Month: December 2016

A Small Canon

After watching The Game at the beginning of this quarter I was struck by a dissonance that still bothers me.  All of us, myself included, seem to agree that ARGs are insidiously difficult to define (as Nate mentions in his post “Explaining ARGs”).  There isn’t an entirely clear definition or distinction between ARGs and non-ARGs, insofar as they’re both games; and every time we try to explain the genre to a friend or family member there is inevitably a lot of hesitance and chin tapping.  But we do still seem to have a clear idea of what goes into them.  A narrative backbone with documents spread across media, puzzles and trails, performance, spectacles, and an experience or learning objective that designers can measure up to.

But one could also imagine an ARG (or something that we might call an ARG) that doesn’t use narrative documents, instead relying fully on affect and player feelings for its impact.  Or, an entirely online ARG comprised exclusively of puzzles that wouldn’t require any performance (would the fact of a TING aesthetic make this game notably different from a video game?).

I wonder if the limited cultural literacy around ARGs is pigeonholing the possibilities for the genre.  Since we have such a small canon of examples and inspiration to draw from, are we likely to simply iterate on a particular style of ARG when so much more is possible?  I am especially wary about this because ARGs as we know them originated in a promotional and corporate setting with The Beast and I Love Bees.  Is it possible to leave this history behind and develop truly innovative games, or are we stuck with the baggage that those games left us?  Video games have similar origins, in that they originated in an environment that wasn’t purely artistic.  It took decades for the world of indie and art video games to coalesce in any meaningful way.  I guess I’m asking whether we are out of those waters yet, or if we need to actively incorporate an anti-corporate drive into our design.

At the very least, I think it’s important that we stay in conversation with the many non-ARG precursors to ARGs that Patrick mentioned in class, and which we read about: Fluxus, the Situationists, letterboxing, “search operas,” paranoid fiction, etc.  Most of these movements and genres were founded on a drive for artistic and social innovation, which seems closer to the goals we set out to achieve in this course.

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An Interview with Chris Takacs

Last Wednesday, I had a chance to sit down with Chris Takacs, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and the co-author of How College Works, to talk about the college orientation experience. While not necessarily pertinent to ARGS in general, my interview with Chris was very illuminating with regards to the specific challenges and affordances of a college orientation as a game structure.

I won’t have a chance to transcribe this interview for some time, but for now, you can listen here. Chris is also available for questions at ctakacs@uchicago.edu.

Collaboration and Construction

First off, I’d like to congratulate everyone on Monday’s presentations; every group did an amazing job!

Second, now that I’ve gotten my fawning out of the way, I wanted to talk about collaboration’s effect on the development process of an ARG. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Monday’s experience was so heavily a product of the way we were broken up into our final groups. The composition of the individuals in each group dictated our final products; had the groups been different, we would have played six entirely different modules.

While this may be obvious, it’s still an important concept to think about, especially in game design. Multiple viewpoints are imperative to designing an effective game; when working with creative media that heavily relies on the actions of the consumer, capacity to anticipate the broad spectrum of actions likely to be taken by the player is essential. This is especially important when trying to avoid having players break a sequence of events meant to be accomplished in a specific order.

Sequence breaking isn’t really a problem with television and movies. While it’s possible to consume them in a different order than they were intended to be, that generally requires effort on the part of the viewer (episodes are numbered for a reason!). In video games and ARGs, however, it is theoretically very easy to break from an intended sequence of events. The structural nature of video games usually allows for mechanisms that can keep a player from straying from the game’s track – Snorlax isn’t going to move until you get the Pokeflute, doors are locked until you trigger an event, or maybe there’s just an inexplicable invisible wall blocking the way to the next area. With ARGs…these aren’t really viable options. Other than the obvious problem of the difficulty in acquiring a Snorlax or setting up an invisible wall, the issue is the detriment to the “This Is Not a Game” mentality present in most ARGs.

One potential fix to this is to design the game/puzzle in such a way that creates an intuitive path for players to follow, one clear enough to avoid a point where players don’t know what to do next (which is often when people try an alternative approach), but one subtle enough that players don’t feel like they’re on one of those child backpack-leashes. This is where team composition and variety in viewpoints comes back into play (no pun intended). The group as a unit designs the module, but the individuals in the group bring unique insight to various components, allowing more ideas and approaches to be explored than would be if an individual was tasked with doing the designing on their own.
I think it’s important to clarify that player experimentation and exploration is not at all a negative thing in ARGs – it’s a huge part of world building and enhancing player experience. It’s a delicate balance between allowing explorative interaction while still (stealthily) keeping that exploration on the intended game path.

In other words, yay teamwork!