Last year, William Sawtooth III embarked on a great experiment: he sold off 100 shares in his personhood in exchange for a billion dollars. Being a savvy investor, I managed to secure a 6% interest in Sawtooth prior to his untimely demise at the hands of a masked henchman from the Secret Games Society. Yesterday, I received word from Sawtooth’s legal counsel informing me that Sawtooth’s death was confirmed after a thorough investigation, and my shares were reverting back to the Mega Hard Wood Group Board of Directors. As a courtesy, the Board sent me a framed certificate commemorating my brief status as a Majority Stockholder. They also unknowingly sent out an invitation to this year’s FestQuest, an annual puzzle hunt held during ARGFest.
Sawtooth’s misadventures in personal corporate governance were the focus of the alternate reality game Boom the Moon, an extension of Steve Peters’ crowdsourced alternate reality gaming thought experiment World Without Helium by Synth-Bio Productions. For two weeks, players tricked Sawtooth’s silent investors into handing over their shares to prevent a plan to use Sawtooth’s newfound wealth to solve the impending helium shortage by detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon’s surface. Players secured a majority stake in William Sawtooth III, and staved off plans to blow up the moon. While celebrating the win, Sawtooth was shot and presumed dead. The correspondence from the Mega Hard Wood Group only served to confirm that presumption, pronouncing his death a suicide.
After closer inspection, I discovered an invitation to FestQuest 2013 slipped in between the certificate and the frame’s backing. The secret message cordially invited me to join the Sawtooth Circus in Seattle on July 27th. Sawtooth also offered his handwritten assurance that “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” It also included an introductory puzzle to whet players’ appetites for the main course this weekend. The return of William Sawtooth III should be an exciting one for ARGFest attendees, as Sawtooth is one of the most colorful characters in alternate reality gaming to break the fourth wall I’ve seen.
Synth-Bio Productions is resurrecting Sawtooth through their role as host of this year’s FestQuest. Pre-registration for FestQuest is mandatory this year, with groups of 10 asked to provide their email address along with a “Circus Name”. The experience is only available to ARGFest attendees, and is expected to take approximately 2 hours to complete.
ARGFest-o-Con is a yearly conference that provides the opportunity for fans and creators of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences to gather together and reflect on the genre’s evolution. This year, the roving conference will touch down in Seattle between Thursday July 25th and Saturday July 27th for a long weekend of panels, puzzles, and games.
This year’s list of speakers are a diverse crew. IARPA will be discussing their exploration of whether alternate reality games can be used for behavioral research. At the same conference, Groundspeak co-founder Jeremy Irish will discuss the growth and evolution of the geocaching community, puzzlemaker Mike Selinker will discuss the art of puzzlecraft, Haley Moore will talk about injecting tangible objects into stories, and Ken Morris will introduce attendees to the wonders of glitch art. Past ARGFest Keynote speakers Jordan Weisman and JC Hutchins will be returning, along with the team behind TVTropes.org’s alternate reality game The Wall Will Fall, and indie game developers at Silverstring Media and Lazy 8 Studios. This year’s keynote speaker is ARGNet and No Mimes Media founder Steve Peters, who will be reflecting on the ups and downs of a career that spanned some of the biggest companies in the industry.
Three ARGFest traditions will also be returning for 2013. Synth-Bio Productions will be producing the first of those traditions, FestQuest. Every year, ARGFest attendees team up to explore ARGFest’s host city in a real-world puzzle trail. The puzzle trail gives attendees a fun and lighthearted way of putting some practical experience behind the conference’s often theoretical talks. For the second ARGFest tradition, ARGNet’s previous owner and senior editor Jonathan Waite will be stepping into the role of Grand Inquisitor, responsible for facilitating conference discussions with a twist. Finally, ARGFest Seattle will see a return of the ARG Museum, a collection of artifacts from past games.
Regular registration rates for ARGFest are available through July 19th, priced at $90 for a conference pass and $150 for an all-access pass that also includes the kick-off party and keynote address. Head over to the ARGFest-o-Con 2013 website for more information.
Image courtesy thatdragoncancer.com
Over the years, a number of alternate reality games and transmedia experiences have used their storytelling platform as a medium for serious gaming. In Conspiracy for Good, many of the game’s live events were used as a lure to get players actively volunteering for non-profit organizations. In games like Indiana University’s Skeleton Chase and the American Heart Association’s Cryptozoo, the underlying purpose of the game was to get players more physically active.
To get a better sense of the evolving serious gaming industry, I attended the 9th annual Games for Health conference in Boston. Zombies, Run creators Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman were there to share some insight into the success of their story-driven exercise app and announce their company Six to Start’s partnership with the UK government on a new project, coming next year. A host of game developers, medical professionals, and technologists added their own perspectives to the topic over the three-day conference. While the conference’s multiple tracks made a full picture of events impossible, I’ve attempted to share a few highlights in the world of serious gaming.
Zombies, Run: Escaping from the Zombie Horde
Since its release, Six to Start’s Zombies, Run has sold over half a million copies of its episodic audio adventures placing fans directly into the shoes of Abel Township’s Runner 5. To date, runners have traversed over 12 million miles in the real world, foraging for supplies through a virtual British countryside during the zombie apocalypse. A vibrant fan community has contributed fan fiction and videos to the universe: one of the members of the Zombies, Run writing team got her start writing fanfic for the game.
It all started when Zombies, Run co-creator Naomi Alderman joined a beginner’s running class. The instructor asked everyone taking the course to explain why they wanted to get better at running, and one woman blithely responded, “I want to be able to escape from the zombie horde.” This motivation resonated with Alderman, as it captured the heart of her situation. As a professional novelist, running isn’t something that helps her reach daily word counts or edit manuscripts. Alderman explains that for most people, running is more about being prepared for when things go bad. At its core, the impetus to run is the wish, “I want to be a healthy animal to escape from predators.” For Adrian Hon, an avid runner, that primal motivation was what was missing from existing apps, pedometers, and sensors on the market. No amount of metrics about heart rate, steps taken, or calories burned provides as much motivation during a run as the shuffling groan of zombies approaching you from behind.
Many design choices for Zombies, Run were made based on what felt right to the development team. For instance, the decision to make runners speed up their pace by 20% was based on Adrian’s decision that it “felt right.” However, one priority for the team was ensuring players could step seamlessly into the role of Runner 5. That meant making Runner 5′s decisions always feel reasonable to the player, especially since those decisions almost always involved running during zombie encounters. It also meant that Runner 5 would always be discussed in gender neutral terms: while it would have been possible to record separate audio streams that customized the experience for the player-protagonist, the team opted to strike out gendered language. Alderman noted that the gender neutrality allowed her to reinforce a feminist subtext into the narrative, as Runner 5′s gender has no bearing on how the story’s protagonist is treated, and is treated as largely irrelevant.
During their keynote address, Hon and Alderman announced that Zombies, Run was undergoing randomized trials to test its efficacy. Additionally, the Six to Start team announced their partnership with London’s National Health Services and the Department of Health in the UK to create a new narrative health app to tackle the obesity epidemic, set for release in 2014. Alderman describes this new app, tentatively titled The Walk, as a spy thriller that mixes elements of North by Northwest with The 39 Steps. You play the role of someone who needs to get a package from Inverness to Edinburgh while evading both terrorists and the police. The goal is to encourage users to go on to add just a bit more walking into their daily lives.
My Sky is Falling image courtesy of Reboot Stories, from the Envision 2013 playthrough
The elevator doors open. As I step out, a woman in a hazmat suit and surgical mask steps forward as our guide, offering surgical masks to our group. Masks firmly in place, we’re guided to a classroom liberally strewn with backpacks and jackets. There are already a handful of people milling about in the room without the dubious protection of our masks, grabbing sandwiches and chips from the front of the room. A dissonant hum serves as disconcerting accompaniment to the otherwise silent room. Finally, we’re welcomed by our guide and offered a choice: leave the mask on and remain a silent observer, or take it off and step into the strange world in which we found ourselves.
Over the next hour, my fellow participants and I progressed through a dystopic science fiction world designed to leave us disoriented, confused, and isolated as part of the interactive theater experience My Sky is Falling. The performance, a fictionalized retelling of filmmaker Lydia Joyner’s own experiences in the foster care system, was brought to light by creative director Atley Loughridge through the startup Reboot Stories. The project was also a collaboration with Reboot Stories co-founder Lance Weiler’s New Media Producing class at Columbia University and the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to helping teens transition out of the foster care system. Representatives from the United Nations went through the experience at Envision 2013, while I experienced the performance as part of DIY Days NYC, a free conference that took place at The New School at the end of April.
For its second year, the StoryWorld Conference & Expo will be taking in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood for three days of panels and presentations from October 17-19 exploring transmedia storytelling from the practitioner’s perspective. Last year’s conference in San Francisco managed to bring in an impressive lineup of practitioners in the space, and this year looks to continue the trend. ARGNet is once again a media sponsor for the event, so you’ll find a discount code at the end of the article. Even if you’re not planning on attending, read on for information about a line-up of free podcasts promoting the event, curated by Transmedia LA.
Last year, StoryWorld’s focus was on the practitioner, with Conference Chair Alison Norrington proudly declaring that “[t]here are no theorists speaking at StoryWorld. I’ve done everything I can to remain focussed on amplifying the wisdom of practitioners who will share their real-life experiences.” While the schedule of events for this year’s conference retains that focus on highlighting practitioners, StoryWorld is placing a renewed focus on partnering with existing organizations to hone the message.
The first day’s panels, for instance, were developed through a partnership with Walt Disney Research & Development. Disney assembled the panels for October 17th, and Disney Imagineers are slated to moderate all of their panels. Similarly, the meetup group Transmedia LA has prepared a full lineup of podcasts, starting with one on Transmedia Activism later today. During the Unconference the afternoon of October 19th, Transmedia LA will be presenting a case study on their Miracle Mile Paradox alternate reality game while Storycode will discuss their recent Story Hack in New York.
If you’re interested in attending StoryWorld, register soon: Early-Bird Pricing ($550 for an individual ticket to the conference) ends this Friday, August 17. You can use the promotional code ARGNET to secure a rate of $525 until the end of August: after that, it will provide a $25 discount off the regular $650 ticket fee.
On the Fourth of July, Marvel Entertainment released its “second screen” app for The Avengers DVD, two months prior to the release of the DVD itself. The Avengers Initiative: A Marvel Second Screen Experience, available for the iPhone and iPad, is designed to provide supplemental content, synced up with the film. The timing of the app’s release is odd, as second screen apps are traditionally released in tandem with their associated DVD. However, this particular app came bundled with the first countdown clock of Comic-Con 2012, leading to a scavenger hunt starting Friday to unlock the latest Marvel One-Shot video, Item 47.
According to The Avengers Initiative app’s description: “Become a SHIELD Agent and participate in the Item 47 Comic-Con experience either remotely or in the field.” So what is this Item 47 Comic-Con experience? Upon downloading and launching the app, the main screen launches with three options; “SHIELD Personnel Files”, “Avenger Initiative Timeline,” and “Item 47.” The Avenger Initiative Timeline is not unlocked yet, and the SHIELD Personnel files contain what you would expect: personal dossiers on all the Avengers. Currently, the only dossiers available for viewing belong to Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow).