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.
An author sells his soul to Asmodeus, King of the Nine Hells for a shot at fame and fortune. Rebels seek to topple a warlord who set himself up as the mythical Minotaur in the land of Dis, a power station left abandoned after the world is struck low by an airborne virus that transforms its victims into violent berskerkers. Two different short stories, depicting seemingly unrelated worlds. The only commonalities? Both tales are riddled with Apocryphal references, and the secrets concealed within both short stories provide pieces to a puzzle contest that could net you $5,000 Canadian dollars and a Kobo Glo eBook reader signed by Dan Brown.
With Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno coming out soon, the Toronto-based eReader manufacturer Kobo saw it as the perfect opportunity to launch a narrative-driven puzzle contest called The Descent. The contest is designed to reacquaint readers with the themes of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy that will feature heavily in Brown’s newest exploration in symbology. To provide the framework for The Descent, Kobo brought in author J.F. Penn to write three short stories exploring three sins: the Sins of Temptation, the Sins of Violence, and the Sins of Treachery. Each short story is offered free for the Kobo eReader or as an EPUB for reading on your desktop, eReader, or mobile devices.
In addition to the short story, each installment contains a puzzle to solve that extends past the virtual pages, leading to a piece of the meta-puzzle. In Sins of Temptation, for instance, readers are asked to explore Tobias “Tobit” Fanshaw’s website. As the nephew of the recently deceased author featured in Sins of Temptation, Tobit shares his uncle’s fascination with the occult and symbology, reminding us that it’s still possible to build websites on Angelfire.com and serving as a helpful reference point for the many symbols referenced throughout The Descent.
One nice feature about going through the puzzle-solving experience on the Kobo device is its Book Stats section, which allows readers to share their thoughts on the short story, and collaborate on the puzzles or, alternatively, to hide spoilers and proceed on their own. While no one has taken advantage of these features yet due to the competitive nature of this contest, it remains a useful feature as non-competitive narrative puzzle books like Mike Selinker’s Maze of Games and Andrea Phillips’ The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart become more common.
Once the final short story is released on May 9, players will have enough information to locate and solve the final puzzle by unearthing a secret webpage with a submission form. The first to complete all the puzzles will receive the cash prize and signed Kobo eReader. The next four qualifying players to finish will also receive a signed eReader, along with $100 CAD online credit to their Kobo account. Players are required to have all three free stories in their Kobo library to be eligible to win.
Editor’s Note: ARGNet received a reviewer copy of the Kobo eReader.
Ricky Collins (Maxwell Glick), Charlotte Lu (Julia Cho), Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements), and Lydia Bennet (Mary Kate Wiles) at the final celebration, courtesy of Pemberley Digital
It’s been almost a year since Lizzie Bennet introduced herself to the internet through her video blog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. With twice-weekly video updates serving as a voyeuristic window into Lizzie’s personal affairs, viewers were effectively invited to take up digital residence at the Bennet household. After spending so much time getting to know Lizzie’s family and friends, watching the final installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was like saying goodbye to old friends.
Of course, in many ways it was saying goodbye to old friends. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s much loved novel Pride and Prejudice, which recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. Over the years, I’ve witnessed Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with Fitzwilliam Darcy countless times, complemented by everything from Bollywood dance numbers to zombie attacks. With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, co-creators Hank Green and Bernie Su sought to re-imagine the classic love story through the modern lens of YouTube.
To modernize the story, the team took more than a few liberties. While Mrs Bennet’s blatant maneuvering to secure husbands for her daughters remains as comically anachronistic as it was in Pride and Prejudice, her notions are not completely out of circulation even two centuries after Austen brought them to light. The family businesses did receive an update, evolving into online production companies like Collins & Collins and Pemberley Digital that serve as bases of operation for some of Pride and Prejudice‘s original suitors that assume roles that are just as important as the Bingley mansion at Netherfield.
Surface-level changes were made to many character names, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to connect the dots between Charles Bingley and Bing Lee, or Georgiana Darcy and Gigi Darcy. Even Mary Bennet and Kitty Bennet, who were excised from the core Bennet clan, still find their way into the narrative. The major changes arose through the challenges faced by the lead characters. For Lizzie, Charlotte, and Jane, the prospect of creating a life independent of marriage is an ever-present and essential reality, and the three finally realize that goal in new and interesting ways that challenge their relationships. While Lydia’s narrative arc still thrusts her into scandal, her character’s reaction to that scandal takes a different turn.
In recent years, the United States Government has launched a number of experiments in alternate reality games and collective intelligence. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of ARPANET in 2009, the Department of Defense hid ten red weather balloons across the country with a $40,000 prize to the first organization to verify the location of all ten balloons. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded an alternate reality game designed to help set Hawaii’s pandemic priorities. And now, the intelligence community is interested in exploring how alternate reality games could serve as a platform for social, behavioral, and psychological research.
As initially reported on WIRED’s Danger Room blog, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) issued a Request for Information on “Using Alternate Reality Environments to Help Enrich Research Efforts” (UAREHERE). IARPA is particularly interested in collecting information on the practicalities of running research in tandem with alternate reality games, managing privacy and safety concerns amongst alternate reality game players, and designing a game that balances free play and interactions with more controlled data collection.
Hidden within the storied halls of the Upper Wolverhampton Library in Victorian-era England, a musty book lies in wait, ready to entrap the first hapless souls to peer into its pages. While Colleen and Samuel Quaice fall victim to The Maze of Games, it’s up to you, the reader, to lead the two children home by solving a series of puzzles presented by the book’s enigmatic skeletal guardian, the Gatekeeper.
The Maze of Games is a full-length puzzle novel that follows the adventures of the Quaice siblings as they make their way through the Gatekeeper’s labyrinth. While traditional Choose Your Own Adventure novels direct readers through branching narratives through a series of choices, The Maze of Games‘s “solve your own adventure” format directs readers through the experience through the same series of puzzles facing the Quaices. Solving the puzzle unlocks the page number of the next narrative installment. Illustrated by Magic: The Gathering illustrator Pete Venters, the book is designed to look and feel like a book from the Victorian Era.
The puzzle adventure’s author Mike Selinker launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Maze of Games last month seeking $16,000 to fund the project. To date, the project has drawn in over $109,000 in pledges, with an ebook/iDevice edition available to $20 donors and a hardcover edition available for $50. As an added perk, Selinker has arranged for the Gatekeeper to lock a series of famous puzzle designers in cages until they agree to contribute a Victorian-era puzzle to the Conundrucopia, a bonus set of puzzles in The Maze of Games. At set Kickstarter milestones, the puzzle designers are set free from their cages and put to work. The list of confirmed puzzlers is an impressive one that reflects the variety of puzzles contained outside the Conundrucopia. Innovators in the space including ambigram pioneer Scott Kim, 74-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, Perplex City puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger, Puzzazz founder Roy Leban, and Duck Konundrum inventor Dan Katz have all spent their time locked up by the Gatekeeper, with more to follow.