Media Theorist Douglas Rushkoff on Alternate Reality Games
Author, media theorist, teacher, and winner of the first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Douglas Rushkoff is well-known for his insightful books and documentaries about how cultures, people, and institutions shape values in the digital age. Since his 1994 observational book Cyberia, Rushkoff has often been at the forefront of digital counterculture. His latest book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, provides clear, actionable ways to master technology before it masters us.
Recently, Rushkoff collaborated with games production company Smoking Gun Interactive to create an experimental alternate reality game (ARG) and graphic novel “proof of concept,” Exoriare. After chatting very briefly about ARGs at the eBook Summit last week in New York City, I thought our readers would enjoy a more focused e-mail interview with Rushkoff about his experience with Exoriare, ARGs, and play.
Jane Doh: For Exoriare, even though you have the writer credit for the graphic novel, how involved were you in the writing or the design of the Darknet ARG? Was the development of both elements concurrent, or did one come before the other?
Douglas Rushkoff: The initial concept for the story behind the Darknet ARG was already developed when I came on. I ended up writing a graphic novel for which the characters of that story were more tangential than central; their plight was of concern to my characters, but I had another story going on. That story got adjusted a bit to accommodate my timeline, and my intentions for a story that was to span four to six graphic novels.
Where we did collaborate a lot, though, was on the role of the player/reader. It was important to me that my graphic novel end with the beginning of the game – the last frame is to be the computer screen on which the game is played, with the player as an active member of a resistance group, reaching out to others through the Darknet.
I wanted the reader to be more than an uninvolved third person, but someone with a stake in the story. I also wanted the story itself to give the player an idea of his or her own back story, or to be able to imagine one based on the timeline they experienced over the first book.
So the ARG had to support this notion of people coming together to fight a very new kind of war.
JD: What were your impressions of the collaborative creative process for Exoriare? How did the form of the content, its delivery, its interactivity, affect the course of development and creation?
DR: Well, they were already building a game. It’s a game company. So for me, this was the first time I wrote a story where the main purpose was to enhance the experience of the gamer. Reader-as-gamer. So I took an active role in the development of a narrative, but I only used elements that were developed for the multi-thousand-page “Bible” of the game universe. There weren’t any people in there – at least not people I used as characters – but there were hundreds of technologies they’d thought of, a multi-aeon history of the universe and our species, and so on.
The interactivity of the ARG was meant to imitate the interactivity of the story – and that is an interactivity characterized by “finding the others.” That was always my favorite Timothy Leary quote, and it served us in following a unified theme for both my story and the game play. Solving the ARG requires forming groups, finding collaborators, and solving problems in ways that only a larger group can find, especially when it finds another group, and so on.
So the exciting part of development was watching those social features get built on top of the more standard ARG puzzle-solving.
JD: What were your expectations about how players would react to Exoriare? Is there anything about player reaction or behavior that challenged your expectations?
DR: I didn’t think people were going to solve it. I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to without 99% of the work being done by others. I wasn’t underestimating the players’ abilities to solve the math or the astronomy or the puzzles. It was more a fear that they wouldn’t be motivated to. I understand what it takes a reader to get through a ten-hour book. I have a harder time getting my head around doing as much work as people are willing to do to solve a game they don’t know, and for which there is no tangible reward other than having accomplished it.
But watching the speed and intensity with which people approached this challenge, I came to realize that it was the social element that made it work. It’s not solving the puzzle that’s so much fun; it’s working on it with other people, solving elements, and seeing everyone else react to what you’ve brought to the table.
It’s really a great model for collaboration of all sorts. Funny that we do it so much better in non-applied situations like gaming. Imagine if Congress worked this way….
JD: Did you play through Darknet? If so, what were your impressions of it as an experience?
DR: I played, yeah. It was tricky because I knew a lot. But we did create a situation where I didn’t know how it was supposed to work, and I could act more like a test subject than a writer. And I gave a bunch of feedback about the beginning. The beginning is the hardest part because you want it to be easy enough for the individual working alone to get into it, but not so easy that they haven’t crossed a real barrier to entry. It’s the difficulty of the first section that makes people respect the others who have gotten through it and are ready to connect with the others.
JD: What lessons from your experience with Exoriare can you share with would-be transmedia producers, writers, and game designers? Do you think you’d work on another ARG or transmedia experience in the future?
DR: I’d work on another, for sure. It was great great fun. The trick is really the business part of it. These things are expensive to make – at least in terms of time and energy. Plus we had real artists to pay. This wasn’t a cheap little game.
Yet people don’t really pay for ARGs, as they are mostly done as advertisements for some TV show or whatever. In our case, it was proof of concept and teasing for a game. But this meant the game company had to invest a whole lot into the thing, all before having its publishing deal (which I don’t know if they’ve got, actually).
I would love to see ARGs being done for their own sake, and people paying to play them the way we pay to watch HBO. When an ARG is supposed to get people to see a movie or something, it can’t really teach/say/do anything significant on its own. And I feel kind of funny putting so much effort into something that’s, say, a promo for a TV show.
When I get to the end, I feel a little like I’ve been had. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t want to live inside an advertisement. And that’s what it kind of feels like afterwards, even if it was a really well-done ARG.
JD: Where would you like to see transmedia in general, and ARGs in particular, go in the future?
DR: I guess I answered that. I’d like to see it become its own genre, rather than a supporting genre. I like ARGs better than transmedia. Somehow, once something becomes “trans” it becomes more cross-promotional than truly unified. I think it can happen, and I want to see Collapsus, which may be an example of this.
JD: If you could imagine the ultimate ARG or transmedia experience, what would it look like?
DR: I think it would look like life. It’d have to get into the territory of that movie The Game. It would feel like a Burroughs novel. It would have to be paranoid, because you wouldn’t be sure what of what you’re seeing is part of the game.
I mean, players would be served banner ads on the pages they normally go to, without being told the ads were for things in the ARG. Weird shit in TV shows. Like product placement, but invisible to those who don’t realize what’s happening.
JD: Piggybacking on the eBook Summit, there has been a lot of talk in the “traditional” book publishing industry about transmedia content. What has been your experience in dealing with publishers interested in “going multimedia”? Do you find this trend in publishing a positive or a negative turn for both the transmedia and the traditional media industries?
DR: Book publishers are looking to save their industry by any means necessary. They are desperate right now. So are TV executives, even though they don’t admit it yet. These media are breaking down as we speak.
But everyone is looking at the *other* guy’s media as the one that will save them. So cell phone operators think advertising will save them, advertisers think Google will save them, Google thinks ads will pay for its empire to grow, and so on.
Transmedia embodies this notion that someone in some media somewhere can actually pay for everyone else’s. And it’s just not going to work that way. It has to be it’s own thing, not some leverage play or some media brand extension.
JD: Taking a long view, and perhaps invoking some of the precepts in Program or Be Programmed, how do you think the biases of technology and their effects on behavior have changed the nature of play? What does this mean for how we relate to society and each other?
DR: I think there’s a tendency in digital technology to reward people really quickly. People want the sense that something is happening right now. I’ve seen it at the shows students do at ITP [NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program], where I teach sometimes. They put these exhibits all over the space and hundreds of people come in to see them. And these are all interactive exhibits, so people want to be able to push a button or pull a lever and see something really cool happen right away.
It’s the twitch aspect of gaming, which is so much a part of it’s attraction, yet it does train us to look for that sensation. That sense of instantaneous and visceral feedback. Many of the games I played earlier on didn’t have that, but still really worked.
I spent time with the pro Starcraft gamers in South Korea, and while I know they had strategy, so much of the game was about how fast they typed. The chess part of it seems to fall to the background. Moreover, there’s no sense of pause. Of extended absorption and processing before taking action.
Maybe that’s a more accurate model for human experience than the more literary style I’m used to. But I think it’s missing something that only better game developers might be able to recover.
Meanwhile, I think games like Warcraft and other FRPs, that don’t really have winners and endings, are very instrumental for developing a society that can move beyond such binary models. Great games teach people how to work together for common goals, and make sure people understand that winning the game is not the object – for that just ends the game.
Currently, much of the Darknet ARG is still available to play online. Although the time-sensitive game events have passed and group-level achievements attained, a new player can actually play through the entire online experience from start to finish.