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.
In 2008, Jane McGonigal delivered a rant at the Game Developer’s Conference entitled “Reality is Broken” that galvanized developers into tackling real-life problems. McGonigal has since refined her thesis through presentations delivered at venues ranging from South by Southwest to TED. She has also put her theories to practical use with alternate reality games and interactive experiences including The Lost Ring, Top Secret Dance Off, Cryptozoo, and Evoke. Jane has taught audiences how to do the Soulja Boy dance, snuck on stage for a Flynn Lives event, and used game mechanics to help recover from a concussion.
McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, hits bookstores on January 20th, and expands upon the central point of her presentations: reality is broken, because games do a better job of making us happy. Rather than attacking games as an escapist outlet for avoiding real-world troubles, why don’t we subvert those game mechanics to make the world a better place? The book draws upon a healthy mix of psychological research isolating specific tactics for induce happiness (“happiness hacks”) alongside practical examples of those tactics utilized in both traditional and “serious” game design. The net result? A list of fourteen “fixes” that can help readers improve their lives through play. The book did a superb job of outlining concrete examples of why we like games in the first place, and how we can transform that interest into something that will make our lives and the lives of others better. While reading through the book, I often found myself cheering along with the “epic wins” documented in the book, ready to proudly declare, “We can do this! We can make the world better, if only a little bit!” Reading this book about happiness feels good: don’t be surprised if you catch yourself grinning from ear to ear a few times each chapter.
The book is structured in three sections: the first delves into what makes us happy, the second embraces the notion of entering alternate realities, and the third addresses the challenges and potential embodied in massive collaborative projects. Each section could easily be a book in its own right, with the first section providing a game developer’s how-to guide that should be on every development team’s required reading list, explaining key concepts like flow and failure in easily digestible language. Another section addresses how massively collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Folding@Home use gaming elements to achieve “epic wins.”
In mid-August, I had the opportunity to work with No Mimes Media, one of the major players in the ARG/Transmedia-creation world, co-founded by ARGNet founder Steve Peters. My role: to “scrub” the websites and puzzles for an alternate reality game (commonly known as an ARG) – what I call “QA” in my day job, consisting of assorted tasks like verifying website content against design documents, and playtesting puzzles to make sure they can be solved as designed. However, it also afforded me the opportunity to see how ARGs are designed and run – a glimpse behind the curtain, and into the inner workings of a development team (often referred to in the alternate reality gaming space as “Puppetmasters” or “PMs”).
The Hunt is the second game by Juxt Interactive and No Mimes Media created for the Cisco Global Sales Experience (GSX), Cisco’s annual sales meeting. For the second year in a row, Cisco has conducted this meeting virtually, using their own products such as Telepresence and WebEx to virtually gather their sales force together for training and information sharing. Including an alternate reality game enhanced the experience while providing education and experience using Cisco’s products by putting the sales force in the center of the action, using Cisco tools to help solve the mystery. An important game mechanic involved players discovering “Key Asset Codes” which are entered into the game’s Hub for points, where the player with the most points at the end of the game is declared the winner.
This year’s experience centered around Isabel Travada, a Cisco System Engineer on a leave of absence to do volunteer work with the Red Cross. Upon returning home one day, she discovered that her apartment has been ransacked, and her father’s journal stolen. Isabel’s father, Ferdinand, traveled the world as a cartographer before his death, and kept a journal of his adventures which he shared with Isabel when she was a child. She was recently featured holding the book on the cover of a magazine that covered her father’s work on an important communications project in Africa, and someone who saw the article broke into her house to take it. Curious about why anyone would want such a private journal, she went through his papers and realized there was more to his writings and drawings than she had noticed as a child. Being very familiar with the book, she is able to recreate some of it from memory, but some portions like the pictures from the places Ferdinand visited are beyond her ability to recall. However, as she pieces her memories together, she realizes the journal is filled with puzzles and clues, and calls upon her friends in the worldwide Cisco sales force to help her solve the puzzles, follow the clues, and send pictures to replace the ones lost. As the players solved the puzzles and figured out the clues, Isabel found herself traveling the world with her father’s former colleague Keith, retracing her father’s steps and coming closer and closer to solving the mystery of the journal, and the man who stole it – and why.
At the end of every year, I like to set aside some time to take stock of the alternate reality gaming space. Last year, I satisfied this rather unwholesome urge by making a list of some of the most talked-about alternate reality games of 2009: I even checked it twice. This year, I’ll be focusing on some emerging trends facing the industry, along with a few highlights from successful campaigns that you might have missed.
The State of the Industry
Alternate reality games aren’t dead, but they have certainly evolved over the past year, as terms like “transmedia storytelling” and “gamification” have insinuated their way further into the developmental lexicon. In April, the Producer’s Guild of America added the “transmedia producer” credit to their Code of Credits, swiftly followed by the formation of the rival Transmedia Artists Guild in July, which aims to provide a support structure for creators. Prominent figures in the entertainment industry including Anthony Zuiker, Tim Kring, and Guillermo del Toro have all publicly committed themselves to transmedia production. Meanwhile, Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk on gamification as a means of leveraging our penchant for play for social good has reignited interest in serious games.
Jay Bushman does an exemplary job of articulating the industry’s formative state in his article about his time as a Cloudmaker, a name affectionately adopted to describe players of the genre-defining alternate reality game for the film A.I.. Bushman notes that the state of the industry can be analogized to the film industry circa 1926, before the release of The Jazz Singer manifested the argument for talkies. As Bushman explains, The Jazz Singer “was not the first film with sound, but it was the first one to make its benefits obvious and to show that sound was the way forward.”
This week, I attended the eBook Summit, an event organized by Mediabistro, GalleyCat, and eBookNewser, here in New York City, aiming to usher in the “New Era of Publishing” with a program of experts through a one-day extravaganza of digital publishing. Although geared more toward professionals in the “traditional” book publishing industry, a few overarching transmedia, digital, and storytelling themes emerged from talks by excellent mix of speakers, from agents to publishers to app developers, including Jason Ashlock of the Movable Type Literary Group and NYU Journalism professor and contributor to Fast Company, Adam Penenberg.
I was particularly enthralled by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s talk, “Ten Commands for the Digital Age,” giving an overview of his latest book Program or Be Programmed. He discussed the generational shifts in how people relate to their technology, making the point that the younger generation of so-called “digital natives” are not necessarily jumping into the industry as producers. So what bearing would this have on the future of consumption? To bring in an important first call to action in his book: “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization.”
Editor’s Note: over the past year, Priscilla Haring conducted a series of interviews with players of alternate reality games (“ARGs”) and massively multiplayer online games (“MMORPGs”) to delve into the motivations that drive player involvement. Haring kindly agreed to share a summation of her findings, provided below. For her full thesis and other related papers, visit her site at http://www.priscillaharing.info/Academics.htm.
Several interviews and a blanket survey of gamers I conducted shows that alternate reality gaming environments are very real to its players. Not in the sense that players “confuse” the realm of make-believe with that of reality, but in the sense that is these environments constitute an important environment eliciting real emotions, real interactions and real results. ARG players experienced their game environment and the other players in them as being more real than MMORPG-players did. I found that an ARG creates stronger effects due to high perceived reality, this combined with several transference effects into “real life” makes it a good learning environment: one that would be very suitable as a social learning tool.
There are many similarities between ARGs and MMORPGs. The underlying worlds created for both ARGs and MMORPGs exist without the presence of individual players. So while players are necessary to populate the respective game worlds and drive the story forward, the worlds themselves exist independently. Similarities between ARG and MMORPG can also be found in the importance of the social aspect of gaming. For a MMORPG, the open social interaction is important, while for an ARG this interaction has a direction and a purpose. The social interactions in ARGs are not just any form of human-to-human contact but are specifically collaborative in nature. Naturally, collaboration is also possible in a MMORPG, but it is not a necessary component.