Disclosure: Google paid for my flight and lodging for the Recursion event.
The morning of March 29th, two rival factions gathered at Los Angeles’ Grand Park in anticipation for a pitched battle. As noon approached, it became obvious to any passerby that something was going on. Hundreds of people prominently wearing blue and green streamed in through the park steps, conspicuously segregating themselves into colored clumps: blues to the right, and greens to the left. To any random passerby, it must have looked like the staging area for a flash mob. But look a little closer, and you’d see the telltale signs of the virtual battle about to take place. Headphones tapped into private communications channels to coordinate movement. A row of cyclists primed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Pennants proudly bearing faction insignia. And more smartphone chargers and batteries than people.
This gathering was an Anomaly event, one of the live events organized by Google’s Niantic Labs team for players of their geo-locative mobile game Ingress. Since early February, 25 Anomaly events took place in countries including the United States, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, and India for a series of events collectively referred to as the Recursion Anomalies. Los Angeles was the final Anomaly event in the series, and Google invited me out to Los Angeles to experience Google’s approach to designing a live event for a massively multiplayer game. Previously, ARGNet explained how Ingress is played at a more casual level. This article explores how gameplay changes for its most ardent fans.
Sometime in the near future(s), something will go awry with the voicemail system sending messages spiraling back through time, a phenomenon that is being referred to as “chronofall.” These messages take the form of small, elegant crystalline structures referred to as “chronofacts” that can be decoded to reveal a taste of life in the future. But these chronofacts aren’t just coming from “the” future: chronofacts carry voicemails from the cloud of all possible futures: happy futures, bleak futures, unimaginable futures. A new project called FutureCoast and its “Coaster” enthusiasts seek to collect as many chronofacts as possible, with the goal of cataloging and organizing them into coherent glimpses of the possible futures awaiting us. And when the next big chronofall happens in February, they’re going to need your help.
FutureCoast, set to launch on February 5th, 2014, is the latest project by veteran game designer Ken Eklund. Like its predecessors World Without Oil and Ed Zed Omega, FutureCoast aims to open the doors wide to a new kind of conversation about the world we live in. This time, the subject is one of the most polarizing topics, the kind of thing you don’t usually want to bring up in mixed political company: climate change and one of its key indicators, rising sea levels.
Climate change, its effect on polar ice, and rising sea levels are topics that spawn impassioned opinions and difficult discussions from many different scientific and political angles. The heart of the FutureCoast design seeks to create a playful, inclusive common ground where information and idea sharing happens, where everyone’s thoughts about the future have a place, and where a meaningful dialog and a common ground can be created to replace the animosity that these topics can evoke.
The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Columbia University’s Polar Partnership. Eklund dates the idea of FutureCoast back to a conversation with Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Science at Columbia, in 2009. Dr. Pfirman, interested in the idea of World Without Oil, wondered what a climate change game look like, and Eklund began working on prospective ideas for a WWO-like game that would encourage conversation about climate change and rising sea levels. FutureCoast was accepted into the NSF grant, and work on the project began in earnest in 2011.
FutureCoast‘s structure is almost “retro” in its conception, elegant in its simplicity yet with the potential for powerful collaborative storytelling to take place. The premise of the overarching story hinges on voicemails that filter to our present from the near or distant future(s) that can be decoded, collected, and shared. FutureCoast invites its audience to pluck their personal vision from among all the possible futures and share it in a voicemail. The audience will also be able to create playlists – mix tapes, Eklund playfully calls them, and officially named “Timestreams” – by choosing amongst the voicemails and piecing them together into a kind of narrative of the future. Through FutureCoast, players have the ability to both create the future and to curate it in meaningful ways.
Ingress at a ZipCar location in Philadelphia. Sorry Ingress players, this is not a new passcode.
It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.
Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.
When Six to Start created Zombies, Run!, players were given the chance to plug in a pair of headphones and lose themselves in a rich narrative, where you’re asked to run to survive. And while Zombies, Run! doesn’t require its players to run, the story and many of its game mechanics are built around promoting running. After receiving feedback from fans of the game who aren’t avid runners, Six to Start and Naomi Alderman partnered with the UK Department of Health and National Health Service to release The Walk for iOS and Android devices earlier today.
Like Zombies, Run!, the primary feature of The Walk is its narrative, designed to provide audio accompaniment to your walking routine. Mere minutes before an apparent terrorist attack on a train station in Inverness, the player is given a package and told that it is of vital importance the package make it to Edinburgh. The attack is initiated by a group called The Burn and contains an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) which takes out all electronics, including all transportation and communication. After escaping from the train station, the package is opened and revealed to be a communication device capable of functioning after the pulse. The person on the other end becomes your guide through the chaos as you make your way on foot to deliver the package to Edinburgh.
Game enthusiasts are all about the games they play being “realistic,” with higher resolution graphics and smarter AIs. One of the more alluring features of alternate reality games is their ability to blur the lines between reality and game to the point where you question where one ended and the other began, exemplified through the “TINAG” (This Is Not A Game) philosophy. Of course, we all knew it was just a game, but hid that knowledge away back in the “suspension of disbelief” part of our brains, and let ourselves believe it was all real. But what if we could experience a game that was so real, you honestly didn’t know what was game and what was real? David Cronenberg would like to offer you an opportunity to do just that, via a personal on-demand biotech recommendation engine (“POD”) designed to enhance your everyday experience.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it draws on the plot of past Cronenberg films like eXistenZ, where players of a game would use gamepods, flesh-like instruments that allowed them to “jack into” and interact with the game on a real-time. Now, Cronenberg has joined forces with Body/Mind/Change Labs to create PODs similar to the ones in the movie, and you are encouraged to sign up for your own.
In Lance Weiler’s Culture Hacker column in Filmmaker Magazine, he states Cronenberg has “quietly licensed the fictional technology and science found within his films Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and eXistenZ for a mind-bending eight-figure sum.” Reporting from the BMC Labs building in Venice, CA, he describes the lab as looking like “something out of a sci-fi film” and describes the company’s previous biotech achievements and their goal “to enhance humankind by harnessing biotechnology to make us smarter, faster and more efficient.” Cronenberg himself released a trailer describing the POD and his collaboration with Body/Mind/Change Labs.
Dig a little deeper and the truth becomes evident – Weiler’s article is the opening salvo for a digital extention of the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) David Cronenberg: Evolution exhibit set to debut in November 2013 and run through January 2014, and includes “artifacts, props, documentation and audio-visual interviews, as well as reconstructed set-pieces from Cronenberg’s films”. The Body/Mind/Change experience is co-produced by CFC Media Lab and directed by Lance Weiler (Head Trauma, Pandemic, Reboot Stories), and “features plot lines and game mechanics involving biotechnology start-ups, body enhancements, and emotional learning systems.”
According to the project’s press release, the experience is scheduled to launch on October 25th, but there is plenty to do and see while you’re waiting. Visitors to the BMC Labs website are encouraged to sign up for their own POD. After signing up, registrants are presented with a confirmation page hard-coded with a message congratulating them for being “8,743 of 137,234 in line for a POD implant.” The website’s POD Challene page, which is currently “OFFLINE” displaying a field of static, hints at things to come later this month.
Check out the discussion of Body Mind Change on the Unfiction forums to see how the project evolves, and schedule your trip out to Toronto to see the installation for yourself to get the full experience.
Pemberley Digital’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recently took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Original Interactive Program for its web adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The web series reframed Austen’s classic in a modern setting, allowing the characters to live out their fictional lives outside the show’s main YouTube channel, interacting freely across dozens of social media platforms. On October 7th, the team at Pemberley Digital will be returning to play in Jane Austen’s universe with the release of their next major production, Emma Approved. But between The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, Pemberley Digital turned to one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works for an experiment in transmedia storytelling with Welcome to Sanditon.
As one of California’s many Gold Rush boomtowns, the town of Sanditon California was no stranger to rapid change. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, William Darcy’s company Pemberley Digital developed an experimental video recording platform, Domino. Sanditon’s mayor Tom Parker met up with Gigi Darcy at SXSW, and signed up his town as a partner community, giving interested townsfolk the chance to share their lives on the platform through blogs, pictures, and videos. Mayor Parker’s aspiration for Sanditon was to transform the city into a vibrant, health-conscious vacation spot, and much of the plot revolved around complications that arose for townsfolk and business owners when the mayor’s idealized version of the city conflicted with its reality.
This comes to the fore through the story’s main plotline, following the interactions between Sanditon Scoops owner Clara Breton, whose ice cream parlour is targeted for a mayoral-encourage rebranding to juice bar, and Parker’s reluctant assistant Edward Denham, who shows a delightful passion for obscure British television. Glitches in the early release of the Domino platform also resulted in bringing a budding romance between the two to the town’s attention, resulting in equal parts consternation and glee. While Gigi Darcy has largely stepped into the town to serve as an embedded narrator, Welcome to Sanditon allows her to complete her own narrative arc. Executive producer Jay Bushman viewed Gigi’s character as the strongest test cases for transmedia storytelling in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, making her reprisal through Welcome to Sanditon the end of an 18-month long journey.