The age-old argument is coming up again, in the form of the recently launched (and, perhaps, recently concluded) grassroots game, Project Ashcroft 3.
We all know that one of Alternate Reality Gaming’s main selling points and the reason that many of us are around to this day (especially anyone who can remember “where.gif” and “FOUNDER”), is the strong community environment that evolves during a game. Every once in a while though, a new game (or sometimes rogue players) will buck the trend by playing the “adversary” card, pitting player against player. In recent history, the ARG community has not addressed this issue in depth, preferring to assume that this action is the exception, and not the rule.
So which is it? Is it a good practice and a natural evolution in the gaming realm? Is this a bad idea contrary to the ideals upon which Alternate Reality Games were founded? Let’s talk, shall we?
In Project Ashcroft 3, a player was feeding the “Secret” information within the game to an in-game shady character. This prompted such a strong reaction within the rest of the players that most tended to “sanitize” previous posts by erasing them, to ensure further information was not leaked to a potential “bad guy”.
While this is a more extreme example of the actions and reactions that are caused by such an adversarial role, there are many examples of “factionizing” within Alternate Reality Games in history:
Weephun, now a legend amongst those who played I Love Bees, made the infamous decision to assist “The Operator” in capturing “The Sleeping Princess”, and in the process, earned the distinction of the title: “Rat Bastard”.
Project Syzygy (the preliminary structuring, and likely marketing research behind the now strong-running “Perplex City” game), also posed the idea that there would be intentional “factions” developed into the game concept. While this hasn’t happened to an extreme yet, there are two distinctions to Perplex City that are interesting, and have caused a stir within the community. The first example of this, is when in a recent real-world puzzle event, one of the players “helping” in the puzzling ended up being a Behind the Scenes, in-game character that hopped a helicopter to an exciting escape. Secondly, and more profound overall, is the idea that in the end, there will only be one team or potentially, only one person, who will retrieve the cube, and therefore win the large cash prize.
To a lesser extent, 4orty-2wo’s Last Call Poker involved direct competition on a 24-hour basis, in the form of their flash poker site. Earning money through competition against other players was necessary to play in special private games with the central characters that tended to further the story. Many other games have touched upon this concept of “head-to-head” and counter-productive playership as well.
So what does this mean to the genre, and what does it mean to the average “Joe/Jane ARGonaut”? There are a couple of different views out there, to be sure:
By far the most prevalent theory is that by splitting the player base into factions, the game, and therefore the genre, suffers. People in this camp tend to believe that one of the major unspoken laws of ARG are that community is the thing — that only through cooperation, can the game progress as intended. They believe that it is of utmost importance that ARG stand apart from other game genres in this aspect, that the player base is united at all times, and that working together is part and parcel of what makes this interactive theatre separate from say, an MMORPG.
Another viewpoint is that it really doesn’t matter. That whether or not some games use this tactic, or if some player gets a strange notion to go to the “dark side”, that overall it does not affect the game play enough to be a concern. These players are definitely the least vocal, if not the smallest in number. However, the point is strong and has thus-far proven itself to be true. In general, the games tend to be created and played with the same community spirit. So why make a fuss about some small glitch, or design flaw?
The vocal minority’s point (and one that I, personally, tend to side on more than others) is that an adversarial role can only be good for gaming in general for many reasons. Primarily, in the form of added depth and realism. How often in real life, do we see a group of people, all attacking a major problem from the same angle, all lined up in unity and harmony, with a single purpose? While it may happen from time to time, there are often people who “side with the enemy” or those who “aren’t sure someone is bad”. People of this mind tend to believe that the added realism added by playing adversarial roles (intended by the Puppetmasters or not) only adds a dimension to the gaming experience that could not exist with an idyllic “purely hive mind” situation. Another strong argument is that the challenges to the Puppetmaster can create entirely different plot and puzzle scenarios that would not otherwise occur. (However, one must feel some pity on the poor, scrambling PM that did not anticipate the actions of a rogue set of players, who all of a sudden destroy a major plot point, by revealing the motives and actions of the player base to a malevolent character, who was really not intended to know the information.)
The community tends to stay divided on this topic, which in a strange sort of way, is fitting. So what do you want to see in your next killer game? Is it even truly possible to have a divided set of goals played out by separate factions all vying to control the situation? Most instances have only been solved by some quick thinking on the part of the Puppetmasters who change the potential derailment into a monumental plot development. However, in the end, it is moments like those, that tend to define a game, or at least, highlight a memory least likely to be forgotten (Rat Bastard…).
The only constant is change, as they say. The argument will inevitably come up again, sooner than later. While the community is unlikely to take one side over the other as a whole, the topic is worth debate. After all, it is your genre. Without you, the games don’t get played, companies don’t hire innovators to create new games, and I certainly lose a job writing for a fine publication like ARGN. So what do you think? Does antagonistic play have a space in the future of Alternate Reality Gaming?
Larry Eisner would love to hear what you have to say! Why don’t you write and tell him how right on he is, or what kind of an idiot he must be, by emailing him and who knows, perhaps a follow-up article with your thoughts included may be in the future?