It’s been a long time since ARGN.com posted my article entitled Building Fences: An Editorial, the subject of which was the topic of adversarial play within Alternate Reality Games, in theory and in history. We invited you, the reader, to tell us what you thought about the subject, and we were nearly immediately inundated with responses, spanning the entire gamut of opinion. We read every letter, rant, and lesson. Here are some highlights from the responses we received:
“…The problem with past approaches to the player v. player tactic in ARGing is that it almost always has come across as either a minor, player induced (i.e. not meant by the PM to happen) event, or has been quickly toned down by PMs who did mean to do it in the first place. The outcry from the community is always rather dramatic when a PM attempts to purposely divide players.
What I think needs to happen is for a PM team to make a quality ARG that incorporates this tactic, and run with it – to not give in to the community’s cries, and to just go with what they planned. Nothing against the community – I count myself as a member of it in most aspects – but sometimes everyone gets worked up about small things, while forgetting the bigger picture.” – Dave
“Eisner comes down in favor of splitting the player base, arguing that this makes for a more powerful approach to mysteries (think open source), and richer plot developments (think restaurant menu). I would add that increasing the number of player parties, from one to many, could increase the amount of player creativity (i.e., more wikis, more fiction, etc).
As Web 2.0 storytelling emerges, this is precisely the sort of thing we’ll see.” – Infocult
“It was the cooperation that that kept me hanging around when I first found the ARG community. There are plenty of places that thrive on competitive head to head competition., but relatively few that encourage working together. While real life has some areas where one must be competitive to succeed, it more often requires cooperation. You have to learn how to get along with others, be it your family, your coworkers or your friends in order to get the most out of life. Being competitive in everything generally will leave one very alone and isolated. ARGs, in trying to mimic what really happens in life, also should reflect that as well, otherwise they degenerate into “just another game.” By being competitive a mindset that requires not sharing information, one does not have the additional brainpower that comes with having several sets of eyes, ears, and minds all working on the same problem. Given that some puzzles require input from many people along the way to reach the final solution, by “hoarding” information one only hurts oneself by cutting off that extra power that cooperation allows. It would mean that Puppetmasters would need to decrease the overall difficulty of the puzzles since they would not be certain how many players could solve them alone.
Mr. Eisner also mentioned Last Call Poker as a competitive game. I really disagree about this. While there was “head to head” competition for chips in the poker game, the true game was the eliciting of information. Yes, in the early days of the game there was some discussion regarding how the ARG community could plant a player at the weekly tournament table, what ended up happening really made me happy. There were several people playing who had initially joined because it was a poker site. Within the first couple of weeks, several of the high chip count players were helping the ARG community group at the tables when a game character showed up. These poker players did not start out from the ARG community, but they wholeheartedly were willing to help us gain the information we needed. As the help neither hurt nor enhanced their winnings at the table, why should they do this? I strongly believe it is because in the long run, cooperation gains everyone more than strict competition.
I personally believe that splitting the community into competing factions everyone suffers. The main way it suffers is that it reduces the amount of brainpower available to the group. By cutting off people, you may miss out on the person who has the one bit of trivia that will help solve the puzzle. I have been directly involved with one game where the community was split – and each group had difficulty with solving problems for that very reason. While there are a few games that involve prizes – by and large the majority of ARGs do not involve any “prize” material ” at solving a problem, or set of problems, first. There is no compelling reason to split the community when a “prize” is not involved, other than players who desire to create factions, or PM’s who desire to create factions within a game. While society in general does sometimes have an “us vs. them” mentality, especially in the work environment, I would like to think that such creations are more the exception rather than the rule. I would like to think that we are all here to help each other have an enjoyable time, rather than having those who desire to play the game in a manner that might ruin the fun for others. Most ARGs have more going for them than a strict single goal oriented drive. Project Syzygy (Perplex City) for example may have a prize associated with finding the cube, but there is much more going on in that world to experience and understand – the only way to experience it is to share the wonder and excitement of learning new information about that society. It isn’t just a scavenger hunt to find a limited list of items, or track down the winning game piece.
To hope that the future of ARGs degenerates to one in which the sole reason for playing is to compete against others to “win” the game, I think really lowers expectations for the genre as a whole. There is room for games in which competition may be a main driving force, but I for one hope that ARGs will offer much more than that. I can get competition from video games, MUDs, and other such game venues. There are far fewer venues where cooperative action is encouraged to the extent that it is in the ARG community. Learning to cooperate with others is a very valuable life skill that really doesn’t get enough attention in other areas.
I want to see cooperation in games. I think the ARG universes are large enough to be able to offer something for everyone. I just want the game designers to know that not everyone wants to be competitive.” – Steffeny M.
“It caught my attention because I’m so fascinated by the community development and social networking aspects of Alternate Reality Gaming. (There’s surely a dissertation or two on that topic to be had by some lucky soul).
One thought that came to mind in round-about defense of the folks who “go rogue” is that ultimately their split from the larger community could result in bringing that community closer together as they rally against the betrayal…i.e. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
As someone who is far more intrigued by the inter-personal elements in the games that I’ve played more so than most of the puzzles (largely because I suck at solving the puzzles) I find it fascinating when someone leaves the hive so-to-speak and buzzes off on their own .” – Jen
“I definitely fell under the category of those who “aren’t sure someone is bad” camp during ILB, and not the guy purposely going to the “dark side”. And yes, I’ve made sure to apologize profusely to the writers who ended up pulling quite a few all-nighters on my behalf. But in the end, I don’t think I’ve talked with a single person (writers and all of 42 included) who didn’t think that the story and experience as a whole was greatly added to by my actions.
I think the main difference between what I did and what I’ve seen in a few cases lately is intent. I was truly still trying to accomplish the same goals of figuring out what was going on in the story, who each of the characters were, and what our role in it was. I just disagreed with the majority of those playing as to how we should best accomplish those goals. I was never out to get anybody, or ever purposely trying to thwart the efforts of the community to move the story along, I just saw a different way to do it than most.
There was one point where I started to fall into the “bad guy” role and thought of using “insider information” in ways that it should not have been used. Things like abusing the confidence inherent in the unfiction forums or using “meta” information outside of the bounds of where it should have been used. It felt immediately wrong. I can remember feeling like I was about to betray the trust of people with whom I had really started to share a bond with. We may have had many different opinions on how things in the game could best be accomplished (or accomplished at all), but in the end, we were all in it together.
I think that’s the difference. Honest disagreements when working at a common goal through different (sometimes very different) paths are a natural part of what happens when you get a large group of intelligent people together and give them a problem to solve. Malicious players just out to make a name for themselves or out to ruin part of the game for others is a different story entirely.
Does antagonistic play have a space in the future of Alternate Reality Gaming? Absolutely. ARGs can really benefit from a good antagonist. … What is dangerous is walking the line between antagonistic play and malicious play. And it’s a very hard line to walk, trust me…” – Weephun
“…As a creator it is fun to see the boundaries that the players are willing to cross to get information. While these games are about teamwork, they are also about information. So one must never forget that there is no limit to how far one should go or where they should go to retrieve such information. As a creator, it is important to understand that your “bad” characters will receive just as much e-mail and IM’s as your “good” ones. It’s what you decide to do with that information that matters.
For instance, in “Wildfire Industries” someone had contacted an “in-game” character in order to get into the game post “accepting applications”. The PMs took the correct action by informing the other players that they were in contact with as to the request of this individual and the actions that should be taken. The result? The player was told to go away and all other communications were ignored (I must point out that this individual was attempting to bypass the steps needed to get into the game).
As I stated earlier, there is no limit to where information can be obtained. If going to the “bad guys” with information results in information that could help to “good side”, then I do not see where the problem exists. If the action of going to the “bad guys” is just to give information without getting anything in return for said information, then it is up to the PMs to decide where to take it without breaking out of character (I mean, what bad guy wouldn’t want to know what the good guys are doing so they can stay one step ahead of everyone else?).
The beauty of these games is that no conclusion is ever final. Just because you create a game to turn out a certain way, doesn’t mean that is how it’s really going to end up. As a PM you are constantly changing things to fit the opinions of the players, their spec (do you really want your story to be that predictable?), the timeline of the story (do you need to speed it up or slow it down), fixing any “mistakes” (in quotes because we never make any, ha) or adding to the story based on advice given to you by the players (“did you try this?”). It is a constant battle to keep everything in a straight line and, most of the time, you can never win.
The only thing that you, as a creator, can be sure of is that things will never turn out the way that you plan them to go. The trick is making it look like they are going exactly according to plan.
All of these statements point to one conclusion: it is the PMs’ decision what to do with “rats” and it is also our duty to foresee such an action taking place.
Now, onto something that wasn’t covered in your article: A PM turning the tide and crossing over to the “dark side”. Not everyone is happy about being kicked out of a PM team in the middle of it’s creation or during it’s run. This can lead to many problems for the PM team that is left to watch as the ex-team member starts to spill the beans using a different name. Sometimes it is obvious, other times it is not. However, the problem is one that is hard to overcome and is one reason why it is a good idea to have a smart team who is ready to handle such a situation should it ever arise.” – Eric
“…I don’t know what the answer is – I like the idea of players potentially working at odds with each other, but the community aspect is important to me and if it’s taken away, as it was (at least for me) in this case, then it ruins the game (again, my own view only). I guess the answer lies partly with the players coming to some kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” about sharing information, but also it is up to the PM’s to deal with the situation. As a (very minor) member of the OC team, my thoughts here are that you need some kind of mechanism to deal with this sort of twist. We had a couple of situations, but we were very fortunate that one could be safely ignored due to “secretarial shuffle”, and the other happened so close to endgame that the characters involved could easily have not received the information before events overtook them. Those contingencies were not planned, by the way, but we were glad of them at the time – and that’s another lesson learned for me: expect the unexpected, and plan for it…” – Anonymous
Thank you for your thoughts! I’d also like to direct you to the excellently written, and entirely topical article written by Sean C. Stacey, one of our contributing writers and the owner and webmaster of UnFiction.com. It is the most exhaustive and definitive explanation of UnFiction’s stance on this issue, as well as the general “mission” of UnFiction.com. It’s a good read, and whether you’re a n00b or a Cloudmaker, it’s worth an examination.