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.


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!


by Addie Barron

I’ve been thinking about the metric of “satisfaction” since we played Gone Home.  It was a common point of criticism: that the game wasn’t satisfying, that it somehow missed a mark.  I don’t necessarily agree or disagree, but I am interested in locating the impulse that drives us to be satisfied by game experiences.  In the video game industry, of course, satisfaction—customer satisfaction, more specifically—is the core measure that determines a game’s success.  But I noticed that, amongst all the critical and constructive feedback our groups exchanged during the module discussion, satisfaction was notably absent.  We noted moments of desire and pleasure, but never a failure to meet expectations.

In general, satisfaction might underscore a core difference between ARGs and non-ARG games.  Non-ARGs* more often have a kind of expectation surrounding them, an impression of what the experience could be like, or might be like.  So we naturally measure the experience up against those preconceptions when we actually play the game.  Video games are a good example because they also have marketing surrounding them, building up a stylized impression that informs players’ incoming mindsets; but this is true of board games and card games too.

Maybe it’s because they have (or purport to have) a compartmentalized form that exists outside the game space: i.e. we can say that a video game “exists” when you aren’t playing it, as do board games and folk games and sports.  These games can be treated like objects, with all the cultural baggage associated with any object.  We come to these types of games with preconceptions and expectations.  The same can’t necessarily be said of ARGs.

This feels like an almost definitional difference.  Until ARGs are finished, they don’t have a “form” to speak of.  They aren’t an object, they can’t be analyzed or critiqued until they’ve happened.  Maybe the GDD, but not what we would call the game.  And even once the game ends, all we have is an archive, like Speculat1on, a collection of accounts and records that could never reproduce the whole.

*  we really need a word for this


Playful Design

As a some final thoughts for this quarter and overall how we’ve come from first week to designing our own ARG modules, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “play” that comes with design and the sorts of creative opportunities that lends itself to.

My original idea of an ARG was from the viewpoint of a player. Coming into this class I had the notion that “playing” and ARG would be fun, new, exciting, but despite the course listing, “design” felt different. “Design” seemed like a cross between writing, brainstorming, building, adding structure, etc. This was irrevocably different from the experience I imagined a player would have, that being the discovery of the world created by the designers. So already I had decided that being a “player” would be better because I would experience the world first-hand and clean, letting the narrative and the mechanics unfold around me as I got sucked into an Alternate Reality. But with the recent endeavor of finishing up the last kinks for the module I’ve been developing with my group mates, I can’t help but think “design” is not all that different at all.

For one, the narrative we wrote didn’t feel as structured as I thought it would. In essence it was more like what I imagine the player experiences is like: we didn’t write narrative so much as we discovered it through shared brainstorming sessions and creative input. As for the mechanics, we let them be informed from the story we had discovered. As things slowly came to take structure, parts being filled in and ironed out, it felt a lot like being a player and letting the world envelop me. The end result though, is different. As a designer, I want to take account of things that would be “fun”, that enable the narrative I want to push forward. Moreover, we make exceptions for symbols and symbolism, for motifs and thematic moments. We imagine ourselves playing the game we are designing, thus the only thing keeping us from actually playing is that veil of creative imagination.

More importantly, with only hours to go before our presentation, I can’t help but think that the choices we made with story and game mechanics result in us “playing our parts” but from the other side so to speak. The end result of this reflection is that design is necessarily playful if we wish the game and story we are writing to feel “alive” and worth discovering. “Design” and “Play” are not wholly separate parts but rather functionally similar approaches with different end goals. In many ways I’ve been playing an ARG myself, the ARG of designing an ARG module that is. And this makes me greatly excited to keep contributing on future projects.


A Final Reflection and Invitation for Discussion

As we near the end of this quarter, I have plenty material to reflect on (thanks to this course). It was an experience unlike any I’ve had in a classroom setting and perhaps ever because this is the first time I’ve ever designed a game for anyone other than me. We started the class introducing ourselves and talking about our favorite “unconventional” game. That ranged from lesser known Indie or Art games to more ARG-like games such as Humans versus Zombies, Scav, or pretending you’re on a mission every day to get to class in under 6.5 minutes. I now have a much deeper appreciation for and knowledge of the breadth of possibilities the genre “game” denotes; everyone’s unique perspectives and backgrounds have perhaps taught me the most about this.

But apart from the general takeaways I had from this class, I’m also very curious as to which of the papers we read other people found the most interesting and useful because there was always a wide variety of articles and topics chosen for discussion posts every week. Some people were very fascinated by certain issues (e.g. ethics/morals of ARGs, incorporation of technology, improv, narrative, etc.) and focused on those each week. I guess I’d like to know what aspect of ARGs brought up in our texts everyone found most interesting and which papers sparked that interest or taught you more about it.

For me personally, I was intrigued from the beginning by the psychological effects of ARGs, both good and bad and how psychology fit into game design and execution. Along with this interest in the psychology of ARGs was the interest in the ethical implications of these kinds of games. For example, I enjoyed Jane McGonigal’s first piece, “Reality is Broken”, about her use of an early ARG-type game to battle her post-sickness depression and help her heal. This raised many questions for me about how this method of healing would only work for certain people at a certain stage in their recovery (whether it’s mental or physical) and whether or not the game would be responsible for anyone’s actions if it didn’t work as well as they had hoped or actually made them worse (for whatever reason). How would we address these issues? And then Mary Flanagan’s studies on empathetic games (“Designing Games to Foster Empathy”) and games that tackled social biases/stereotypes (“A Psychologically ‘Embedded’ Approach to Designing Games for Prosocial Causes”) opened my eyes further to the profound impact human psychology has on game design and how a good knowledge of the human psyche can make for a very pervasive game. And finally, there was the potentially problematic but oh-so-interesting “This is Not a Game” aesthetic discussed by McGonigal, Stewart, and Montola (and others) whose morality still has me stumped.

So as a final reflection and chance for discussion, I’d like to open it up to the rest of the class: what issue(s)/aspect(s) of ARGs did you continue to find yourself drawn to and which of the works we read sparked your interest the most?

What Have We Done?

Now that we are near the end of the course and beginning to make game modules I am starting to notice the different ways ideas take shape in what we are making. In some cases conveying a narrative takes precedence where as in others interaction seems to be the driving force. Balance between all the elements of an ARG seems to be the most effective way to create a rich experience.
How do we map content onto these games? We have looked at so many examples and talked about the problems that can arise within them. A game like DUST or SEED which are motivated by education seem to deal with not only learning but how people learn where as a game like Momentum, which the designers described as an expanded LARP feels more like research into how players play than what or how they are learning.
With that comes conversations about narrative and agency, social engagement and capitalism, a number of other combinations of elements that seem to undermine one another. Game designers are than faced with the type of game they can create. Will it be a game that directly addresses a social ill? Or will it be a game that generates a fictional world hidden within our own, a fantasy far more detached from specific social politics than it is steeped in abstraction?
How do these kinds of choices effect the agency of the game? Can a game that does not directly address a social dilemma be equally or more productive in changing the circumstance of that dilemma? This would seem possible through interaction. If players were invited to participate in a large scale game through a wide reaching social media rabbit hole bringing individuals from various communities to form a new community around that game how would that be different from constructing a game around a specific issue within a particular community and inviting people from other communities to engage with that issue? When a social issue becomes gamefied there is a risk that a cultural divide can become reinforced.
If video games are evidence of how games work to create new communities by connecting different communities even the most over the top fantastical narratives can do this. But that community is limited to cyberspace. If an ARG can do this in real time and space perhaps it can succeed in creating new communities outside of digital platforms.
As we have discussed in class this is still very new territory and we are still figuring out how these games work. It’s better to play them than just read about them but in reading about them the mystery of how they work begins to unravel.
If anyone has thoughts on how they see content emerging in these games and how their thoughts on this may have changed I’d love to hear about it.

Explaining ARGs

Since this course started, I’ve told a number of people about it, usually over dinner after a particularly insane day of class. The reactions from people hearing about it for the first time have been pretty uniform: “I can’t believe that’s a real class.” I think that the better part of that reaction is born of the fact that while I can explain what it is we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, I’m not able to convincingly explain why. That’s an issue I’ve been running up against more in the last week, as I’ve been inviting people to apply for the class next quarter. How can I explain to them why they should do this, why they’d be good at it, when I can’t properly explain the central component of the whole  thing, ARGs themselves? As I was doing this, I realized that we ourselves were never really given an explanation of what an ARG is until two weeks into this course, when we read ‘Undefining ARG,’ by which point many of us had already formed at least some sort of central concept of what an ARG was and might look like. Instead, much of our initial discussion was driven by our pre-quarter assigned texts, which served to provide a common frame of reference with examples of, if not true ARGs, then definitely things which were ARG-adjacent. Even to understand the explanation presented in ‘Undefining ARG,’ we, in a sense, had to already have an idea on some level of what an ARG was, and that was an understanding we were given through demonstration, not description. I have to wonder if an ARG is even explicable in any other way.

The core problem is that an ARG is a thing unto itself. It’s an unusual problem; I would argue that most things, or categories of thing, that a typical person will ever encounter are encountered within their developmental period, and are thus adapted to easily. For example, my mother tells me occasionally what it was like living through the mobile phone revolution, but a cell phone is still a phone. If you know what a phone is, then it’s easy to explain that a cell phone is a phone that you can take with you anywhere. If you know what a computer is, it’s easy to explain that a smartphone is just a cell phone that’s also a small computer. But if you don’t know what a computer is? How do you explain a computer? My good friend Dictionary.com defines a computer as “a programmable electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations.” Tellingly, what is, apparently, the best short definition of a computer that we have is entirely alien to the way that most people conceive of and use them. It conveys precisely what a computer is, but reveals nothing about what a modern computer is like to use, but conveys nothing about the variety of uses to which they are put. In other words, to return to the phone example, a telephone is a device which facilitates the preexisting activity of speaking, but across great distances. A modern computer, by contrast, facilitates an incredible range of activities, many of which cannot exist without the computer to facilitate them. The ARG, described at times as the new art form of the Internet age, runs into precisely the same problem of definition. For example, the novel is like the phone: as an art form, it’s simply a different delivery mechanism for a much older form, storytelling, which has developed its own ‘best practices’ over time. An ARG, by contrast, is building on such a vast network of different things as to be, functionally, entirely new and inexplicable in any meaningful way with reference to anything but itself.

So, briefly, in conclusion: Can ARGs be explained? Probably; I’m sure that there’s a way to fit words around the concept of an ARG in a way that makes sense to people with no background in them. But should ARGs be explained? I think not. To explain the form is, by nature, to limit the form, and to discount its incredible capacity for nuance and innovation. Essentially, I argue that any entry-level definition that manages to capture the what of an ARG is will inevitable fail to convey its why.


Works Cited

“computer”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 27 Nov. 2016.

ARGs: Bricolage of Space and Time

One of the most interesting things to me about video games is space, and I mean that in the Foucault/de Certeau/Habermas kind of way. Henry Jenkins got at it the best out of everyone whose work we read this quarter: the game designer is a “narrative architect”. Every part of a video game’s environment is more thoroughly and meticulously designed than most players might assume (someone had to program grab-ability into every object in Gone Home, and someone had to make the labels on the pencils, the writing on the business cards), and if you have to design it anyways, you may as well design it in a way that supports the goals and the artistic message of the game.

This is true of the world we live in, too, and there’s something to be said about that (which the authors I cited above all discuss very well). But there’s a sort of pushback that’s possible in the world, which is too complex to ever be fully controlled or even comprehended, and that’s one of the things that really gets me about ARGs. As designers, we have to work with what are basically found materials, modifying them only slightly, if at all, in pursuit of our final product. I feel like a game that takes place in the world can’t help but incorporate the felt pathways and pressures of our lives, physical and mental (or as Upton might put it, internal and external; we are always constrained). And that’s exactly what makes it so potentially productive! It not only moves out of the indexical reproduction of space of the video game, but it moves beyond purely sanctioned space for artistic production and runs headlong into the messy interlocking pathways of urban planning and social codes. We as designers lose our power to create a completely thematically coherent space, but in doing so we’re practically forced to tackle what’s at hand in the spaces at our disposal, the affordances of place and time. That’s nothing that other media haven’t already toyed with (performance art, flash mobs, “social experiments”), but the game framework really makes it feel like something special.

In designing our module, the space is something I’ve been very preoccupied with – how do we say what we want to say in a space that’s much more restrained than we would like? Logan becomes a microcosm, a text, abstracted and symbolized – how do we direct attention to this issue? How do we turn the gaze? In the hyperaware mode of ARG play, what space is most likely to promote certain modes of thought? What atmospheres exist and how can we use them? What is already at play here that we can engage?

It was said early in class and I can’t help but feel it strongly now, as we go into the final stretch. We are all, always, already bricoleurs; ARGs just make it a lot more obvious, and they might even do something with it.

Affective Protest and Leaps of Faith

So I know we read Massumi last week, but I’ve found myself continuously revisiting his ideas on affect and the metamorphoses of the mechanisms of control and power, and I feel that it is especially timely now to take up and think more deeply about various people’s comments on the possibility and potentials of affective protest. Although definitely more conciliatory than that of the Disgust Rally I saw circulating around on Facebook a few weeks ago, the very name of a protest like “Love Trumps Hate” still implies a sharp moral divide between Trump supporters and detractors which to me seems exclusive, despite being celebratory of love. Which leads me in turn to think about other instances of protest, such as the Tiananmen movement and the movement in Tahrir Square in 2011, which I view (although maybe romanticize) as approaching the ideal of an accepting, all-inclusive, and truly hopeful protest. In Tiananmen, you had taxi drivers giving free rides to students heading to the square from the train stations, and students, professors, workers, and even some Party officials and army personnel mingled together in a buoyant atmosphere of hope; in Tahrir Square, you had protestors making music and food together, and the heart-swelling sense of a beautiful and palpable future close at hand was tangible even across the screen of the documentary I was watching. In the few protests I have witnessed in the States, I have not felt anything quite so encompassing and that made me feel as though a new age was somehow embodied in me and in the people around me, which I think is the affect that made the aforementioned movements feel so beautiful to me. Of course, the movements themselves did not fulfill the hope they created, which in turn makes me wonder about how one can pin down the power of hope into concrete action – I know that the Tiananmen protests, at least, failed in part because of the inability of the students to come to conclusions on concrete steps (although the government didn’t seem to plan on giving the students any chance in the first place – but that’s another story). Perhaps hope must eventually be transmuted into optimism to achieve practical effect.

Note: Babble to follow – A related concern I have is with the relationship between affect, hope, and leaps of faith – I feel that the hope of affect relies on a belief that all the potentials of a current situation cannot be consciously understood, and the jubilance partially arises out of this sense of a shimmering unknown. Yet this placement of faith reminds me of the sort of faith placed in deities, ideologies, and idols – although more personal and of-the-moment, since the object of faith is embodied to some extent in the believer and not located in supposedly timeless concepts – which makes me nervous. Or is it a placement of trust in the shifting relationships weaved into the situation? Does that assume something fundamental (and perhaps optimistic) about human nature?



Marc Riboud, “The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet”