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Friday, February 17, 2006

All you wished for

"If I find my own way," well, that reminds me of the need for guides in our little ARG world. (Don't ask, just chalk this one up to way too many repeats of Michael Stipe's various versions of "In the Sun" - the recording for Hurricane Relief, too bad this wasn't out for Christmas I could have showered copies of it on unsuspecting friends.)

To play a game properly requires a proper guide made by players, not just the in-game guide. In fact, in-game guides are relatively recent, but necessary to assisting the late-joiners and the casual fan. Before in-game guides, there was Adrian Hon's guide to The Beast, which stands as a shining model of clarity. Succinct and precise summaries lead the reader down the trail the Cloudmakers blazed. The in-game guide started perhaps with I love bees, as a way to help the Halo fans informed with the basic story. Most recently, Last Call Poker created a brilliant in-game guide on The Muck page. Honestly, I checked it throughout the game because I was afraid I had missed something.

The rise of the in-game guide seems to have hasten the demise of the player created guide. Let's face it, player created guides are a lot of work to do and maintain. Players who can code anything in any language claim to be intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the bizarre wiki mark-up. (yes, ok, the fact that 4 tildes make a signature with date and time of posting, is not obvious, but it is tres simple to learn.) Several of us worked on sorts of guides for LCP, but it turned out that all of us were at the New York Live Event, totally missed playing that update and lost our momentum.

I myself have a terrible track record of updating guides. Still, I think that the need for the player created guide is there. Right now, I am brainstorming on software that would make the guide easier. One guide for "Who is Benjamin Stove" a free wiki hosted site created by a player named Cross, seems that it may be a model for the future.

More later.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The litmus test

A slightly interesting twist on the whole "out of game" concept - using the out of game forums or chat rooms as a means of "outing" a character. The theory is that a person, once identified as being a possible in-game character, is invited to post on the out of game forums or join chat. And, if that person can't or won't... they might be in-game!

In Orbital Colony, a character was identified by her unwillingness to join the general chat room. To be fair, the question arose only after she made comments which made the players suspicious. Now, a similar question has arisen about tipsila, a smart, insightful player who posts on the Who is Benjamin Stove boards. (tipsila in Lokata means prairie turnip, a beautiful, flowering native plant the root of which was a staple food of the plains Indians and early settlers. The Native American connection is relevant in the story, or so it seems.)

Two thoughts about this test: one, I can recall when unfiction was totally out of game and not to be mentioned in the game universe, at least not to characters, which I would think might apply to possible characters, but that is too META a path for me to follow this morning; two, I wonder about the player who just happens to be smart or makes an important discovery early in a wildly popular game, would they want to join every forum or chat room discussing that game?

For once this is not just a theoretical concern I am raising. In the very early days of the game i love bees, several players, including myself, were mentioned in an in-game way. Solves and comments were posted on Dana's blog (the equivalent of the in-game forum for that game) and Dana responded to those players whose posts advanced the game. The Sleeping Princess mentioned me and other players by name in her second email, along with adopting her signature line of "when I am __, I do (using an emoticon)" which was based on something I had written in my email responding to her first email.

It is easy to see that people unfamiliar with ARGs and the unfiction rules, could mistake us for in-game characters.

In the few days that elapsed between the first email from the Sleeping Princess and the second one, the game community exploded with new players. Those of us who had been mentioned in any way connected with the game were, if not harassed, at least seriously pestered by Personal Messages on the unfiction board, and in chat, from people wondering if we were connected with the game. These new players had not yet learned that we couldn't be characters or puppet masters if we were posting about the game in unfiction. Several people were seriously annoyed by the badgering they received. At least one player mentioned in-game simply left the chat room #beekeepers, which had been created for the game, retreating to a private chat room for the duration.

I doubt that any of us would have joined a chat room or message board unaffiliated with unfiction just because someone asked us to do so. The ARG community is so much larger than unfiction, I think it is hubris for players to assume that anyone who won't join, could be an in-game character.

I know that tipsila has posted smart, thorough comments, and could very well be a PM shill moving the game along, we saw that in the game Art of The Heist as well.(The question of the need to identify a person as a shill is for another post.) But either way, player or character, a person simply refusing to post on unfiction or join a chat room should be respected. I suggest we work out other techniques of identifying in-game characters, or, even, try patience and let the game unfold.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Community -collaboration without consensus

A new META topic..proving once again there is nothing new under the sun. The whole collaboration and control of other players issue. I posted this at unfiction first, but I think I will quietly delete the post before anyone responds. I am trying to remember to keep my META views here on my little blog, which was the whole point of starting it in the first place. Sheesh!

When I first joined unfiction I had no experience of what I would call a "true" community. I think that too few people have, or maybe this whole issue of players "betraying" each other would not arise.

So here is one of my short summaries:

1. Trying to control what other players do, telling them who to talk to, and, excluding them when they don't agree with what you, or the majority of players want to do, is antithetical to a community.

[Also, controlling other players makes the game much less fun to play. No one wants to try sending an email to the "bad guy" if everyone is going to complain at them for doing so, yet that could be a fruitful and interesting avenue of inquiry in a game. Shutting down those avenues by trying to control player's actions hurts the game play as well as the community.]

2. People can disagree, express their disagreement and no one in the community, or the community itself, is threatened by that disagreement. We can disagree, even strongly, and still move forward together. We have, in fact, done that successfully on many occasions.

3. Respect for other people is essential. That means personal attacks are not acceptable, including troll-like behaviour in games that are not constructed the way someone think they should be constructed.

4. Being human, players and puppet masters make mistakes, misunderstand, and, are even flat out wrong. These mistakes are rarely important in the scheme of things in the game or in the world. Of course everything else we do: the brilliant insights, the emotional investment in a story and in each other, the way we keep finding our way back when we get off-course, is because we are human too.

5. Typically, we, the active, hard-core players are at most 10% of community. Sometimes we forget this, and can evince a sense of entitlement to we don't truly have. Anyone can send or receive emails, or interact in some way, and not post it here. So we can never see what the PMs are seeing.

hmm, after this much of a lecture, I know if I add "it's the journey not the destination" people will start throwing things...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The cultural divide

I have mentioned many times the cultural difference between my working world of commercial law in Manhattan and my playing world of games in the universe of the net. No one values more than I do the culture of generosity that creates such wonderful games.

Still, I was astounded by the response to the general idea, which I raised today, that a commercial game should pay people it recruits to work on an in-game forum. To me, the concept of paying people who work for you seems as obvious as any cliched obvious thing, pick your favorite. Honestly, I saw a player not being compensated for doing a job that the commercial game would have otherwise had to hire someone to do. And that seemed not right to me. (No, I am not a union lawyer.) I just don't know anyone outside of the ARG community, who didn't say "they aren't paying her?"

To be fair, I am sure that Tucker, the in-game character, will give the player great swag, presents, maybe a trip to the final party, who knows. Also, my guess is that the PuppetMasters were not prepared for a flood of responses that required a forum moderator. I am not suggesting, at all, that the PMs are acting, or would ever act in bad faith. It seems more of an oversight than anything else. But, as I said, my reaction was that of outrage that an ad agency or studio would ask someone to work for free on a commercial project.

This is my new insight: my little cultural norm is that people don't work for free for people that can pay for it. Lawyers tend to save pro bono efforts for emergencies or for those who can't afford the cost of the help they need. Generally, the determination of when to volunteer our time and talent is based on need. Need is usually, but not always, determined by income and assets.

I now see that the ARG community cultural norm is different. Some people even thought that the whole point was stupid, which really makes me smile. I like people who think that expecting to get paid for work is not a valid point. I just don't encounter them often enough.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Define this

In keeping with my focus on words and definitions, it seems there is one word we shouldn't try to define too closely, the word "ARG."

I have always defined an ARG as "a nonlinear narrative in which the characters interact with players in both the real and virtual world; as the players drive the story forward: solve puzzles, communicate with characters and do real world tasks in playing the game, their actions become interwoven with, and a part of, the game."

I am partial to that definition, although I am sure game designer lingo has more specific words that pretty much get you to the same point. Also, my focus is on the players, so my perspectivie differs from that of a puppet master.

But I did take advantage of the traditional post-game chat held for Last Call Poker to ask the 4orty2wo puppetmasters about their definition. To my delight, Elan Lee responded. As you read his answers, you can just imagine the ideas jumping out of his head onto the "paper."

My question: We spend a great deal of effort and energy defining "what is an ARG", that is, what we find acceptable as an ARG. How do you define an ARG? And has that definition changed over time?

His answer:
-This is a great question that I wish I had a good answer for. I meet people on planes a lot, and when I break out the laptop, the sketch pad, the sticky notes, the voice recorder, and my random assortment of toys, I inevitably get the question, “Um….what do you do for a living?” (To be fair, it’s a fifty-fifty shot as to whether they talk to me or just bury their faces in reading material and concentrate intensely on imagining I’m not there.) Mostly, I just reply that I’m a game designer, but when they push harder, I sometimes have to go into a lengthy description of the movie “The game” or those fortune cookie’s you get that say “Help, I’m a prisoner in the fortune cookie factory!” The truth is that I don’t know what an ARG is. I don’t even know what an ARG isn’t. I’ll try a few short descriptions and we’ll see if any of them make any sense:

1) An experience that uses your life as a game board.

2) A game where strange things happen to you the longer you play

3) An excuse to behave like a lunatic in public.

4) A convincing argument that you have super powers you’ve never known about.

5) A piece of entertainment that hates living in a box.

6) An opportunity to play in the real world.

I’m on a plane at the moment, so maybe I’ll try a few of those on the guy sitting next to me pretending to take a nap. Strangers just love it when I play with them.

Steve Peters has some comments on his blog
which I will quote, just so I have it all together:
I gotta tell ya, it’s becoming my pet peeve to read people’s (especially people who haven’t been around very long) needs to more minutely define what an Alternate Reality Game is, all the while attempting to draw a nice tidy box around it. If anything, ARGs should be being defined more broadly and broadly as time goes by, not more narrowly.

So everyone, please take note of the above attempt at loosely defining things by someone who is by all accounts one of the inventors of the whole thing.
And write them all down.

Especially #5.

Maybe my definition is useful to explain what an ARG is to the uninitiated and Elan's list works for the rest of us. ;)


With all the new ARG action, I am reviving my blog, which is another way of saying that my brain is filled with ARG related ideas and I need a place to put them. My ARG pensieve.

So the newest thing: ARGs keep getting closer to the mainstream, even if the mainstream still doesn't get it. Thus, the IGDA ARG SIG, which I wish would make a pretty anagram, as anagrams are the only puzzles I do well and as we need an ARG vocabulary so desperately. Actually, that news doesn't interest me as much as the need for the vocabulary.

I was listening to a hockey game on the radio, don't ask, well, since you asked, I don't have a television at the moment, I have a screen that is hooked to an Xbox and a PS2, but no cable. So as I was listening, I had the not too original insight that every game has a vocabulary that it invents.

But, more important, at least some of that vocabulary has to be coined by the game creators or players at early stages in the game. Take "puck" for instance...why "puck"..."goal" and "goalkeeper" make sense... but they could have chosen something else... what about "check" ....and why "hattrick...I know it was created because fans threw their hats on the ice after three goals were scored by one player, but why three? ... I suppose the point is that people make words and actions up to suit the game. To that point, George Carlin has an old, but very funny, routine where he compares the language of baseball to the language of football. In baseball overtime is "extra innings"; in football it is "sudden death."

We truly need a whole ARG vocabulary, words don't exist that adequately explain what we do, what we share, what we feel and think. Just the other week, I was trying to explain what xnbomb calls "collaboration without consensus" to a group of new players. They needed convincing that the IGDA ARG SIG boards are out of game and that characters would not glean those boards for secret information. They seemed to think that I was acting as an independent agent - and that they needed to, if they even could, keep a limit on other player's actions. Hence, the need to explain that we collaborate but don't need consensus.

We also need a word or phrase that expresses what catherwood calls "the intimacy of shared experience." Maybe a few different words because of the various aspects. Watching genius, inspiration, hard work, intuition and luck combine to solve a puzzle is magical. And behind that is the beauty that it is all for a game with a share purpose.

We need to describe the elastic and adhesive qualities of the group dynamic. We can disagree without feeling threatened that the group bond will break apart.

We need a word that described that we the players help create the game as we play it, that the game ultimately absorbs our personalities and actions. This makes the game ephemeral yet permanent -like an insect caught in amber- another word we need.

We need an adjective for the relationships we form with other players. I feel a close friendship with the players I know, and I trust and rely on them, even though I spend little time in my practical day to day real world with them. People don't understand this relationship.

And, one more word we need, which Scrappy referred to as ARG OCD - ARGs are addictive, and compulsive in the sense that we enjoy it so much that to not play causes more stress, hence the addiction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Games and Gifts

The generosity of puppetmasters making games for anyone, friends and strangers to
for free captured my interest in games. I mentioned this before, but as much
as I love the Matrix and Neo's quest toward enlightenment, my curiosity about
Project Mu all those years ago was about the maker, not so much the game. That
someone would go to immense trouble to create a game that I could just find, join
and play -simply for the pleasure of making it -was an an irresistable, and in my
world, foreign, concept.

And then I found unfiction, another gift given freely.

So I admit a biased, fierce attachment and loyalty to the makers and the creators.
The discussions of how to make money from games is something I can't really
contribute much to, I think that the impulse of generosity behind a game, even a
game that is part of marketing, by not charging for it, is an important
underpinning to the community that develops around the game.

Right now I am playing a game that started immediately after Last Call Poker ended,
a game called "Orbital Colony" and created in the tradition and spirit of
generosity. For some reason this game has attained a misnomer of a "training"
ARG, for beginning puppetmasters. Although the training concept may have inspired
the start of this game, I can tell you that it is anything but simple.

The game has competing interests: supposed advances in technology and medicine are
opposed by people who question the legitimacy and benefits of these advances. Most
happily, the game is perfect for conspiracy theories, we don't know who to trust or
what any character is really up to. Also, the puppetmasters have added something
new, a child, a lonely little girl whose father is missing. We can email her and
her robot dog.
I highly recommend this game. It has just started and I think we are going to be
in for a wild ride before this one ends. Already we are on a puzzle trail that is
frustratingly difficult, but the famous solvers from unfiction are coming out to
Some game sites: - the video of the cat is priceless.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Last Call Poker: if I could write like this....

The exceptional writing of the story of Last Call Poker... I could rave and ramble on about it, but that would serve to make my own writing only weaker by comparison. So I decided to share a few of my favorite bits.

From Major Damon Michael : the Flesh of Pale Roses

And suddenly, like an echo, the sound of her voice returned, achingly familiar, and he knew who she was.

She came into the back room where he lay, her skin glowing in the dim light like the flesh of pale roses. A little door opened in his chest and he could feel the heat of her eyes on his heart. He struggled to speak but his voice was broken and he hissed instead.

She stifled a little shriek.

Despair bloomed in his body. She didn’t recognize him! He lifted his hand but she recoiled and started to back away.

"Mei Lu?" he whispered. “Don’t you recognize me?” He wasn’t sure if he was speaking Chinese or Spanish. The words scuttled from his mouth like little crabs, clicking and hissing. “It’s your father!”
From Kerry Tucker: Blind Spot

A long, low exhalation. Silence. In his mind's eye Kerry could see the priest, his Deli-Mart jacket. Receding hairline leaving a high forehead with a sheen of sweat, as big as the two middle rings in a bull's-eye target.

"See," Kerry said, "before this, I had only killed one man. Not counting the army. And I knew that he was bad. And I knew he was going to hurt some people. And that no one was g-g-going-"
He stopped. Touched the grip of the USP tucked in his jeans. The gun calmed him down. "No one else was going to stop him."

"What about the others? Were they bad men, too?"

"Yeah," Kerry said. There was a long silence. "Yeah," he said again. He looked to the acoustic tile ceiling. This church smelling of microwave burritos and coffee. He could feel the pressure of the priest's waiting and it occurred to him in a flash that priests must be good at waiting, as good as soldiers. Or better. Kerry had out-waited cops and teachers and enemy troops, but he found he didn't have the stomach to out-wait God. He'd shot the Schoolteacher because he couldn't wait one more day for God to get off his ass and see the right thing done.

If you looked around at this world, Kerry thought, you'd have to be some kind of patient to out-wait God.

From Maurice Pikar: Lovely German Forests

Maurice hadn’t been much of a Jew growing up. His family ate bacon and pork chops and never fasted on the Day of Atonement, and though they gave money to UJA, they admitted that the Zionists were a little crazy. There were some Sephardic families who lived in the same building, all from the same shtetl in the Ukraine, and Maurice and his brothers used to make fun of the separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy, and the sidelocks and the heavy coats and big fur hats and the Yiddish. The Sephardic kids viewed the Pikars with contempt, and sometimes made nasty comments so Maurice had to sock them, and then there was trouble between the parents. None of this made Maurice feel very interested in being a Jew.

The only times Maurice actually felt Jewish was when the kids from the Catholic school called him a Christ-killer, and then he’d have to sock them, too.

When he joined the army he was worried that if he was captured, the “J” on his dog tags might motivate the Nazis to do something special to him, but that didn’t make him a Jew, it made him a highly motivated combat infantryman.

What made him a Jew was Buchenwald.


And a hint of ironic humor:

Simon Bassi (cf. spacebass?) cardprofile Hashochet: Drop you on the concrete

Kerry started to struggle and Simon said, “Stop, or I will drop you on the concrete.”

He carried Kerry through the laundry room into the workshop. The workshop was unfinished, bare cinderblock walls and cement floor. Simon dumped Kerry onto the floor and then stopped a moment to work out the kinks, before taking the blindfold off.

“I am thinking of killing you,” Simon said.

Kerry said nothing, of course, since Simon hadn’t removed the gag.

Another one from Major Damon Michael - Sugar skulls and bones made of bread

"Major, this is Juarez, not Peking."

Damon looked around. That explained the Mexicans. He drained the glass of water and shook his head. Juarez. Mexico. Villa.
If these examples make you yearn for more - all the texts are on the wiki- linked by character the main page: