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Ingress: not the game I wanted to play

For the past few weeks, my partner and I have been striving to get out of house more, a tonic against the crushing isolation of Newport in winter — made all the worse on us as newcomers with few local friends. A couple of weekends ago we attended a board game meetup at my favorite local coffee house, our first such event since leaving our Boston-based circle of tabletop-loving friends. We didn’t know anyone there, and had a great time.

In the same vein, and at the same time, I decided to finally try Ingress. More than one friend of ours treats this game as a significant personal pastime, and I’d felt curious to examine it for months just from my usual semi-pro game-studies perspective. Ingress presents itself as an augmented-reality game that gets you exploring your neighborhood in a new way, and I imagined something like Geocaching: the RPG. It seemed like just the thing to escape a wintertime rut, at the cost of stomping around through snow and sub-freezing temperatures.

Well: the game is ostensibly like that. I had terrific fun for the span of a single weekend, but it ended up souring on me quickly. Before a week had passed, I had deleted the game from my phone, and found the willpower to keep it off. My problems with Ingress stemmed from how I found myself unable to stop playing the game. I don’t refer to addictive, repetitive play, here, even though it does involve a bit of level-up grinding. Rather, I mean that I felt literally unable to enter a state where I was not playing Ingress. I would put my phone away, I would get back to work, and yet I was still playing Ingress. I found this total bleed-through of game and life initially novel, then uncanny, and finally uncomfortable, especially once I started interacting with other local players. This culminated in an angry and cowardly action my part, the last thing I did within the game world.

Before describing this negative effect any further, I shall describe three inarguably positive experiences I enjoyed via Ingress during that first weekend.

I truly enjoyed the experience of capturing my first neutral portal, which required me to wander onto the snowy grounds of The Elms — a mansion-turned-museum, also my next-door neighbor — and mosey over to one of its outlying utility buildings, trying my best to not look like a conspicuous gate-jumper. I kept my phone on and in my hand as I crossed the mansion’s very wide yard, keeping an eye out for actual real-life security staff while the game’s narrator (a U.S.S. Enterprise-style computer-lady voice) counted down the meters remaining to the target, against the sonic backdrop of an increasingly desperate faux-radar ping. Even as I wondered what I would say if a groundskeeper did round the corner and inquire as to my business, I couldn’t help but feel a genuine, cinematic thrill. (Nobody bothered me, of course. I would walk the same route unmolested several times while milking the portal over the next few days.)

A couple of days later, I succeeded at my first capture of a portal out of the hands of the opposing faction. (The green one; I chose to join the blue team, when I started.) The well-defended portal lay inside a bar at the end of my street, and I’d prepared for the assault the day before by wandering around downtown Newport, looting a variety of in-game weaponry enemy portals that clump thickly there. (You can always “hack” a portal to get goodies from it, no matter who owns it.)

I spent some time loitering and pacing around outside the bar’s plate-glass front windows to wreck the various enemy devices defending it. Each of these objects, while imaginary, existed in a precise location around the portal, and attacks against them work better when one stands closer to them. Thus, to anyone on the other side of the window, I must have looked like an unusually nervous person texting a friend, walking around rapidly in different directions and then halting for a while, leaning up against walls or wandering partway down alleys, always with my head down over my phone.

Sadly, I ran out of ammo before I could finish my attack. I decided to walk back up the street to my apartment, grab my laptop, and then just set up camp as a paying customer at the bar — hitting the portal every five minutes, per cooldown rules, gradually wearing its defenses down — while getting some unrelated work done. After I ordered my Lagunitas and took my seat, to my surprise the portal fell after a single further attack. My reason for idling gone, I put my laptop away and figured I’d just read Twitter. The bartender, though, chose to strike up a conversation about Macbooks, and we ended up trading names and talking about her master’s thesis at the nearby university. So I ended up making up a new neighborhood friend due to this game that made me act like a squirrelly weirdo in front of her bar, and I will never deny this.

While at the bar, I noticed that I’d apparently received a Twitter-style @-message from another player. After returning home, I wrestled enough with the game’s communication interface to finally read it, and had a brief, friendly conversation with a player of the opposite faction. This person welcomed me to Newport, and observed that there aren’t many blue players in town, since “Yarbo usually converts them all” to green. (Here I replace the game-username they mentioned with a made-up one for the sake of propriety, whose need shall become more obvious presently.) A handful of local blue-team members had also noticed the alert of how a new teammate had just stolen the bar’s portal for their side, and sent me their own greetings; one told me that they’d added me to the whitelist of a Google Hangout just for Newport’s blue faction.

All the above adventures made my decision to start playing seem like the right one. In the span of just a couple of days — and despite my never actually joining that Hangout — I’d interacted with my neighborhood and some of its real-life citizens in entirely novel ways. Six months after leaving Boston, and in the tail end of a brutal and lonely island winter, it felt like good medicine.

And then, just as that friendly rival had predicted, Yarbo contacted me. After a polite greeting and a welcome to Newport, they got down to business: “Any reason you chose Resistance?” Resistance being the name of the blue faction, in the game’s paper-thin lore, to counter the Enlightened green faction.

“My friend who told me about this game likes the color blue,” I replied, which was true enough.

“Ahh, too bad,” Yarbo said. “There aren’t active Resistance agents in Newport to help you out. If you were Enlightened, I’d be more than happy to lend a hand!”

“Alas! Well, I dare say I feel only too happy to provide a (very) little competition, then.” (I took a screenshot of all this, if you’re wondering.)

Yarbo continued: “Ask @EnlightenedJoe, best decision of his Ingress career yet!” This being (my pseudonym for) the person who had initially greeted me, the day before.

“I should imagine so,” I said, “lest his name raise a lot of awkward questions.”

“He used to be CaptainJoe, until he saw the light.” This last utterance, as much as it delighted a friend of mine, felt like a good point to let the conversation lie, and it proceeded no further.

Minutes later, I realized that while Yarbo was trying to entice me over to the green side, my Ingress app’s “Alerts” tab filled up with news of my fellow blues hitting targets around Newport. Yarbo had been straight-up lying to me, apparently hoping that, through some combination of my new-player naiveté and Newport’s undeniably green tint in the game map, I would see my team choice as an error and switch sides, thankful for the company.

And I clapped and cheered at the novelty! I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d been socially engineered at so brazenly outside of a petty-criminal context, as when a gentleman possessing a certain miasma tells you that he needs five dollars to buy a bus ticket so he can visit his wife in the hospital. I started to see hints of Ingress’s metagame — in this case, the strategy to bolster your faction’s hold on an area not through the game’s explicitly encouraged methods, but by ganking noobs through concern trolling. Convincing them that, through a perfectly understandable beginner’s mistake, they have set themselves up for a lonely time in the game world — unless they switch factions now, before they have much to lose in doing so. (Switching factions carries the penalty of losing most of your accumulated power and possessions.)

This despite the fact, as several experienced Ingress players assured me, one levels up a lot faster when one can attack and capture enemy portals as well as work among friendly ones. But a new player just getting their bearings would likely not know that, and who are they to disbelieve a friendly and much more experienced player kind enough to offer them help?

As the days went on, however, I began to feel much less sanguine about this exchange. On Thursday morning, five days after I’d begun playing, I saw how Yarbo, EnlightenedJoe, and the other local greens had inevitably undone the territorial gains I’d made during my usual commute the previous day, returning my neighborhood to the emerald tint it had when I first joined. (They had also taken back The Elms’ outbuilding, which stung.) And I could see, on the local communications channel, Yarbo cordially greeting other blue players with names I didn’t recognize.

I started worrying that I was witnessing potential teammates — potential family, in this never-ending game of permanent, land-bound allegiances — lured away right in front of me through overtly deceitful manipulation. This worry grew into angry certainty, all the more frustrating by knowing that this kind of attack didn’t send an alert to my phone, and that I couldn’t reverse it by hitting some more portals on my lunch break. I tried to return to my work, but couldn’t. I could only stew about my inability to counter this off-the-books style of play, as I posted increasingly furious messages to Twitter.

I began to feel regret that I hadn’t responded to Yarbo in a more demonstrative fashion, days before. One friend suggested that I take this opportunity to enthusiastically and publicly invite them to join the blue team, but for me Vonnegut’s Slapstick came to mind more easily, with the objectively irrational kinship I observed myself starting to hold for the blues, and the corresponding alienation towards the greens.

In my self-stoking anger, I didn’t recognize the subtle brilliance of my friend’s suggested retort, so what I ended up typing into the local Ingress communications channel instead was: The Resistance is alive in Newport. Do not believe their lies. And instantly I felt like I’d just chugged poison. Not just a monstrous thing to say, but phrasing it in the most succinctly dorky way I possibly could. I felt like my only valid routes included either apologizing to the whole game-world for my outburst, or just resigning from the game in quiet disgrace.

I chose the latter path in part because I saw in this ugly incident a reflection of how, years earlier, playing Dark Souls would turn me into a hateful jerk. I hung that game up as soon as I saw the problem, back then, and fancied that if I hung this one up too then I would, through providing multiple examples, create a new generalized rule: If a game makes me act like a monster, stop playing it immediately and permanently. I could not — and do not — see anything to disagree with here, and so I ratified it into my personal guidebook by deleting Ingress from my phone and tablet.

And still I play, a week later: My fingers itch when I walk past the west wall of the post office, or that weird statue in the park I hadn’t noticed before the game pointed it out. I know exactly which work-table in the public library lies in hack-range of a nearby portal, and I tell myself I have no reason to sit there. It’s not easy; I kind of miss all that!

But beyond the ha-ha-so-addicted nature of the Ingress portal-farming grind lies its insidious metagame, all the more dangerous for being a wholly undocumented and unadvertised feature, despite its prominence within actual gameplay. Perhaps I could have benignly amused myself with the basic game for some time longer, and may very well have enjoyed more positive encounters and mini-adventures as I did that first weekend. But the game’s by-definition unending nature make it hard to avoid the other stuff. It’s not the game I signed up to play, and, for now at least, I choose to avoid it altogether.

Even if I do catch myself thinking now and again of how good anti-Enlightenment agitprop would look, stapled to select telephone poles downtown…

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Where's Ichiro?

Either there’s some cross-promotional shenanigans afoot, or local indie superstar Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games really is on the run from a certain beloved but homicidal mad-scientist AI.

Puzzle-solvers are invited to pore over his recent communications to work out his location, which may or may not have something to do with a highly anticipated puzzle-game sequel being released this month — and seems somehow related to fungal potato blight as well. You can share your research on the #whereichiro hashtag on Twitter.

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Jane McGonigal talk: "Reality is Broken"

Jane McGonigal is on a book tour for her new book, Reality is Broken. She spoke at the Harvard Bookstore on Feb 1. I took very scanty and context-free notes, but fortunately, the talk was basically "teaser bits from my book"! (As most book tour talks are.) So here are the notes, context-free, and if you think the subject sounds cool, buy the book.

First, the egoboo: Jane started by offering a real-world-achievement-quest award to anybody who could point out "the inventor of my favorite game", sitting anonymously in the audience. Which was me! (She says this, even though I don't consider myself the inventor of Werewolf, but hey. It made me happy. And it caused some people to talk to me afterward about Mafia/Werewolf, which was cool too.)

So, the thesis in this book is that gaming is a powerful activity; it makes us better; and it can be applied to make real life better. This is not just about MMO-ARG games curing poverty in Africa (a stereotype of "serious games"). It covers everything from, okay, that, down to feeling more motivated about your job or your exercise program.

Everyone is gaming. Everyone is spending a lot of time gaming. Tens of thousands of hours for an average kid these days, by the time he/she finishes high school. (Note: don't trust my numbers, I was tapping quickly.) This adds up to an additional education -- the same scale of time as is spent in high school. So what are games teaching?

Games have always been addictive, back to antiquity.

What is a game? "Games are unnecessary obstacles that we volunteer to tackle." (That definition is a little broad for me, but only a little; my difference are only quibbles.) So human beings are motivated to tackle obstacles! For fun! (This is one of those tiny, obvious observations that spins my head around.) We prefer challenge to boredom; we prefer productivity to dissipation.

The notion of eustress: stress which has a positive emotional lading. Physiologically, stress is stress, but when a challenge is "for fun" then we experience it as exhilaration rather than nervousness. Games are eustressful.

Games are not relaxing, in general. Fun, relaxing activities (such as watching television) tend to be associated with a lowered mood after they end. Fun eustressful activities are associated with a raised mood. (She mentions psychological studies which are presumably described in the book in more detail.)

(One that didn't make it into the book: when too much eustress is too much stress. A study has pegged "too much" as 28 hours of gaming a week.)

We should stop talking about games as escapism. Games are something we do to improve our lives.

Problem: reality is too easy? (Not for everybody, obviously -- one of the post-talk questions got into this. But anyhow.) If our daily lives had more of the eustressful qualities of games, we'd feel better about them. How to put more of (the right kind of) challenge into life?

Using gaming bonuses (motivations, benefits) in personal life:

  • Nike Plus -- gamified running
  • One cited goal of Foursquare is "getting people out of the house"; meeting up with friends.
  • SuperBetter: In 2009 JM had a concussion, and spent several weeks with brain injury symptoms. She worked out a scenario -- "Jane the Concussion-Slayer", no lie -- with goals to mark recovery points and things she wanted to do. She says it helped a lot (maybe with recovery time, but definitely with her mood and attitude).

Using gaming bonuses for global-scale problems:

  • FoldIt -- protein folding as a game
  • EteRNA -- RNA synthesis
  • Evoke, "a crash course in changing the world" -- an MMO game in which the missions are forming real-life teams, finding mentors, identifying problems, etc. Players won scholarships or seed funding for their projects.

Links for further information on this stuff:

  • Gameful: JM's social website for serious/social game designers.
  • Google "gamify" (as a verb, not a trademark)
  • lifehacks -- not phrased in game terms, but the same idea
  • Epic Win, Goal Wars (Facebook? couldn't find anything) -- gamified todo managers
  • MPs Expenses, example of MMO journalism
  • iCivics, games teaching US civics (launched by Sandra Day O'Connor, among others)
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Kymaerica in Lincoln

Our current guest blogger here on the Gameshelf came to visit the Boston area several months ago to do some guest lecturing. On his plane ride over, he read in an in-flight magazine about Eames Demetrios and Kcymaerxthaere (or Kymaerica). Kymaerica is “a global work of three dimensional storytelling,” wherein plaques are placed throughout the world and give little bits of story related to a parallel universe.

It turns out that there is a plaque not far from Boston, and as our visitor also wanted to see some graves nearby, we decided to make a trip of it.

We had a nice little adventure trying to find the plaque. First, the description on the website was a bit off. After searching around for a bit, we decided to ask someone about it. We found a guy doing yard work. He knew what we were talking about (but didn’t know what it was for) and pointed us a bit farther up the road, saying it was just behind this minivan that we could see. So we went to the minivan, and sure enough there was a low stone wall there (the name of the plaque/site is “Nayumbo’s Wall”), so we thought we were on the right track. However, nowhere on that wall could we find a plaque.

We dug through leaves, we looked on the other side of the road, we went up and down the road, but we just couldn’t find it. We had thoughts about knocking on the door of the house with the minivan, but it looked pretty quiet, and it was relatively early on a weekend morning, so we didn’t want to disturb anyone. We were very close to giving up, when a small boy came out of the house and started running around the yard. I think I must have looked at him as he was running, because my eye was drawn to another part of the wall that was on their property, back from the road a good 30 feet, and I saw the plaque.

I called the rest of the party over, and by that time a man had emerged from the house. We chatted with him for a while, and it turns out that he was Eames’s roommate in college, which is why he had a plaque. During the winter, he puts the plaque away because it gets buried in snow piles that are generated when the road is plowed, and he doesn’t want to risk it getting damaged. He hadn’t yet put it back out for the season, but he did so then.

Have any Gameshelf readers seen any of the other plaques (there’s a map on the website)? Care to share your stories?

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Something I learned about Alternate Reality Fiction

This week I learned something you can do with alternate reality fiction that you can't do with regular, localized fiction. You can create text that's part of two separate stories.

(You can go back to my previous post on alternate reality fiction, or here's the short form: it's the sort of fiction that has pieces of a universe supporting it. Web sites for fictional companies, fictional people blogging and sending email, so on. When it's a game you call it an "alternate reality game", but it's not always a game, right? You can support a novel or a TV show that way. So, "alternate reality fiction.")

(Yes, I am now using the flimsiest excuse for posting this on a gaming blog -- it's a followup to my previous post on this blog. Sorry, Jmac.)

Now follow along; this will take a bit to set up. Let us venture into the world of fanfic.

(Not because there's anything specifically fanfic about the idea. It's just the first example I noticed.)

Take a look at this web site: nielsonmitchell.com. Looks like typical corporate crap (except for the disclaimer). But if you're familiar with the Stargate TV show, you'll recognize Cameron Mitchell as a character from the last two seasons. (If you're really familiar with the TV show, you might guess who JD Nielson is. But that's not important right now.)

Now take a look at this flyer for the company (270kb PNG image). Indeed, the guy at the bottom right is Ben Browder, who plays Cameron Mitchell on the show. So you're getting the picture -- these two artifacts belong to the same storyline, in some sense. Maybe the flyer doesn't appear on the web site because it's not professional enough, but they fit together. Right?

(I created that flyer, by the way. The amateur photoshopping is all my fault. So is the fact that it's completely silly. The role of JD is played by Michael Filipowich. The nielsonmitchell.com web site was created by synecdochic.)

Now take a look at this livejournal account. (Now emigrated to dreamwidth -- Ed.) It lists nielsonmitchell.com as its web site, the location matches, it's got a "fictional person" disclaimer, and the name is shown as "Cammie"... wait. Nobody ever calls Cameron Mitchell "Cammie" on the show. Does Ben Browder look like a "Cammie" sort of person? No no no. Further, if you look at some of chemicalfuel's journal entries -- and those of vtwopointoh, who is JD Nielson -- you will rapidly deduce that Cammie is a woman. Cameron Evangeline Mitchell.

So you look back at the web site, and you think, hold on -- there ain't no pronouns on that page. It does not specify whether Cameron (or, indeed, JD) is male or female. So the web site is consistent with the flyer, and it's consistent with the Livejournal pages. But they're not consistent with each other. They can't all be the same storyline.

(Unless it's a storyline with magical sex-changing technology. Which is not actually beyond the bounds of the Stargate universe, and certainly not beyond the bounds of fanfic. But you'd want some corroboration before you took that interpretation.)


At this point I will spill the beans. These sites are sideline material for a bunch of Stargate fan stories by synecdochic and ivorygates. Two disparate serieses of stories. In the Broken Wings series, Cameron Mitchell is permanently disabled after his Antarctic crash, and so he retires from the Air Force and starts a software company. The Mezzanine series has exactly the same premise, except that Cameron Mitchell is a woman. Different things happen. (Each series has a JD Nielson, who are both guys, but they're not quite the same guy.)

The nielsonmitchell.com site is ARF material for both storylines. This is something I have not seen before.

Why not? Normal fiction has no ambiguity about its boundaries -- at least, that's the modern convention. You know when you're looking at fiction; and (we generally take for granted) you know what fiction you're looking at. The publisher slaps "Hogwarts year N" or "a Repairman Jack novel" on the cover to make it obvious. But when you dissolve the first assumption, and release material which pretends to be real life, the second assumption gets fuzzy to. Why shouldn't a work fit into two different sequences?

I am not, understand, talking about the crossover story. In a crossover, we point at two storylines and pretend they're the same -- Batman is fighting Spiderman, which means Gotham City is more New York than usual; they're the same place. Or Spiderman took Amtrak. (Or, since the two worlds continue to ignore each other's premises outside the suspended disbelief pentagram of the crossover, we might consider that we've created a third storyline, of limited detail, which shares some premises of each.) But however you consider it, the crossover text represents one story. Batman meets Spiderman.

To truly match the nielsonmitchell.com case, you'd have to write a story in which a man named Bruce Wayne meets a man named Peter Parker, and one of them is a superhero, and the other is a regular dude who lives in New York / Gotham City. But the text wouldn't tell you which. It would fit into either the DC or the Marvel universe, but in each case it would mean something slightly different. (Perhaps something radically different!)

I know I'm way out on a theoretical limb here, and maybe you can't think of a reason to write such a story. But you could try. Somebody should.

ARF (or ARG) material is, I think, more suited to these tricks than plain prose -- simply because such material is usually not a story per se, but a small piece of a story -- or sideband information which enriches a story. It conveys by implication; which means you are imputing meaning based on context; which means the meaning can change in different contexts.

Regular prose stories also convey stuff by implication, to a lesser degree. And (pace my original claim) I can think of some novels which pull tricks in this vein.

  • A scene in Rosemary Kirstein's first Steerswoman novel, in which a boy dies while trying to open a cursed chest. In this case, there is "really" only one storyline -- but the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn't (or at least has the chance to figure it out). So the characters see one storyline; the reader sees two, made up of the same incidents.

  • Sharon Shinn's Archangel (first of its series). Again, the reader can see a storyline (science fiction) where the characters see another (theological fable). This works because both are good stories; they have weight and emotional heft and change the characters' lives.

  • Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. A better example, because it reads differently depending on whether you think it's part of a series or not.

  • And, to bring this whimsically back to Stargate, the original Stargate movie. The people who made the movie are not same the people who made the Stargate: SG-1 TV series. This led, at one point, to the movie writers publishing a set of tie-in novels which were also sequels to the movie's story, but went in a completely different direction from the TV show (and its tie-in novels). Two storylines with the same first chapter.

The first two of these examples display differences in interpretation. The characters may disagree with the reader about what happened, but we can reasonably say that the characters are wrong (or uninformed) -- there's only one sequence of events.

The latter two examples are more interesting, because the reader can take different views on what's going on -- depending on context, as I said. This doesn't change what the story is directly showing us; but it does change what else we believe has happened. That is, the implied, off-screen events vary. That's the right parallel. The nielsonmitchell.com site doesn't have events, but it does have directly conveyed information (the names and bios of two people) and off-screen information (their existences, including gender).


Here's where I ought to tie all my rambling together into one glorious conclusion that illuminates the future of Narrative 2.0. Haw haw.

No, I have no idea where I'm going with this. It's a gimmick! It's neat. People should use it more.

What if there were a community web site dedicated to ARFs (and ARGs), which became a focal point for participating in them? People would be discussing the various projects, but some of the people would also be fictional, and be conveying in-character information as they interacted. (Go where the fans are, right?) You could take it as a giant crossover where all ARGs meet (St. Elsewhere!), or you could take each fictional world separately. In this world, character X knows about the AIs infiltrating society. In that world, character Y sees the fnords, but person X is just a guy playing an ARG. Get it?

(For all I know, ARGNet or Unfiction already does this.)

Less apocalyptically: what if Chaz Villette invited JD Nielson over for dinner?

What if an ARG included several different universes, all playing out on the Web, unaware of each other's existence but sharing web sites and (alternate versions of) characters? Three universes, say.

(Recognized those Michael Filipowich images, did you?)

Pick your own path.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Alternate reality fiction

I have not blogged about Shadow Unit, because this is the Gameshelf, and Shadow Unit is not a game. I love Shadow Unit. It's a collaborative storytelling project by four well-known fantasy authors. You might call it a series of short stories about a mutant-hunting FBI team. You'd be closer if you called it a prose work with the structure of an episodic TV series. It's great writing; X-Files with human beings instead of Hollywood/TV heroes. It isn't a game.

I say that because I didn't do anything; I read the episodes as they were posted. (And I dropped some cash in the hat.) No interactivity, no game. Easy distinction, right?

But would Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Emma Bull agree with that? Do they feel like they're playing a game? I'll ask around. But let's stay outside the circle of creators for now.

Or... maybe not. Shadow Unit has imported some of the aspects of an ARG, an alternate reality game. Supporting web sites pop up. Characters in the story have ongoing Livejournals.

You can comment in these journals. (As long as you don't break the fourth wall.) People do. Real people have long conversations with fictional people. They trade recipes and favorite TV shows.

Who's playing now?

Let me reach back to my post about Alternity, the Livejournal-mediated Harry Potter RPG that started recently. I called that a "game", even though it's got a bounded circle of creators and no ARG elements. Why was that a game? For one thing, the circle is larger -- twenty-ish? But mostly, I was thinking of the game model. You and your friends could set up your own game of "that thing", with your own scenario. "That thing" is fairly structured; it has rules ("journal posts only", the 15-minute correction rule, etc). The creators are continually making posts in these constrained ways. Whereas Shadow Unit's "thing" is both more nebulous and more generic: traditional short stories appear on a web site.

But then, the Livejournals have a rule... Okay, I'm constructing a difference out of degrees. Never mind.

A new one is launching tomorrow: Continuous Coast. (Or is it called "Mediators"? These alternate reality thingies don't name themselves!)

You can read a slideshow about this thing, by creators Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connell. They presented this at Arse Elektronika 2008. They're working with fantasy author Steven Brust, plus a cast of thousands, on a... a...

I have no idea. We'll find out more on October 9th, or so I hear.

It has some web sites and blogs, as I linked above. It has a Twitter feed. But of course that's not the Twitter feed of the project. It's the Twitter feed of the Mediators, the ?police ?steering committee ?resident psychiatrists of a city that is clearly not on Earth, and perhaps not in our universe...

So is this a game? It is impossible to describe without the perspective of ARGs. Continuous Coast is an alternate-reality presentation, in the sense of ARGs. ARGs are games. Continuous Coast is not -- by the early descriptions -- a MMO puzzle-quest in the sense of I Love Bees. It is described as interactive, in that the circle is open. Everything is Creative-Commons licensed, and the creators invite everyone to play in the sandbox.

"Play" invites "game", doesn't it?

Let me fling out some terminology. Shadow Unit and Continuous Coast are ARFs: alternate reality fiction. "Alternate reality", again, in the ARG sense: that which spills out from the page and mixes and blurs into our reality. "This is not fiction." Web sites, stories, art, all lived in-character.

(No relation here to "alternate history", the subgenre of science fiction that deals with what-if divergences of history. Sorry about that confusion. "Enhanced reality" and "ERGs" might have been a better term, back when the Beast and the Bees came along; but that spaceship has sailed.)

I'm not trying to distinguish ARFs from games, in the broad sense. I'm just trying to distinguish it from the well-described category of ARGs. I don't care whether ARF is a "game" -- doesn't matter, it is play. People will interact to shape an experience that comes as much from them as from the original designers.

Really, I want to drop a different division down the cloud, and say that an ARG is alternate reality interactive fiction -- the subset of ARFs which involve specific challenges for the players to defeat. We could even distinguish between multi-player ARIF and solo ARIF: imagine a game that's spread across web sites and in-character blogs, but which is sized for a single player to work through without help. (I don't know any examples of this, but I want to avoid wiring in assumptions.)

Or maybe that's silly terminology, because it's all "interactive", ARFs and ARGs and journal games and the lot. We take for granted that alternate-reality presentations are participatory. The whole point of bleeding into your reality, right, is that you live in your reality. It wouldn't be AR if you weren't involved.

Or, as Brown and O'Connell write: "21st-century storytelling blurs the line between canon and fanon."

Damn. Now I want to go back and rebuild my lamented Myst Online from scratch, using these ideas. I knew they were missing something...

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It was thirteen years ago today

(...give or take a few months...)

So I heard this weekend that a design company called MOO is running an Internet Easter egg hunt, as a promotion for their company. Which is cool. Obviously, it's not a new idea; Easter egg hunts have been floating around the Web for as long as there's been a Web.

(I know, I'm blithely equating the Web with the Internet, even though I was an old Net hand during the Web's birth. But I'm not aware of any egg hunts that ran over Usenet or Gopher or anything like that. Anyhow, "Internet" means the Web to most people -- when it doesn't mean spam -- and "Internet Easter Egg Hunt" turns up more hits than "Web Easter Egg Hunt". Sociology in action!)

Since I am an egotist, I'm going to talk about the Easter Egg Hunt that I worked on. Which has the distinction of being, as far as I know, the first one: it ran in Fall of 1994. Think back...

(...twingly harp music...)

You're a student. (Of our 50 eggs, only five were on .COM sites!) You've heard of Web search engines -- Webcrawler and Lycos are just starting -- but they're not up to the task of finding Easter Egg links scattered everywhere. But you are; you can hunt through the most popular web pages and read them all. For the purposes of a silly contest.

Probably you found most of them by looking at Netscape's catalog of links to the entire Web.

(Yeah, take a look at those URLs. Bianca's Smut Shack! Phil Greenspun! Doctor Fun! People with top-level home directories on their university's servers! Really, the reason I'm blogging this is to bring up all that old stuff.)

If you want to see an actual preserved Easter Egg, look here. Not its original location, mind you. Notice that the author of that page invents the wiki, down in a footnote... I wonder if he ever realized it.

But this is a gaming blog, and the ghosts of Jmacs past, present, and hypothetical are yelling at me to relate all of this to gaming.

Well, it is gaming. It prefigures the Alternate Reality Game, doesn't it? Clues are scattered in real life, or whatever part of the Internet you can imagine is real life. If we'd attached a story fragment to each of our Easter Eggs, we would have beaten out the bee folks by several years.

Although, not exactly. Modern puzzles-for-the-community have been transformed by two things: the hive mind, and the search engine. Which is to say: everybody is pounding on your puzzle together, and they're using Google to pound with. Neither was true in 1994.

We worried about the search engines, mind you. Our contest rules asked people to please not write scripts to web-crawl for Easter Eggs. For the sake of the web servers! Imagine the traffic load! Which brought in the most wonderful bit of email:

That's ridiculous for you to tell people not to write "robot searchers" for the easter egg contest or it might bring the Web to its knees. Your warning is going to serve as a challenge. Obviously technodweebs are going to do just that. You should never have held this ill-timed easter egg hunt, or at least have anticipated how people would look for eggs. If Internet dies, we'll know who to blame.

Well, the Internet didn't die, and nobody wrote such a script as far as we know. But apparently we were the smartest people on the Internet, and the idea of search engines would never have occurred to anybody if we hadn't mentioned it. Good to know!

But enough about the past.

If Google is your hammer, does everything look like a nail? Perhaps not. If you don't know what words you're looking for, Google is helpless. Come up with a set of items which are recognizable only by their phrasing. Paraphrases or misspellings of famous quotes? Bits of poetry in a common meter? Or images, of course; it'll be a few years before Google cracks content out of those. A bunch of photographs of related subjects, or image-rendered text.

(The image search seems to be how MOO's hunt is structured. Although, remember that common link URLs or Javascript snippets are also vulnerable. Avoid them, or anonymize them.)

Or you turn the idea inside out: the eggs are easy to find, but it's hard to figure out how the relate. There's the ARG model. And in fact modern puzzles often treat web-searching as a pacing mechanism. You know the players are going to find your eggs (trivia, whatever) but it'll take them a while to work it out. So you have puzzles on your site, and each one has a solution that points at some phrase, and then the players all Google off to find it. That's fun, and it's egg-hunt-shaped, even if it's not the original model.

What else can folks come up with?

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More quick links

Kit O'Connell writes about playing Morrowind:

I want to suggest that there is also an 'Uncanny Valley' of sorts in world-building, that when creating imaginary worlds which feel real to us there is a point where something is uncomfortably almost-but-not-quite real.

(from The uncanny valley of world building, Kit O'Connell)

Much debate follows in the comments, including whether Kit was even understanding his exemplar Morrowind anecdote correctly. Nonethless, a useful idea to apply.


I know, it's on BoingBoing, which means you've already seen it. Nonetheless:

The distributed fiction of I Love Bees was designed as a kind of investigative playground, in which players could collect, assemble and interpret thousands of different story pieces related to the Halo universe. By reconstructing and making sense of the fragmented fiction, the fans would collaboratively author a narrative bridge between the first Halo videogame and its sequel. As the project’s lead writer Sean Stewart explains: "Instead of telling a story, we would present the evidence of that story, and let the players tell it to themselves."

(from Why I Love Bees, Jane McGonigal)

The kind of game design that the creators were exploring will be instantly familiar to fans of the MIT Mystery Hunt:

I would argue that the primary puzzle of I Love Bees embodied a meaningful ambiguity. That is, the data set lacked the clarity of formal interactive instructions, yet maintained a distinctively sensical nature. That is, the choice and ordering of the coordinates did not seem nonsensical. Instead, its arrangement was structured and seemingly intentional enough that it promised to mean something, if only approached in the right way. This meaning was implied through the specificity, volume and overtly designed presentation of the data.

But a Mystery Hunt is largely fixed in form at launch time; it has to be, to allow many teams to compete on a fair basis. The designers may have to fix puzzles on the fly, and perhaps delete some, but they won't usually invent new ones. Certainly not based on a particular team's theory.

I Love Bees, in contrast, was gleefully extended as the (single, universal) team of players made progress. The article goes on to describe how the collective intelligence went way beyond what the creators expected. By the end, the creators were flinging together puzzles that required tremendous feats of player cooperation and networking. The players wound up making dictionaries of game information that were more complete and consistent than what the creators had built. And then the creators started relying on these dictionaries to design later puzzles, and mining ideas from incorrect solving theories...

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