# Jul 17, 2014

“[A] man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words

Play, writing, and the pleasures of complex dynamic systems

Writer and game designer Andrea Phillips, who I interviewed in this space a few years back, recently wrote a blog post about the evolution of her writing process, describing “the way that my creation of stories and my creation of games have come to use the same general process.” The gist of the post is something like this: developing stories amounts to something very similar to developing games in terms of the way that both forms demand striking a kind of systemic balance. An unbalanced game will be exploited by its players, or, as in the example Phillips uses of a game which over-incentivizes certain play actions through its point system, will bring about undesired behaviors that detract from the core experience. Similarly, narrative figures fail to generate their intended effects unless they are finely “balanced” toward specific ends. This could be illustrated by the canonical example of how showing a ticking time bomb hidden beneath a table at the beginning of a sequence will generate suspense, but if it is shown only right before it explodes, the result will be mere shock. In both cases — games and narratives — simple changes in sequence, tone, and fact can have enormous impact on the system as a whole.

Some of my own first inklings of this sort of systems thinking came about when I was learning how to write JavaScript. One of the first projects I did was a kind of “random log line generator” that put together snippets of beginnings, middles, and ends to create surprising (and often absurd) pseudo-random stories. As I worked to make the program do more sophisticated things — things like check if there had been a car mentioned in an earlier part of the story, and if there had, bring it back in later in the story — I began to see more clearly how traditional fixed linear stories (at the time I was working on various screenplay projects) were in fact complex dynamic systems (at least in terms of the development process — though of course as far as their relationship to spectators goes, they remain so long after they are “finished”). Making a change in one part of the text has cascading effects throughout the whole, changing meanings, altering stakes, and opening (or closing) lines of possibility. It seems obvious now, but for me it also felt like a breakthrough.

Maybe that discovery was part of why I became interested in participatory and environmental media broadly and game design more specifically. The thrill of watching those possibilities open and close and those changes ripple through the system was something I wanted to design for. Why should authors have all the fun playing with the pieces and seeing how things shake out differently as the constituent elements of a story environment are changed? As Phillips puts it, it’s a wonderful game to imagine “how else we might have assembled the same cogs and gears to make [the clockwork machine of a story] run faster or quieter or keep time better.”

This pleasure, I think, is at the heart of game play, not just game design. It’s a unique kind of pleasure that comes from a feeling of real agency, of having one’s actions effect tangible consequences upon a system, and of discovering the new and unforeseen challenges associated with those consequences — and it’s what keeps me passionate about writing, designing, and playing alike.

Taking risks and dancing with audiences: Andrea Phillips on writing for transmedia and ARGs

I met Andrea Phillips at this year’s SXSW, where she delivered a smart, wide-ranging talk about the representation of women in ARGs. Andrea is a veteran ARG writer, designer, and player, and is the current chair of the IGDA ARG Special Interest Group. In this interview, Andrea discusses her creative process and the formal and technical limitations (and possibilities) of ARGs and other playful forms of transmedia storytelling:

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.

Thanks, Andrea!

UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here

Talking story with Jan Libby

A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers. In the comments, Jan Libby (@labfly) noted that “the first element you need to organize and lay out is ‘your story’ and then later how it connects to the world. After all, this is a storytelling genre.” Knowing that Jan is a prolific and talented indie ARG designer, I asked her if she would be interested in doing a short interview about how she plans and evolves her games — and about the important role of story in ARGs in general. We exchanged a few emails, and Jan sent me these responses — along with some great behind-the-scenes images from her upcoming indie storyworld, 36nine

I wanted to dive right into some nuts-and-bolts writer stuff, so here goes. Suppose you’re setting out to make an indie ARG. How do you begin? Do you start with particular design goals (e.g. modes of participation you’d like to elicit, networks you’d like to engage with, etc), or do you look for a story first?

Whether i’m working w/a client or doing an indie, i always begin with story. Of course, with a client i will have many things to consider (brand’s voice, brand’s audience, brand’s platforms, etc.) while creating a story that fits for the gig, but story is still most important. The way the story unfolds to & interacts with the online and offline world happens organically as i write the story (but i keep that list of mechanics separate).

Screenwriters and novelists typically articulate their themes by moving a protagonist through conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution. ARGs and other distributed story/play activities arguably function in a very different way — not least because of their fundamentally participatory nature, which has the effect of fragmenting the role of the protagonist across the player community. What’s your thinking on how ARGs can engage with themes and create meaning?

My ARG stories are very much like screenplays.. except instead of the conflict, crisis, climax and resolution only happening to the character world, it also happens to my players/audience. So, as i write the storyline/storylines for the characters, i’m not only working out how the events will change the characters, but also considering where the players/audience fit into this world and how they will/may touch it/affect it/change it.

Boundaries seem to blur rather quickly in the ARG space. I wonder: do you consider yourself a game designer or a storyteller — or neither?

I really consider myself a storyteller that loves ARGs… and i still like “puppetmaster”.

I’m curious about how you structure your projects. Do you work with a storyboard from the very beginning — i.e., do you use it to discover the arc of your story — or is it something you only bring in once you know where things are going?

Usually a story has been in mind for quite some time before I begin to write it, storyboard it, etc. At some point i buy a notebook, foam core and index cards. The notebook comes first. i write and write and write and soon the notebook leads to index cards and foam core boards. The first set of boards i create break down the Acts of the ARG (this will include diff paths the players/audience may create). The next set of boards will break down the characters. Near these boards i place boards for “assets” and begin those lists. Later in the process i will connect story and characters to assets via string. i’m sure that sounds archaic but i work best when i can touch it and live with it around me like that. i can look at and rework these boards for a long time. i have boards up right now that i’ve been working on for over 8 months. i’m slowly building a world and the boards are evolving as i write scripts, build sets, props, shoot, etc. soon i will begin the ARG boards. My ARG boards will take me from day 1 to end game/goodbyes and beat out what happens each day within the storyworld (including mechanics, assets, shoot sched, etc).

In your comments on my earlier post, you wrote: “my storyboard is separated from my assets charts.” Why do you think it’s important to keep things separate this way?

I prefer ARGs with a story. Some ARGs just deliver a string of events. For me, by starting with a “storyboard” that is dedicated to story only, i can be sure i will not make this mistake.

ARGs are inherently collaborative; creators often work in teams, and games almost always involve a large amount of back-and-forth between the players and the designers. How do you accommodate for this dynamism in your story planning?

You make sure you communicate well with everyone on the team. This means you must have a great way to share information and to keep everyone on the same page. On a recent project i simply made a doc out of my ARG boards. Each day everyone could look at that and see what was happening that day and where we were headed. It’s also really important to have a great producer staying on top of everyone with a hot sheet. Everyone should know as you head into producing the ARG that some things will change due to players/audience interaction/participation. So, you must make certain that you have the time in your schedule to accommodate those changes and forks in the road. i don’t think its a good idea to shoot a ton of stuff pre-launch. i do shoot some, but most is scheduled to happen post launch so that is really is happening during the “story time”. (its like live theatre that can react/change/or not to the players/audience) And again, you make sure you communicate the changes well with everyone.

Where are things going for ARGs? And for you?

i really don’t know where ARGs are going. i think if ARGs are to survive they need to grow and change. First, we need to tell better stories. i would love to see more artists and filmmaker types dive into the genre to help push the envelope. We need to examine how ARGs play out. There are many problems with how and where ARGs are played out now. Many people have told me they’d love to play an ARG but just don’t know “what to do” or “where to go”. i’ve been playing around with different “live help” ideas. On Levi’s we had “GameTeam” who were around the boards to help out newcomers. i know it was a useful tool but its only the beginning. Also, traditional forums are overwhelming to many newbies. The forum set up hasn’t changed much since.. um forever. we should redesign “the forum” or the space where the players organize and meet. Beyond all that, i do think that “interactive storyworlds” have a big future. i’m certain that someday, in the not so distant future, some cousin of ARGs and MMORGs will deliver episodic adventures to players/audience. i like this idea that on a given night a storyworld comes alive and you are invited to step into it and for a couple hours and then check back next week for the next episode.

Thanks, Jan!

Jan Libby created the popular indie Alternate Reality Games – Sammeeeees & Wrath of Johnson (Sam II). Her year following Sammeeeees was spent writing and designing for LG15 Studios (on the Lonelygirl15 Series season 1 & 2). She then partnered on Book 3 of the horror/sci-fi Eldritch Errors with Brian Clark & GMD Studios. Jan now works primarily as an ARG/ARE and Community consultant to Media Companies and Agencies. After recently wrapping on Levi’s GO IV Game/Experience, Jan has spent the last couple months building up her next indie ARG storyworld, 36nine.

Building a vast world with an indie board game: an interview with James Taylor

James Taylor describes his board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, as “a strange little logic puzzle with an archaic feel.” It’s a highly engaging game, with a simple set of core mechanics that give rise to some very complex and nuanced strategic gameplay. But the game is just as interesting in terms of the way it incorporates narrative, both inside the game — as an emergent property of the game’s rules and fictional frame (including the great art done by Dan Gray and Jason Pruett) — and outside the game — as a variety of transmedia artifacts. In this brief interview, I ask Jim a few questions about how his game engages players in consuming and producing story both within and beyond the boundaries of the magic circle.

Hey, how’s it going?

Heya Jeff. It’s going well, I s’pose.

Cool. So I wanted to talk to you about the role of narrative in and around your board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands. One thing that really stood out to me when I played is the way the game provokes storytelling among the players. I know you’ve playtested this thing a lot — what kinds of storytelling behaviors have you noticed during your playtest sessions?

Yeah – I did pay attention to the emergent storytelling in the gameplay. Different pieces will wind up together on islands, and players will sometimes come up with little micro-narratives for these scenarios. For instance, if the two gentlemen characters wind up together, players tend to come up with some biting (British) trash talk between them. In one of the versions of the game, I had a lot of quotes from the characters in the character booklet [that comes with the game]. I spent a lot of time getting those quotes just right, but then I ditched a lot of the quotes because I felt like they were actually getting in the way of players imagining scenarios. I’ve had to stop myself from overdetermining the experience. It’s certainly the difference between designing a game and writing a short story. With a game, people have to meet you halfway with their own creativity.

Which came first, the game mechanics, or the storytelling? What were your original design intentions?

There was a story first. But it wasn’t the story of the Sandwiche Islands. It was a dream about a warped city intersection – and trying to cross crosswalks in order to strategically reorganize a group. The game was dark and it was called The Intersection. (I think I was watching a lot of The Wire at the time.) But it was just a little too dark so I set the game in another time period and I lightened up the narrative.

As for my design intentions: I can’t say I really had any. I didn’t set out saying: “I want to make a novelistic game or a literary game, or an old courtship or an educational game”….or anything like that. I just had a dream about this thing. I got out of bed and stared at a piece of construction paper for a while, then I decided to put down a couple of blocks…or spaces. Somehow, the game managed to hold my attention for an entire year.

For part of that time, you have to understand that I was going through a break up and somehow it was comforting — and a pleasant distraction — to just play out different scenarios in the game. There are hundreds of thousands of possibilities on the game board, and somehow it was soothing to play through these while my head was all disjointed from the breakup. It was a pleasant distraction.

At what point did you decide to start building a world of story around your game instead of just inside of it?

It started with one little detail that I wanted to include. But I couldn’t fit it into the character booklet. The South Sandwiche Islands are located just south of Galapagos and the story takes place about a half century before Darwin. One of the characters, Puff, has a hobby of collecting insects and he’s always mumbling on about stuff that sounds strikingly similar to the theory of evolution. But no one ever listens to him. Again, I couldn’t fit this into the character booklet, so I expanded it into a letter, and then I realized that I had a very detailed and coherent world (and history) in my head that I could include by way of these different letters.

Of course there’s also another story level of the game’s making and creation.

When I saw you the other day, you were working on writing customized “letters” to include with in each game box. You said the idea was that everyone who buys the game is going to get a unique letter written by one of the characters in the story world. You also said that this was turning out to be a lot of work. Could you talk about this a bit for people unfamiliar with this aspect of the project?

Sheesh – I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes too high. Realistically there will probably be 3 different versions of the game that each contain different sets of letters. The idea is that the different sets of letters are all different fragments of the grander historical puzzle. But, yes, even the 3 different sets of letters are becoming time consuming. I just wrote one in the voice of an 18th century weathered British ship captain and it’s hard to get the accent right – I just read a lot Moby Dick and hoped for a spillover…

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the letters is that all (or most) of them will mention someone holding another letter, or writing a letter, within it. For instance, when the ship captain sees Jules, Jules is holding two letters in his hand – and the reader might wonder if those letters will become important, or appear in someone else’s game box. This literary conceit of referring to the actual object of the letters (which later work themselves into the text) is something that you can find a bit of in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which was published in 1740.

So, in summary – yes the letters are a lot of work; but I think it’s manageable; and I’m willing to do that work because letters somehow perfectly lend themselves to fragmented narratives.

Are there any particular outcomes you’re looking for here — for example, are you hoping that players will begin to communicate with one another in order to share the content of their letters?

(Totally loaded question!) Sure, breaking up the history of the game into these letters is a way, I think, to create a strong fan community. People talk about stories (like movies and books) anyway, because they create a shared cultural experience, so why not let people talk about the content and in talking about it find out more about the story itself? It’s including the socializing process of media into the content. Or the content into the process of socialization.

I was taking Henry Jenkins’ transmedia entertainment class and remember reading something about building vast worlds that are so deep that no one person could possibly collect all of the diegetic information, so fans have to exchange story information with others in order to get a better sense of the story and world.

I think that was what I was aiming for in breaking up the letters into different boxes.

What’s next for you?

I recently turned down a game deal from a small/mid level publisher. They wanted exclusive publishing rights. I wasn’t ready to make that commitment. Instead, I’ve decided that I’d like to see this game sold in bookstores. I think it has literary roots. I’m set on seeing it in bookstores.

For more info, see this post from Henry Jenkins, which includes Jim’s notes on the role of transmedia storytelling in the project. You can find out how to buy your own copy of the game here.

Adrian Hon: Turning the Whole World into Disneyland

westorriesscreen2

Adrian Hon’s company, Six to Start, won Best in Show at this week’s SXSW Web Awards for their project, Telling Stories. In an interview with Marshall Kirkpatrick, Hon talks up the nascent potential of ubicomp storytelling:

“Soon people will realize that there is no ‘mobile internet’ – there is only the Internet,” he says. “And stories are everywhere.” Hon says web content today is like the early days of TV, when all anyone could think to do was broadcast actors from the theater in the new medium. But new types of media enable fundamentally new types of content and experiences.

For example, we’re just beginning to learn how to leverage the web’s social connections, Hon says. He points to the first iteration of “urban games” as something rudimentary that won’t last: groups of people organizing online to meet in person dressed, let’s say, as Pac-man characters, running through city streets and posting videos of their adventures on YouTube. “Those games ask people to get up and do something they don’t really want to do,” Hon says.

Instead, he believes that the future of interactive story telling will be pervasive – it will be available throughout your typical day. Walking to work, even while at work.

“I have no idea what we can produce in this medium,” he said, “but I think it’s going to be like turning the whole world into Disney Land.” (readwriteweb)

Echoes of Spook Country

H/T Scott Fisher

Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games

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. This presentation is a primer for non-specialist audiences on the subject of Alternate Reality Games. Includes brief survey of prior art, diagrams illustrating the nature of networked fictions, and references to key scholars/innovators.

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.

Transmedia Storytelling 101

Henry Jenkins, head of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and founding member of the Convergence Culture Consortium, has shared an excellent list of 10 key concepts in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. This is a great starting point for learning and teaching about transmedia, and I’ve quoted it in its entirety here (but make sure to visit Henry’s blog anyway; it’s chock-a-block with great resources and insights):

1. Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

2. Transmedia storytelling reflects the economics of media consolidation or what industry observers call “synergy.” Modern media companies are horizontally integrated – that is, they hold interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries. A media conglomerate has an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible. Consider, for example, the comic books published in advance of the release of such films as Batman Begins and Superman Returns by DC ( owned by Warner Brothers, the studio that released these films). These comics provided back-story which enhanced the viewer’s experience of the film even as they also help to publicize the forthcoming release (thus blurring the line between marketing and entertainment). The current configuration of the entertainment industry makes transmedia expansion an economic imperative, yet the most gifted transmedia artists also surf these marketplace pressures to create a more expansive and immersive story than would have been possible otherwise.

3. Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.

4. Extensions may serve a variety of different functions. For example, the BBC used radio dramas to maintain audience interest in Doctor Who during almost a decade during which no new television episodes were produced. The extension may provide insight into the characters and their motivations (as in the case of websites surrounding Dawson’s Creek and Veronica Mars which reproduced the imaginary correspondence or journals of their feature characters), may flesh out aspects of the fictional world (as in the web version of the Daily Planet published each week by DC comics during the run of its 52 series to “report” on the events occurring across its superhero universe), or may bridge between events depicted in a series of sequels (as in the animated series – The Clone Wars – which was aired on the Cartoon Network to bridge over a lapse in time between Star Wars II and III). The extension may add a greater sense of realism to the fiction as a whole (as occurs when fake documents and time lines were produced for the website associated with The Blair Witch Project or in a different sense, the documentary films and cd-roms produced by James Cameron to provide historical context for Titanic).

5. Transmedia storytelling practices may expand the potential market for a property by creating different points of entry for different audience segments. So, for example, Marvel produces comic books which tell the Spider-man story in ways that they think will be particularly attractive to female (a romance comic, Mary Jane Loves Spiderman) or younger readers (coloring book or picture book versions of the classic comicbook stories ). Similarly, the strategy may work to draw viewers who are comfortable in a particular medium to experiment with alternative media platforms (as in the development of a Desperate Housewives game designed to attract older female consumers into gaming).

6. Ideally, each individual episode must be accessible on its own terms even as it makes a unique contribution to the narrative system as a whole. Game designer Neil Young coined the term, “additive comprehension,” to refer to the ways that each new texts adds a new piece of information which forces us to revise our understanding of the fiction as a whole. His example was the addition of an image of an origami unicorn to the director’s cut edition of Bladerunner, an element which raised questions about whether the protagonist might be a replicant. Transmedia producers have found it difficult to achieve the delicate balance between creating stories which make sense to first time viewers and building in elements which enhance the experience of people reading across multiple media.

7. Because transmedia storytelling requires a high degree of coordination across the different media sectors, it has so far worked best either in independent projects where the same artist shapes the story across all of the media involved or in projects where strong collaboration (or co-creation) is encouraged across the different divisions of the same company. Most media franchises, however, are governed not by co-creation (which involves conceiving the property in transmedia terms from the outset) but rather licensing (where the story originates in one media and subsequent media remain subordinate to the original master text.)

8. Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence. Pierre Levy coined the term, collective intelligence, to refer to new social structures that enable the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society. Participants pool information and tap each others expertise as they work together to solve problems. Levy argues that art in an age of collective intelligence functions as a cultural attractor, drawing together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities. Transmedia narratives also function as textual activators – setting into motion the production, assessment, and archiving information. The ABC television drama, Lost, for example, flashed a dense map in the midst of one second season episode: fans digitized a freeze-frame of the image and put it on the web where together they extrapolated about what it might reveal regarding the Hanso Corporation and its activities on the island. Transmedia storytelling expands what can be known about a particular fictional world while dispersing that information, insuring that no one consumer knows everything and insure that they must talk about the series with others (see, for example, the hundreds of different species featured in Pokemon or Yu-Gi-O). Consumers become hunters and gatherers moving back across the various narratives trying to stitch together a coherent picture from the dispersed information.

9. A transmedia text does not simply disperse information: it provides a set of roles and goals which readers can assume as they enact aspects of the story through their everyday life. We might see this performative dimension at play with the release of action figures which encourage children to construct their own stories about the fictional characters or costumes and role playing games which invite us to immerse ourselves in the world of the fiction. In the case of Star Wars, the Boba Fett action figure generated consumer interest in a character who had otherwise played a small role in the series, creating pressure for giving that character a larger plot function in future stories.

10. The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material. (Henry Jenkins)

See also: Transmedia Entertainment webcast from the Futures of Entertainment Conference.