“Assuming that all ARG players have large blocks of time to dedicate to your game is a dangerous assumption that limits your audience to players dedicated to your game to the exclusion of almost everything else. And making that assumption feeds the stereotype that gamers are people with shallow pockets and lots of time on their hands. Based on anecdotal evidence, that is far from the truth. However, if game designers continue to operate on that assumption by creating games that are largely inaccessible without absolute dedication to a single game, it may become an unfortunate reality.”
We will be presenting No File: Brown, an interactive locative experience, at the ELO.AI conference at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island from May 3 to 6, 2010. The project is a collaboration between Kiki Benzon and Jeff Watson, and was built using the Waag Society’s amazing 7scenes technology.
Providence has a fascinating history. The city is in many ways the birthplace of the United States, having originated via a tense union between exiled members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (many of whom were kicked out for agitating for the separation of church and state) and the leadership of the powerful Narragansett Native American tribe. No File: Brown is a fictional narrative that builds on this history by embedding a media archive in physical space. Users can explore this archive via the 7scenes iPhone application as they move through the ELO.AI conference venues and the Brown University campus and environs.
We will be documenting the project online once the exhibition is over. Check back here for updates and links.
Download the postcard: PDF
ARGs, pervasive games, and location-based social games echo and reiterate a range of earlier experiments in ambient and locative art. Graffiti, sticker art, mail art, and other kinds of analog methods for creating distributed narratives paved the way for the kinds of practices that are today exploding in number and purpose thanks to ubiquitous computing and the real-time web. Lettrism and Situationism redefined urban space as a canvas for experimentation, play, and collaborative production. In 1959, Dutch architect and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys wrote “Another City for Another Life,” for the third issue of Internationale Situationniste. This text, which calls for a city “harmonized” by “unforeseen games” that make “inventive use of material conditions,” surely must be one of the founding documents of locative art and pervasive gaming. I include it here in its entirety:
The crisis in urbanism is worsening. The construction of neighborhoods, ancient and modern, is in obvious disagreement with established forms of behavior and even more so with the new forms of life that we are seeking. The result is a dismal and sterile ambiance in our surroundings.
In the older neighborhoods, the streets have degenerated into freeways, leisure activities are commercialized and denatured by tourism. Social relations become impossible there. The newly-constructed neighborhoods have but two motifs, which dominate everything: driving by car and comfort at home. They are the abject expression of bourgeois well-being, and all ludic preoccupations are absent from them.
Faced with the necessity of building whole towns quickly, cemeteries of reinforced concrete — in which great masses of the population are condemned to die of boredom — are being constructed. So what use are the extraordinary technical inventions the world now has at its disposal, if the conditions are lacking to profit from them, if they add nothing to leisure, if imagination is wanting?
We crave adventure. Not finding it on earth, some men have gone to seek it on the moon. We prefer to wager on a change on earth. We propose creating situations, new situations, here. We count on infringing the laws that hinder the development of effective activities in life and in culture. We are at the dawn of a new era and are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of unitary urbanism (the urbanism intended to bring pleasure).
Our domain, then, is the urban nexus, the natural expression of collective creativity, capable of subsuming the creative energies that are liberated with the decline of the culture based on individualism. We are of the opinion that the traditional arts will not be able to play a role in the creation of the new ambiance in which we want to live.
We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behavior.
Our conception of urbanism is therefore social. We are opposed to all the conceptions of a ville verte, a “green town” where well-spaced and isolated skyscrapers must necessarily reduce the direct relations and common action of men. Conurbation is indispensible for the direct relation of surroundings and behavior to be produced. Those who think that the rapidity of our movements and the possibilities of telecommunications are going to erode the shared life of the conurbations are ignorant of the real needs of man. To the idea of the ville verte, which most modern architects have adopted, we oppose the image of the covered town, in which the plan of roads and separate buildings has given way to a continuous spatial construction, disengaged from the ground, and included in which will be groups of dwellings as well as public spaces (permitting changes in use according to the needs of the moment). Since all traffic, in the functional sense of the term, will pass below or on the terraces above, the street is done away with. The large number of different traversable spaces of which the town is composed form a complex and enormous space space [in its place]. Far from a return to nature, to the idea of living in a park as individual aristocrats once did, we see in such immense constructions the possibility of overcoming nature and of submitting the climate, light and sounds in these different spaces to our control.
Do we intend this to be a new functionalism, which will give greater prominence the idealized utilitarian life? It should not be forgotten that, once the functions are established, play will succeed them. For a long time now, architecture has been a playing with space and ambiance. The ville verte lacks ambiances. We, on the contrary, want to make more conscious use of ambiances; and so they correspond to all our needs.
The future cities we envisage will offer an original variety of sensations in this domanin, and unforeseen games will become possible through the inventive use of material conditions, like the conditioning of air, sound and light. Urbanists are already studying the possibility of harmonizing the cacophony that reigns in contemporary cities. It will not take long to encounter there a new domain for creation, just as in many other problems that will present themselves. The space voyages that are being announced could influence this development, since the bases that will be established on other planets will immediately pose the problem of sheltered cities, and will perhaps provide the pattern for our study of a future urbanism.
Above all, however, the reduction in the work necessary for production, through extended automation, will create a need for leisure, a diversity of behavior and a change in the nature of the latter, which will of necessity lead to a new conception of the collective habitat with a maximum of space space, contrary to the conception of a ville verte where social space is reduced to a minimum. The city of the future must be conceived as a continuous construction on pillars, or, rather, as an extended system of different structures from which are suspended premises for housing, amusement, etc., and premises destined for production and distribution, leaving the ground free for the circulation of traffic and for public messages. The use of ultra-light and insulating materials, which are being experimented with today, will permit the construction to be light and its supports well-spaced. In this way, one will be able to create a town on many levels: lower level, ground level, different floors, terraces, of a size that can vary between an actual neighborhood and a metropolis. It should be noted that in such a city the built surface will be 100% of that available and the free surface will be 200% (parterre and terraces), while in traditional towns the figures are some 80% and 20%, respectively; and that in the ville verte this relation can even be reversed [20% and 80%, respectively]. The terraces form an open-air terrain that extends over the whole surface of the city, and which can be sports fields, airplane and helicopter landing-strips, and for the maintenance of vegetation. They will be accessible everywhere by stair and elevator. The different floors will be divided into neighborhing and communicating spaces, artificially conditioned, which will offer the possibility of create an infinite vaiety of ambiances, facilitating the derive of the inhabitants and their frequent chance encounters. The ambiances will be regularly and consciously changed, with the aid of every technical means, by teams of specialized creators who, hence, will be professional situationists.
An in-depth study of the means of creating ambiances, and the latter’s psychological influence, is one of the tasks we are currently undertaking. Studies concerning the technical realization of the load-bearing structures and their aesthetic is the specific task of plastic artists and engineers. The contribution of the latter is an urgent necessity for making progress in the prepatory work we are undertaking.
If the project we have just traced out in bold strokes risks being taken for a fantastic dream, we insist on the fact that it is feasible from the technical point of view and that it is desirable from the human point of view. The increasing dissatisfaction that dominates the whole of humanity will arrive at a point at which we will all be forced to execute projects whose means we possess, and which will contribute to the realization of a richer and more fulfilled life. (notbored.org)
“Regardless of how the digerati feel about Facebook, millions of average people are deeply wedded to the site. They won’t leave because the cost/benefit ratio is still in their favor. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering because of decisions being made about them and for them. What’s at stake now is not whether or not Facebook will become passe, but whether or not Facebook will become evil. I think that we owe it to the users to challenge Facebook to live up to a higher standard, regardless of what we as individuals may gain or lose from their choices.”
“I had been preaching the Unix gospel of small tools, rapid prototyping and evolutionary programming for years. But I also believed there was a certain critical complexity above which a more centralized, a priori approach was required. I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.
Linus Torvalds’s style of development—release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity—came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.”
“Transdisciplinarity and the ability to extract from a range of theoretical and practical sources underlines media archaeology’s nature as a method and discipline of changing academic times, when (again) disciplinary boundaries are shifting and media related topics span much beyond the strict confines of media as a cultural industry. As a traveling, wandering, and hopefully aberrant enterprise, media archaeology could work towards evaluating its own premises of knowledge both in a field of capitalist new media culture and in the discourses of media theory. Taking it in directions that force it to speak more about politics, affects, sensations, materiality, and embodiment, for example through actual art projects that are media archaeological, is one of the ways to proceed, I would say. As a traveling, nomad enterprise, it also has to be an orphaned one…”
“In the multimodal landscape of communication, choice and therefore design become central issues. If I have a number of ways of expressing and shaping my message, then the questions that confront me are: which mode is best, most apt, for the content / meaning I wish to communicate? Which mode most appeals to the audience whom I intend to address? Which mode most corresponds to my own interest at this point in shaping the message for communication? Which medium is preferred by my audience? Or by me? How am I positioning myself if I choose this medium or this mode rather than those others?”
You’re a self-identified science fiction writer working in a very hard-to-pin-down storytelling medium. How did you end up writing and designing ARGs?
I was one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers, back in 2001. As a writer, it was like a lightning bolt falling from heaven. I went through the experience and thought, “That. I want to do THAT.” It took a few years to go anywhere, though. Finally my fellow moderators, Dan and Adrian Hon, started talking about forming the company that would later become Mind Candy. I begged them to let me help out so relentlessly that they had no choice but hire me. I’ve been in the business ever since.
One of the things that is quickly becoming an issue with game and transmedia writing is the sometimes tenuous position of the writer in the apparatus of production. How do you think being an ARG writer differs from being, say, a TV writer or a novelist?
At its best, writing for an ARG is a performing art. When you write a novel, you work in isolation; you won’t get feedback from the bulk of your readers until it’s completed. And with a TV show, production schedules mean the writing is completed sometimes months before a show airs.
With an ARG, though, you can dance with your audience. If they take a shine to a minor character, you can boost that character’s role midstream. If they’re bored with a plot thread, you can catch it early and fix it. And that kind of feedback is addictive to a writer. It can be difficult to get that kind of feedback in other media at all. But in an ARG, you’re doing something close to watching their faces as they read along, so you know when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing.
In the larger realm of production and transmedia, though, I think this causes some logistical problems. A great transmedia experience requires an agility that traditional means of production just don’t have, and the writer can be placed in a difficult position, trying to maintain the integrity of the experience while working within the framework of your production schedule.
In a recent post on this issue on your blog, you wrote that sometimes “there are so many writers working on a project that it’s hard to know whose hand [is] guiding the wheel. But these are solveable problems, and solving them would benefit us all.” What kinds of first steps do you think need to be taken to advance the cause?
The first step would be looking at the kinds of roles game writers and transmedia writers fall into right now, to see if we can find common structures. In games, there’s a lot of support for the title ‘narrative designer’ right now. That’s the person who comes up with the spine of the story, whether or not they ever write a word of player-facing copy. Maybe we need to go in that direction, and separate the narrative designer from the world designer.
And given the performative element of an ARG, maybe we need to be crediting writers alongside actors. ‘The character of Alice Liddell was performed by Ada Lovelace, and written by Marshall Thurgood.’
Shifting gears a bit, I’m curious about how you tackle the complex demands of ARG writing and design. After meeting with a client, where do you begin? What comes first for you, the formal constraints (ie, the kinds of interactions you want to produce) or the story material?
Everything I do begins with a big idea. Sometimes that’s mine, and it springs into existence fully-formed — “What if everyone wrote about waking up with superpowers?” Sometimes it’s the assignment given to me by a client. “We have XYZ requirements and assets. What do you have for us?”
From there, I do a little research and a little bit of what looks from the outside like nothing at all. Going to the gym, walking to school, cooking. The important thing is that I leave my brain unoccupied so it’s free to come up with stuff, like particles popping into existence in a vacuum. As the idea simmers in the back of my head, everything about what the project should look like becomes obvious to me. It feels very much like discovering something that was already there.
Specific story elements come last for me. Tension and pacing and structure are the first things that come to mind, and the specific plot and story elements flow out of that. It’s the opposite of the way I did things a few years ago. I used to think of story and plot detail first! I’m not sure why it’s changed, but I’m helpless to do it any other way, now.
Historically, most ARGs have been event-driven time-released stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. One of the nice things about this narrative structure is that it allows writers to plan (and re-plan, as conditions on the ground shift) their stories in much the same way that they do in more traditional forms: that is, via character arcs, acts, orchestrated patterns of conflict, and so on. However, these kinds of ARGs are usually not replayable, and many people — for many reasons — feel that this is an area where the form could stand to experiment a little bit. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree that we need to experiment more. But the good news is that the experimenting is going on now.
Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things my project Routes did was creating a weekly webisode from the events in the ARG, so you could interact with the live experience while it played out, but there is also an artifact of the experience that gives the project a long tail it wouldn’t have otherwise. In the metaphor of the ARG as a live concert, that’s creating a recording you can listen to at any time. You won’t be able to do all of the same things — you won’t be able to throw your underwear up on stage or smell the guy in front of you — but you’ll get some sense of what it was like to have been there. I think this technique could definitely move into wider use.
And there are a number of entirely replayable experiences, too: Smokescreen, the Cathy’s Book series, etc. The downside of this is that you lose some wonder, some discovery, a ton of reactivity, and the camaraderie of a single community playing along together. It transforms into a different kind of experience.
So can a system for storytelling — that is, a set of story-world parameters and rules of engagement — be considered a kind of fiction? If so, how does this change our understanding of what a writer is?
Oh, it absolutely can. I’d consider My Super First Day to be a set of very loose story-world parameters that I’ve set, and I consider it a work of fiction. It doesn’t make me a writer, though; I only get to be a writer if I also participate. But I’m indisputably the creator.
You may also be familiar with Ghyll and The Song of the Sorcelator, both arguably just frameworks for writer-participants to play around with. This is one of the things I keep playing around with in my personal work, actually; where is the line between a creator and a participant, and how can you blur it in a way that will be rewarding to everybody?
As time goes on, I think the boundary will become ever more nebulous. We’re already seeing major entertainment franchises take a kinder, gentler stand on fanfiction and fanart. That’s the first step in building collaborative culture. The secret, of course, is that once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker.
Where do you see all this going in the next five years? And what’s next for you?
Five years is an incredibly long time. Five years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, and when you walked into a digital agency and said ‘interactive’ they thought you were talking about banner ads and SEO. I think in five years, the entire entertainment landscape is going to look so profoundly different that anything I have to say on it is worthless.
As for me, I have a couple of things cooking right now. I try to do enough professional projects to keep the rent paid, and enough personal projects that I feel I’m always pushing my own limits. But my personal projects are largely microscopic in scale and experimental to the point of self-indulgence. I’m thinking about trying to do a bigger, more ambitious experimental personal project toward the end of the year, and possibly funding through Kickstarter or some such thing. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I feel like it would be a shame not to try. The creative life is all about taking risks.
UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here
“When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive. It’s one thing for semantic and identity layers to emerge on the web, but it’s something else entirely for … all of the interactions on those layers to be piped through a single provider (and not just because that provider becomes a single point of failure).”