For day two of ARGFest-o-Con in Toronto last month, attendees were treated to a “sneak peek” of The Institute, a film by Spencer McCall about Nonchalance’s popular San Francisco ARG, The Jejune Institute.
The film focused on the player experience of Jejune and the effect that it had on those who followed its path through the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Nonchalance presented a case study at ARGFest in 2009, but little of the content from that early phase of the game made it into the film. Most of those elements, which were posted in public places, had been taken down by the time McCall began shooting, first as a video producer hired by Nonchalance and then for the film itself.
“It’d be generous to say that we did an ‘uneven’ job of documenting the things that we created,” said Sara Thacher, who was lead producer on Jejune for most of it’s run. “Video was especially thin on the ground. Because Spencer’s project got rolling after the main parts of the experience closed, he had to rely on our archives and the archives of the participants.”
Later events are more fully documented in the film, including the controversial day-long seminar that concluded the game. The film also documents a rally to protest the game’s apparent villain, Octavio S. Coleman, Esq., a trip through the game’s installation at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and one game mission that culminated with a player dancing in front of a payphone with bigfoot. The presentation also includes footage that was part of the game, with no markers to denote when the film moves between fact and fiction.
In a post-screening interview at the conference, McCall said he took inspiration from Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary widely known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Making a film of this kind without falling into the category of “mockumentary” is no small challenge, and with a room full of transmedia creators and some Jejune Institute players, ARGFest was a more demanding audience than most.
ARGFest-o-Con, the annual conference dedicated to bringing together players and creators of alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiments, is heading north to Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada between July 26th and July 28th. Over the past 11 years, ARGFest has played host to city-wide puzzle trails, panels, and live events that allow attendees to roll up their sleeves and practice what they preach, playing through interactive experiences in between discussing past campaigns and best practices. Last year’s conference won Bloomington Indiana’s “Host of the Year” award. In addition to the mainstays of previous years, ARGFest 2012 is adding a little something extra: an advanced screening of The Institute, a documentary about San Francisco’s long-standing alternate reality game, The Jejune Institute.
For those unfamiliar with the project, The Jejune Institute was a highly immersive alternate reality game that took place in San Francisco over the course of three years. The narrative centered around a secretive new age cult, leading players on an exploration of the city that asked them to discover hidden secrets by following puzzle trails throughout San Francisco that showcased overlooked landmarks both real and fictional. The 90-minute documentary features interviews with the game’s developers at Nonchalance and some of the game’s players/inductees. The Nonchalance team were panelists at a previous ARGFest, providing an introduction to the experience.
Early-bird registration for ARGFest is open until May 31st, so you still have two days before the cost of admission goes up. Keep an eye on argfestocon.com in the coming weeks for updates on speakers and events.
Last month, I presented you with a deceptively complex puzzle Stitch Media used to challenge ARGFest attendees. To date, only six puzzlers have managed to walk away with the solution. If you still want to attempt to join their ranks, stop reading here, because I’m finally going to reveal the solution below.
Image courtesy of Kevin Makice
For almost a decade, ARGFest has gathered game developers, academics, and players in one spot to take stock of the industry, sharing insights into the development process, best practices for design, and personal anecdotes from past campaigns. As I have previously argued, however, one of the best ways to hone the craft is to set aside the PowerPoint slides, step away from the podium, and play games. And since the first ARGFest in 2003, games have peppered the proceedings from start to finish.
FestQuest: An ARGFest Tradition
The longest-running tradition at ARGFest is FestQuest, an annual scavenger hunt through the host city. Exploring a new city through a series of puzzles provides an intimate way to experience the neighborhood, ensuring exposure to the city goes beyond the hotel conference center itself. This year, Studio Cypher designed a puzzle trail that took conference attendees on a tour of Indiana University’s campus with stops at the Monroe County Public Library, the Kirkwood Observatory, the tunnels running underneath Indiana University’s Chemistry building, and the Sweetheart Tree. The sometimes exhausting process of pounding through puzzles was captured on film by a documentary crew from beActive Media, who documented much of the proceedings.
Wisconsin Hustle: Pants-Optional Dancing
Awkward Hug is fast becoming an ARGFest institution: two years ago, they brought the characters from the romantic comedy alternate reality game Must Love Robots to Portland for a round of robot speed-dating, while last year Awkward Hug invited attendees to craft sock puppets as part of the New Employee Orientation to their new game, Socks, Inc. ARGFest 2011 saw a live-action game demo of the company’s first mobile app, Wisconsin Hustle. The game is like a dance-fueled game of Simon, with players competing to execute an ever-lengthening list of winning dance moves in sequential order. Awkward Hug kept the list of moves as memorable as they were simple to execute, including the pop culture-inspired “Egyptian,” “Travolta,” and crowd favorite “Carlton.” The first night’s festivities ended with a championship showdown, with panelists as judges. Co-creator Jim Babb had been an intern for Jane McGonigal’s Top Secret Dance-Off, a game designed to make people feel more comfortable dancing in public, and Wisconsin Hustle retains TSDO‘s whimsical innocence as it asks players to act ridiculously for a game.
The Wars of Authenticity
ARGFest is unrivaled in its ability to gather alternate reality gaming fans in one place, so it’s no surprise the conference is often used as a platform to launch games. One of the most infamous launches occurred in 2008 when the Smithsonian hired Craig Torres, a professional weight lifter and former Mr. New England, to walk into the conference covered in henna tattoos wearing nothing more than a banana hammock to kick off their game, Ghosts of a Chance. John Maccabee, one of the developers behind the Ghosts of a Chance launch, provided a repeat performance, calling in model Lindsay Forster to serve as the physical representation for Terra Firma in 1807. In a short, 10-minute puzzle-solving exercise, conference attendees were asked to answer a series of questions and assemble a device to guide a balloon to Terra Firma. This task introduced attendees to The Wars of Authenticity, an offshoot of the Smithsonian’s alternate reality game Pheon.
Who Is Martin Aggett?
Martin Aggett is not a real person. Rather, he is the lead character in an alternate reality game about…well, Martin Aggett, that’s been in the works for years. That didn’t stop him from attending ARGFest, and this year, Aggett has finally launched his game, which serves as tribute to his fictional narcissism. It started with slips of paper placed in the ARGFest welcome bags: properly assembling the pieces of paper revealed a QR code that contained a secret code that unlocked the first part of Aggett’s story. Aggett “lost” his locked briefcase at the conference, hidden amongst a display of artifacts from past ARGs. Aggett’s birthday unlocked the case, which contained his press pass and photographs from his past. One of the players to find the case set up a lunch meeting with Aggett to return the case. The chase concluded with a dead drop in Bloomington that completed the first chapter of Martin Aggett’s story.
Another Hint for the Stitch Media Puzzle
As for Stitch Media’s puzzle hidden in the ARGFest program print-out? You’ll have to stick around for the solution, but if you’re still puzzling through it, you might be interested to know that the extra print-outs of the program were put to good use as attendees went to great lengths making sure they were connecting the dots correctly.
ARGFest is a yearly gathering of transmedia players, designers, and enthusiasts that has been going on for almost ten years. And while the gathering is now dominated by the series of panels and presentation that make up the conference, every year offers ample opportunities for attendees to settle down and tackle perplexing puzzles as a group. Often, the most challenging part is finding the puzzles in the first place.
Stitch Media hid the following puzzle in the ARGFest program, leaving attendees perplexed under an ever-increasing stack of annotated programs. After receiving a number of hints from Evan Jones at Stitch Media, a few players managed to break the code and make their way into the Winner’s Circle. Do you have what it takes to do the same? We’ll release the full explanation for the solution after ARGFest coverage is completed . . . until then, see if you can figure it out yourself!
Next week, from Thursday, August 18, to Sunday, August 21, alternate reality gamers and transmedia producers will descend on Bloomington, Indiana, for ARGFest-o-Con 2011. Led by this year’s Grand Inquisitor Andrea Phillips, the schedule taps into the local game development talent as well as the strong academic presence at Indiana University, which features such names as Professor of Telecommunications Edward Castronova.
Thursday night’s Kick-Off party will start the conference, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, with a special interactive event hosted by Awkward Hug, creators of the highly acclaimed ARG Must Love Robots and the pervasive kid-friendly community, Socks, Inc. I caught up with Awkward Hug’s own Jim Babb to ask about A Wisconsin Hustle. their first foray into the smartphone app space:
We are really excited to bring A Wisconsin Hustle to ARGFest! Wisconsin Hustle is something new for Awkward Hug and will be our first venture into Android apps. While the app is not ready to launch until the end of the year, we have turned the excitement of the app into a real-world pants-off dance-off. A Wisconsin Hustle is, an American tradition clothed in mystery and from unknown origins (we are doing intensive research ourselves into the legend). Men, and recently women, challenge each other in pantsless dance-offs for truth, money, and above all honor.
On a rare occasion Hustlers, as they are known, will pants-off dance-off to the death! Players at ARGFest need not worry, we are more interested in the ethnographic, ethnochoreographic, and pantsnographic study of A Wisconsin Hustle than running a “two man enter, one man leaves” sort of affair.