ARGs solving real-world problems?

This is what I think we are in… there is a real-world problem.  We all know MJ’s passion for the planet and the people on the planet.  What better way to wake us all up and get us caring about each other and our affect on Earth.

Here’s another article I found on ARGs, how they operate, and the good we could possibly do with them.

Surviving a World Without Oil

by Chris Dahlen, posted April 13, 2007

Here’s the scenario: the world hits “peak oil,” and the supply starts to dwindle. All around the planet, gas prices go up and economies choke. From rich to poor, from the city to the country, everyone is affected by the scarcity of a resource that’s as crucial as air. So who would you turn to? The scientists? Big Oil? Al Gore, or heck, Dick Cheney? Or for a problem of this scale, that gives everyone a slightly different pain, would you turn to the public at large– and get everyone to come together in spontaneous teams and find a solution?

Let’s say you try the crowds. Since the 90s, we’ve seen more and more cases where a group of once-strangers meet online and collectively, bit by bit, solve insurmountable problems. French philosopher Pierre Lévy called it “collective intelligence,” and in 1994 he wrote about the profound social and cultural change it would bring. But to the team behind World Without Oil, collective intelligence can also be a game.

Writer Ken Eklund came up with the idea for World Without Oil in 2005. The Independent Television Service in San Francisco was looking to fund an Internet game, and Eklund’s idea was to use the ‘net to bring people together around one problem: imagining what it would be like to experience, and overcome, an oil shock. Eklund and his team have designed a “very realistic” scenario for how it could happen, and when the game launches on April 30, it’ll be a kind of collaborative storytelling exercise. The team will plant leads and challenges for the players, but the players will make up their own nightmares.

“I think people have this wall in their imaginations where they go, ‘Oil shock. Bad.’ If you can just get them to look over the wall, to take that one more step where they begin to just imagine [what it means], then they begin to get engaged with the problem,” says Eklund. “We have this page which is just filled with absolutely blank terror. Let’s just tame this, by putting some form to it. What’s it actually going to be like? We can figure this out, collectively.”

World Without Oil is an example of an alternate reality game, which means, to quote Wikipedia, “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as its platform.” ARGs come in all shapes and sizes. They’re played through fake web sites, real street corners, text messages from fictional characters, or phone calls where real-life players interrogate voice actors. Almost all ARGs tell a story– often a broad, fantastic one– but they take the story and splinter it, disguise it, hide it behind puzzles, and bury it for the players to dig up. They’re not unlike an old-fashioned college scavenger hunt, except half the challenge is realizing that it’s even going on– and the other half is finding the team that’ll help you get to the end.

Jessica Price discovered ARGs when a friend called her up and told her to go to a pay phone near her house at 5:35 that afternoon, and when it rang, to answer it. Price recalls that she asked, “What is this?” Her friend just said, “We’re not sure, but just do it!” The phone call turned out to be part of the gigantic I Love Bees game, which ran in 2004 as a viral marketing campaign for the game Halo 2. But Price didn’t know that at the time, and by using a real pay phone to stumble into an imaginary story, she had accidentally become a player. She calls the experience “falling down the rabbit hole.”

Today, Price writes puzzles and moderates communities for ARGs; she’s also an associate editor and writer at Alternate Reality Game Network, and a moderator at Unfiction, whose forums are a central resource for ARGs and ARG rumors. When I asked her to help me define what makes an ARG, she explained that the genre is still too new to pin down. But most ARGs have a few things in common: they take place in real time, with the “puppetmasters” who run the show interacting with the community and adjusting the game on the fly. The puppetmasters stay hidden and only deal with the community in character; in return, the players choose to believe in the events and cast they’re given. If you’re playing online poker and the character you’re talking with says he’s a cowboy who’s been dead over a century, you should take him at his word.

Most ARGs tell a story, but to get it, the players usually solve puzzles– and many of those puzzles force huge teams to work in tandem. Take the pay phone puzzle in I Love Bees. The players had found a table of GPS coordinates with times and dates, all in the near future. When people started visiting the locations, they noticed that each one had a public pay phone. So an effort got underway to find someone who could get to each phone at the specified times– and that meant every phone, however remote or isolated. Because they had roughly 600,000 players working around the country, they pulled it off.

Naturally, you’d think some ARGs would trick people or play hoaxes. But Price says hoaxes generally don’t work. For one thing, the thousands of players who tackle the game will sniff out and uncover any prank. But more importantly, knowing it’s a game is the only safe way to play it. Says Price, “If the phone rings, is it going to be the game calling me? If I don’t respond to this character, are they going to try to find me? … You don’t want somebody calling you at midnight saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been kidnapped! I need help!'”

Still, most ARGs don’t announce themselves publicly: they let the players find them and argue over whether they’re real, and where they might lead. That makes World Without Oil unusual, since the game was announced almost two months before its launch. The news came out at last month’s Game Developers Conference, when pioneering game designer and ARG all-star Jane McGonigal announced it at her keynote. McGonigal was the lead community designer on I Love Bees, and she’s the participation architect for World Without Oil. Since GDC she’s been trekking from conference to conference over the past few weeks, talking up the game and bringing starpower to a team where most of the members haven’t been publicly identified.

The website— which right now, is just a teaser– introduces the scenario. We hear about eight characters who were stuck in a blizzard in Denver Airport. While they were there, they got a tip that something bad was going to happen on April 30th— and that’ll mark the kick-off of the game. But some of the early players are already instant messaging with them, and while I was working on this story, one of the characters even contacted me: I got an e-mail from someone named Sharon, or “,” who lives near me in Laconia, NH. Maybe when the crisis hits and gas goes to $6 a gallon, we can carpool?

If the players decide to run out and buy guns, “we take them at face value,” says Eklund. “If that’s going to be the response, then that’s going to be the situation that we’re in.” But although he couldn’t give me the details, he implied that he and the team would try to steer them toward a more social response. As one player said to Eklund, “‘How come the government never talks about building communities? They just talk about stockpiling some water in your basement.’ I thought that was an extremely good question, and one that should get some airtime.”

When I asked what he expected people to take away from the game, he said, “In a sense we don’t want them to walk away at all. I’m hoping there are communities built which last beyond the game.” And in an ARG community, anyone has a chance to play a crucial part– not just to lead a team, but to catch a period that’s out of place, or bring up a crucial fact about ethanol. “Jane [McGonigal] talks about the two American cultures, the Superidol and the Superhero. With the Superidol, it’s all about me. Whereas the Superhero, it’s all about service. What hidden superpower do I have that I can contribute? To me I just think that the person who looked at that period and said, ‘Look at this’– that was their superpower coming out.”

World Without Oil has to overcome several challenges. Collaborative storytelling takes more imagination than collaborative puzzle-solving. Games are simpler than real life, and they always lead to an answer; the real world is tricky, frustrating, and sometimes you lose. And although World Without Oil isn’t the first ARG to tackle real-life issues, Price explains that the community mostly shies away from talking politics. “We don’t really have that, and I think it’s because the community is valued so highly here that people don’t want to get into these potentially divisive discussions. And when they are discussed, it’s with a great deal of restraint.”

But when so many players get involved with ARGs just to talk to aliens or dead cowboys, it’s impossible not to wonder what they could bring to a real-world problem. A dramatic set-up could get them started, but the challenge itself could be enough to pull them along– and to find real-life solutions along the way. Or as Eklund puts it, “I hope that this is an alternate reality game which alters reality.”


~ by lilwendy on February 8, 2010.

2 Responses to “ARGs solving real-world problems?”

  1. Hello. I think too that the death hoax from Michael isn t a game. This is really serious. You don t fake your death for a game. It s really not good with the health of the world, nature and people[ most children]. We have to take care of the world and eachother. To chanche the world, to make it a better place. That s Michael s mission, so it has to be our mission. This is gona take a several years so i think Michael is coming out in 2012. He mentioned that year in the movie TII. By than you maybe see the results of his action. It s all for carrying the world to save the world. It s all for L.O.V.E.

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