Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It's over!

A belated thank you to all our participants! Not all drives were claimed, but sources say that managed to come into possession of the drive Morey had stolen, correctly deducing the password! It turned out that Morey wasn't the culprit -- it was the mild-mannered all along! But Jennifer did the best she could with the clues that were given, beating out the competition and enjoying the sweet satisfaction of success. Word has it that a $20 certificate to the Game Preserve awaits her.

Highlight reel:
  • Triumph of the Jenns: Jenn Stevens scored a nice solve on Irene's initial clue, but Jennifer Borland started racking up the solves once the going got tough;
  • Will Emigh taught Ariadne to uncross her eyes to solve a tricky Photoshop clue of d'Anogaster's;
  • A real-life Lojban speaker started tweeting to Jennifer Borland and Prof. Belbo in Lojban after she tweeted the response to Prof. Belbo's first clue;
  • Field report from our representative in Wilkie: "Some guy came in, said 'is that the clue?!' I said 'yes' then he grabbed it and ducked out the door before I could ask his name... Brown jacket, jeans, baseball cap, 30-ish." His identity is still a mystery.
  • The manuscript was retrieved -- Causaubon couldn't stop chuckling upon reading Chapter 1. Stay tuned!
Finally, don't forget about all the excitement going on this month with the Games and Learning Event Series, and a hearty thank you to all our participants!

    A little disappointed but ready for the next one…

    I’m not sure what I expected when I approached Intellagirl with the idea of running an ARG and trying to recruit faculty to play it. In my wildest dreams I imagined hordes of faculty members running around campus, furiously tweeting, collaborating, and one-upping each other, but those were pretty wild dreams. I hoped for a few faculty members playing and lots of them lurking and following the action to see what this thing was like. A few people promised me they would lurk, and of course I don’t know for sure if they did. It’s a pretty unfamiliar genre for this particular demographic.

    This all started when I realized that, with James Gee’s visit on March 23rd, we had a great opportunity to give this kind of learning experience some exposure. Like a good hostess, I’m reading the 2nd edition of his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (because I get to drive him to the airport). One of the things that has struck me from his narrative about his experiences playing games has been his claim that baby-boomers (and I’m one of ‘em) are often impatient about the non-linearity of games. We want to figure out the quickest way to get to our goal; we don’t want to wander around wondering what items we should be picking up. Maybe we are the epitome of wanting to know what’s going to be on the test and studying that. And we’re likely to at least start playing a game by ourselves instead of in a community. None of that thinking is really very useful in an ARG. When you start, you rarely know exactly what you are after or how you are going to get it, so why even get embroiled in the whole thing (to say nothing of the fact that you might “fail”)? Then you have to follow several threads – blogs, twitter accounts – and that’s just kind of annoying. I will have to admit that if I wasn’t involved, I might have decided I was just too busy to mess with the whole thing.

    In retrospect we might have gotten off to a faster start if we had called it something besides an Alternate Reality Game, a title that gets a lot of blank stares. Intellagirl thought we might have gotten more traction if we called it a game that is played via social media or something. Maybe. I just think everyone needs more exposure; they need to get used to the idea. Maybe we’ll call it something else next time, but there will be a next time…

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    Feeling Schizophrenic

    Just a short post here to point out one of the fun difficulties of running this game. Because I'm a hardcore Gmail user (ie I never close it), I have to use a separate browser to log in to Ariadne's accounts and to prevent accidentally posting as myself rather than as her. But today Maggie is away so I'm posting for her as well thus I have a third browser open to ensure that I don't "cross the streams" with poor Morey Arte. Having Chrome, Firefox, and Explorer open and logged in to accounts at the same time is a bit crazy but you do what you have to.
    Ah, the joys of technology, story telling, and being just a little bit crazy! Now stop reading this and go play!

    Sunday, March 4, 2012

    The best laid plans (Part I)

    I had originally intended to examine the biggest challenge that the team faced when designing the ARG. Unfortunately, there wasn't just ONE; the challenges faced were quite related to one another and almost inseparable. Not only did the team have to design the puzzles, we had to balance the difficulty, generate interest, as well as managing the created personas and interactions with participants and characters. As a matter of fact, that sounded like one too many! For today, I'll focus on one of the challenges; puzzle creation and balance.

    Puzzle creation and balancing difficulty
    One of the many challenges in designing the ARG was puzzle creation. It was relatively difficult trying to gauge the level of difficulty of these puzzles. It was important to draw players in, which meant that puzzles could not start off insanely hard. At the same time, we had to provide SOME sort of a challenge so as to keep our audience intrigued. In short, we had to make sure to ensure flow for our players. We tested out the puzzles on each other; some were fun and some were just mind-boggling. This mix seemed sufficient and the team started off with puzzles that could be feasibly solved within 1-2 days. In the course of the ARG, there were moments when players' ingenuity worried us, but the beauty of working in a team is that there were always other puzzles that were trickier.

    In terms of Irene Peabody's clues, I struggled and worried my nails about whether the second clue could be potentially annoying. The initial idea was to use the first edition of the book and to use the copy available in the IU Lilly library. This would be a great way to get students and faculty to use the library and be more aware of the resources we have on campus. However, this meant that non-IU players might not have access, which reduces our pool of players. Then, there came the issue of specificity. How could I ensure that it was the correct book? I will forever be indebted to Gordon Foster. Using the ISBN number, this became less of an issue. You would have thought that this was an easy solution; but in reality, the obvious answer came very much later. Sometimes, the obvious solution is not as apparent!

    What are the kinds of challenges do you think ARG developers run into? What are the ways that we can preemptively handle them or this is just a fantasy?

    Saturday, March 3, 2012

    Part II: Story and Structure

    What I like most about ARGs is the way that the story line compels the play and provides a reason to keep playing. Most ARGs aren't competitive. Instead, players are working together to move the story along to reveal the ending. We humans like stories. We like to ask "and then what happened?" A good story keeps us asking what's next.
    However, not every story will work for an ARG or every audience. Understanding the constraints you have (your audience, geography, technology, time etc) will actually help, rather than hinder, the creation of a story.  We knew that our audience would be primarily educators or people related to education so we evolved a plot that we hope they will relate to and be interested in. We wanted the gameplay to make sense with the story and for players to easily understand why they should want to solve them and why they're being presented.
    When I talk to people about designing ARGs I often hear that they're intimidated by the story. "I'm not a writer." "I'm not creative." "How can you make a story about -insert discipline here-?" But you shouldn't be scared off by the challenge of creating a plot to tie your game together. It isn't strictly necessary for a good game (ie fun!) to have some kind of fictional line woven through it. Some simple game mechanics can take its place. Perhaps a point system, a scavenger hunt, a race...there are lots of common structures that we've all experienced that can work.
    Because we knew most of our audience would be novice game players, we wanted a structure behind the scenes that would be familiar but still challenging. We brainstormed about the possibilities and considered many different familiar games: crossword puzzles, popular board games etc and settled on a logic puzzle. You know, those puzzles in magazines that ask you to figure out which of five people live in which of five houses which are each a different color and have a different car in the driveway. These have been around for a long time and most people have at least tried one at some point. Making this decision allowed us to jump right to the kinds of clues we could create, how they should be released, and what the finale of the game should be (shhhh! That's still a secret!)
    What game structures would you try? What games do you love that you think could be used for inspiration? What stories will your audience enjoy and engage with?

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012

    A little about ARGs: Part I The Rabbit Hole

    If you're new to ARGs you might be wondering what they're all about. Alternate Reality Games have a relatively short history (or long in the dog years of the internet).
    First, the basics. ARGs, unlike many other kinds of games, are meant to nearly fool the audience into wondering whether the game is actually a game or reality. ARGs vary in their distance from reality but the purists may suggest that players should at least initially be fooled by the "rabbit hole." These can take the form of an ad in a newspaper, a phony blog...some little hidden bit of story that only those who notice it and pursue it will follow into another world. For example, the Nine Inch Nails ARG, Year Zero, had one rabbit hole hidden in the characters on the back of a tour t-shirt.
    The highlighted letters led to a website full of intrigue and mysterious conspiracies.
    The rabbit hole for the ARG that accompanied Stephen Spielberg's movie AI, "The Beast", was hidden within the end of the movie's credits. A sentient machine therapist names Jeanine Salla was listed in the credits just as the rest of the crew scrolled by.
    A surprise awaited those who were curious enough to give her a little Google...a complete website with all of her details and the beginning of a great game.
    There are many more amazing examples of rabbit holes but it may be important to point out that they aren't strictly necessary for a good ARG. They have a few downsides. Because they're hidden and only apparent to people who are motivated enough to pursue them they can limit your audience. If you, like me, would like to have a targeted group play your game (such as students), you can't take the risk of using too subtle of a beginning for your story. Sometimes you have to point and say "Here! It's a game! You should play!" especially if you're trying to attract players who aren't acquainted with this form of narrative and interaction. The second downside is that it can take a painfully long time for people to notice a rabbit hole. You put it out there and hope and meanwhile, you sit with your finger on the trigger ready to launch a fantastic experience twiddling your thumbs (the ones not holding the trigger) knowing that at any time you'll need to be ready to go.
    Personally, I find this waiting tedious. It's not that I don't have faith in the curiosity of the crowd. I just don't think that it's practical. Games that have a finite window (such as during a class, a conference, or leading up to an event) give you a useful constraint to keep the game going and to know when it must be finished. I am also of the opinion that a story can be engaging and fascinating even if you know it's a story. After all, there are no great films or movies that present themselves as anything else. You know that you're about to fall into their narrative and it doesn't diminish the experience.

    What do you think? Does making a story overt ruin it? What kind of rabbit hole might you use to pull your audience into a story?

    To see a list of Rabbit Holes recently identified by avid ARG players be sure to check out the "News and Rumors" page over on the Unfiction Forums.
    You should also check out the Seven Things to Know about ARGs article from Educause/ELI. It's a great guide to the basics and serves as a good introduction to pass on if you're trying to get others in on the idea of ARGs.
    For some excellent insights into using ARGs in the classroom, Nicola Whitton's article "Alternate Reality Games in the Classroom for Developing Student Autonomy and Peer Learning"

    Managing the chaos

    Because our game relies on characters engaging with players each of them has a communication channel that they'll use to engage. These range from Twitter to blogs to Tumblr. Keeping up with all of those accounts can be a bit crazy. Never mind that we're playing characters which means keeping track of account passwords etc and not accidentally posting from the wrong account. Here are a few tricks that we're using to manage the chaos.
    Tweetdeck (or Hootsuite): Both of these tools can run on multiple platforms and post to multiple accounts. I have Tweetdeck running on my desktop and use it to monitor both my personal Twitter account as well as the character accounts. It's handy but we have to be careful. Posting from the wrong account on accident could derail the game or confuse the players. These two tools are also helpful because they allow us to prepost tweets (scheduling them in advance) and create ongoing searches for special terms and hashtags (ours is #IUMM).
    Google Docs: Throughout the design process our team has relied heavily on shared Google docs but they're even more important now as we prepare to launch. We use a spreadsheet as a production schedule (who does what and when) and a document that has all of the account information for every account and every character. This means that should one of us find ourselves unable to post something or respond that others can log in and take care of it. We also used a spreadsheet early on to share our puzzle drafts and give each other feedback on out ideas. Yes, we met face-to-face on occasion but we're all volunteers with busy schedules so much of our collaboration happened online just as our players' will.