Thursday was the official kick-off of the Austin Game Conference, a trade show primarily directed at companies who produce Massively Multiplayer Online games, or MMOs. This morning, Jane McGonigal from 42 Entertainment gave a talk in which she outlined what ARGs are, how they are a type of MMO, and why they are so interesting.

And the best part, other than the Massively Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling? The unofficial nickname for the talk: “Too Weird for GDC”.

Jane began the session with some explanations of what ARGs are. They are interactive narrative, or immersive drama. They are played out online and in the real world, taking place over several weeks or months. Tens, hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands of people play, forming collaborative social networks and working together to solve a mystery or problem which is impossible to solve alone. Platforms utilized include e-mail, websites, SMS, phone calls, radio, IRC, instant messages, newspapers, real world artifacts and events, and Elan’s dream: toasters that print messages on your bread. Since this is the second time in two days that a 42 staffer has mentioned toaster messages, extra vigilance is recommended when cooking your breakfast. Be prepared.

Projects that Jane has worked on include I Love Bees, in which 40,000 payphone calls were made; The Go Game, in which she collects a group of people in the real world and assigns them a series of tasks to complete; the Ministry of Reshelving, in which she encouraged others to move 1984 from the fiction section of a bookstore into any other section participants find more appropriate; and Last Call Poker, in which she represents the estate of Lionel “Lucky” Brown, who has endowed an online poker site and real world Graveyard Poker games.

What have players said about the experiences? Several quotes were displayed from sources such as Wikipedia and the Unfiction forum. Events bring players together. “The community *is* the game” – Alzheimers. JTony spoke of cooperation, fair play, and camaraderie. Rose wrote about how ARGs have affected her attitudes about what is possible. Phaedra stated that completely contrary to the normal societal ethic, “We formed a community and worked collectively.” Weephun said that to agree to disagree while working together for a common goal is a rare thing. Dorkmaster said that the community is the thing, and that’s why alternate reality gaming is different. In short, ARGs push collective intelligence and relationships to the next level.

“Collective”, “Collaborative” – what do they mean, and what is the mechanism of function? Jane says that what she does is player recombination, a la DNA. “It is the process through which combinations not present in earlier generations are made possible.” Forming interesting unions between the different types of players – introverts, extroverts, puzzle solvers, story lovers – is part of the designer riddle. Cory Ondrejka said that “Digital worlds are places that use the real world as a metaphor.” Jane amends this to “Alternate realities are real worlds that use games as a metaphor.” Community design is the practice of creating new metaphors for collective experience in real life.

ARGs are MMOs in simplest terms – there is a large group of players playing the game at the same time. Last Call Poker has over 10,000 players. The concept of “more” is a good thing. “More is better”: there is a phenomenological pleasure in being part of a larger whole. “More is different”: unexpected things happen when you scale up, and complexity is added. “More is needed”: massive scaling allows you to create exponentially more effective and powerful systems – making a supercomputer out of ARG players, as it were.

Four examples of interesting situations that arose from previous games:

1) Players succumb to ‘pronoia’. The opposite of paranoia, pronoia is the belief that people are conspiring to help you and make you happy. Players believe that the game will give them what they need when they need it, but in point of fact sometimes cause beneficial results themselves by dint of their optimism. In The Go Game, one mission required participants to hang a banner from an overpass. Jane had expected them to go through a restaurant, but found out later they had taken an unexpected route through a hotel. The players were convinced the hotel employee who helped them was a well-acted plant, but he actually was completely uninvolved. In I Love Bees, people called areas where payphones did not have a player to answer them and spoke with employees and managers where the phones were located, convincing them to answer the phones and telling them what to say. In Last Call Poker, players have spent a good deal of time discussing how to ensure there is an ARG person on the leaderboard, therefore gaining entrance into the weekly tournaments. Jane hopes that the overwhelming optimism and sense that ARGs will give you what you need will spill over into real-life interaction.

2) There is a sort of scientific literati. Players come from a widely varying range of backgrounds and teach each other things. In I Love Bees after the coordinates and times were announced, people did not initially know they represented payphones. There were two weeks where what the numbers could mean was met with an enormous amount of speculation. Players were teaching each other astronomy and calculus. By the types of discussion about the coordinates, the PMs were able to gauge what they would be able to do with the game.

3) Folksonomy mobs, or people who cooperate spontaneously in order to organize information, play a part. The Ministry of Reshelving was a prime example of this.

4) In the same way that monkeys form social grooming networks to touch and interact with each other, real world events have strangers touching each other. The recent zombie flashmobs had a system by which a person on the street could signal a “zombie” that they wanted to be zombified. The zombie would come over and grab them to do so. This looked startling to passersby, but was a “good touch” in that it was invited and expected. Tombstone Hold ‘Em also forces people to touch each other while claiming hole cards. Massively Multiplayer Thumb Wrestling, which was the finale of the presentation, had a roomful of strangers holding hands.

All in all this was a very engaging study of the theory that drives ARGs. The audience members really looked like they were “getting it”, and hopefully we will see people involved in both playing and making future games.

One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war!