It’s time for day two of PICNIC, and a new day means a new theme: Exploding Media. The theme brought with it an exciting schedule, filled with more on social media, but this time focusing on trying to find parallels between social media and brands and marketing strategies, as well as on games and interactivity.
The first speaker was movie director Chris Burke, who is also the creator of This Spartan Life, the world’s first and only “talkshow in game space”. I hadn’t previously heard of This Spartan Life and thus wasn’t familiar with the show’s format, where a host (Burke) interviews a guest (in this case, Gerri Sinclair, CEO of the Center for Digital Media), while playing Halo.
Apparently, This Spartan Life has been a big hit since 2004 and has gathered quite a bit of praise for its innovative presentation. I can see how the concept might work well with smoothly edited episodes showing Halo game play supplemented by added voiceovers. However, as a live concept, I thought it came off as a forced way of trying something new. The Halo backdrop compounded by the clumsiness of Sinclair trying to master the controls of the game were so distracting that I hardly followed the actual interview.
Sinclair, hailed by Burke as a “gaming professor who actually knows what she’s talking about” has a great track record when it comes digital media and narrative . Most of the times when the interview took an interesting turn, though, the conversation got interrupted by shrieks of “Oh no! I fell of a ledge!” and “someone is shooting at me!” or with Burke trying to keep track of where his interviewee went in the Halo level. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to hear more of what Sinclair had to say on gaming and the changing ways of delivering narratives.
In 2008, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg proposed a social networking analog to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. “Next year,” Zuckerman posited, “people will share twice as much information as they share this year . . . [t]hat means that people are using Facebook, and the applications and ecosystem, more and more.” Recent studies suggest that individuals are willing to trade privacy in exchange for small rewards and convenience. As the online marketplace is embracing social networking and the “free” economy, people are increasingly faced with limited bargaining power and ignorance about what information they are offering in exchange for services. In order to address many of these issues, the British public-service broadcasting network Channel 4 has paired with veteran alternate reality game designers at Six to Start to create “Smokescreen,” a 13-part online adventure designed to educate youth in the UK about issues of online privacy, identity and trust. The online game will be released in September.
“Smokescreen” is about a vicious new game called “The Rumor Mill” sweeping its way across the fictional social network called “White Smoke.” The network’s owner, Max, is concerned the game might be a front for something else. According to Channel 4, the game, targeted towards 14-19 year olds in the UK, will allow players to network, collaborate and challenge each other using their identity as a weapon, and privacy as armor. Six to Start’s Chief Creative Officer Adrian Hon explains that “Smokescreen is a game about life online. Every time you hear about a teenager being hauled up at school because of their Facebook profile, or someone being conned out of their password on Twitter – that’s what Smokescreen aims to explore. And because our game puts players in a simulated situation, we can give them an experience that is far more powerful and immersive than any other media.” Six to Start’s CEO Dan Hon adds that “[i]t’s about the implications of what sharing information means to daily life, beyond just stealing identities or credit cards . . . [t]his could simply be one character asking you to find out information about another character, leaving you to decide whether you tell them or use it to your advantage.”
Channel 4 Education is embracing the cross-media entertainment model, with game budgets Routes, an alternate reality game addressing the implications of genomic research. Alice Taylor, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor, told Escapist Magazine that Channel 4 aims to get “more teens and more impact for our investment. We still do television projects – but now they’re native to the internet, and sometimes they act like games, too.”
Providing information about yourself on the internet is not in and of itself a bad thing. However, disclosing information should be an informed choice. And “Smokescreen” is a step in the right direction towards fostering media literacy.
In 2003, the Human Genome Project completed the sequencing of the human genome. This herculean achievement has already had far-reaching effects in the fields of science, medicine, and bio-ethics. And on January 29th, the UK’s Channel 4 Education officially released the alternate reality game Routes, an eight-week experience exploring cutting-edge issues involving the human genome. With the help of Oil Productions and Mind’s Eye Media, Channel 4 aims to elicit interest in science amongst teens in the UK through the game.
Back in October, Professor Markus Schoenberg gave a presentation at the Game City Festival in Nottingham raising concerns about the bio-ethical concerns raised by recent scientific advances. He announced the release of Routes Game, a series of flash games highlighting the many uses of genetic information. Sadly, at the Routes Game launch party, Professor Schoenberg’s neice Rachel Burren received a phone call informing her the professor was found dead in his Peruvian hotel room. With the help of investigative journalist Matt Blacker, Rachel is trying to find out why her father died. Were the professor’s former employers at the bio-genetic research company Prometha responsible? Or did activist group DEPAA go too far in combatting the exploitation of indigenous knowledge?
Every week, Routes releases a new flash game addressing a different aspect of genetic information: Breeder; Sneeze; Experimental; Human Zoo; DNA Heroes; Mutants; Ginger Dawn; and Life, Jim! In Breeder, players earn points by selectively breeding their organism in order to achieve targeted characteristics. In Sneeze, players assume the role of Patient Zero, attempting to infect as many people as possible with a single sneeze. Additionally, award-winning comedian Katherine Ryan explores her own genetic identity through a series of informational videos. UK residents are eligible to win prizes for participating including a Playstation 3 and a home entertainment system: a mysterious “Star Prize” is also available to “the natural explorers and those who really get into the whole experience.”
Thanks to a highly intuitive user-interface and accessible video summaries, the barrier to entry for this alternate reality game is relatively low, and the flash games are both addictive and challenging. So head on over and register at the Routes Game website and discover the secrets in your genes.
Mind Candy may have pulled the plug on Perplex City, but the Hon brothers are back to work at a new company, Six to Start Limited, returning to work on alternate reality gaming. According to Adrian, the name “Six to Start” refers to the classic board games that required players to roll a six before commencing play. Adrian and Dan will be joining forces with James Wallis, the former director of Hogshead Publishing, a hobby-games publisher that you might recognize as one of the expert judges for Let’s Change the Game.
One of the first projects for Six to Start is code-named “The Ministry”, an ARG taking place within a fictional social network. The game is part of Channel 4’s effort to provide engaging educational content to 14-19 year olds. According to a Channel 4 press release, “The Ministry” will be
an online networked game exploring how online privacy and identity apply to real world situations. The game will challenge players to discover how much trust matters online: when you might not know who you’re dealing with, and when information posted online remains persistent and public. Players will network, collaborate and challenge each other from within a fictional social network, using identity as a weapon, and privacy as armor.
In addition to “The Ministry”, Channel 4 will be sponsoring an ARG project by Oil Productions code-named “Route” that focuses on cartography, geography, and genetics, and numerous other cross media experiences. These alternate reality games are part of a larger push by the station to provide educational content to teens through a variety of serious games and new media productions. Alice Taylor, the commissioner for the projects at Channel 4, may be familiar to video game fans through her blog or her work at Kotaku.
Six to Start is currently looking for an experienced Alternate Reality Games producer to round out their staff, although with an application deadline at the end of January, you’d better hurry if you’re interested. As a reminder for our bilingual readers, Jane McGonigal is also looking for a “jr. puppet master” for an upcoming project. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting patiently for a lucky roll of the die to start up one of these exciting new projects.