I have a problem. Years of playing alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiences have trained me to love room escape games. Getting locked in a room and relying on a group of friends to figure out what we’re supposed to do to get out? Pretty much my dream come true. But there are a limited number of rooms in Philadelphia, and I’ve done them all. And for the most part, it’s not as fun playing a room escape game for a second time. It’s like going to the same murder mystery dinner party twice. Once you know everyone’s secrets and whodunnit, you’re either stuck watching on the sidelines, or end up spoiling the mystery for everyone else.
Okay, so I’ve done all three rooms currently running in Philadelphia. But there are hundreds of rooms running globally, so I can still scratch my room escape game itch when I’m on vacation…but I have to do it alone, unless the friends I’m visiting haven’t similarly run through all of their local games. Otherwise, I’m stuck waiting for more rooms to open up in my area, or for escape room designers to find a way to make their games more replayable. Luckily, Boda Borg has come up with a solution to both problems.
Boda Borg started in Sweden, and has been running “reality games” since the mid-90s, long before the current wave of room escape games swept their way through Asia and North America. Boda Borg currently has eight locations in Sweden and Ireland, but only recently opened their first North American location in Boston. The core concept is the same: a small team of participants enter the room, and have to figure out how to use the surrounding objects to get out of the room. But because Boda Borg evolved independently from traditional room escape games, the experience is considerably different, in practice. The main difference? The rooms are designed for teams to fail fast, and fail frequently.
Boda Borg’s business model enables this “fail fast” mentality. Rather than reserving a room for a particular time slot, Boda Borg Boston offers a 2-hour pass for $18, or an all-day pass for $28. This buys unlimited access to the building’s 20 “Quests”. Each Quest’s difficulty is rated primarily on the physical demands of the rooms, with “Green” rooms focusing on cognitive challenges, “Red” quests requiring moderate physical activity, and “Black” quests requiring…well, let’s just say “Black” quests lie somewhere between Survivor challenges and American Ninja Warrior, on the difficulty scale. Players who realize a Quest is too cognitively or physically demanding for them can easily move on and try a different room, finding the perfect fit for their personal appetite for challenge.
Four years ago, Jane McGonigal released Reality is Broken to make a case for the positive benefits of games, both as an anti-escapist outlet for personal growth and as a template for tackling serious societal challenges. The focus of Reality is Broken was on dissecting the core principles of game design, providing a series of case studies on how those principles were used to tackle big problems, and creating a community of game developers interested in making “gameful experiences.” Reality is Broken is a book of big solutions for big problems. It’s turning to games to encourage entrepreneurship in Africa, or to reinvent education to be more fun and rewarding for students. The book’s spiritual successor, SuperBetter, tells a much more personal story, of making the world better one person at a time.
Jane McGonigal, Concussion Slayer
Halfway through writing Reality is Broken, McGonigal slammed her head into a cabinet door and suffered a serious concussion that took away many of the things she loved most. To help recover McGonigal assumed a secret identity as Jane the Concussion Slayer. Over the following weeks, she recruited her friends to serve as Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed allies as she identified the “bad guys” (triggers that made her feel worse) and “power-ups” (concrete actions she could take to feel better) to get better. Longer-term quests helped her along the road to recovery. Jane the Concussion Slayer was a highly personal and transformative experience for McGonigal.
During her research, McGonigal learned that while traumatic events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, they can also serve as opportunities for people to reevaluate their priorities and experience post-traumatic growth, coming out of their crisis better than they were before. Further research indicated it’s even possible to voluntarily embrace a difficult challenge to experience similar benefits without the trauma, as post-ecstatic growth. SuperBetter is McGonigal’s attempt to tell their own stories of growth, whether in response to personal trauma or as a voluntary route to betterment.
The release of Jane McGonigal’s newest book SuperBetter is not the game’s global debut. McGonigal released the basic framework for it six years ago on her blog, She went on to recount the story in Reality is Broken, before creating a free online portal to make it easier to guide people through the process. The game has been around for a while. The book provides a rationale for playing, an overview of the studies that influenced its design, and a roadmap to start playing the game.
“All art movements start with a small group of friends…when historians look back on this phase in art, the movement that we will be a part of, what they will marvel at is how interconnected we are.” Brian Clark was fascinated with the formation of movements and creating scenes, and was tireless in his efforts to foster a community of creators looking to find new ways of telling stories in the digital age. Yesterday, Brian passed away after a brief bout with cancer, leaving behind a community and industry he affected deeply.
As president of GMD Studios (originally Global Media Design), Clark helped construct the web realities for Nothing So Strange and Freakylinks, extending the narrative storytelling of film and television onto the internet. He continued exploring different ways of telling stories through his work on beloved alternate reality games like Sega’s Beta-7, Audi’s Art of the Heist, and Eldritch Errors. His projects delighted in stretching the boundaries of fictional worlds outside their comfort zones, asking players to do everything from “stealing” SD cards out of cars on display at events to joining characters at a Lovecraftian cabin in the woods.
Clark worked tirelessly behind the scenes to mentor new creators in the space, offering them help on everything from the craft of subversive storytelling to the realities of running a small business, including knowing what to charge for their work. He delighted in playing with other peoples’ creations and testing their limits, whether that meant donning a Ronald Reagan mask and dancing under his “Jihadi Jazzhands” persona, or creating a well-endowed, chain-smoking sock puppet named “She-Crab” for a game originally intended for children. He was an irrepressible prankster, leading to frequently outlandish conversations punctuated by his staccato laughter.
His impact was not limited to the alternate reality gaming and transmedia storytelling arenas: he was a founding member of Indiewire, helped create an online marketplace for brand journalism, worked on a documentary about the next generation of astronauts, has been accused on occassion of inventing the spambot, and found a creative use for LinkedIn’s “endorsements” functionality.
More than anything, he’s been the dynamo that vociferously argued for the people who knew him to resist complacency, pushing them to make things to see if they’d work, and to figure out what went wrong when they didn’t. People impacted by Clark have turned to Facebook to offer their condolences and share their memories of him by sharing “things I learned from Brian Clark”.
We’re going to miss you, Brian. You took your not-so-small group of friends, and fused them into something bigger through the generosity of your friendship and the sheer force of your personality.
Image courtesy of Investigate North
Kathleen Petersen, Deputy Director of Research at the Petersen institute, has gone missing. Hoping to learn what became of Kathleen, her co-workers Max and Thomas shared the footage of their investigations into the mysterious signal they were tasked with investigating at the Institute…the same signal that heralded Kathleen’s gradual emotional deterioration and disappearance.
Investigate North’s Cloud Chamber is a video game that attempts to cleanse itself of nearly every design element typically associated with video games. In it, players assume the role of investigator, poring through video footage and scanned evidence to piece together the exact nature of the Petersen Institute’s research into the enigmatic signal, and to figure out what happened to Kathleen. Stripped of traditional methods of interaction, players unlock a branching spiderweb of evidence by selecting a piece of evidence represented by a node, exploring it, and discussing the new information’s implications with fellow players.
The evidence in Cloud Chamber is presented with minimal context, organizing the evidence thematically rather than chronologically. For example, in Part I, where the focus is on Kathleen’s disappearance, players are thrust into the experience through a computer-generated island and presented with a single question, “What is the Signal?” Selecting that question pulls up a video that begins the faux documentary in media res, as the game’s three protagonists break into the Petersen Institute’s roof. While there, the three tap into a massive antenna to listen to a signal without ever properly introducing who they are, why they are interested in the signal, or even what it sounds like. Watching that video unlocks a winding path along the island to “Her Decision”, a series of short, unordered snippets showing a frazzled Kathleen’s emotional deterioration before finally unlocking the video “You are Entering”, where Max and Thomas explain that they plan on releasing everything they’ve learned and appeal for the player’s help in finding out what happened to Kathleen.
The game’s story nodes focus on delivering a high level of authenticity, while the game engine itself delivers a surreal context that takes players from the initial island into increasingly surreal dreamscapes that resemble everything from outer space to neural networks. The juxtaposition of story and game environment should be jarring. But somehow, switching back and forth from the story’s “found footage” storytelling format to an abstract web of connections makes it easier to fall into an almost trance-like state while progressing.
It’s a familiar trope: a struggling production company staffed with a cast of eccentric and borderline incompetent employees takes on someone new to shake things up. Some of the best comedies on television start with that premise: WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me, even 30 Rock. But while the shows are about poking fun at the inner workings of media companies, viewers rarely get to see the fictional show’s finished product. Growing up I always wondered what it would be like to turn on the radio and get the morning updates from WKRP’s Les Nessman, to pick up a copy of Blush off the magazine rack, or to flip the channel to NBC to catch an episode of The Girlie Show. I got a taste of what it might be like when Will Ferrell co-anchored CBS North Dakota affiliate KX News for a night as Ron Burgundy to promote Anchorman 2. MyMusic has spent the past two years delivering on that same promise with a four-course meal.
MyMusic is a transmedia production company seeking to reinvent itself after the social media platform it used as a blogging platform went bankrupt. Looking to find a new home, the company partnered with an up and coming video hosting site called YouTube, signing on as one of its Original Channels. To help with the transition, MyMusic brings on a new head of production, Metal to lend his expertise. Before coming to MyMusic, Metal was known as Emmet Allan Klaga. But the company founder’s “Indie” issued an executive decree that all staff members should be known only by the musical genres they represent, because “broad stereotypes are way easier to remember than names.” So Klaga became Metal, joining other genred cliches like Idol, Country, Dubstep, Techno, Hip Hop, and Scene. Conformity to these stereotypes is strictly enforced, and being caught “posing” is punished with a fate worse than unemployment.
Starting with Metal’s entry to the company in April 2012, MyMusic became the subject of a weekly behind-the-scenes documentary series released on the show’s YouTube channel. This self-referential mockumentary forms the heart of the Fine Brothers’ YouTube sitcom, MyMusic. Like its fictional counterpart, the MyMusic show was born out of YouTube’s Original Channels Initiative, Google’s attempt to support premium original content on the site. The Fine Brothers, best known for their Emmy Award-winning React video series featuring focus group-style videos of children, teenagers, YouTubers, and elders reacting to pop culture talking points ranging from Boxxy and twerking to gay marriage. As their next project, the brothers pitched the concept of a weekly scripted series. YouTube accepted MyMusic into the Original Channels Initiative, along with programs like Phillip DeFranco’s SourceFed, Hank and John Green’s Crash Course, and Frederator Studios’ Cartoon Hangover. In addition to providing financing for MyMusic, Google provided the brothers with the use of YouTube Space LA to build MyMusic‘s set.
Editor’s Note: At this year’s StoryWorld conference in Los Angeles, Fourth Wall Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Elan Lee stated that alternate reality games are dead as part of the conference’s final panel on “The Way Forward” for the transmedia industry. As one of the driving forces at Microsoft behind The Beast, Lee’s statement questioning the role of alternate reality games warrants closer examination. Adrian Hon, one of The Beast‘s player-moderators, former Director of Play at Mind Candy, and CEO at Six to Start, penned the following opinion piece exploring the statement.
“ARGs are dead”. We’ve heard it said many times over the years, and now most recently by Elan Lee, Founder of Fourth Wall Studios, at the Storyworld conference in LA this past October. While I wasn’t at the conference I gather the statement was made sincerely, and to hear it from one of alternate reality gaming’s ‘founding fathers’ caused no small surprise.
Taken literally, it isn’t true. ARGs are still being created for properties as big as The Avengers, Team Fortress 2, and Google, and grassroots ARGs are still being made, such as the TVTropes Echo Chamber game. It’s possible that fewer advertising and marketing dollars are being spent on ARGs these days, and it’s certain that ARGs no longer command the same number of column inches that they used to – but I’m not sure that 2012 represents such a precipitous change from 2011 or 2010 in those respects.
From a commercial standpoint, things haven’t changed much either. We can’t say that “ARGs are dead” because they don’t make money, as they never really did in the first place. Almost all ARGs have either been promotional or non-profit, with the few exceptions such as Perplex City, eDoc Laundry, and Majestic not being successful enough to sustain themselves over the long term.
You could argue that promotional ARGs generate a return on investment (ROI) by, say, increasing movie ticket sales or selling more cars, but to be perfectly frank, I doubt they ever did in a truly meaningful way – and I doubt that things are any worse today, either. Certainly there isn’t much solid, independently verifiable evidence of ROI out there – instead we’ve had to rely on self-reported figures that are easily biased or falsified. One day I hope ARG designers will engage in a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process where we all reveal our true player engagement stats and our near-total lack of knowledge about whether that engagement represented a genuine, bottom-line financial return for the commissioners, but I suspect that will have to wait for at least another few years.