Whopper Virgins

Burger King is really on a roll these days with oddball left-field marketing initiatives like the recently-cancelled Facebook “Friend Sacrifice” app, which enabled users to earn a free Whopper by de-friending ten of their friends on the popular social networking platform. After attending a great presentation by Kathleen Fitzpatrick about the future (or lack thereof) of scarcity-based academic publishing practices, I visited her site at mediacommons and eventually stumbled on this somewhat unrelated item, the latest in Burger King’s strangely compelling viral marketing spree:

Commentary by Chris Boulton:

At first glance, this all struck me as just another ugly throw-back to the “human zoos” of World’s Fairs past. But could “Whopper Virgins” also be doing some good? For instance, what do you think of the “I’d like to buy a world a Coke” globalization ethos that swirls around this text? Like Nanook in its time, might this crass quasi-anthropological navel-gazing through the other also serve to help spark an affective response of identification with an utterly unfamiliar native culture? In other words, could there be some cross-cultural empathy tucked inside that greasy hamburger wrapper of commercialism? (in media res)

IMAP Manifesto

Manifesto/Artist Book
Full color, 60pp

manifesto-photo

Created December, 2008 for Anne Balsamo‘s Seminar in Media and Design Studies (CNTV-601).

Hard-copy available upon request.

Download the .pdf here.

UPDATE: Those interested in quick gloss of this document can now read the “Six Points” of the Manifesto below.

The Six Points

1. Everything is Triage

This is an emergency. How did we get here? Where are we going? None of us can pretend to know. Time and being are incomprehensible. No matter how fine-grained our imaging systems may become, the great mysteries of our existence will always elude us. This is the baseline of anxiety for all humans. Even in the absence of environmental, economic and social stressors, living this life requires an enormous amount of courage. And for most of us, contemplating these fundamental questions about our origins and fate are viewed as “luxuries.” Bills need to be paid, friends and family need to be cared for, complex social arrangements must be navigated, and so on–

Every car on the highway is occupied. Every building in the city is densely packed with fear, desire, grief and joy. If all of that was gone and there were only two or three of us left, trapped, say, on some alien planet, would we not huddle together and work for our mutual survival? How does the line get drawn, then? Is it merely numbers that turn families into clans and clans into factions and so on down the line, separating us not only from each other but also from the basic facts of our existence? Perhaps this division is only transitory, the effect of competing stories told to while away the time and wash away the terror in a flood of certainty. Let it be our task to do the work to identify and break down these divisions and increase the potential for collective action in the spirit of mutual aid.

2. Technology is a deal with the devil and we are already in Hell

Consider the orangutan, or the dolphin, or the rat. There is no humanity without technology. Our most basic of tools, symbolic communication, is an emergent property of our being. Even feral children draw and sing spontaneously. We did not make this deal with the devil, the one that says we will trade the innocence of the Animal for a shot at immortality and omnipotence via technic; that particular agreement predates us. We may not be Nature’s final impulse in this direction, but it cannot be forgotten that it is the aspiration of all life to survive, and survival means expansion, diversification, adaptation and transformation. Our instinctive tool-making and symbol-weaving practices are as much an expression of Life as Old Man’s Beard or the Yellow-Beaked Cuckoo.

And yet — and herein lies the challenge — while there is no humanity without technology, technology itself is not human. By building, we change our world and force new realities upon ourselves. We must not see ourselves as being in conflict with our creations; and yet conflict arises nonetheless. Technological systems take on energies of their own and seek their propogation. The earth does not care who it is that carries its flag into the Beyond; if robots work best, then robots it will be.

The paradox of our provenance is that, to survive and prosper as technological beings, to bring-into-existence an extrasolar destiny on behalf of Life itself,  we have also needed to be distinctly communal in nature and generous in spirit. Despite all our wars and horrors, we could not have made it out of whatever Origin it is we emerged from without deeply caring for one another. The human conscience is no accident. Fealty is an ancient thing; love even older. No one stands up for the humans but the humans themselves.

Perhaps it is this very tension that drives us forward and motivates “innovation.” Having inherited a restrictive, potentially self-defeating contract from our genetic forebearers, we seek to find workarounds and loopholes. Generations pass as these loopholes open and close. The leaders among us seek technological answers to technological problems. We spiral through recursivity, for the devil with whom we have struck this deal lies within us.

3. The future is non-profit

Where will you be in five hundred years? Let us not get bogged down in an impossible-to-resolve discussion about the relative merits of cooperation and competition, welfare states and free markets, the tragedy of the commons, the invisible hand and the rest of it. That battle of inches is for another playing field. It’s an argument between rival ice-making factions at the dawn of refrigeration: you sad, sad, people — let go of it, your time has passed. Scoring points in a debate about how best to structure an economy or galvanize a populace might make you feel better about yourself and advance you in this or that econo-sexual realm, but how does the Old Push and Pull really play out in your community in the Long Run?

(And never mind the unfolding collapse of the global economy, the revelation that we have all been party to a gigantic, murderous Ponzi scheme. This should not be a surprise to anyone. The greatest evils are the ones that escape identification.)

No, the notion that the Future is non-profit is not a political one. Let’s call it scientific instead. Pragmatic. Honest. What outcomes can humanity really expect in the centuries to come? This author proposes two scenarios. In the first, we see an increasingly fuedal arrangement, with food and fuel gathering around centers of wealth protected by military power. On the periphery, mass starvation, murder and disease predominate. Geopolitics becomes defined by resource wars and factionalism. We already seem well on our way to this destination. But it is not my belief that this is where we will ultimately arrive.

Rather, I propose a second possibility. In this scenario, neofuedalism continues to emerge in the manner suggested above, but finds that it is incompatible with the fruits of its own endeavor. Militarism made the Internet, and the Prodigal disapproves of the Parent. The great instrument of power, namely the withholding and transfer of Capital, has always depended on its lieutenant, the Minister of Information. And loose lips sink ships. In this new age, lies are easier to tell, but secrets harder to keep. The mendacious will be exposed. Calumny will fold back upon itself. And as the crowds huddling around the castles dwindle in number — some slipping out and into the Wastes beyond, others losing life and limb to incursions from without — the blame will fall squarely on the Center.

This is the Long View, and we must recognize that it is not in our nature to act in the interests of descendents ten generations hence. Let it be said that, despite his own interests in Extreme Posterity and Vavilovian Seed Banks and Millenium Clocks, this author is not advocating a multi-century strategy-of-living. Indeed, quite the opposite. We are tactical beings. We work best when we work provisionally (see “Point the Fourth”). It will be a while yet before this cycle of Exploitation, Privation, Revelation and Revolution (EPRR) radiates through the totality of our experience. But right now, we can observe it playing out in the Inner Circles. And we can Act, and in our action, maybe, just maybe, lay the groundwork for generations to come.

4. Provisional living provides best

The larger the plan, the more replete it is with errors. Telescope through time. Imagine the weather in a week, a month. Consider the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns (for what discussion of strategy and tactics would be complete without a reference to D.R.?). It is our tendency to personalize things, and therefore unsurprising that we should ascribe the shifts in fortune of nations and corporations and crime syndicates to the careful planning of their overlords. But, as any historian will tell you, the story of warfare or capital or conspiracy is less about the grand plans that succeed than it is about those that fail. Whatever may be said about the victors of History and the way that it has been written, it is always the Opportunists that win the day.Hubris is one of our oldest themes. Words lose their meaning the more you try to use them to bend the world to your will. Envision the best future possible, but do not worship it or it will destroy you. This is the true meaning of the old admonishment against idolotry. As soon as an objective ceases to be provisional, it becomes dangerous. Have your aims and see them through, but keep your wits about you.

5. Story encompasses all

Story is the most potent technology in existence. Stories move fast and weigh nothing. But beware: they can shred rainforests. For a story is what an army tells itself as it sharpens its machetes.

“This is what we’re going to do. This is why. This is what will happen.”

Stories motivate. All kinds of darkness and light.

6. Art is a light

You know it’s true.

More: download the .pdf

Transmedia Storytelling and Alternate Reality Games

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.