It’s been three months since ARGNet’s first look back at this year in alternate reality gaming, putting over half of 2011 behind us. Alternate reality games have continued to insinuate themselves into pop culture, spanning movies, television, music, video games, and books. The genre has stretched out beyond the entertainment industry to support social causes, provide more enriching museum-going experiences, and even sell packs of chewing gum. During the past three months a number of major campaigns have come to a conclusion, to be replaced by a number of tantalizing prospects. Read on for a few highlights from the quarter.
Growing up, my parents had me convinced that one of the local librarians lived the building’s basement. For years, Jim Caccamo was an archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, and spent countless hours preserving the library’s collection of artifacts. He spent so much time there, it was a relatively simple matter for the librarians, with a little help from our parents, to convince many younger library patrons, myself included, that he never left the building. I suspect that one of the reasons we were so willing to believe this local urban legend was because the prospect of staying overnight at the library with all of its artifacts from history was such an exciting one. Sadly, Jim is no longer with us, but the legend he inspired stuck with me through the years. On May 20th, the New York Public Library invited five hundred people to stay overnight as part of the Centennial celebration. I was lucky enough to be one of the attendees at the launch of Find the Future, letting me live out the fantasy Jim planted in my head so many years ago.
Find the Future is a game developed by Jane Mcgonigal and her husband Kiyash Monsef along with Natron Baxter Applied Gaming and Playmatics, on behalf of the New York Public Library. The game itself involves a mobile scavenger hunt to discover one hundred artifacts including a fireproof copy of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Malcolm X’s briefcase, the stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Charles Dickins’ letter opener with a handle made from his cat’s paw. QR codes near each object can be scanned in using iPhone and Android apps to unlock writing prompts that ask players to think about their futures. The game provides individuals with a casual way of exploring many often overlooked details of the library along with prompts designed to make visitors think about how each artifact is relevant to their own lives. Interacting with the experience is a deeply personal, contemplative experience that plays out over time as players gradually return to the library and post their responses online. Players are rewarded with points for unlocking artifacts and submitting stories, allowing them to level up their writer level and receive achievement badges. Players can then assemble their favorite stories into an online Epic. Visitors to the public library can play the Find the Future game through the end of the year.
The Write All Night event invited 500 players to experience an intensely collaborative version of the Find the Future game. Players were selected from a pool of 5,000 entrants who explained what they would accomplish by the year 2021. The goal for the night was to create a 600-page book collecting player responses to each artifact prompt between 7PM on May 20th and 5AM on May 21st: in turn, the library promised to preserve and protect the book as long as New York City exists. Paper Dragon Books’ Gavin Dovey was on hand to bind the entries into a book before the night’s end, and editors made themselves available to help participants polish submissions. Before the event started, McGonigal assured players, “we have not rigged this game so you will win: it’s up to you.”
It’s been a little over 90 days since I wrote a Year in Review article on the state of alternate reality games in 2010, and 2011 is already shaping up to be another busy year. Read on for a summary of some of the major news items to hit ARGNet’s radar.
One of the most celebrated news items to date occurred when Fourth Wall Studios announced that it received $15 million in financing to expand into an alternate reality entertainment studio. Previous companies that secured multi-million dollar investments to enter the cross-platform market like Smith & Tinker and Mind Candy departed from their roots in alternate reality game development to focus on virtual worlds, creating Nanovor and Moshi Monsters, respectively. A recent job posting by Fourth Wall Studios indicates that the company will be retaining its roots in transmedia and alternate reality gaming development, describing the company’s games as “massively multiplayer online games and enhanced reality worlds on transmedia technology platforms” that will serve as “scalable alternate reality entertainment experiences.”
Area/Code Games experienced its own transformation in January when it was acquired by Zynga, the team behind Facebook games ranging from FarmVille to Mafia Wars. Area/Code is a familiar name to fans of alternate reality games for its work on Drop7, an insidiously addictive puzzle game that stole hours of my life away. The game was introduced as part of Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that launched during an episode of Numb3rs. After the ARG’s completion, the casual game at its heart was rebranded as Drop7. In addition to alternate reality games, Area/Code has developed a number of augmented reality games like Plundr that use geolocative data as a factor in gameplay, encouraging players to play in different locations. Area/Code is one of Zynga’s many acquisitions over the past few months, but may signify Zynga’s interest in bringing alternate reality games and augmented reality to the Facebook audience.
Finally, transmedia and alternate reality game developers may have a new source of financing for their projects now that the Tribeca Film Institute has established a New Media Fund to promote cross-platform storytelling as a means of promoting social change. In its first year, the fund will support non-fiction projects by providing four to eight grants of $50,000-$100,000.
Andrea Phillips has excellent qualifications to talk about ethics in transmedia. In addition to designing a number of transmedia narratives, she, or rather, one of her transmedia campaigns, has been condemned by NASA. In 2009, Sony Pictures launched a website for The Institute for Human Continuity promoting 2012, their disaster movie for the year. Soon after the website’s launch Dr. David Morrison of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute began receiving emails about the site from people who failed to notice the references to Sony Pictures and the film in both text and logos, leading him to declare the site to be “ethically wrong.”
This was not the first time Phillips encountered ethical quandaries in transmedia. Her interest in this issue began in 2001, after finishing an alternate reality game called The Beast. Shortly after the game ended, a smart, empowered, close-knit group of players behind who call themselves “Cloudmakers” were faced with the events of September 11. In the aftermath, some of the Cloudmakers discussed the possibility of combining their skills again, this time to track down the perpetrators of the attack in the real world. This was a source of concern for Phillips. Following a breadcrumb trail of clues in a game does not equate to the skills for dealing with global terrorism. She and other feared that people trying to “solve” 9/11 would in fact be placing themselves and others in danger.
Phillips prefaced her talk with the disclaimer that, while she intended to share some cautionary tales from the history of alternate reality games and transmedia campaigns, her intent was to highlight concerns, not call anyone out on their mistakes or cast aspersions on the campaigns or the industry in general.
So, what are the ethical concerns that today’s transmedia creators should keep in mind? In her talk, Phillips took the audience through some history of attempts at blurring the line along with more than a few war stories, focusing on the risks and consequences of excessive realism in transmedia campaigns. She followed this up with some suggested solutions.
Adam Henderson is a technical wizard. Growing up working and tinkering at his father’s computer repair shop located in the shadow of Microsoft meant Adam had access to the latest and greatest technology. By fifth grade, Adam was engaged in white-hat hacking, finding and reporting security holes to companies. By sixth grade, his attention focused on Trackers–spy devices cobbled together from video game controllers, cameras, joysticks, and even remote-controlled cars. Adam called upon three of his friends to test these Trackers, not knowing that the four would quickly get sucked into a world of crime obscured by layers of subterfuge and deceit. This is the world of Trackers, a multimedia book series by Patrick Carman that almost seamlessly weaves short cinematic sequences, puzzles, and video games into the reading experience. As with Carman’s previous books, these elements emerge organically from the narrative, playing an essential role in the story’s development.
The two books in the series, Trackers and Trackers: Shantorian, are framed as the transcript of an FBI interrogation conducted by special agent Gantz. As Adam recalls the events that led to his arrest, he periodically provides Gantz with codes to access multimedia files he prepared to support his story ranging from site rips of websites he encountered to video footage recorded using his team’s Tracker devices. Readers can enter these codes on the Trackers Interface or read the text transcripts Gantz entered as appendices to the FBI’s interview transcript, located at the back of the book. While this process may sound complicated, in practice reading Trackers is fairly straightforward: every time you see a code, either go online to watch the action unfold, or read the text transcript if you don’t have internet access.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the series with Patrick Carman, who explained, “Kids will find a way to get to the material. Kids don’t have a problem with stopping and starting . . . that’s the way they’re wired.” This non-traditional reading experience appears to be resonating with young audiences. According to Carman, the online videos from Skeleton Creek, his previous multimedia book series, received over eight million views. Carman referenced receiving “…hundreds and hundreds of emails from educators, librarians . . . talking about how these kinds of formats are helping to bring readers that we had lost back to books.” Readers are becoming similarly entangled with the mini-games created for Trackers, competing to earn top scores. The scores have become so high, in fact, that the PC Studio team has been “trying to figure out over the past couple of months if there’s some way that [players are] hacking this thing so that they’re able to get these kind of scores, and we cannot figure out how that’s possible . . . the top three or four people are way beyond what we can do here at the studio.”
As reported previously at ARGNet, sexy Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton had been leading a double life: when he’s not out leaving his competitors in the dust, he’s recovering stolen art and returning them to their rightful owners. According to Hamilton, he just can’t “resist a challenge,” and after his first recovery heist, he was hooked. Soon he assembled a crack support squad, including logistics expert Anna Chao, professional lookalike Lenny Rose, and his trainer Joe . . . and about 637,000 enthusiastic players from all over the world.
Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life was the epic international game created by nDreams for Reebok. Building on nDreams’ experience creating the Xi, the highly regarded alternate reality game for the PlayStation Home, Secret Lewis ran from March to November 2010, included numerous online assets, and entertained players from London to Abu Dhabi. Based on the reactions of players, some of whom flung themselves full-speed into the game world, Secret Lewis was one of the most engaging, interactive, and exciting games of 2010.
But what accounted for this success? Looking over the whole campaign, this article will try to figure out what made the game tick and explore how Secret Lewis can serve as a model for future alternate reality games.