I caught up with Jane McGonigal of 42 Entertainment after her talk at the Austin Game Conference on Thursday. She was kind enough to give me an interview.

Me: Do you have a favorite ever, of any game?

Jane: Yeah, well like I said [during the talk] I think the explosion of creative interpretation with the GPS coordinates [in I Love Bees], because I’m a big believer of player suggestions. Like in The Go Game, we have people constantly sort of misinterpreting what they’ve been told to do, and doing things that are more exciting or more interesting or braver than we have suggested, and then we’ll be like, “Oh that’s great, let’s actually make that a mission.”

Me: I read about the “drop your pants” thing

Jane: Yeah! Well, and players think they have to convince police officers… and it’s like they read more into it. So with all the interpretations of the GPS coordinates, it was like the world of possibilities of what people would be able to do, or were willing to do, it was like everybody was demonstrating that they could solve this type of puzzle, or we’d be willing to do this thing, and just to see that world of possibilities – and for the two weeks that the window was open, we’d know the window of interpretation hadn’t closed yet. The feeling was that anything was possible, both from a player standpoint, that things were really exciting, where you just don’t know, it’s really pleasurable. I like to generate that experience, where you have to wait to find out, and don’t know it all, and don’t understand it all. Then from the designer perspective, we got so much information about what you could do and what could happen. So that was my favorite, just to watch that for two weeks. We were so crazy, creatively.

Me: And you found yourself drawing inspiration from not only the spec but from ideas of how you could use the core group in the future?

Jane: Yes.

Me: Now, what about your worst moment?

Jane: Hm. Well, you know, there’s a fair amount of controversy about sending people into real-world spaces to play, and on my own as a side design project I’m always trying to do little experiments, like where can people create effective play spaces. So, the Ministry of Reshelving, I got so much hate mail from people..

Me: I saw a bunch of the comments on Metafilter and elsewhere.

Jane: Yeah! They were like, “This is mean to the employees,” and “Bookstores are not playgrounds!” It was really interesting that people are more upset about gaming in bookstores than they were about gaming in cemeteries. Why that particular space? It’s so over-determined what you can do and what you can’t do. My philosophy is that the big corporate bookstores have so much land, and they put caf├ęs in them, and wi-fi hotspots – are you telling me they don’t want you to come and a social experience, a public experience? They’re inviting you to come hang out! So I’m really curious about why that particular space seems so hands-off, whereas people are much more willing to say, “Oh, graveyard games!”

I always think of the gaming as having a benevolent purpose, so if anybody says, “You’re sick!” or “You should die because you’re playing games in bookstores!” – that’s the worst moment.

Me: I guess if you’re eliciting a response, you’re making somebody think.

Jane: Yeah, and like I said, it’s research, so seeing that response, there’s so much information from that. So much information. I truly believe that commercial spaces are probably – like, the pact that we have bought into with people who sell us stuff, and the amount of control that we give them over how we socialize and how we use space, it’s the most binding social contract in the country right now. That’s scary and weird. We should think about that. Not revolt or anything, but just be aware. You know, on sidewalks in cities all over the country, on sidewalks and public plazas, if you look down there are placards that say your right to pass may be revoked at any time, because the corporations have bought sidewalk space and bought the fountain space or what used to be public plazas. That’s crazy.

Me: Like not being able to take pictures in Chicago.

Jane: Exactly! And the same thing in San Francisco. And the fact that a sidewalk can be owned, in cities where there is so little public space where you can just go out and “be” – if a sidewalk is owned, that’s crazy. What are you supposed to do, walk in the street? So to me, that’s bad. But anyway, the topic’s not completely related to ARGs, but it is in the sense that as ARGs continue to grow into the pervasive realm (which I hope they will, I’m very committed to seeing the ARG real-world pervasive gaming to support the online experience, and extend the online experience) that’s the sort of thing that designers and puppetmasters are going to have to contend with, and think about in their hearts. I know there’s been a lot of meta discussion about the cemeteries, and that’s something that all designers and players are going to have to grapple with: “Do I feel this is appropriate? Is this a good social contract or one that should be renegotiated?”

Me: My last question is, where do you think ARGs are heading? Do you think we’re in a bubble, or do you think they’ve got a place 10 years down the road, in this form or any form?

Jane: I think in this form there will continue to be an extremely thriving grassroots movement – the way that anyone can make movies, with the rise of editing suites and whatever, I think that will continue to be huge because it’s such a great creative, artistic medium. I think the bigger games will change to be more casual, more social. I think the number of people who want this kind of experience is so big, and a lot of the projects are designed now to limit casual experience, and I really want to see – well, like, all these people here, I bet you most of them have never played an ARG, and probably will not get immersed in one because it’s such a high threshold for engagement. I think they’re going to have to change to be… not less immersive, but less attention-demanding. I do think that the whole current thing is, as you mentioned, on its way out. I believe in transparency – that you have to tell people it’s a game, because it’s not fair to go run around and confuse people.

I think the most important thing we’re going to see as ARGs go forward, besides the stand-alone play ones like Perplex City, which is a separate genre, but for the ones that are supporting other games or movies or intellectual property, my sense is that they will be seen as an actual part of the experience and the story more than as marketing or advertising. I believe with I Love Bees that if you played that game and you saw yourself responsible for helping the Covenant find Earth, that’s an actual part of the Halo 2 game and every time you sit down to play and do battle with the Covenant, that experience is tightly connected to the console game. With something like Last Call Poker, as you keep playing forward you’re going to see it’s really tightly connected. In terms of interacting with characters and learning things about the world, I think everybody who’s working on the project sees it as part of the game. And so I think with projects going forward, like if you were going to do a TV series, it would be part of that universe.

Me: Like Lost?

Jane: Right. It actually belongs to the universe, it’s not something trying to sell it. I think that’s the best place to take it because there’s only so long that you can – as it turns out, people experience it, it really isn’t advertising, it’s an experience, and if you can integrate them more closely together you have a real art form.

Me: People would rather consider themselves part of the story than the numbers the story generated.

Jane: Yeah. And certainly at 42, we all see what we’re doing as creating this immersive real-world part of these other games. I think continuing to move in that direction is really important. This kind of gaming is really better supported by other intellectual property as opposed to making something up from scratch, because you have an emotional connection to the story, relationships with the characters, and it’s really nice when they can come together.

Many thanks to Jane for taking time out of her insane travel schedule to sit down for a talk.