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Q&A: Quizzing The Queen Bee Of ARGs, Jane McGonigal
Q&A: Quizzing The Queen Bee Of ARGs, Jane McGonigal
March 19, 2007 | By Bonnie Ruberg

March 19, 2007 | By Bonnie Ruberg
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At Serious Games Summit at GDC this year, Gamasutra has a chance to chat with 'alternate reality game' creator Jane McGonigal, formerly one of the team behind Halo 2 ARG ilovebees and a host of others.

McGonigal also worked on notable video-game related ARGs such as the Last Call Poker ARG based around Activision and Neversoft's Gun. She recently left her position for a place at the Bay area think tank The Institute for the Future, and in this interview, Gamasutra talked to her about collective intelligence, ARGs, and the future of gaming.

Why did you decide to leave 42 Entertainment?

I finished my PhD this summer. Iíve always had sort of a research bent, even when I was at 42, doing real-time research while the games were running, that sort of ethnography of gameplay, psychology of gameplay, social understanding and consequence of gameplay. So once I finally finished my PhD I realized that research angle would match up really well with think tanks and foundations and other kinds of media groups. It was just the time to go out there. Iíve set as my goal a Nobel Prize for a game developer in the next 25 years. Iím trying to explore the different social organizations who are ready for games to save the world.

But your degree is actually in performance arts, right?

Performance studies, actually. Itís a field that looks at things that arenít theater as if they were: politics or religious ritual or gender relations. So Iíve done a similar thing with gameplay. Iím so interested in how players, after theyíve finished playing a game, continue to see the world as if it operated within the same system they encountered in the game. What does it mean to take that thematic approach to the real world? Itís very much a performance studies approach, only itís a play studies approach.

How had your performance studies background informed the games youíve made?

Iím thinking specifically of the games that have taken place in everyday spaces that we donít usually encounter when weíre not playing the game. One of my most rewarding game design experiences has been the gameplay for cemeteries (Last Call Poker), the Activision-commissioned project for the release of Gun with 42 Entertainment. I did the game design for the cemeteries. We had a lot of goals with that, some were related to Activision, their interest in exploring the history of the game and the real American folklore of the game.

Part of it was also we realized we were going to send players to cemeteries, and, well, once people go to cemeteries to play a game, theyíll probably go back again some day for something not quite as fun. It was the idea that we could read some sort of social experience and meaning system in a cemetery that would make those later moments somehow more bearable.

In that game we designed a way to read playing cards in any gravestone, so when you look around, the cemetery is full of this meaning. Each individual personís grave means something in this larger system, so that feeling of being surrounded not just by stones but by something that means something to you, and that you can interact with, as if you have some role to play, that fills me with optimism that that might help people. In fact Iíve heard from countless people who have played the game that they were later in cemeteries for real mourning, and that it helped that, that it activated the space.

The ubiquitous computing term is to ďenspirit a place,Ē to give it this secret level of life, and you can do that with actual computing systems embedded, or meaning systems. Games are fundamentally systems of meaning. Exploring a world, understanding what is meaningful in that world, and how you relate to it, thatís every game. We can create meaning anywhere, and maybe itís particularly important to put it where we have a harder time finding meaning.

At the moment, Iím working with the MacArthur foundation looking at games as curriculum for kids. There was a great rant here at GDC that Nichol Bradford had about how kidsí interest in games is not only encouraging, but exploitable; that was her word. Thereís so much power in games for them, that if weíre not actually using them to engage them in life, and make them feel confident, make them feel effective and effected, then what the hell are we doing? ďWith great power comes great responsibility,Ē right? So thatís really exciting, too.

Letís make the world of school as meaningful as our virtual world. Iím not saying weíll stop making entertainment games and weíll make serious games. Itís just that games are a better way to experience a lot of things, because games give us responsibility and powers, and weíre all agreeing to do the same thing for a while, and God, thatís just better than most of the ways we approach life. Itís stupid to just squander that on things that are just wholly fictional or wholly removed from everyday life.

How does the experience of ďenspiritingĒ relate to something like Cruel 2 B Kind, your new, urban game about giving compliments to strangers? There, youíre dealing with a social context, not a physical one.

Can I show you an email I just got? When youíre running that game, youíre often times not out in the space, seeing stuff. So I can only really rely on emails that I get from players to tell me about it.... This is a story that a guy sent me. We did a game here in San Francisco. So one of the weapons was yelling out, ďYou look gorgeous tonight!Ē

Heís saying what fun he had, then he says, ďMy favorite part of the night was when a group of girls passed by, casually walking down the path and shouting out we looked gorgeous tonight. Thinking weíd been had, we prepared to separate ourselves from our booty, but then it turned out they had no idea what was going on. Theyíd just heard people in the area, so they decided to join in as well.Ē Thatís incredible.

One of the things I really like about games that are played out in public spaces, or spaces that arenít clearly marked off as gaming, is that games are so structured and transparent usually about what the mechanics are... but there, thereís such a fluidity of whoís in the game and whoís not. Itís a way of bringing in more and more people. I mean, ARGs started as viral marketing, right? That idea of viral: itís not just about marketing itís about that experience of viral.

This sense of wonder and mystery and the fact that you could talk to people you didnít know was completely viral and spread to someone who wasnít playing the game but saw other people behaving in a way that was different and that was meaningful. They were like, ďLetís test it out. We want to be meaningful, too.Ē So I think that viral meaning is a really powerful mechanic. Games tend to spread culture really quickly.

Now that Cruel 2 B Kind is ďopen source,Ē have you ever seen the opposite effect? Instead of spreading, does it ever hit a social wall, for instance when people respond negatively?

So in ilovebees, a somewhat known example is that some of the places that had payphones that we were callingĖand the phones were ringing every a few locations removed the phone from the wall, literally. The first place that did this was a restaurant, like a fast-food chain. They physically ripped it out of the wall. Players came back, and the phone was gone. The restaurant was like, ďIt was ringing too much. We donít want this.Ē So clearly that was a friction of people perceiving the phone as a space to play, and management thinking this alternative use of the real space is not meaningful.

Then, in New York, when we did Cruel 2 B Kind, the New Yorkers took a very spectacular approach to the game. Whereas in other cities people were coming up to their targets, the New York group was standing on top of things, yelling out as people passed by, trying to be as efficient as possible.

Or maybe just as distant as possible.

Right, but thatís the New York thing. Even the players canít get past the barrier of ďYouíre not supposed to talk to anybody,Ē and that sort of spectacle was somehow less benevolent than in, letís say, San Francisco or London or Austin, where it was almost a more tentative breach of the social contract. People who were not in the game were able to meet players half way, as opposed to a full-blown, aggressive screaming as you pass by.

Thatís the thing about these games, you see different norms everywhere. And gameplay isnít the right answer in all situations, but weíre all learning and testing it and weíll screw up sometimes and then weíll stop and thatíll be okay. Like, I was fully prepared for playing in cemeteries to not be a good idea, but players were like, ďYes, this helps us. We need people in the space.Ē Then it started to feel like it was a good match. But we have to be ready for the world to say, ďThereís a limit to gaming. Gaming is not a completely inclusive mode of living.Ē

In your presentation, you talked a lot about the future of technology as linked to collective intelligence. You mentioned, for example, the collective intelligence that rules a site like Wikipedia. Where do you think collective intelligence fits into MMOs?

Iíve been reading this research that came out of Palo Alto Research Center in Stanford lately, about playing together alone. They took snapshots of MMO servers for something like every 10 minutes for several months -- this huge amount of statistical data -- to see how many people were playing with other people. They came out with a really surprising result, which was that something like seventy percent of time was spent playing alone. The real social interaction there isnít interacting with other players, but inhabiting the space together.

When they asked the players if they were being social, they would say ďyes,Ē even though they werenít playing with people, just grinding away alone. The fact that they were aware of other playersí presence, it was this way of being together alone. And the fact that they were able to quantify that as the vast majority of gameplay thatís happening in MMOs as opposed to some of the more sensational things we hear about the big guilds, it shows us thatís not the majority of whatís happening by any means.

It makes me feel like MMOs are serving a very different, very important social need of exploring a new phenomenon, which is this idea that we need to inhabit space together, but maybe we donít always wanted to poke at each other. There a high degree of introverts in the demographic of gamers, so I donít know that whatís happening in MMOs is part of the shift toward massively- scaled collaboration. I know there are a number of people who work together and that the big guilds are super organized, but for the mainstream player itís more about a togetherness rather than a working togetherness, sort of ambient togetherness.

You know, people leave the TV on when theyíre home alone for the background. I think that thatís an incredibly powerful thing that people who arenít hardcore gamers would actually benefit huge amounts from if we could start making MMOs that arenít about elves and warriors.

You make a good point about being together but working alone. In Second Life, for example, plenty of players build things in-world, but it seems hardly anyone collaborates.

Thereís the capitalist model of that. Itís a single entity that owns something. You donít see the same kinds of collaboration. There has been an ARG in Second Life, very well-received, and I did a Q&A on a Second Life stage a couple months ago. I was saying I thought ARGs would serve a really great role in Second Life because a lot of people show up and have no idea what to do in this totally free-form environment. Itís like if you show up at a party, it really helps to have a goal or a mission.

Thereís the idea that the an ARG aligns you with other people, that youíre sharing information. MMOís, they donít need that, because they have goals. You know exactly what youíre supposed to do, whereas with virtual worlds, even something like Sonyís Home... I see a bunch of avatars hanging around, Iím not going to go up to them. I donít know them. I have no goal to talk to them. But if there were gossip in that world, if there things you could find but they only had part of the story, that would actually give people something to do.

In general, I think feeling a part of something bigger is going to be a big emotional thing that we seek over the next decade or twenty years. Being part of something bigger, we used to get that from local communities or from living so close to our family, but now weíre all dispersed around the world, and we donít know the people we live with. Games give you a common orientation. Itís not just about talking to each other.

That sort of togetherness would form, as you called it in your talk, a ďhive mind.Ē But how does that mentally make sense with the current emphasis on the individual, for example with something like MySpace?

This is a big problem for me that I think about a lot: the culture of celebrity vs. the culture of contribution. In an ARG, itís not about fifteen minutes of fame, itís about 15 minutes of being of service. Youíre not really trying to get patted on the back; youíre not really trying to get other people to know you. You sit there, waiting for the game to call a telephone in your state where no one else lives, or for something that needs to be translated from a language that youíre the only one who studied for five years. Itís that sense that you have some unknown, latent super power that could be called on at any time, and only when the game asks for something that only you can do, do you realize what your super power is.

That has nothing to do, as far as I can tell, with MySpace culture, anything like that, where you decide what youíre going to be, then you try and broadcast it to other people and convince them of it. And my opinion about optimal psychology and quality of life is that 15 minutes of contribution is way better than 15 minutes of celebrity. MySpace is good for a lot of thing, including maintain social ties, keeping in touch, but in terms of culture of celebrity, feeling that youíre of use to strangers is better than being of interest to strangers. I know it sounds weird now, but Iím pretty sure in 10 or 15 years that wonít sound idealistic. Weíll say, ďOf course itís better to be the super hero than the super idol!Ē

But isnít part of our American culture putting emphasis on the individual?

Look at American Idol. There are two ways to treat that show. One is that itís the culture of fame and celebrity. The other is that itís not at all about that, because nobody really likes the idols. Itís the collective that puts them in power. I spent a lot of time studying this, thinking about how to make games that relate to the most interesting aspects of it, because I think itís the most germane cultural evidence we have. Whateverís happening in American Idol reflects most of American culture.

So I go on the forums and I read about them, and theyíre all talking about each other. Itís like, ďWhy do you think people are voting for this person? Is it because they like him, or are they trying to screw up the system?Ē Theyíre trying to persuade each other. Itís not that they aspire to be the person on stage. They aspire to be persuasive to the rest of the community and to have a say in determining the result of something. Thatís the democratic aspect. I think just now the tide is turning, and people are realizing the people on stage are puppets. They feel bad for the contestants.

What about the cultural climate outside America? We donít hear much about ARGs in other countries. You said Cruel 2 B ran in London?

Mind Candy is based in the UK, and thatís been really successful there, although I donít think the project has been as much of a collective intelligence experience. So I guess the Brits havenít really done that much, but there was an ARG that came out in India this past year. That was more about media production, web 2.0 stuff, making little web videos with your phone. Youíre totally right to ask this question though. There was one that was based in Australia a few years ago. That was more about crowds. They would tell people to go somewhere, but you wouldnít even know who else was playing. Itís that version of collective intelligence where youíre not actually working with other people. Itís more like a super computer.

How about ARGs in Asia, since we usually think of the opposite of American individualism being Asian collectivism. Work an ARG work differently in that cultural setting?

Looking at China specifically, there are the consumer mobs, the flash mobbing of businesses as consumer activism. What they do is a bunch of people will want to buy a refrigerator. Online, they decide what theyíre willing to pay, pick a retailer, donít tell them theyíre coming, then physically show up in the store, a hundred people, ready to buy a refrigerator, but at like 30 percent off.

Itís like ďChoose, itís now or never, a hundred sales to all of us at the discount, and weíll buy it, but if not weíre leaving.Ē This is a big emerging practice. Companies have to have a strategy for dealing with this and leveraging it.... Whatís happening in China now is their collective history is mixing with their increasing interest in capitalism. We havenít done any of that here in America. We tried some websites that were supposed to do it, but weíre so quick fix, the idea of organizing in advance doesnít work. We want to buy now, so we go to Amazon.

In China, They also have this public shaming thatís getting really popular, too. Theyíll document somebody, put him online, call him out, and then try and screw up his life for real. Like how people showed up at the parentsí house of a woman who was caught having an affair. They decided to publically humiliate her. Here in the us you havenít really seen the vigilante version of collective intelligence yet. Itís something that troubles me.

I really want to run ARGs in China, because theyíre clearly trying to exercise their power as a people. Theyíre trying to figure out how to use that collective power, and Iíd really like to reorient that away from public shaming, toward play, something that might be more beneficial. So I think an ARG in China would be one of the best things we could do right now, except that itís very dangerous to do games in some part of China, because anything that the government senses as antagonistic could get you arrested, and you donít want to get arrested in China.

How you would pull it off, Iím not exactly sure. Thatís one of the things weíre working on, ARGs in China and India... The idea for that project is teens in American having to recruit allies across the world because missions will be taking place locally in, you know, Latvia, and Bangalore and you have to somehow get real people in these cities to play with you and work with you to solve stuff and coordinate. Coordinating with people in another state, thatís not really that big of a shift. So Hong Kong might be the city for that.

So where does your new ARG, World without Oil [due to start April 30th], fit into all this?

Itís a different kind of ARG Ė- a collaborative alternate reality. Thereís a lot of content creation on the part of players that is not traditional to ARGs. What is traditional to ARGs is that there are characters and a full life online, which people who are starting to poke around the website now are finding. There are hints of how you might find these characters. Thereís a chat transcript posted amongst a bunch of characters. Maybe you could send them a message.

Maybe you could find out how they met under these mysterious circumstances, find out what it is theyíve been told that makes them think something terrible is going to happen on April 30th. That sort of investigative poking that happens before April 30th will be much like I Love Bees. Those coordinates went up a number of weeks before you had to show up at the payphones. Your job was to figure out what the hell you had to get ready for. Itís same way here. Thereís no information really on the surface about what youíre being asked to prepare for, but there are ways you could start to figure that out.

When the game launches, the internal narrative being generated by the puppet masters will be specifically about how the country is falling apart. Every player who signs up can start to tell stories about their part of the country. The game will respond. In traditional ARGs, thereís a lot of pushing of the system to see how far it can go. If I get on the phone with a character and I tell her something crazy, will the puppet masters build that into the story? Will the puppet masters have to kill off the character? How much of an impact can I have?

The World without Oil game is really going to let people use any means necessary to drive the story, to test the limits, everything from posting, documenting things with photo, video, to live flash mobs. You get to decide whatís happening, and by documenting it, you force us to build it into the story.

The sort of end game is, does the country recover? The characters might all be dead by the end of the story depending on what the players do. Weíre keeping it pretty flexible because the idea is that when you start to play you join as a puppet master. In that way, itís sort of the first collectively puppet-mastered game ever. Weíre giving away more power but holding the reins enough so that itíll be a satisfying experience. Weíre taking you to the next level.

If we want it to be collective, why donít we let the players run it collectively and see what they come up with? The subject of the game is a very real scenario. If we did suffer an oil shock, it would be the ordinary people, the players, who would be ultimately shaping what the hell happened, whether we descend into chaos or whether we band together. Itís better to see what the people really think and want to do now. Play it before you live it.


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