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Opinion: The Human Spirit's Too Good For ARGs

Opinion: The Human Spirit's Too Good For ARGs

April 27, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

April 27, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Social/Online, Art

[When it comes to ARGs, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander feels that some interaction designers have gotten a little too easy with the word "meaningful", suggesting some events are exploitive of human creativity.]

I'm going to state the obvious: Game design is an incredible art. Its scope and potential become even more interesting when we look at all the ways design learnings can be applied in a broader context than "video game" -- like newsgames, or social games (the actually-social ones) or even outside of the digital space.

People make outdoor games, participatory group activities, and physical board and card games using the same kind of engagement principles players have come to love through in the digital world.

And while most people don't really like talking about it, game elements can be layered on top of real world utilities to the benefit of advertisers (and theoretically to make those utilities more fun for their users).

The power of designed interaction often brings out the best in people. With just a little structure -- a mission system or goal structure, components to command, and meaningful rewards, "people" become "players", and often individuals become important contributors to a powerful collective that can consume and process information at a superhuman rate.

I know I sound like anyone who's touting anything gamification-related these days, and whenever they start in on this talk about empowerment and meaning (when they're talking about FourSquare badges and Facebook ad campaigns) I roll my eyes.

But I do think the core reasoning is sound; the fact remains that individuals engaged with designed interaction appear happier and more able than they were before.

That almost makes Alternate Reality Games even more loathsome. I hate them; always have. When I learned of I Love Bees, the ARG that paved the way for many others like it to come -- and how the purpose of that grand adventure was to market Halo 2 -- I felt repulsed. Virulently, in a way that still arises whenever anyone brings up ARGs.

When we're children, we're imaginative in a way we gradually need less as we get older. We spend hours talking to invisible people, imagining that the aether of the living world is thin and could easily admit us to realms beyond if only we found the right key. Any log, any stone, could conceal an entire kingdom of miniature animals.

This kind of creative play prepares us to be successful adults -- because being a successful adult often requires believing in and visualizing those possibilities that can't be seen with the eyes, requires creative answers to "where do we go from here", "how do I build something that's mine," and "how can I be part of something bigger than I am?"

I find that while most adults have forgotten many specifics of their childhood, they can recall their imaginary friends, or the magic of favorite pretend-games, vividly, as if those things continue to exist independent of time, our own personal eternal wellspring of inspiration.

But ARGs prey on the natural desire that all people have had, since childhood, to stumble upon a special secret -- and subvert that desire into the service of a marketing campaign. I always think of poor Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Feeling anxious and marginalized as children often do, the kid hoped by ordering a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, a prize from Ovaltine that tied into the radio drama he enjoyed, he could be needed, part of a global community of heroes.

Of course, many people have seen the film: The message Ralphie uses the long-awaited ring to decode is 'BUY MORE OVALTINE.' When I think about ARGs, I think about his crushed expression.

Looking back, we now see that when we were kids we sought clues to "mysteries" without worrying much about how they'd turn out; we sought secret doors without concerning ourselves with where they led. The fun was in the playing and in the journey.

Importantly, however, we aren't kids anymore; part of adulthood is understanding destination, that if you're going to walk through a door you should, ideally, be as fearlessly curious as you were when you were young -- but you should also, ideally, have at least a couple ideas about what you're doing it for and where you might end up.

The kind of adults with the resources to be good participants in complex ARGs also have the resources to know they should expect something momentous for their trouble. I read that someone risked being swept away in Hurricane Katrina to receive a phone call related to I Love Bees.

I wish I could find that dude and ask him how he feels about risking his life for basically a commemorative Halo DVD, or whether he was just carried along on the insatiable tide of human appetite for the unknown, for the chance to be useful and heroic.

Me, I'd feel betrayed. Apparently, so would lots of people. When it comes to the latest big ARG geared at unlocking Portal 2 early, user reviews on Metacritic seem especially punitive in light of the fact that many passionate players participated in the indie game cross-promotion, buying and playing games they may not otherwise have -- all for about a 10-hour head start on the release date.

But it was fun, right? Nobody was forced to do it, and Portal superfans were probably excited to find a way to engage with the new release they were waiting for. Some people just love solving problems, wondering what mysterious websites are about, competing with other people to see who can be the first to figure out a clue.

Fine. But when I hear popular authors and speakers talk about all the amazing things users can achieve within the context of designed interactions, I'd rather them be a bit more honest; we'll probably still play anyway. Give us an idea of what it's all for and what we can expect -- that way, you can surprise us by beating our expectations, not letting them down. And give us something for our trouble besides the joy of having been marketed to.

Most of all, I don't want to hear ARG designers or gamifiers or anyone like that talk about imagination, about fun and engagement, about the triumph of human spirit and creativity, when their work is best applied to glorified ad campaigns. That's insulting, and it's exploitive of everything great about human nature.

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