Understanding the future through a counterfactual past: The Golden Institute

Contrary to much of the recent discussion around transmedia storytelling and alternate reality games, not all the work being done in the realm of multi-modal world building is about “driving eyeballs toward content” or “creating opportunities for monetization.” Sascha Pohlflepp’s The Golden Institute is a great example of how artists can build elaborate and penetrating critiques through the creation of a system of interrelated media artifacts. It also flies in the face of Jeff Gomez’s definition of transmedia storytelling as being inherently geared toward mass audiences; if The Golden Institute isn’t transmedia storytelling, what is it?

From Sascha’s documentation of the project:

The Golden Institute for Energy in Colorado was the premier research and development facility for energy technologies in an alternate reality where Jimmy Carter had defeated Ronald Reagan in the US election of 1980. Equipped with virtually unlimited funding to make the United States the most energy-rich nation on the planet, its scientific and technical advancements were rapid and often groundbreaking.

Its scope ranged from planetary engineering to the enabling of individual participation and profit from the creation of electricity. Notable projects include the development of the state of Nevada into a weather experimentation zone and the new gold rush in the form of lightning-harvesters that followed, or major modifications made to the national infrastructure in an attempt to use freeways as a power plants. The institute’s vision continues to inform the American consciousness to this day. In relation to energy preservation and harnessing, but also in terms of man’s relationship to the forces of nature. (The Golden Institute)

See also: photo documentation, We Make Money Not Art, Worldchanging

What I’m seeing at SXSWi

I’ll be at SXSWi from Friday, March 12th until Monday, March 15th (view my conference profile here). Here’s what I’m thinking of checking out while I’m there:

Friday, March 12th

Friday seems a little light, but there are still a few interesting panels:

  • 2:30pm, Day Stage DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Learning I just like the title of this one. Moderated by Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company.
  • 3:30pm, 10AB Jacks of All Trades or Masters of One? “The web originated with generalists – webmasters designing, building, and developing. Today, a web team can have a dozen different specialist roles, each highly-focused. With that in mind, what are the strengths of specialists and generalists, and when are each put to their best use on a project or in an organization?”
  • either 5:00pm, Ballroom B Time+Social+Location. What’s Next in Mobile Experiences? Featuring Naveen Selvadurai of foursquare. “As more devices become location aware, social uses will continue to evolve beyond just who and what, to WHEN. Adding the temporal dimension creates new opportunities for social interaction. Learn about ways to leverage and use technology to add features at the intersection of temporal, social, and location.”
  • or 5:00pm 6AB With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Future of Video Games “Video games are more popular than ever, and new games are delivering all kinds of social benefits, from video-game therapy for treating PTSD, to sims for train surgeons, to alternate-reality games that actually bring people together in real life. Will video games be a positive force for people and society in the future (as they arguably are today)? This panel is co-sponsored by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.”

Saturday, March 13th

This is where things really heat up…lots of great stuff about locative media, physical computing, ARGs, and more.

  • 9:30am, Hilton G ActivityStrea.ms: Is It Getting Streamy In Here? Chris Messina presents. “From Facebook’s newsfeed to Twitter’s relentless real-time updates, the metaphor of the “stream” has taken social networking beyond blog posts and on to rich social activities. Learn about ActivityStrea.ms – the open format adopted by Facebook, MySpace, and Windows Live – and how it’s fundamentally changing the social web.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette Presented by Andrea Phillips. “ARGs are often trotted out as a shining example of woman-friendly games. They boast unusually high rates of female developers and players, and a slew of kick-ass female leads. But if you dig a little deeper, are they just the post-Buffy version of Princess Peach, always needing to be saved?”
  • either 12:30pm, 12AB Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas Presenters include Julian Bleecker, Jennifer Leonard, and Stuart Candy. “Design fiction is an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling. The goal is to move away from the routine of lifeless scenarios-based thinking. We will share design fiction projects and discuss related techniques for design thinking, communication and exploration of near future concepts.”
  • or 12:30pm, 6AB Playing with Place: Location-Based Games and Services “Location based games and services are finally ready to go mainstream. This panel of professionals explores how to creatively craft the experiences and business models for different types of places like backyards, cities, towns, suburbs, exurbs, hiking trails, parks, and deserts.”
  • 2:00pm, Exhibit Hall 1 Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity I’m definitely looking forward to seeing danah boyd talk.
  • 3:30pm, Hilton F Moon 2.0: The Outer Limits of Lunar Exploration Can’t pass up a moon-oriented panel. “Space sector representatives will discuss how the use of web and mobile technologies create opportunities for participation in future exploration of the Moon. The panel focuses on how X PRIZE, NASA, commercial space companies, and others generate greater interaction and interest in Moon missions using collaborative platforms and social media.”
  • 5:00pm, Hilton D Does My Sh*t-Talking Really Help Your Brand? Panelists include Ivan Askwith and Amber Case. “We’ve heard that ”all press is good press.” But during SXSW 2009, several panels provoked heated audience debates over a new variation: is social marketing successful if people talk about it? Controversial campaigns such as Whopper Sacrifice warrant a discussion about what really makes social media successful… and what doesn’t.”
  • 6:00pm, Brush Square Park – E Dorkbot Great way to end the day. “Think of it as a science fair with free beer. Ample doses of electricity, tomfoolery, mayhem, makers and music combine to form one exquisite geek talent show. Sponsored by SXSW Interactive, the International Game Developer’s Association of Austin, Mr. Data, Ricochet Labs and the Digital Media Council. “

Sunday, March 14th

Another good day, slightly more tech-oriented.

  • 9:30am, Ballroom E Web of Things – Connecting People and Objects on the Web “WoT is a vision of a Web with more devices than people on it. We extend the Web to the real world by enabling devices to become physical Web resources that follow the founding principles of the Web architecture (REST). We will demo a physical mashup with real objects the attendance can interact with using a simple RESTful API.”
  • 11:00am, Hilton H Here Are Lions: The Cartography of the Future “A new breed of maps is revealing breakthroughs in our understanding of biology, neuroscience, ecology and the physical world. We can now map not just physical geographies, but also genomes, neural pathways, emotions, social networks and ideas. These new maps reveal how society will change over the next twenty years.”
  • 11:00am, Ballroom D Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data Clay Shirky’s talk.
  • 12:30pm, 5ABC The 10-Minute Transmedia Experience Presented by Maureen McHugh and Steve Peters of No Mimes Media. “Transmedia experiences ‘- stories played out across multiple platforms: on the web, through mobile and even in the audience’s environment ‘- are going more and more mainstream. Audiences are beginning to expect collaboration in the creation of the experience. What are the techniques to constructing an immersive, compelling 10-minute experience? Transmedia and Alternate Reality Game veterans Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh of No Mimes Media lead this core conversation, where participants will experience the astonishingly immersive nature of transmedia, and discuss the conceptual issues and architecture of the experience. Fans and professionals from any industry are welcome.”
  • 3:30pm, Ballroom C Revenge Of Kick-Ass Mash-Ups with Punk Rock APIs More punk DIY stuff. “Last time we wrote an API layer for a dozen different sites and services, using nothing but free online tools and client-side JavaScript. This time we’ll crack into client-side OAuth. This time actual working code WILL BE WRITTEN BY YOU. This time … it’s personal.”
  • 7:00pm, Austin Grand Ballroom 13th Annual SXSW Web Awards Ceremony “The Web Awards Ceremony is the centerpiece of evening activities at the SXSW Interactive Festival and an event not to be missed. Hosted by Doug Benson with special surprises in store for the big ‘lucky 13’!”

Monday, March 15th

Some really great panels today — unfortunately I have to leave late in the afternoon…

  • 9:30am, Hilton K Interactive Documentaries: A Multidimensional Narrative Panel features my friends from Take Action Games. “Documentaries are just not about ‘documenting’ an event – they interpret and synthesize many sources of information to explain a situation or express a specific point of view. So where does the user interact with this specific project? How can the users input influence the content and the creators? Meet interactive documentary producers to hear how they approach their medium. Learn what’s new when designing a weaving narrative and how do you make it engaging.”
  • 1:10pm, 12AB Hyperlocal Focus: Growing A Vibrant Community Media Ecosystem “Filmmakers, videobloggers, podcasters, pirate & low-power radio jocks and public access TV producers are all creating content in your local community, but they often don’t collaborate or even talk to each other, despite using the same tools and sometimes even seeking the same audiences. A 15 year-old videoblogger and a 50 year-old technical director at a local network TV affiliate may have a lot to learn from each other, but in what context would they ever meet? How can you engage local content creators and build a vibrant media community? This session is about how to create (and utilize) healthy, sustainable user-generated media scenes in local communities, using community media centers, creative salons, non-profit media arts foundations, citizen journalism organizations and grass roots organizing principals.”
  • 5:20pm, 12AB Transmedia Storytelling – Creating Stories That Work Over all Platforms Presented by James Milward of Secret Location fame. “Why and how are narrative worlds, be it traditional Film, Television, or New Media stories expanding across different media outlets and platforms? What are the emerging features of ‘Transmedia’ behavior, consumption and production? What do these new forms of storytelling, product and service design and branding tell us about future convergence of culture and technology?”

…and if I could stay until Tuesday, I definitely wouldn’t miss:

  • 9:30am, 6AB Playing with 140 Characters: Designing Games for Twitter “Twitter: a strange new platform for games. In this panel, the design collective Local No. 12 discusses how they have learned to work within the tight constraints of Twitter, while exploring new forms of gameplay and social interaction. This session will cover the state of games on Twitter, what has and hasn’t worked, and best practices for creating games for this platform.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB Pervasive Games and Playful Experiences: Rendering the Real World “The most photorealistic, networked environment you can play in is real life. Mobile internet, pervasive gaming and sensor-enriched public spaces enable new possibilities in game-play, distributed story-telling and immersive events. Building on previous SXSW events, leading practitioners will explore the ethics, design challenges and business potential of this new form. This session is supported by UK Trade & Investment and Arts Council, England.”

What have I left out? Let me know via twitter or in the comments. See you in Austin!

A Small Town Anywhere

Multiplayer social media games, including ARGs like Top Secret Dance Off and Must Love Robots, Facebook games like School of Magic, and collaborative production games such as SF0 are inherently about performance. These games allow players to exercise their public voices, step into the limelight, and actively engage with others through performative acts such as videotaping themselves dancing, submitting fictional robot-dating videos, engaging with friends in role playing mini-games, and creating and documenting ad hoc street art interventions. Likewise, performance artists are discovering the generative and poetic potentials of the magic circle and are finding ways to make theatre-going experiences more and more game-like. One example of this productively category-defying overlap is Coney‘s A Small Town Anywhere, which is kind of like an elaborate game of Werewolf, and kind of like an evening at the theatre, and in many ways not at all like either of those things.

A Small Town Anywhere is a theatrical event. It happened at the BAC or Battersea Arts Centre between October 15th and November 7th 2009. A Small Town Anywhere casts a Playing Audience as the citizens of, well, A Small Town Anywhere. There are no actors in the Town except the Playing Audience, who are free to interact and explore as they please. Henri Georges, the Historian convening A Small Town Anywhere, wishes to stress that visitors will not be expected to ‘perform’ in any uncomfortable manner, merely conversing with other vistors and perhaps writing a letter or two. You can speak to Henri in advance of your visit and perhaps discover a history for yourself in the Town, or simply turn up to play your part. (smalltownanywhere.net)

Lyn Gardner’s piece in The Guardian summarizes the experience and impact of the event nicely:

The letter is not addressed to me, but I open it anyway. Having control over the mail is one of the perks of being the postmistress in a small French town. The anonymous writer is, I discover, making a serious allegation – and it’s about me. There are hints about a murdered baby, its corpse buried under a juniper tree. I am, of course, as guilty as hell.

I look around the town square where the baker and butcher are gossiping, watch the children going into the schoolroom, see the mayor walk by. I wonder who wrote the letter. Then I do what I have done with all the previous letters I’ve intercepted. I destroy it. Then I write several ­ letters of my own, slyly suggesting that the schoolmistress was, last year, rumoured to be pregnant. Soon, the whole town will know.

I’m taking part in A Small Town Anywhere, a theatre piece in which the audience are the performers. It’s currently playing at London’s BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), part of a season of interactive shows that redefine the boundaries of theatre. Here, the show is both drama and game. Audience members – there are about 30 per performance – play characters in an imaginary French town. There is no script; every audience member plays a part in developing the story, and thus becomes responsible for its outcome.

And that outcome is not always pretty. The show ends with the community deciding who must be banished from the town to save the rest. (The Guardian)

More: Brendan Adkins’ description of his experience at the event, Matt Trueman’s review [and don’t miss Coney’s own notes on the production, in the comments below!].

Try to remain invisible: Subtlemob

Duncan Speakman‘s As if it were for the last time is a soundwalk and street performance wherein audiences are “invited to download an MP3 and turn up at a secret location to listen to the track at a specified time.” Speakman calls this a “subtlemob”; in contrast to flash mobs, participants in subtlemobs are urged to “try to remain invisible” throughout the event by blending into the normal flow of a busy urban space. Consequently, much of the power and poetry of projects like As if it were for the last time lie in their ability to make participants hyper-aware of their surroundings and their roles in the performance of everyday life. As one participant put it, “it was like you were given permission to look — at the people who weren’t doing it.”

From the project’s page at subtlemob.com):

When you put on the headphones you’ll find yourself immersed in the cinema of everyday life. As the soundtrack swells people in the crowd around you will begin to re-enact the England of today. Sometimes you’ll just be drifting and watching, but sometimes you’ll be following instructions or creating the scenes yourself. Don’t worry, there will be nothing illegal or embarrassing, sometimes you might be re-enacting moments you’ve seen in films, sometimes you’ll just be playing yourself. This is no requiem, this a celebratory slow dance, a chance to savour the world you live in, and to see it with fresh eyes. (subtlemob.com)

Playwright and tech enthusiast Hannah Nicklin‘s writeup:

This evening I took part in a sound walk-come-performance called ‘As if it Were the Last Time’. It was devised by Duncan Speakman and was put on by subtlemob. It took place on a small number of streets near Covent Garden. It was a (performance? Experience? Neither of these words do -) for two people. We were provided with a map, an mp3, and told to set it going at 6pm on the dot. My critical vocabulary is already struggling with this piece, because it really was very individual. That was the point. For each and every person who took part, the performance (for want of a more accurate word) was theirs. Entirely. And not, in staged theatre, as each audience member receiving the piece from a different perspective. This was each participant doing. The movements, the characters the gestures, the reflection in the shop windows and puddles, and the touch of someone’s hand on a shoulder, were all completely yours. Of your making. (Hannah Nicklin)

News of subtlemob events: http://twitter.com/subtlemob

ARG readings and reflections: an annotated bibliography

Update 28 January 2013: Readers interested in more up-to-date readings and reflections may wish to view my PhD research materials and/or read my dissertation here.

It’s hard to find someone who actually likes the term, “alternate reality game.” Observers worry that it’s too broad, or that it’s not broad enough; that it overemphasizes play, or that it underemphasizes players; that it leaves out storytelling, or that it puts too much focus on narrative. There’s no consensus on precisely what the term refers to and even less consensus on what it should. Still, at the end of the day, “ARG” is the most familiar of all the terms on offer, and I suspect that designers and academics will keep on using it until it slowly fades into redundancy. The boundaries between gameplay and storytelling, single-platform and multi-platform, real and virtual, author and audience, are all disappearing as we speak. It’s all fiction. Someday we’ll just leave it at that.

This resource contains links to blog posts, conference papers, journal articles, and other texts related to alternate reality gaming.

Defining ARG

  • WTF is an ARG? (Andrea Phillips, 2009) “Why can’t we reach a consensus on what an ARG is, and what an ARG isn’t? Why do we return home, like swallows to Capistrano, to that question: What IS an ARG? This is my attempt to wrestle with this knotty topic, and offer up a few opinions.”
  • Undefining ARG (Sean Stacey, 2006) “I have a way to define alternate reality gaming in such a fashion as to prove to you that I cannot in fact define it at all. While the previous statement may seem nonsensical, I encourage you to bear with me. The following is written with the assumption that the reader has some passing familiarity with the history, mechanics, and gameplay of ARGs.”
  • Alternate Reality Games (Sean Stewart, 2006) “Building an ARG is like running a role-playing game in your kitchen for 2 million of your closest friends. Like a role-playing game, we get players to actually enter the world of our story and interact with it, both online and in the real world.”

Design approaches and philosophies

  • ARG 2.0 (Jeff Watson, 2010) “In general, [the core design problems of “first wave” ARGs] center on three overlapping and relatively unchallenged aspects of traditional ARG design, namely: 1) that, despite the decidedly playful and improvisatory character of the relationship between puppet masters and players, ARGs are ultimately not game systems but rather vehicles for delivering story; 2) that ARGs treat their core audiences as monadic “collective detectives” rather than groups of living, breathing individuals; and, 3) that ARGs are linear, event-driven experiences.”
  • Everything you know about ARGs is wrong (Dan Hon, 2008) “There are, it seems to me, a number of differing interpretations as to what an ARG is, exactly, and that makes them quite easy to attack. If you don’t know what something is, it’s quite easy for it not to have lived up to your expectations.”
  • ARGFest 2007 Keynote (Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, 2007) “Delivering a keynote address to this audience is really difficult. What can we talk about? We can’t talk about anything we’ve done in the past because you were all there experiencing it. We can’t talk about anything we’re working on right now because that would ruin the fun and the mystery of the experience. We can’t talk about anything we have planned for the future because frankly, you are the competition. All that’s left is self-deprecation and the elephant in the room…trust.” (summary here)

See also: Part 2
Continue reading “ARG readings and reflections: an annotated bibliography”

ARGs in institutions: museums, libraries, schools, and beyond

This resource contains examples of alternate reality games (ARGs) created for museums, libraries, schools, and government agencies. Also included are links to related resources, designers, observers, and policy-makers. Please see my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here, for more up-to-date information about this topic.

Know of something that should be listed here? Please get in touch with me via the comments and I will update the resource.

Museums

Games

  • Ghosts of a Chance (Smithsonian, 2008-2010) “We live in a world in which information and entertainment are customizable and immediately available. The Internet has become a larger part of everyday life, and so too have networked games, as people seek community, activity, a sense of achievement, and the chance to be part of something bigger . . . Museums can reach out to their audiences in more ways, using blogs, podcasts, video, and social media, but can they meaningfully engage visitors using games? In the fall of 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an Alternate Reality Game titled “Ghosts of a Chance.” We did this with three goals in mind: to broaden our audience, to do a bit of self-promotion, and, most importantly, to encourage discovery around our collections in a new, very interactive way. This paper will discuss the challenges that the museum faced, evaluate the successes and failures of each part of the game, and make recommendations for other museums interested in trying something similar.” (Archimuse)

  • More on Ghosts of a Chance: Georgina Goodlander’s paper, Nina Simon’s blog writeup, Anika Gupta’s piece on Smithsonian.com and goSmithsonian, Washington Post coverage, and NPR’s coverage.
  • PHEON (Multiple institutions, 2010) “For the past couple of months CityMystery has been building a new game, called PHEON. (A pheon is an ancient Greek arrowhead that has come to symbolize nimbleness of wit.) The purpose of our game is to celebrate (and reinforce) the American impulse to innovate. An economist friend of mine recently said that we have to “invent” our way out of our current mess. With PHEON I am promoting the idea that Americans understand innovation as a reoccurring utility of our democracy, one that matches our ability to adapt and succeed. PHEON’s subtext has to do with how ideas are passed along: how one person articulates a wish that another fulfills.” (“Sneak Preview of a New Museum Game“)
  • More on PHEON: see Pass on the PHEON!.
  • Many museums are also developing location-specific games and storytelling activities (like this or this) that don’t fit comfortably into the definition of an ARG. For some starting points for looking into these kinds of projects, see my locative media and ambient storytelling resources, and visit Nancy Proctor’s site, Museum Mobile.

Articles and discussions

  • Reshaping the art museum June 2009 article from ArtNews: “Confronted with urgent demographic realities, art-museum directors are drawing on game theory, interactive technology, and a host of other new strategies to help people feel welcome, engaged, and emotionally fulfilled.”
  • Smithsonian 2.0 “The two-day Smithsonian 2.0 gathering explores how to make SI collections, educational resources, and staff more accessible, engaging, and useful to younger generations (teenage through college students) who will largely experience them digitally. Over 30 creative people from the web and new media world will meet with 30 Smithsonian staff members to generate a vision of what a digital Smithsonian might be like in the years ahead.”

Continue reading “ARGs in institutions: museums, libraries, schools, and beyond”

Hand from Above

Chris O’Shea:

Hand From Above encourages us to question our normal routine when we often find ourselves rushing from one destination to another. Inspired by Land of the Giants and Goliath, we are reminded of mythical stories by mischievously unleashing a giant hand from the BBC Big Screen. Passers by will be playfully transformed. What if humans weren’t on top of the food chain?

Unsuspecting pedestrians will be tickled, stretched, flicked or removed entirely in real-time by a giant deity.

Hand from Above is a joint co-commission between FACT: Foundation for Art & Creative Technology and Liverpool City Council for BBC Big Screen Liverpool and the Live Sites Network. It premiered during the inaugural Abandon Normal Devices Festival. (Chris O’Shea: Hand from Above)

Via Urban Prankster

RSS subscribers: do not adjust your set

Anyone using an RSS reader to access the content on this site may have noticed a sudden flood of micro-posts (about 20 of them) on Thursday, February 11th. The reason this happened is because I have started to use a great plugin called FeedWordpress to aggregate all my tweets from Twitter. This makes it possible for me (and you) to search for links and ideas I might have posted via Twitter using this site’s search function. I’ll be integrating a few more feeds this way over the next week, so don’t be alarmed if another flood occurs: this is just FeedWordpress gathering the most recent 15 or so instances from whatever feed I’m pointing it at.

If you don’t want to receive my full social media flow, you can subscribe to my blog feed only here.

Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers

Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else — including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).

A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.
Continue reading “Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers”