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.
“There’s this expression, “zed omega.” It means “so over.” When you go zed omega, you are done.”
–Ed Zed Omega Revealed
When it comes to public or private education, everyone has an experience, everyone has a story, and everyone has an opinion. The internet is rife with pointed discussions about the problems in education, and full of suggestions on how to solve them. While education issues vary broadly from state to state and nation to nation, they share at least one commonality: solutions tend to be easy to propose but difficult to implement. Education reform is an ongoing conversation amongst government officials, educators, and the public, and conversations between these groups are often politically charged and riddled with miscommunication and misunderstandings.
Andi McDaniel and Ken Eklund have brought something new to the conversation about education with their freshly-launched project, Ed Zed Omega. The project focuses on a set of voices that often gets lost in the cacophony that pervades the education discussion: the voices of those most directly affected by our education systems, the people currently subject to the state of “being educated.” Ed Zed Omega features the stories of six fictional teens who have decided that they are done with education, and that they’re not going back. Their guidance counselor, Mary Johnson, has convinced them to use the time they would have spent in school to complete one more assignment, exploring solutions to the problems they perceive in education. Ed Zed Omega launched on August 15, 2012 and will run through November 15, 2012 to follow their journey.
As yet another entry in the serious gaming genre, Ready For The Big Chill asks a “chilling” question: would you be ready in the event of a catastrophic event such as the eruption of a super-volcano or an asteroid impact that blocked the sun, throwing the world into a new Ice Age?
Several ARG and Unfiction community members received a dark and cryptic envelope with the words “Nobody Knows It Yet” stamped on the outside. Inside, an equally cryptic card adds, “…But It Has Already Started” one one side, printed on top of what appears to be a block of ice. On the other side, the silhouette of a screaming figure frames the url for a Facebook page, Facebook.com/ReadyforTheBigChill. The game’s Facebook page then leads to The Big Chill’s main site.
The presently unnamed group behind The Big Chill have formed an “idea-community” to generate survival ideas from the players through the help of an eclectic group of characters including vulcanologists, geologists, a video director, and a certified conspiracy theorist, who are all monitoring and reporting on world geologic events that could lead to such a catastrophe. Many of the characters have Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, blogs, YouTube channels, and other avenues of communication with players.
Image courtesy of stevecadman
This past May, Tim Kring launched Conspiracy for Good, and as the summer comes to a close, the events of the past few months are coming to a head for one final event this weekend in London. If you can make it to Bloomsbury Square Gardens in London on August 7, register to play now, and this article should get you up to speed with what you need to know to join in the adventure.
Conspiracy for Good can best be described as an amalgamation of an alternate reality game, a street theater show, and a social movement. Players have been charged with the task of bringing down Blackwell Briggs, an evil global security firm with a penchant for kidnapping and skullduggery. Players willing to risk attracting Blackwell Briggs’ ire joined up with the Conspiracy for Good, an organization of socially-minded individuals committed to opposing the company’s excess.
Using a series of free mobile games available at Nokia’s Ovi Store, players were given the opportunity to hack into the Babbage 1.6.1 website to extract valuable pieces of intelligence, break into the Blackwell Briggs servers, and hack a series of CCTV cameras across London to help smuggle Nadirah, a key Conspiracy for Good member seeking to build a library for children in Zambia, into the city. The final mobile game lead to the next stage of Conspiracy for Good: a series of four live “Actions” occuring weekly in London. Participants at each Action are provided with a Nokia phone with pre-installed software to help complete the task.
In the summer of 2008, Tim Kring and Christopher Sandberg were discussing the future of transmedia and community-based entertainment, standing on top of Isaac Mendez’ iconic post-apocalyptic tableau painted on the floor of the Heroes soundstage. As a result of that conversation, The Company P signed on to help produce Conspiracy for Good, a large-scale movement with alternate reality gaming elements. Kring had previously pitched the concept for Conspiracy for Good to Nokia. The movement will play out “across both traditional media and new media platforms including smart mobile devices, game consoles, tablets, and PCs.” At the heart of the experience is a locative event that will play out over the course of three weeks in London starting in mid-July and running until August 7th. According to Kring, this is a great week to join in with the action, as “the narrative aspect really gets cooking as far as meeting key characters and key figures. A lot of the smoke that’s surrounding it will start to lift in the next few days.”
Conspiracy for Good first launched in May with a series of videos featuring celebrities ranging from JJ Abrams to Ringo Starr declaring “I am not a member.” Later in the month, the site hosting the videos redirected to the game’s main portal at Conspiracy for Good. Savvy players discovered a puzzle-locked allegory about Lord Magpie and his efforts to silence the songbirds. One of the puzzles introduced Blackwell Briggs, a global company seeking to increase surveillance by supercharging existing CCTV networks and introducing legislation to subvert mobile networks to track citizens. The Conspiracy for Good leaked the footage to The Pirate Bay, and spokeswoman Ann Marie Calhoun posted a re-edit of the video, revealing a different side to the company. Shortly after posting the video, Calhoun went missing and The Pirate Bay received a notice from Blackwell Briggs requesting that the tracker be removed. Further hints at the overarching story emerged by playing Exclusion, a free game for Nokia phones that includes unlockable codes that lead to additional pieces of information on Babbage, a website discovered through Exclusion. Nokia partnered with Kring and The Company P to launch the project, and will release a series of games expanding on Exclusion to advance the narrative.
Earlier today, I received a package containing a message in a bottle from Aguatero Industries. The company was so excited to announce its expansion into the Las Vegas and Los Angeles markets, it sent me a message secreted inside their newer, more eco-friendly bottle design. On the inside of the bottle cap, I could faintly make out the letters “WP.ME /PURU9-2” written in pen, with the number 998 embossed beneath that.
Sadly, in order to reach the message in the bottle, I had to cut the water bottle apart. Once inside, I unfolded the press release, revealing the following message describing Aguatero Industries’ involvement in worldwide urban water system operation, and announcing its plans for expansion. According to the company’s website, its expansion into Las Vegas and Los Angeles is only part of a larger rollout of services. The press release was dated in the near future, on June 10, 2010.
The company has a social media presence with its twitter account. Refreshingly (pun entirely intended), no one seems to be in physical danger. However, typing in the shortened url on the bottle cap leads to the Our Water Planet blog, which suggests the empty bottle I received represents something more insidious: “It represents something far too many people experience: a lack of water.” The blog is run by Connor Arter, who maintains a twitter account for the site.
All the signs seem to indicate that this is the launch of a new serious game addressing water scarcity and resource management issues: the Our Water Planet blog even includes a donation link to Charity: Water. Charity: Water is near and dear to to the hearts of alternate reality game fans, as players of Levi’s Go Forth treasure hunt selected the charity to receive a $100,000 donation from Levi’s at the game’s conclusion.
Was this message in a bottle simply a press release, or was it an SOS to the world?
Click Here for the discussion at Unfiction.