team. One of the most important aspects of a team is, of course, the ability to specialize with individuals who have certain specialities. One of my friends was already helping me with graphic design, but I easily could have used a video person for filming and editing, another person for developing an easy-to-use way to keep track of points (because that was an entire job in and of itself), and another for figuring out multiple platform distribution. I used the internet, email, and text messages and of course physical means to deliver my clues, but it would have been a lot cooler to find other technological methods to distribute clues. I feel like that can only be done with a team.

Brief Review into my Research

Since I’ve decided to start a blog on alternate reality games, I thought it would be a good idea to explain what I think my credentials are in this field, since ARGs are a rather niche and complex beast (ahhhh, see what I did there?)

What does the TARDIS have to do with my research on ARGs? Read below the cut to find out.

I very first learned about ARGs about three years ago in my very first Communication class as a freshman. The final question of my Mass Media take home exam asked us to examine the work of Jane McGonigal and several other ARG design companies (their names escape me now, but I’m sure 42 Entertainment was among them). As soon as I started researching, I was entranced. Games played in real world space? Surely nothing that awesome could exist. But exist they did. I remember distinctly writing on my exam to my professor “THIS IS AWESOME” before turning it in.

In my subsequent Communication classes, ARGs kept cropping up here and there, especially in my class on Transmedia Storytelling. I studied them in more depth here, learning about The Beast and Perplex City, and eventually I worked in a group with two other students to actually create our own ARG for our campus. We put it together in less than three weeks, and it was the most rewarding, entertaining thing I think I’ve ever done at Trinity. The end result was less than satisfactory (students who were intended to be players couldn’t make the jump from the online clues to the real world clues despite our almost forceful guidance), but it was still an eye-opener into what I could do with my creative and logistical skills.

This year, as an undergraduate senior I am working on my year-long Honors Thesis, which is essentially a course in which I do independent study in a specific area of focus. I decided to focus on ARGs and their promotional uses, since most of the major ARGs have promotional tie-ins (The Beast for A.I.Why So Serious for The Dark KnightI Love Bees for Halo 2 , etc). I had actually studied this idea in my public relations class several semesters previously. However, what I also noticed was that ARGs were only being used to cater to a rather non-mainsteam audiences, usually ones that are already heavily involved in fringe gaming. Therefore, only a small demographic is being reached by ARGs. When I realized this, I decided that this was something that I could focus on– how could ARGs reach a larger demographic and therefore promote to wider range of people so that more people could experience the awesomeness that are ARGs?

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