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Q&A: Quizzing The Queen Bee Of ARGs, Jane McGonigal

Gamasutra caught up with 'alternate reality game' creator Jane McGonigal, formerly one of the team behind Halo 2 ARG ilovebees and a host of others, to chat about collective intelligence, ARGs, and the future of gaming - lots more inside.

Bonnie Ruberg, Blogger

March 19, 2007

20 Min Read

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. I’ve 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. I’ve set as my goal a Nobel Prize for a game developer in the next 25 years. I’m 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. It’s a field that looks at things that aren’t theater as if they were: politics or religious ritual or gender relations. So I’ve done a similar thing with gameplay. I’m so interested in how players, after they’ve 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? It’s very much a performance studies approach, only it’s a play studies approach. How had your performance studies background informed the games you’ve made? I’m thinking specifically of the games that have taken place in everyday spaces that we don’t usually encounter when we’re 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, they’ll 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 person’s 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 I’ve 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 “enspirit a place,” 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, that’s every game. We can create meaning anywhere, and maybe it’s particularly important to put it where we have a harder time finding meaning. At the moment, I’m 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 kids’ interest in games is not only encouraging, but exploitable; that was her word. There’s so much power in games for them, that if we’re 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? “With great power comes great responsibility,” right? So that’s really exciting, too. Let’s make the world of school as meaningful as our virtual world. I’m not saying we’ll stop making entertainment games and we’ll make serious games. It’s just that games are a better way to experience a lot of things, because games give us responsibility and powers, and we’re all agreeing to do the same thing for a while, and God, that’s just better than most of the ways we approach life. It’s stupid to just squander that on things that are just wholly fictional or wholly removed from everyday life. How does the experience of “enspiriting” relate to something like Cruel 2 B Kind, your new, urban game about giving compliments to strangers? There, you’re dealing with a social context, not a physical one. Can I show you an email I just got? When you’re running that game, you’re 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, “You look gorgeous tonight!” He’s saying what fun he had, then he says, “My 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 we’d been had, we prepared to separate ourselves from our booty, but then it turned out they had no idea what was going on. They’d just heard people in the area, so they decided to join in as well.” That’s incredible. One of the things I really like about games that are played out in public spaces, or spaces that aren’t clearly marked off as gaming, is that games are so structured and transparent usually about what the mechanics are... but there, there’s such a fluidity of who’s in the game and who’s not. It’s a way of bringing in more and more people. I mean, ARGs started as viral marketing, right? That idea of viral: it’s not just about marketing it’s about that experience of viral. This sense of wonder and mystery and the fact that you could talk to people you didn’t know was completely viral and spread to someone who wasn’t playing the game but saw other people behaving in a way that was different and that was meaningful. They were like, “Let’s test it out. We want to be meaningful, too.” 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 “open source,” 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 calling–and 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, “It was ringing too much. We don’t want this.” 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 that’s the New York thing. Even the players can’t get past the barrier of “You’re not supposed to talk to anybody,” and that sort of spectacle was somehow less benevolent than in, let’s 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. That’s the thing about these games, you see different norms everywhere. And gameplay isn’t the right answer in all situations, but we’re all learning and testing it and we’ll screw up sometimes and then we’ll stop and that’ll be okay. Like, I was fully prepared for playing in cemeteries to not be a good idea, but players were like, “Yes, this helps us. We need people in the space.” Then it started to feel like it was a good match. But we have to be ready for the world to say, “There’s a limit to gaming. Gaming is not a completely inclusive mode of living.” 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? I’ve 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 isn’t interacting with other players, but inhabiting the space together. When they asked the players if they were being social, they would say “yes,” even though they weren’t playing with people, just grinding away alone. The fact that they were aware of other players’ 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 that’s happening in MMOs as opposed to some of the more sensational things we hear about the big guilds, it shows us that’s not the majority of what’s 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 don’t always wanted to poke at each other. There a high degree of introverts in the demographic of gamers, so I don’t know that what’s 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 it’s more about a togetherness rather than a working togetherness, sort of ambient togetherness. You know, people leave the TV on when they’re home alone for the background. I think that that’s an incredibly powerful thing that people who aren’t hardcore gamers would actually benefit huge amounts from if we could start making MMOs that aren’t 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. There’s the capitalist model of that. It’s a single entity that owns something. You don’t 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. It’s like if you show up at a party, it really helps to have a goal or a mission. There’s the idea that the an ARG aligns you with other people, that you’re sharing information. MMO’s, they don’t need that, because they have goals. You know exactly what you’re supposed to do, whereas with virtual worlds, even something like Sony’s Home... I see a bunch of avatars hanging around, I’m not going to go up to them. I don’t 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 we’re all dispersed around the world, and we don’t know the people we live with. Games give you a common orientation. It’s not just about talking to each other. That sort of togetherness would form, as you called it in your talk, a “hive mind.” 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, it’s not about fifteen minutes of fame, it’s about 15 minutes of being of service. You’re not really trying to get patted on the back; you’re 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 you’re the only one who studied for five years. It’s 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 you’re 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 you’re of use to strangers is better than being of interest to strangers. I know it sounds weird now, but I’m pretty sure in 10 or 15 years that won’t sound idealistic. We’ll say, “Of course it’s better to be the super hero than the super idol!” But isn’t 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 it’s the culture of fame and celebrity. The other is that it’s not at all about that, because nobody really likes the idols. It’s 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 it’s the most germane cultural evidence we have. Whatever’s happening in American Idol reflects most of American culture. So I go on the forums and I read about them, and they’re all talking about each other. It’s like, “Why do you think people are voting for this person? Is it because they like him, or are they trying to screw up the system?” They’re trying to persuade each other. It’s 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. That’s 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 don’t hear much about ARGs in other countries. You said Cruel 2 B ran in London? Mind Candy is based in the UK, and that’s been really successful there, although I don’t think the project has been as much of a collective intelligence experience. So I guess the Brits haven’t 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. You’re 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 wouldn’t even know who else was playing. It’s that version of collective intelligence where you’re not actually working with other people. It’s 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 they’re willing to pay, pick a retailer, don’t tell them they’re coming, then physically show up in the store, a hundred people, ready to buy a refrigerator, but at like 30 percent off. It’s like “Choose, it’s now or never, a hundred sales to all of us at the discount, and we’ll buy it, but if not we’re leaving.” This is a big emerging practice. Companies have to have a strategy for dealing with this and leveraging it.... What’s happening in China now is their collective history is mixing with their increasing interest in capitalism. We haven’t done any of that here in America. We tried some websites that were supposed to do it, but we’re so quick fix, the idea of organizing in advance doesn’t work. We want to buy now, so we go to Amazon. In China, They also have this public shaming that’s getting really popular, too. They’ll 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 parents’ house of a woman who was caught having an affair. They decided to publically humiliate her. Here in the us you haven’t really seen the vigilante version of collective intelligence yet. It’s something that troubles me. I really want to run ARGs in China, because they’re clearly trying to exercise their power as a people. They’re trying to figure out how to use that collective power, and I’d 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 it’s very dangerous to do games in some part of China, because anything that the government senses as antagonistic could get you arrested, and you don’t want to get arrested in China. How you would pull it off, I’m not exactly sure. That’s one of the things we’re 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, that’s 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? It’s a different kind of ARG –- a collaborative alternate reality. There’s 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. There’s 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 they’ve 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. It’s same way here. There’s no information really on the surface about what you’re 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, there’s 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 what’s 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. We’re keeping it pretty flexible because the idea is that when you start to play you join as a puppet master. In that way, it’s sort of the first collectively puppet-mastered game ever. We’re giving away more power but holding the reins enough so that it’ll be a satisfying experience. We’re taking you to the next level. If we want it to be collective, why don’t 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. It’s better to see what the people really think and want to do now. Play it before you live it.

About the Author(s)

Bonnie Ruberg


Bonnie Ruberg is a staff writer for a number of video game news sites, as well as a freelance journalist specializing in gender/sexuality issues in video game culture. In addition, she maintains a blog on the topic, Heroine Sheik (www.heroine-sheik.com). Her most recent work has appeared, or been slated for appearance, in The Escapist, Slashdot, and The Onion. Bonnie Ruberg is also a student of creative writing, and many of her short stories have been published in national journals, both online and in print. She can be reached at [email protected].

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