# Jan 19, 2014

“In participatory situations, game structure replaces aesthetics. Instead of events being worked out beforehand, there is a “game plan,” a set of objectives, moves, and rules that are generally known or explained. The game plan is flexible, adapting to changing situations. . . [In 1969,] I formulated three rules of participation:

  1. The audience is in a living space and a living situation. Things may happen to and with them as well as ‘in front’ of them.
  2. When a performer invites participation, he must be prepared to accept and deal with the spectator’s reactions.
  3. Participation should not be gratuitous.”

Richard Schechner, Environmental Theater. Applause Books, New York, 1973. 78.

Essential Reading: The Work of Art in the Age of Mediated Participation

levels

Anyone interested in “the practice of using the Internet as a participatory platform to directly engage the public in the creation of visual, musical, literary, or dramatic [artworks]” should not miss Ioana Literat‘s fantastic paper, The Work of Art in the Age of Mediated Participation, freely available through the International Journal of Communication.

Among many other important insights, Literat’s paper presents a concise breakdown of what she calls “The Levels of Artistic Participation,” identifying the affordances of “receptive,” “executory,” and “structural” participation via a series of contemporary and historical examples.

Literat’s analysis can provide critical designers with important tools for working through the many ethical and practical challenges presented by what I’m calling “participation design.” For theorists, students, and designers alike, this paper is not to be missed.

More: follow Ioana Literat on Twitter.

Revel: a geolocative app with an emphasis on play and public space – call for participation

PEG-LA co-conspirator Sarah Brin is one of the coordinators of Revel, “a public invitation to participate in fun, social, and adventurous challenges on streetcorners, in parks, and in all parts of town. [The Revel] iPhone app organizes missions by type and by location, deepening your connection to your neighbors and your city.” Revel is looking for creatives to propose challenges that will be incorporated into the experience. From the call for participation:

WHO CAN PROPOSE A CHALLENGE?

Everyone! We’re looking for a broad range of missions in a variety of fields. Challenges can be as simple as a set of instructions written for one person, or more complex, involving multiple people in different roles. No technical knowledge is required.

CAN I PROPOSE MORE THAN ONE CHALLENGE?

Absolutely. Submit as many as you like under as many topic headings as you like.

We’re looking for challenges that relate to the following topics: Appreciation, Exploring, Fitness Training, Neighbors & Networks, Leadership, Photography, and Storytelling.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

Aside from excitement of giving tens of thousands of people an experience they won’t forget, there’s $20,000 in prize money available to the authors of the challenges that generate the highest number of positive experiences.

WHEN IS THE DEADLINE?

The deadline for entries is July 15, 2011. (getrevel.com)

Groundcrew is the creative force behind Revel.

16 June 2014: Tunisian transmedia campaign

16 Juin 2014 is a participatory transmedia event that took place in February of 2011. The project engaged the Tunisian public via a variety of platforms and interactions in playfully imagining the country’s post-revolution future. 16 Juin 2014 was spearheaded by ad agency Memac Ogilvy Label:

Memac Ogilvy Label decided to show everyone how bright Tunisia’s future could be if everyone all started building it now. The agency convinced six brands and five major Tunisian media outlets (one radio, one television, two newspapers and one online magazine) to participate in the June 16th 2014 campaign. During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country. To further engage people, the agency launched a hashtag on Twitter [#16juin2014] and 16juin2014.com, a website with all the content and where people could share their own vision of the future. (The Inspiration Room)

Dokobots: findable, sharable virtual playthings embedded in real space

Dokobots looks to be a great little geogame, with clever mechanics that push pervasive location-based participatory entertainment into some exciting new territory. Here are some highlights from the January 4th, 2011 press release posted by design studio Dokogeo (creators of, among other neat things, 2009 Come Out and Play Technology Award winner Seek n’ Spell and the GeoSeek game engine):

Dokobots adds a digital layer to the real world in this global scavenger hunt. Using an augmented map interface, players search for the objects used in the game. A typical walk to lunch transforms into an adventure as players discover and collect rare and exciting items.

Dokobots travel with players as they go about their day and engage in fun activities. Players mark locations, take photos, and add notes to catalogue the travels and adventures of the ’bots. Dokobots appear in each photo, where players can fit them to the scene — perching them on a friend’s shoulder or posing them in front of a landmark.

Every Dokobot keeps a detailed record of its adventures in a travel journal. The journal automatically charts the ’bot’s route through the world, tracking map locations, host players and user-created photos and notes. Players can check out the photos taken by each of the previous hosts before adding their own, and a newsfeed keeps players up to date about the latest activities of their favorite Dokobots, highlighting new photos and other entries.

Sharing fun entries is easy as the app seamlessly integrates with social networks, email, and the web. “People have these robot pen-pals that keep them up-to-date as they travel,” adds Dokogeo co-founder Dan Walton, “and the game becomes a network of people sharing stories surrounding the Dokobots’ experiences.” (dokobots.com press release)

Learning by ARG: an interview with Mela Kocher Lennstroem

Mela Kocher Lennstroem is a Swiss games researcher currently living in San Diego, where she conducts post-doctoral research on “the blurring of reality and fiction in digital media, especially in ARGs.” I caught up with Mela via Twitter and email after she co-presented (with Ken Eklund, Stephen Petrina, and PJ Rusnak) a “mini ARG” at the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Conference in La Jolla, California — an event I wish I’d attended, especially after talking to Mela about what happened during her session.

First off, I noticed your dissertation, “Follow the Pixel Rabbit,” on your website. Even though I can’t read German, I found it interesting to flip through the pages. Speaking generally, what’s your dissertation about — and what does the Alice reference in the title mean?

I wrote my dissertation on storytelling in video games around 2002/2003. At that time game studies was still a pretty new thing at universities in Switzerland (and games not really accepted as a serious academic subject). With the reference to Alice in Wonderland I wanted to make the statement that digital games offer a magic, bizarre and wonderful world for the one who dares to enter. My dissertation is about different ways of storytelling and player engagement of video games, hyperfiction and interactive movies – latter being a genre that failed remarkably in its beginnings – just watch/play I’m Your Man!

Obviously you are engaged with a lot of different fields of inquiry, from game design to narratology to aesthetics. How did you end up deciding to study/make this kind of stuff? What path did you take to becoming a theorist-practitioner?

Besides frenetically playing Games & Watch as a child, I lead a pretty video game-free life until my roommate in college got me into Myst and Riven. I studied German literature at that point and was curious to test the traditional literary theory frameset on games – and luckily my professor was encouraging that. Writing a dissertation on the topic was a pretty natural step (since it was fun, challenging and exciting), and during that time I played lots of games and taught many game workshops for teachers and librarians. In the past years I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by ARGs and their vast potential for storytelling and blurring the lines between fiction and reality – so I was more than happy to have gotten a research grant to study, play and now even make ARGs in the USA for two years.

You recently appeared on a panel at the Digital Media and Learning conference entitled, “Storytellers, Storymakers and Learning by ARG.” As a part of the panel, you and your co-panelist, game designer Ken Eklund (World Without Oil), designed and ran a mini-ARG. What was the purpose of this game, and how did it work?

The conference theme was “Diversifying Participation”, and our team wanted to discuss ARGs & participatory learning. Since it would probably take an hour to explain what ARGs are (and people still wouldn’t get it!), it seemed more effective (and way more fun!) to have the audience engage in one first hand. The game plot went like this: One of the speakers (which ended up being me) got lost on campus and was not be able to show up for the session in time. While Ken explained this to the waiting conference attendees, he had a “stress-induced narcoleptic attack of 20 minutes” so the audience was completely left to themselves (while our other two team members, PJ Rusnak and Stephen Petrina, stayed incognito in the room for possible trouble shooting).

I wish I had been there. How many people ended up participating?

You should have! There were around 40 people in a quite tiny room so it was packed. It was amazing which strategies the participants came up with – they started a Facebook search, tried to sneak Ken’s phone from his sleeping hand, they tweeted me, tried to call and text me and physically went out on campus to search for me – unfortunately for them, in my fictional world my phone was malfunctioning and I could only send them pictures from my location via tweet to ping.fm. That constraint gave way to lots of creativity, though (as our PM team had hoped for), and the participants truly engaged in their storymaking efforts.

What kind of feedback did you get? How was the notion of “learning by ARG” understood by the assembled educators?

There was definitely excitement in the room during the game (I watched the video later on). Most of them immediately understood that it was a game, and got into play mode. My favorite reaction was the (failed) gamejack attempt of one man who offered to hold his own speech while they were waiting for the scheduled speaker. Another person doubted that I was truly lost but suggested that I might just need a bit of comforting to take up my role as speaker. Lovely!

Even from this short ARG performance, people saw the great potential ARGs bear for learning – via features like creativity, collaboration, common goals, instant player feedback, immersion, role play, problem-solving… Most attendants thought of the ARG as an inspiring experience during an academic conference stuffed with formal one-to-many presentations.

On a more meta level, how do participatory game constructs like storymaking ARGs complicate or extend your thinking on narrative in digital games? Are the categories of “story” and “game” collapsing into one another, or do the traditional boundaries still hold?

ARGs have a potential for storytelling and storymaking that video games do not have, because of the possibility for real time interaction with the puppet masters and the actual chance for the player (or the more believable illusion!) to influence the course of the game. Narrative adventure video games are in comparison to that so limited and often incoherent due to their closed programming. Of course, more open structured video games like GTA offer completely different ways of experiencing and creating a story as well which also extends beyond the realm of the screen, but ARGs just take this idea much further. But new options bear new problems, and ARGs rely on the puppet masters’ coherent and instant feedback and their fair choices – and on the collaboration of the fellow players.

To your second question: I’d rather keep the concepts of “story” and “game” apart for analytical reasons, even though they tend to overlap [in the case of] ARGs: [that is,] I can play by being part of the story or by trying to crack a code. I would say that ARGs make story playable, but they are more story than game – but then this also depends on what the player is looking for. I myself love to ‘stalk’ a character and get into the game through character interaction while others love to solve puzzles etc. – the more traditional game-aspects of an ARG.

What’s next for ARGs — and for your research in general?

I’m curious to see if ARGs will develop towards shorter, replayable and even payable game formats for wider audiences (and therefore blend with features of video games).

I myself got very intrigued by having experienced a challenging setting like the academic conference as a playground, and I hope to investigate further in that direction. I’m not a fan of serious games per se, but I do believe that “play” in general provides at its core some of the most valuable experiences for living and learning.

Thanks, Mela!

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

Location-Based Ambient Storytelling

[The entirety of this document, including lists of deliverables and a preliminary timeline, can be downloaded in .pdf form here.]

Summary

This course of directed research seeks to identify and implement a range of context- and location-based storytelling techniques by leveraging ubiquitous computing technologies – including mobile communications devices, broadband wi-fi networks, real-time sensor systems and the Internet itself – to create a layered, pervasive and interactive story experience rooted in physical space.

The primary deliverable of this project will be a so-called Alternate Reality Game (ARG) centered on the newly-constructed School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) building at USC. Working in concert with a team of mobile storytelling investigators and technologists headed by professor Scott Fisher, I will coordinate the development of narrative content for a long-arc story experience intended to enrich the physical and virtual environment of the SCA with layers of mystery, playfulness and interactivity.

By implementing a small-scale location-based ARG such as the one proposed herein, I expect to glean a variety of quantitative and qualitative insights into the limitations and possibilities of this nascent narrative form. These insights will feed directly into my primary doctoral inquiry into the question of how an increasingly mobile, ubiquitous and interoperable communications infrastructure can enable new forms of computationally-mediated narrative, both in terms of traditional author-to-audience storytelling and emerging modes of collaborative networked expression and participation. Further, by creating and managing a small team of co-conspirators (see “Approach,” below), and by extending an invitation to participate in the project to the SCA community as a whole (both through the mechanics of the game itself and as a part of the development and pre-production process), I hope to broaden the level of interest in this kind of storytelling by inspiring others to investigate new avenues for the transmedial exploration of character and myth.

Background

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a relatively new form of narrative gameplay – the earliest incarnations of the genre date to the late 1990s and early 2000s – that use the real world and all its myriad communications modalities as the surface upon which to layer story and interaction. As a spatially- and temporally-distributed storytelling form, ARGs deploy narrative across a wide range of expressive media, including physical spaces and artifacts, websites, game worlds, books and graphic novels, music, television and movies, online video, rumors, cell phone content and live performances. For the player-participants of an ARG, apprehending the story and the mechanics of the game is an active investigative or archaeological task, a process of uncovering mysteries and sifting through answers in an effort to find the right questions. As such, playing an ARG is fundamentally distinct from traditional game or story forms in which a “magic circle” of play or spectatorship ceremonially defines the boundaries between the fictional and the real. In an ARG, the line between “in-game” and “out-of-game” is intentionally blurred. Jane McGonigal, a leading researcher in the field, describes this approach as the “this is not a game” (TINAG) aesthetic. When this aesthetic is adhered to with a modicum of discipline, the ARG as a story medium becomes more akin to hoax-making than novel-writing (although, it should be said, an ARG could conceivably deploy a novel as a component of its overall storytelling strategy): like a good hoax, a successful ARG will conceal itself beneath layers of compelling real-world information. Players of ARGs thus often begin playing the game before they even know that a game is afoot. In the apotheosis of this form, by the time players realize that there is an intelligence guiding their investigations into the mysteries that have inexplicably infiltrated their lives, their desire to uncover the truth of the matter becomes irresistible, and players will pursue the mystery to the end of the line, oftentimes sharing their insights and solving game problems collectively via self-organized online interactions.

To date, the peculiar affordances of the ARG have been exploited primarily by media corporations such as Microsoft, Dreamworks and Sony Pictures in order to launch viral marketing campaigns for other products. For example, one of the most successful ARGs in recent memory began with a mysterious bee-keeping website that came to the attention of participants via a brief flash of text at the end of a movie trailer. A great deal of Internet buzz ensued as interested parties began to investigate the website and its provenance, revealing a strange series of what initially appeared to be distress signals from some kind of trapped or kidnapped individual. Increasingly large groups of players began working collectively online to solve the mystery, and as things got weirder and weirder, word-of-mouth drew more and more participants into the world of the story. In the end, this project, known as “ilovebees”, turned out to be a promotional initiative for the launch of Microsoft’s Halo 2.

While the origins and historical applications of the ARG are rooted in viral marketing, more recent iterations employing the TINAG aesthetic have sought to create so-called “self-monetizing” ARGs. For example, 42 Entertainment, the studio that produced ilovebees and several other seminal ARGs, recently partnered with a small press to publish Cathy’s Book, a book for young adults purporting to be the private diary of a missing teenage girl. By framing this publication with an invitation to readers to help locate the missing teenager, the designers were able to simultaneously steer their audience toward multiple story assets exterior to the book itself (e.g. websites mentioned in the book, phone lines accessible via numbers scrawled in the “diary’s” margins, and so on), offset the production costs of writing and producing the project as a whole, and draw new readers to discover (and purchase) the book itself via the creation of an online following. The book sold well, debuting at #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for Children’s Books, and the online community continues to be active.

In addition to revealing more about the potential uses of the ARG for both viral marketing and self-monetization, a significant goal of the project proposed herein is to explore the capacity of ambient story and game play to create and shape communities of player-participants within the constraints of institutional space. Questions to be addressed include: can ARGs and other kinds of layered or ambient story/game systems help to foster a sense of community and camaraderie in work and study environments? Does the presence of a continuously-unfolding mystery “accelerate serendipity” by bringing like-minded individuals into physical and virtual association in order to solve the mysteries with which they have been confronted? How can an ARG stimulate the production and sharing of media by its participants? More broadly, can highly-mediated approaches to play and narrative that involve the deep and tangled integration of story-telling, story-consuming, and even story-producing, into the fabric of everyday life produce emotional and social effects of similar character to those produced by the novel or the narrative cinema? Addressing these questions through the deployment of a small-scale ARG in the SCA will provide key practical insights into the creation and management of such projects, while also revealing new data regarding the intersection between structured social play and networked computational systems. It is my belief that an inquiry into the nature of this intersection is essential as we enter an age of ubiquitous information technology wherein the respective agencies of authors, crowds and machines promise to collide in productive and unpredictable ways.

Approach

Time is of the essence in the successful development and deployment of an ARG, and this project is no exception. The opening ceremonies for the new SCA Building are scheduled for mid-March, 2009, meaning careful coordination of resources and a strict adherence to a workflow timeline will be essential. To this end, work has already begun in concert with Scott Fisher’s “The Future of the Story” (TFOTS) research group (comprised of Professor Fisher, Will Carter, Marientina Gotsis, Jen Stein and Hidefumi Yasuda) to determine the specific technological, budgetary and personnel requirements and availabilities of the project. By continuing to liaise with this group and its derivatives (such as Will Carter’s “Design and Technologies for Mobile Experiences” class, CTIN 405), I expect to develop a precise set of practical parameters within which the story and game mechanics can operate by mid-January 2009. Once these parameters have been defined, I will begin the process of structuring the story/game experience and creating the necessary narrative content.

To act as a force-multiplier for these efforts, I have assembled a small team (“The Story Group”)  of writers, designers and programmers from the ranks of the Graduate Program of the IMD. This team will work under my direction to develop and deploy the creative and technical assets  required of the project. Four of these team members will be assigned primary roles and will be paid as interns for their work; an additional cadre of four to six collaborators will work in association with this core group to develop and execute the ARG. Further, as the timeline progresses, “pre-game” elements – small mini-games and story segments deployed in and around the SCA – will act as “rabbit holes,” enticing early participants who themselves will shape the development of the final experience, which will “go live” during the opening ceremonies of the new SCA Building.

UPDATE (15 July 2009): A portion of this project was demonstrated to a small test group in mid-May; observations and comments from the demonstration are forthcoming (as components of a larger paper on Location-Based Ambient Storytelling); their appearance will be noted here.

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