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In-Depth: Jason Rohrer's  Chain World  Meets Controversy

In-Depth: Jason Rohrer's Chain World Meets Controversy

March 15, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

March 15, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

Jason Rohrer won the 2011 Game Design Challenge at GDC with Chain World, a concept that involved passing along a "holy object" -- a USB stick containing nothing more complex than a Minecraft mod.

Tasked with creating a design that was also a religion, Rohrer thought that letting users play in the world one at a time before silently passing it along to the next person would create a sense of mystery and heritage.

Called Chain World, Rohrer's idea came from the fact that chains of meaning create spirituality, and after having built the mod, he passed it onto an audience member to kick the chain off.

But since then, that audience member has decided to use Chain World to support a charity, and that decision's stirring controversy in the developer community.

Social entrepreneur Jia Ji decided that he would auction off the one-of-a-kind USB stick -- and the opportunity to have the next player be Reality is Broken author and ARG designer Jane McGonigal -- on eBay, with the proceeds to benefit charity fundraiser Gamers Give Back, which supports Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital.

The auction page shows a picture of Ji posing with McGonigal and her book and biographies of both of their work, but does not mention Rohrer, the Game Design Challenge or the original "spiritual" intent of Chain World.

All over social networks, gamers and developers complained; for example, Blue Fang lead analyst Darius Kazemi spoke on his blog about how Ji's decision regarding Chain World seemed out of step with the spirit of Rohrer's original idea:

"You’re basically saying that the way to participate in Jason's project is to have expendable cash, or be famous," Kazemi wrote. "There is absolutely nothing reverent about that. It is completely counter to the tone of the talk that Jason gave at GDC."

Part of the controversy, at least in the public face, appeared fueled by the involvement of McGonigal, who has a fervent base of fans for her writing and speaking engagements on the positive power of video games -- as well as her fair share of critics for her boundless optimism and unusually high public profile.

On Twitter she criticized those who'd refer to fundraising for sick children as a "perversion" of Rohrer's intent, clarified that she was simply asked by Ji to participate, did not insert herself into the proceedings, and that the endeavor had Rohrer's awareness and support.

"Jason created a beautiful experiment that really touched and inspired a lot of people, and it's super-fascinating to watch it unfold," McGonigal tells Gamasutra today. "I've been supporting the Chain World experiment, just to raise awareness of it -- for example, in my PAX East keynote last week -- because I think it's really beautiful and a great example of how games can break boundaries."

McGonigal also says she's surprised to be caught up in the controversy, "but I totally get how people could be so inspired by the project that they would get a little heated discussing it," she tells us. "I hope I'll play it someday, but happy also just to watch the experiment unfold!"

But Rohrer himself, creator of the rule system for Chain World, Tweeted that "whoever wins Chain World auction should NOT mail USB stick on to [McGonigal]," although he was quick to clarify that he had "nothing against" her in particular and instead wanted to encourage players to subvert Ji's "new rules."

Today, Gamasutra spoke to Kazemi, who as an acquaintance of Ji's says he's discussed the issue with him. "Jia is coming from an angle where he has this thing of value and wants to do the most social good possible with it," Kazemi tells us. "From Jia's perspective, that means generating money for charity. This is understandable, as charity work is a huge part of his life."

"From my perspective, the social good comes from having this thing of beauty and mystery that moves silently through the world -- to me, that's just as worthy as a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars, going to charity," he adds.

"I think one of the major issues for me is that Jia sees the game as a means to an end (charity money), whereas a lot of people, especially those who were at GDC, see it as an artifact that is an end in itself."

Rohrer tells Gamasutra that the buzz around Chain World has far exceeded any of his expectations. "I'm watching the events unfold with an odd mixture of humility, fascination, and amusement," he says.

"I was secretly worried that I'd get booed off the stage for copping out with my game design. I didn't expect to win, and I certainly never expected this."

[UPDATE: Jia Ji reached out to Gamasutra to say he was surprised that people were "upset" about charitable fundraising, but added, "I guess we'll try to come to a new consensus that makes as many people happy as possible without angering others." Ji also said that once the group had met its $1000 benchmark for the Children's Hospital fundraiser, he hoped to donate to tsunami relief efforts.

"At least all the drama is drawing more attention and bids to the charity auction and related causes, so I guess everything works out in the end," he said.]

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