logo_gdconf.gifIf you’ve ever played a game through to the end, you know that strange mix of excitement and depression that hits as you realize that the characters that you’ve loved for the last few weeks or months have completed their story leaving you with no more websites to obsessively check or forums to read or fellow players to talk with. It’s bittersweet and it’s what I call the ARG Hangover. I woke up with a doozy of one on Monday morning. ARGfest was over and here I was still in San Francisco.

I suppose that I shouldn’t complain. I’m here for the Game Developers Conference (GDC). It’s a huge and amazing conference that’s the highlight of the year for many game folk. But it is no ARGfest and after such an amazing weekend, I wasn’t expecting much. Boy, was I surprised.

It’s something to sit in a conference room filled with ARG folk – everyone there knows about the magic of Alternate Reality Gaming. We can get excited and discuss or debate the nuances in a way that only those familiar can. It’s filled with our own experiences and, even, biases. It’s something completely different to sit in a conference room filled with folks with a passing awareness, with experiences completely different. And, when the panelist in the front of the room is discussing the power of Alternate Reality Games to alter our own reality for better, it’s absolutely inspiring as you look over the crowd and see their eyes get bigger, their curiosity aroused.

Jane McGonigal captured the audience at the Serious Games Summit panel on Erasing the Delta or, for the rest of us, removing the gap between task and play. In her talk, she challenged serious games to move beyond being simple resources that train or educate people to actual solutions to problems. And, of course, put Alternate Reality Gaming in the frame of games that are actually doing that.

She argued that Alternate Reality Gaming is in it’s third wave. Real Life was the first wave and marked by a fascination by the way in which ARGs were embedded in our every day lives – email, phone, websites, etc. The second wave, Real World, came as we began to explore the world around us – meeting people to answer pay phones or play poker in a cemetery. We’re now at a point of Real Impact. We can start to solve real world problems and alter our reality.

There are several reasons why we’re at this point. First of all, our culture is more and more like an alternate reality game – the internet has invaded our everyday culture and we’re collaborating on an amazing new level. Wikipedia, creative commons, open source – these are very much a part of our society. But not only that, our culture wants to be more ARGlike – a superhero ethic where we can save the world.

She offered up several examples. From our past, we have Last Call Poker’s Graveyard Games. Historic urban cemeteries are in a crisis. The land is too valuable and they’re being moved to make way for condos and big box stores. They need more bodies – live ones – to justify their value as a public space.

Currently, there’s World Without Oil, which is a collaborative alternate reality where players will be able to imagine the kind of changes they will be able to make. It has the potential to truly change our reality by showing players what will happen and allowing them to make changes. This will build a database of ideas on how people have dealt with and reduced the impact of the oil crisis.

In the future, she envisions Massively Multiplayer Science where real world data collection is embedded in the game play. For example, getting players to collect and process data and a massively collaborative fashion.

Throughout the talk, you could see light bulbs going off over people as the ideas flowed. Sitting next to a friend that I haven’t seen since last year at GDC, he leaned over and excitedly whispered, “wow.” I had that feeling all weekend, surrounded by ARGfesters realizing that we were on a tipping point, but it was during Jane’s panel that so much of this weekend really came together for me. It was the perfect cure for that ARG hangover.