Getting Played

June 17, 2009 · By Jonathan Waite in Announcements, Features, News, Opinion 

longnoseRecently, I’ve learned that the author of a article here on ARGNet isn’t who he said he was. According to this post at the Unfiction forum, the person we thought was Martin Aggett isn’t really a person at all; it turns out that Martin Aggett is a persona, a character to be featured in an upcoming alternate reality game. Martin Aggett is, as the person responsible for creating him claims, “a complete work of fiction.” This caused me to take a step back last night, to take time to examine the situation and think about what it means here. This is what I’ve come up with:

  1. Although Martin Aggett isn’t real, the article will stay put. I’m going to trust that the person that wrote the article didn’t have a hidden agenda when he wrote the content, although submitting it in the guise of a future ARG character was… how do I say this… not the best option. The content is still a great read, and I have enjoyed the comments added after publishing it.
  2. Needless to say, I won’t be accepting any more articles from Martin Aggett. Our web site shouldn’t be regarded as “in-game,” and I’m disheartened to find out that we were deceived about the fictional nature of the author before publishing the article. I hope that our readers understand that our goal here at ARGNet is to deliver news and report on games, not to be used as a promotional device for any past, present or future campaign.
  3. We are going to change the byline on the article submitted by Martin Aggett. One of the troubling aspects of this situation is that I asked the person I thought to be Martin what name he wanted for the byline, he said, “Martin Aggett will be fine.” This was only two weeks ago. I had no idea that Martin was a fictional creation, and would have never published the article under that byline had I known.

Sunday night, after the ARG Netcast live recording, I received an article from the person who had created Martin Aggett. After reading the article (the text of which has been reprinted, word for word, in the aforementioned Unfiction forum thread), I had a lengthy conversation about this situation with the other panelists, most of whom had been previously made aware of the facts. During that conversation, I’ll admit that I felt betrayed, duped, and hoodwinked. However, I’ve since realized that despite my objections to the delivery of the article here at ARGNet, the content is still solid, worthwhile material for this web site. I still remember a heated discussion in 2004 in which I defended a person’s “right to state his/her opinion without having to out himself/herself.” I still believe that the message is often more important than the messenger, but that changes when the messenger is (or is going to be) a character in an ARG. To me, that’s trickery, not anonymity. For the record, not everyone on the conference call shared my opinion on that, and there’s certainly a point to be made that alternate reality gaming, by its very nature, often contains elements of deception, lies and mis-truths.

In my position as owner and senior editor though, I don’t appreciate having to reshape articles after publication because the author decided to credit the article to a character in a game. To me, that doesn’t seem fair to our readers, because it may lead some to question the veracity of our information. This situation has parallels to how video gamers have felt misled by PixelVixen707, who was revealed to be a character in the ARG for Personal Effects: Dark Arts.

While I would love to be able to guarantee to our readers that we would never again publish an article submitted by an in-game character, this situation shows how easy it is to game our system. We’re a news blog with a volunteer staff, and we often need help in reporting on particular games. Many times over the years, we’ve encouraged readers to submit their own articles. We love it when people help us!

Speaking personally, I’m not going to let this situation change things around here — we’re still looking for great content and we’re happy to publish submissions when authors are willing to share them with us. We don’t need or want to start asking for verifiable identification from our authors, because that would be ridiculous and tedious. To be honest, I think there will continue to be people out there who attempt to game web sites like ours and the Unfiction forum, where rules have been put in place to deter/prevent members from posting as an in-game character. History shows that the reaction from the community is rarely positive in those situations when it is discovered/revealed that someone is operating as a fictional character in a play space that is clearly out of the realm of the game play area.

In conclusion, I hope that there are lessons learned in this unfortunate incident, and I hope that this is the last we will need to hear about this particular circumstance. We’re still optimistic that the author of “Anatomy of an Implosion” will continue to submit articles for our readers, albeit under his own, non-ARG-character name. Finally, we hope that all our readers understand the position we were placed in and the reasons for our decisions.

Photo courtesy of nr49.

Comments

15 Responses to “Getting Played”

  1. thebruce on June 17th, 2009 9:17 pm

    Interestingly, now that I think about it, I do recall being asked by Martin a while back if he could publish an article at Wikibruce because he was having difficulty getting it published at ARGN. In this case, the hesitation of ARGN to publish the article had me wondering why, and I decided not to, recommending he work it out with ARGN. Seems in the end there was good reason. yeeshk.

  2. hochrotTD on June 17th, 2009 10:35 pm

    Hi, I’m one of the designers on the PixelVixen707 project. The “PixelVixen707 deceived people” meme keeps coming up on this site, and I’d like to address it. For the record, nobody received an e-mail that didn’t include some clue to the fact that PV707 was an ARG. Some of the clues were fairly obvious. And at least one journo who discovered what was going on chose not to mention it to anybody.

    You can criticize the reveal, or the level of attention that the team expected, but please stop treating this like the go-to for every time someone feels duped – or I’d prefer to say, confused – by an ARG. It was never anyone’s intention to hoax people, and I don’t see how this is comparable to a writer who deliberately deceived you to place in-game content on the ARGN site. We knew from day one that ARGN, Unfiction, etc. were off-limits to in-game content. Also, not sure if you’re aware, but Jessica Price, who has worked for ARGN, is the producer on the project and understands the community extremely well. If you think her team crossed a line, why not discuss it with her directly?

    Just another piece of info: Rachael continues to contact and interview journalists and game designers for the blog and her new Suicide Girls column. Now that the story is out, she diligently includes a link to news stories that explain exactly what’s going on (usually the Simon Carless story from November). On at least one occasion, we’ve learned that the person being interviewed never even checked the link and so never knew that they were talking to a fictional character. The end result is still honest – she interviews people for public websites, about real games – but they kind of miss the greater point.

    You could argue that it’s fishy for her even to initiate contact with anyone, and that’s an interesting point for discussion. But the simple fact is, outside of dedicated ARG players, people just don’t notice this stuff. They’re not used to thinking this way. But we’re not interested in only reaching the ARG community. The point of the project was to reach out to people who have never thought about immersive fiction and about the possibilities of interacting in a real way, on a daily basis, with fictional characters. It hasn’t been easy or flawless, but it was worth doing it, if only to break out of the cycle of “teenage girl posts video on YouTube, gets kidnapped for six weeks, is rescued, and that’s it” model many ARGs follow. Rachael’s been operating in the community of gamers and game journos for close to a year now. All of those people have a great understanding of what this community can offer because we took the chance to reach out of them.

  3. xnbomb on June 17th, 2009 10:47 pm

    Reading the above comment by hochrotTD, I think an important point needs to be made. You need to distinguish between two things different things here:

    The lack of intent on the part of creators of PixelVixen707 to deceive people.

    vs.

    The fact that some readers of PixelVixen707 were deceived.

    Yup, it’s true. Some people didn’t get the hints. They thought she was real. You ran that risk in your design. Just because you didn’t intend to hoax people doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen anyhow. Your intentions and hints by themselves don’t change the fact that there is a broad spectrum of ways people are going to feel about this.

    And if you want to get a little more of a flavor for the actions and motivations of the person behind Martin Aggett, you might consider reading http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=27985. Granted, there was a whole lot of naivete at work in that case, but maybe not the absolute intention to deceive that you imply above.

    Frankly, I find the comparison valid. Defensive much?

  4. Marie Lamb on June 18th, 2009 1:11 am

    hochrotTD, you say “PixelVixen707 deceived people” like it’s a quote, but what Jonathan actually said was “This situation has parallels to how video gamers have felt mislead by PixelVixen707.” He didn’t claim deliberate deception, but made an accurate observation about how some people who had interacted with the PixelVixen707 character felt duped after her origins were revealed to them.

    Maybe instead of Simon Carless, you should point people to Michael Abbott’s article and accompanying comments on brainygamer.com. Like xnbomb said above, disclaiming intent does not eliminate the fact that some people were put off by the revelation. The parallels between Martin Aggett and PixelVixen707 are very real.

  5. hochrotTD on June 18th, 2009 6:26 am

    Marie Lamb – To be fair, the post starts with a picture of Pinocchio’s nose growing.

    The specific difference between what happened with PixelVixen707 and Martin Aggett is that we tried to stick to the rules and conventions of the ARG community as closely as possible. We didn’t post in-game content to Unfiction or submit an article in-game to ARGN. Waite felt cheated because someone submitted a work product to him through an in-game alias; Rachael never pitched or submitted articles to editors, let alone without identifying herself, and every time she’s been approached by editors to write for their sites, she broke character and explained what was going on.

    To the more general point, I definitely admit that we bungled the revelation. I’m not denying that. And we apologized to the people who were upset or felt personally cheated. We understand very clearly what went wrong there and why it was a problem for the audience. But if the PixelVixen707 project is going to come up everytime somebody feels duped about something, it makes sense to take a moment and respond.

  6. Jonathan Waite on June 18th, 2009 6:45 am

    To be even more fair, hochrotTD, the article wasn’t about PV707. The exact quote: “This situation has parallels to how video gamers have felt misled by PixelVixen707, who was revealed to be a character in the ARG for Personal Effects: Dark Arts.” By no means did I intend to imply that this situation was the same as the PV707 revelation, but as Marie mentioned in the comment above, it was an observation.

    You make a pretty bold assumption that PV707 is going to be brought up “everytime somebody feels duped about something.” As far as I can tell, this is only the first time we’ve ever directly mentioned the negative reactions to PV707 — it’s not even part of the original article by Michael Andersen, nor is it mentioned in the follow-up article. In this article, I said that people felt misled by PV707, which is true, based on reactions we saw publicized at the time. We’ve never used the word “duped” in relation to PV707, but Michael Abbott did. Perhaps your defensive comments need to be directed at the source, rather than at us?

  7. hochrotTD on June 18th, 2009 7:18 am

    Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to respond. I apologize, because I do sound defensive. ARGN’s coverage of the project has been terrific to date, and Michael Anderson has been really interested in what’s going on. I’m thinking of the reference in this article, and of JC Hutchins’ netcast, when the host’s primary reference to PV707 was the fact that people felt misled last November. I’m not denying that that was a mistake, but almost all of those readers have patched things up with Rachael since then, and the game community continues to engage with her as another blogger/critic.

    I understand that you’re not directly comparing the two projects. Maybe this is a minor point, but I think there’s a difference between a reader feeling misled by a blog, and an editor/owner being misled by a contributor. I wanted to point out the distinction that PV707 may have botched things with the readers, but we didn’t violate the ARG community’s rules, or the professional relationship between a writer and an editor.

    As for Michael Abbott, I would never say anything against what he writes. I’m very familiar with Michael’s work, and he’s an amazing writer and a truly great guy. That was his reaction, and his post is totally fair. But Rachael has corresponded with him very amiably several times since last November, and Michael has made friendly jokes about it several times since then. If he still had a problem with the site, that would be completely fair – but it’s my impression that he doesn’t.

    Anyway, it wasn’t my intention to seem like I’m coming in to pick fights. This thread probably wasn’t the way to do it, but if there’s any way for me to shed any light on the PixelVixen707 project beyond what happened last November, I’d be really interested in doing that.

  8. Jonathan Waite on June 18th, 2009 9:28 am

    Thanks for the response, hochrotTD. I totally get that things are better now for Rachael, but again, I was referencing the situation in November 2008.

    I don’t think you were coming to pick fights, by any means. I’ve appreciated your comments and your contributions to the discussion. Perhaps we can work out a way to follow up on the original article, to reflect the situation since then?

  9. Brooke on June 18th, 2009 10:09 am

    hochrotTD: Coming into this comment section late, I didn’t read your comments as “picking a fight”. I did read defensiveness. I understand that: you’re working on a project that you love (and that’s great!) and you see a meme coming up again and again even though you think it’s no longer relevant and jeez when will they just let it go. That exact situation has made me defensive in the past, as well.

    I have been referring to PV707 a lot in the last several weeks as an example of how and why a community can overcome feelings of deception. For those of us working & studying in this space, it is one of the best examples out there of just that thing. In part because it’s current but also because PA:DA is an accessible project and one that is fairly easy to explain or expound upon if the audience is interested in learning more. This is, I think, a good thing!

    When PV707 was first revealed to be fictional in the game blogging community – some felt deceived. These feelings came out in different ways: from anger to laughter and a whole myriad of emotions in between. However, over the following months, she continued to contribute to the community and the issue whether or not she was “real” faded away. She was, and still is, value-add.

    Throwing out another recent example, the Blood Copy blog for True Blood. There was controversy here because the blog was “bought” by Gawker and, so, the posts began showing up in other places in the Gawker Network. People were upset and though much of that was express in anger over the role of advertising, I think it came down to the fact that people don’t see advertising as adding value to their lives. So, here’s a blog with some interesting posts that in another situation might have value, but takes value away when it is pushed on users and “muddying up” a site that they would like to read.

    Which brings us to Martin Aggott. For me, he was value-add. We had some great conversations on the genre and he even helped me out with a community site. So, when he told me that he was fictional, I laughed. More than that, I got excited about the conversations that would happen once he came out to the community – even more added value. However, others have not felt the same way and, for some, he came at a cost. This includes ARGN because, while at first he added value by volunteering an article (that proved to be quite popular), it came at the cost of ARGN’s reputation and respectability. A website that reports on Alternate Reality Games should certainly be able to recognize a character from one, no?

    It would be fairly easy to have a discussion that focuses solely on the current situation but that discussion wouldn’t be as rich without having other examples to draw on for comparison. For me, PV707 won’t go away for just that reason. It is a great example and one that is very much relevant to discussions about things like deception and what it means to be real.

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  12. Ralph on June 27th, 2009 8:36 pm

    I think the entire issue was well handled with extreme respect and care for the issues this incident raised.

    From Steve Diddle coming forward and revealing his true identity, showed his emerging respect for the people he befriended, and the respect for the arg community. JW was upset because Steve’s actions could have had terrible repercussions on the brand of argn.com that had been carefully shaped through the years, but Jonathan handled it very well; explained why he was upset, set the record straight, then moved on.

    I think that showed a higher level of professionalism of the arg society, and this web site.

    Well done. And I do look forward to reading more from Steve Diddle – if in fact that is his real name.

    :)

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