Friday, September 29, 2006
The Approval Matrix
Lots to catch up on, a million things on my mind, but a couple quick comments that I am theming around the subject of "The Approval Matrix":
First, Cruel 2 B Kind made New York Magazine's awesome Approval Matrix as the most brilliant event to hit NYC last week, and perfectly poised between high-brow and low brow. Other events listed include the Mets clinching their division, Madame Butterfly opening at the Met, and "Saddam Hussein says to 'agents of Zionism' that he will 'crush your heads'', inadvertently channeling Kids in the Hall". (hee hee.) I am teh happi0r!!!
Speaking of approval matrices, now that the game is post-World Premiere, Ian and I can finally start officially "approving" the requests we've received to host C2BK games. There are wicked many. I'm going to jump on that this weekend, so if you submitted a request, look for an email soon! We've got requests to run games in really interesting places as far as China, Australia, Ireland, and the UK, as well as more locally all up and down the West and East Coasts and across the rest of the country (LA, SF, Seattle; Florida, New Jersey, Boston; Madison, Phoenix, Shaulmberg; and so on).
Basically, the benevolent assassins are taking over the whole world. ROCK!
There's no limit to how many games can be run in any town or city, so feel free to request a game-- you tell us date, time, and location; we create a registration page for your players; they sign up; the game runs automatically! You can even play too.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Serial engagement is the cornerstone of community
What do Battlestar Galactica, American Idol, Lost, lonelygirl15, America's Next Top Model, and alternate reality games like ilovebees and Last Call Poker have in common?
They have a remarkable power to build incredibly multiple levels of meaningful community through serial engagement.
First, let me explain what I am identifying as the 3 scales of community they create. Here are the 3 levels: online, watercooler, and intimate communities. The first is mediated community at a massive scale and constructed through public communications (online). The second is face-to-face community in shared social spaces, through semi-pulic communications, at a macro scale (watercooler). The third is mediated but intensely personal community based on private communications, at an intimate scale (intimate). Think, respectively, of online forums and IRC channels (online); office and barber shop conversations (watercooler); and SMSing or IMing good friends or family not about real life but rather about the entertainment property (intimate). So I take part in spoiler and speculation discussions online about the Battlestar storyline, e.g.; I gossip about American Idol performances at work with colleagues and at the dog park with familiar strangers; and I SMS and IM with my sister and a good girlfriend on commercial breaks of America's Next Top Model to talk about the live broadcast. These are all interesting kinds of community that we would do well to consider separately, particularly the second and third categories. I know that I have a closer relationship with my sister, for instance, during seasons of reality TV shows we both watch, and I feel more connected to familiar strangers whose names I might not know but who I have discussed TV episodes with the night after they air.
Second, I want to argue that what makes this possible is the rhythm of serial engagement. Community requires multiple instances of collective engagement. Certain kinds of serial drama (Prison Break!) 24! and persistent storytelling (lonelygirl, ARGs, etc.) and campaign-based entertainment (So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, etc.) are perfect for this. Each episode or massive update represents a live node for plugging into the various levels of community.
This is hard to create around theater, which although is inspires collective (whole audience) engagement does not repeat-- unless there are multiple viewings are likely (think the obsessive $20 student rush crowd for RENT circa 1998); hard to create around movies, which also have local collective audiences but are typically one-off engagements; hard to create around unschedule console gameplay, where most people are at different levels/stages from the rest of the audience (although launches of highly anticpated sequels create something of these communities, e.g. Halo 2's launch....)
On the other hand, traditional folk games are meant to be experienced serially, iterated over and over again in multipled instances of gameplay. You can have a serial engagement with someone over a chess board or a scrabble board or on the tennis court or the golf course or in the Werewolf or Mafia circle. Indeed, one reason I am launching GROWL the International Werewolf League next month is to promote serial engagement through mutiple local Werewolf chapters.
I'm just trying to get some thoughts formally out here, because I have been obsessing about the pleasures of serial entertainment since the Sweet ValleyHigh series, which I started reading when I was 7 years old. And I have a feeling that investigating the psychology and social power of serial experience, specifically around both traditional broadcast and new digital distribution networks, is going to be an important task for me going foreward.
Alternate reality games as bionic software and existential intervention
Regarding #1: My other primary stake, as many of you already know or suspect, is an existential one-- games as a palliative intervention of orientation, meaning, purpose, feedback and social engagement into people's real-world lives. I can't help it-- that's just the way I see things. In other words: What would Sisyphus do? I think he would turn rolling that rock up and down the hill into a game.
I just wanted to post this because I've been getting a lot of questions lately about what I do and why I do it... and ultimately, it's the stakes of ARGs as powerful systems--moreso than their aesthetics or technical aspects--that I want to focus on.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Notes from a cruel puppet master...
I'm in New York City for the next few days, doing final on-the-ground scouting and prepping for Saturday's big world premiere of Cruel 2 B Kind, the game of benevolent assassinations. Stay tuned to this blog post for updates on the puppet mastering!
79 teams are registered to play. That is huge! We are seriously going to be a major ludic force to be reckoned with on Broadway. That number of gamers is going to make a big social impact on the game space. We expect to get even more players registered once the festival actually kicks off tomorrow. Therefore, I have spent most of tonight hacking our game algorithms to accommodate more, more, more players!
Originally Ian and I capped our system at a maximum of 100 teams. I had created algorithms for each number of teams, 5 through 100, that specify the number of weapons, iterated how many times each, for every conceivable number of alive teams at any given time. For instance, a game with 88 teams begins with 11 weapons assigned to 8 teams each; 90 teams begins with 10 weapons assigned to 9 teams each, 42 teams begins with 7 weapons assigned 6 times each, 29 begins with 1 weapon assigned to 29 teams, and so on. I like these diverse patterns for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because it means the game is different each time it's played depending on how many teams there are. A game with 1 weapon deployed by all teams requires great stealth; a game with 23 weapons assigned to only 1 team each requires luck, observation and strategy.
However, to keep things interesting and provide a range of gameplay experiences with a single game, and most importantly to ensure that each team has surviving targets and hunters at all times, I created algorithms for reassinging weapons from scratch. So a game with 88 players resets at 69, 44, 34, 16, and 7 players. Each of these resets deploys 23, 11, 17, 8 and 7 new weapons, respectively, to 3, 4, 2, 2, and 1 players each.
Anyway, I've been creating these algorithms for 101 - 150 teams tonight so that if registration keeps going up, we can accommodate even more players!
Thursday, even later
Now with room for 150 teams, I had to generate 50 new "kill codes" to add to the current database of 100. Kill codes are the unique codewords each team surrenders when they are assassinated. The attackers text the kill code to our game system to receive points and update the game to know which teams are dead.
The secret of our kill codes: each word is taken from the original text of Hamlet, since it was he who first spoke the phrase "cruel to be kind." You would be surprised by how few short, non-homonym words appear in a Shakespeare play. (Need to be non-homonym so teams shouting the codes are understood clearly and specifically by their killers, need to be short to allow for speedy texting!) It's all "lord" this and "woe" that. But I love the subtle texture it adds to the game!
Thursday evening, earlier
Fielded calls and emails from all kinds of press today, from MTV to the Finnish Broadcasting Company to the Villager, one of the oldest local neighborhood papers in the city. The more people who find out about the game, the better--because anyone who hears about it can sign up to run their own C2BK event!
I've been scouting local bakeries and groceries for a good deal on self-catering supplies for our post-game assassins' picnic and awards ceremony at a secret location in Central Park. It's difficult to figure self-catering for upwards of 150 players! However, I think I've found a solution: mini cupcakes and lemonade. Yay! Also, I found cookies that look exactly like the daisy bullets on our C2BK logo and website. So I will buy a bunch of those, even though they are fancy and expensive, because they are too perfect not to bring along!
Brainstormed levels of top assassins awards with some of the festival volunteers today. They were a great help-- and I can now proudly reveal the official levels of honors it is possible to receive in the game! In order of ascending awesomeness, we have Mad Assassin, Bad Assassin, Super Assassin, Elite Assassin, Extreme Assassin, and Ultimate Assassin!
Lots more interviews today... BBC Radio and the Village Voice were highlights...
My mom is coming into the city to play the game as an innocent bystander! I love that the game is mainstream enough for my mom. I also love that the game affords casual participation as someone willing to hang out in the game space and be attacked with kindness by the actual, registered players.
Turnout at the opening night reception downtown was fantastic-- a packed room all night long, hundreds of folks, many familiar faces from Gamelab, Eyebeam, Glolab, MIT, NYU ITP, GDC, and so on... but even better, many totally unfamliar faces from the general NYC public! So exciting to see first-time reality-based gamers trying their hand at everywhere play.
...met folks who had flown in from as far as Mexico City and London to play Cruel 2 B Kind. I can't wait to give them a great experience befitting of such extraordinary efforts to be here for the game!
Meanwhile earlier tonight we hit 101 teams registered. Has there ever been a public pervasive game with that many teams in NYC? I think we are a first!
Ian finally got in from Atlanta, so tonight we're holed up in our room prepping and running a final test of the system from Starbucks (where we'll be puppet mastering the game live tomorrow) just to be 100% confident for tomorrow!
It's raining in New York City today! That will likely have a bit of an impact on the turnout for the game... although at this point, even if half of the registered players don't show up with their cruel umbrellas, we'll still have a superabundnace of live assassins... we're up to 110 confirmed teams for today's game.
MTV will be here in about twenty minutes to film a special elite assassins orientation for a few teams I recruited yesterday for extra-special training.
Randomly, I am wearing a shirt that PERFECT matches the shirt the girl in our C2bK logo is wearing. I will flickr this later as evidence of my extreme fashion commitment to embodying the game! :)
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Please feed (but don't fetishize) the participation
In the LA Times, the producers of the You Tube serial drama describe their goals for engaging the audience:
The intent was to allow fan response posted in the comment section of lonelygirl15's YouTube and MySpace pages to determine the direction of each subsequent episode.As an example of the fans' influence over the story line, what the team calls "collaborative storytelling," they pointed to an episode in which Daniel reveals his romantic feelings to Bree. "In the 'Hiking' video," Beckett said, "where Daniel filmed her, there were a ton of comments saying, 'Daniel likes you. It's obvious that the cameraman was completely in love with you.' We saw the comments and said this is the perfect opportunity to address this."
Okay, fair enough. I'm all for collaborative storytelling. But I don't think it's right to accept this account of the kind of participation that happened during the lonelygirl project at face value. Today and yesterday I spent a lot of time reading through pretty much every single comment left on the lonelygirl videos, the space where the audience was purportedly invited to help decide and direct the course of the narrative. I would encourage anyone else interested in the currently much praised and hyped lonelygirl "community" to do the same. A great hub for doing this is here.
As the statistics on this traffic counter show, each lonelygirl video has roughly 1000-4000 comments, nearly all of them left before the puppet masters were unmasked. And I have to say this: the level of hate, mean-spiritendess, crudeness and often downright misogeny of the majority of them is impossible to ignore.
As we talk about the “new art form” or “participatory culture” aspects of this project, I want to be very careful that we don’t fetishize the participation aspects of this experience that was had by a very few who may have intelligently, passionately and seriously investigated and responded to the texts and the media objects. I want instead to think about the mainstream experience of and participation in this project and the success of the platform provided for engagement.
To give you an idea, here is a sample of comments that I would characterize as representative of at least 33% if not more of comments to the lonelygirl videos:
You are pretty boring. Get a psychologist.
Ok. Why don’t you just keep your personal problems to yourself and stop making a scene
show us your tits
you are really ugly i hope you know that
Your eyebrows are too far apart. But, you’re still pretty.
Fuck you. Welcome to the new world we Don’t Have to Respect what you think. get over it
I hope Daniel rapes you. No hard feelings.
HHHmmmmm,your caucasian,live in a decent to luxurious house, are well taken care of,and it looks like you are one of those spoiled girls that kiss ass to thier daddy.Think you have it rough?Why dont you come live in East Los Angeles,whee you cant go anywhere without being shot at,you fuckin spoiled brat.
Cry me a river bitch, your a teenager, do what your parents say bitch.
(Most discussion in the comments is not about whether lonelygirl is real or not-- they appear to accept the videos at face value, or otherwise not to care whether they are insulting a "real" girl or an actress.)
So: Is this really the birth of a new art form? Is this a kind of social participation that we like or find interesting? I'm all for participatory entertainment. But let's carefully design platforms, vehicles, and contexts for participation that really work to engage audiences, players, makers, collaborators in meaningful ways.
One more point I want to make: I think this question of "is she real or not" and how does the audience feel about being hoaxed or played with is a really important one. Although many, many viewers were openly skeptical or cynical about the verity of lonelygirl's professed identity, from what I can tell, far more took it close enough to real to play along.
Now I've written a lot about, and worked on quite a few, projects that ask players to perform belief in the story and game experiences, but--and here's the key distinction--without presenting actually credible fictons. (Stories set 500 years in the future, for instance, or involving poker rooms full of ghosts). The media itself never clearly said "I'm not real", but the content absolutely had no chance of fooling anyone. So I'll come out and say it: I don't personally like entertainment in the form of credible hoaxes. Not necessarily from a moral position, but rather because I believe that "real or not" distracts from the more important question: How can I meaningfully engage?
I agree that serial drama on You Tube is a great art form (so are traditional ARGs, the more elaborate art form that lonelygirl represents a pared back style of, in my opinion), but the real conversation should be not about the realness, but rather: How do people want to participate in it? Do they want to be the makers of their own videos? To have role-playing style conversations in the comments? Do they want to directly influence the narrative or to just speculate and gossip about it so they can be proven right by what happens next? And most importantly how do we inspire participation that is more than hostile juvenile comments? How do we create a real participatory community around an entertainment property, and what forms of participation are possible... and desirable?
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Live blogging the 2nd Cruel 2 B Kind Playtest
Originally uploaded by superkiy.
Outstanding. We have 15 teams checked in for today's Cruel 2 B Kind playtest at Mission Dolores Park-- twice as many as last week!
Everything has gone really smoothly so far... the code is in killer shape, the new features work perfectly, the new stealth benevolence weapons are hysterical, and we are psyched, psyched, psyched!
The top team of assassins from last week, interestingly, have split up into different teams, joining forces with two new players this week. We'll see if either of them retain their title of Top Assassin, or if the honor is passed on to one of the new teams...
Don't forget to register for our official World Premiere game in New York City on Saturday afternoon September 23!
Update: OMG, awesome. First kill is registered. One of the top assassins from last week just killed the other top assassin from last week! Now they are allied once again! That foursome should be a force to be reckoned with...
Friday, September 08, 2006
Yay! I won a technology innovation award
JANE MCGONIGAL, LEAD DESIGNER FROM 42 ENTERTAINMENT, CHOSEN AS ONE OF THE “TR35” TOP INNOVATORS UNDER THE AGE OF 35 BY MIT’S TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MAGAZINE
Winners to be featured at 2006 Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT
September 8, 2006—Jane McGonigal, an innovator in the field of game design and game studies is included in the annual 2006 TR35 list, published in new issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine. The list features 35 of the top innovators in science and technology under the age of 35.
Jane McGonigal is a pioneer in the emerging field of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and recently completed a PhD in the field of performance studies at UC Berkeley. Her professional design practice and academic research bring together the fields of ubiquitous computing, computer-supported collaborative work, and game design in order to understand how play can create communities capable of extraordinary collective intelligence.
According the Jason Pontin, Editor-in-Chief of Technology Review: “The TR35 is an amazing group of people. Their accomplishments are likely to shape their fields for decades to come. It’s evident when you scroll back and see names like Sergey Brin, Jonathan Ive, and Steve Jurvetson among the past winners.”
The honorees are selected by the editors of the magazine in collaboration with a prestigious panel of judges from major institutions and corporations such as Boston University, Hewlett-Packard Labs, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Caltech, and Applied Materials.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Sampling public reaction to Cruel 2 B Kind
"a brilliant contribution to gaming, and also to society... innocent bystanders are going to find themselves being surrounded by a whole ton of well-wishers and positive energy"
"fun and doable for normal people" (as opposed to hard-core gamers only)
"Sort of assassins but with an even more insidious twist… kill them with kindness. Cruel 2 B Kind has Got 2 B Tried."
"like a non-violent fatwa (in a good way!)"
"this whole concept, and the thought of people going around complimenting, cheering for or singing to complete strangers really makes me smile"
"The basic idea is to turn public spaces into places to play games, games that can include everyone. I love the idea."
"awesome!*dreams of slaying someone with a serenade...*"
And the gameplay, as described by some of the playtesters:
Ryan says: "you play in public places, which adds a lot more suspense. You never know for sure who's playing and who's not...until you kill them, of course, or they kill you."
Suw says: "Eventually, we ended up with two marauding packs in a Mexican stand-off. We sat on picnic rugs playing Duck Duck Goose (a new game to me), and they lurked behind some trees trying to look inconspicuous and failing. Eventually, with only 10 mins to go, the other group rushed us - using a non-game playing couple with a dog as a decoy, and running straight out of the sun at us, deploying their final, fatal weapon. We were, essentially, kissed to death."
(And don't forget to register to play in our Sunday San Francisco Playtest or the New York City World Premiere game on September 23!)
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
This week's "On the Media" segment explores the online story phenomenon of the summer: the YouTube lonelygirl15 saga. Given the phenomenon's close relationship to alternate reality games and other unframed fictional media, I was glad to be name dropped as a researcher of this kind of collective, investigative entertainment experience. :)
Better yet, the observations about the emerging lonelygirl5 community made by New York Times' Virginia Heffernan are really spot-on and wonderful. It's a great segment, and I'm really excited that Virginia has taken up the lead in reporting on what's really interesting here-- not the "is she (real) or isn't she" question, but rather the amazing conversations, investigations and relationships growing out of the audience's consideration of that question.
Virginia calls it a kind of "scholarship, almost" that is taking place in the chats and boards, and I couldn't agree more. (In fact, a new essay I'm writing for a collection on Digital Games and Learning describes alternate reality gameplay as an extremely rich, open learning culture.)
You can listen to the NPR segment here.
"After the climactic bloodbath"
After the climactic bloodbath
Originally uploaded by mbiddulph.
Playtest updates: Photos from the first Cruel 2 B Kind playtest are popping up on Flickr! You can find them under the tag Cruel2BKind. (Here, "After the climactic bloodbath", which entailed two final mobs of players being very kind to each other.)
Overall, it was a great day. Ian and I learned lots, and it was a delight to see the creative strategies and disguises invented and deployed by the testers. And the feedback at the assassins' picnic afterwards was tremendous.
My favorite story was related by the winning team, who staged a successful final attack that began by recruiting a trio of parkgoers to distract their targets... and ended with the whole team "charging up a hill like Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan"... while blowing kisses. Fantastic!
Ian and I are making three key systems changes this week in response to the playtesters' feedback, and as a result the technology will work a lot better for this next test. We're also simplifying a couple of the interactive mechanics. But overall we're really excited about how the playtest went. Nothing makes me happier than to create a public game that leaves both the players and the public feeling good about the event.
I would LOVE for you to come help Ian and I playtest again this Sunday. To be a part of the test, which lasts about an hour, register here. Also, I'll bring a deck of Werewolf cards to the assassins' picnic, in case anyone should like to stick around and play a less mobile but equally fabulous game. :)
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Live blogging the 1st Cruel 2 B Kind Playtest
3:19 PM Successful playtest is over! Already many of the players have registered to play again next week. That's what I love to see-- a sticky game that encourages replayability!
Sunday 9/3/06 - The puppetmaster
Originally uploaded by superkiy.
2:12 PM Well, no one has been successfully assassinated yet-- phew. I was worried that the game might be TOO easy, that all the players would find each other quickly, kill each other, and the game would be over in 5 minutes. Well it has been SIX minutes so far, and the game is not over! :)
2:06 PM The game is afoot! Eight teams of benevolent assassins, a perfect playtesting number, are on the loose in Mission Dolores Park. I wish I could see the live action, but I hope to get juicy reports at the assassins picnic afterwards...
1:48 PM Five teams have checked in! That's the critical number to hit-- the game is designed to be played with a minimum of five teams. Woo! Gameplay begins at 2 PM! I wonder which teams will get assigned which weapons and weaknesses... I'm really proud of the database of benevolent actions we've created for the game.
1:35 PM While I am celebrating the technological success of the game so far, and the fact that players have indeed shown up to play, might I remind you to REGISTER TO PLAY in the next San Francisco Playtest (September 10), the World Premiere Game in New York City (September 23) or to HOST YOUR OWN Cruel 2 B Kind game anywhere in the world there is cell phone coverage?
1:34 PM YAY! Two teams have checked in already. Outstanding!! Did I mention... it is WORKING?? I'm so happy.
1:31 PM YAY! It is working! I just did a little dance in my cafe chair. Check-in has officially begun! Here's who it works, as explained on the Rules page:
No earlier than 30 minutes before the game starts and no later than 5 minutes before the game starts, show up anywhere within game boundaries. Use your cell phone to check-in.Because it's essential for players not to know who the other players are when the game begins, we do NOT meet up at a common location. Instead, you choose to show up anywhere within the game boundaries. You use your cell phone to send our game system an email with only "hello" in the body, and we know you're on-site and ready to play.
1:29 PM The game should turn on in one minute!
1:20 PM Mission Dolores Park is getting more crowded. Excellent. I am really curious to see if the players will pick each other out right away, or if they will be forced to engage with ordinary park-goers in their hunt for their game targets. I know one team has a pretty elaborate "blend in" disguise strategy planned! Of course, the game scoring is rather elegantly balanced (I'm happy to report) to minimize incentive to hide the entire game--survival points are worth only a quarter of the kill points, so players have strong motivation to actively play, rather than lurk until most other teams have been killed off.
1:13 PM I'm staked out in the Mission Dolores Park Cafe. WiFi connection seems stable enough-- keep your fingers crossed. Technically, the game can and will run itself, with automatic real-time scoring, kill tracking, help, weapons (random act of kindness) assignment, and so on. But I'm planning to watch the server event log and keep track of the game's run state throughout, just to make sure it's all going smoothly. This is the first game I've ever run where players don't meet up at a central location, so I'll have no way of knowing how many teams have arrived and checked in unless I check the event log. Okay I think I'm a lot more nervous than I thought I was. This post will likely be quite verbose as the only thing I can think to do to be less nervous is to type what I'm thinking out loud while I wait for the game to being. The game check-in is supposed to turn itself on in 15 minutes! I hope it works!
12:45 PM OMG. The San Francisco Mime Troupe is doing a show in Mission Dolores Park that coincides EXACTLY with the time of our playtest! Awesome! What great possibilities for intersection, friction, and other kinds of synchronicitous game play.
12:39 PM The playtest today is at Mission Dolores Park. The crowd is sparser than usual for a Sunday afternoon—lots of San Francisco folks out of town for Labor Day and Burning Man this weekend. But there is definitely a critical mass of ordinary park-goers among whom the Cruel 2 B Kind playtesters can immerse and disguise themselves. 11: 48 AM I decorated a cooler this morning for the post-game assassins’ picnic, at which bloody red velvet cake will be eaten and Top Assassins Awards will be given out. The cooler now reads in sparkly paints: “Cool 2 B Kind.”
11:35 AM I’ll admit it. I’m nervous. (And excited!) This is the very first real Cruel 2 B Kind game. I can’t wait to see what it looks and feels like live, on the ground, with real players! I’ve playtested the game by myself several times already this weekend to test the technology. (Picture me with multiple phones and email addresses proxied as phones playing as five teams simultaneously.) As far as I can tell, the game system works. But is it fun? It is it exciting? It is really socially adaptable and sustainable, as Ian and I hope? Today we will find out how the game PLAYS.
11:09 AM My co-conspirator in designing and developing this game, Ian Bogost, is profiled in the New York Times Sunday magazine today. Seems like an auspicious opening to the day of our very first Cruel 2 B Kind playtest!