Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lol dogs

Lol dogs
Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Happy Thursday, everyone. I am having a great week. Unfortunately most of what made it so great, I can't talk about publicly. (The one thing I can talk about is that yesterday I met John Edwards at a private lunch, and he was awesome, squeee.) Instead of blabbing the other good stuff, I offer you my own handmade Lol dogs art. Whee!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Think Negative! Play Negative?

John Gravois has an excellent essay in Slate today about The Awesome Power of Negative Thinking. An excerpt:

Karen Cerulo, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote a book last year called Never Saw It Coming. In it, she argues that we are individually, institutionally, and societally hellbent on wishful thinking. The Secret [and so much of popular psychology] tells us to visualize best-case scenarios and banish negative ones from our minds. Never Saw It Coming says that's what we've been doing all along—and we get blindsided by even the most foreseeable disasters because of it.

In her research, Cerulo found that when most of us look out at the world and plan for our future, we fuzz out our vision of any failure, fluke, disease, or disaster on the horizon. Instead, we focus on an ideal future, we burnish our best memories, and, well, we watch a lot of your show. Meanwhile, we're inarticulate about worst-case scenarios. Just thinking about them makes us nervous and uncomfortable.

I'm excited to see such a well-researched critique of our cultural obsession with positive thinking. One of the first things I learned when I joined the Institute for the Future six months ago is the importance of capturing all plausible futures, including the less-than-optimal ones. (I'm now a research affiliate and resident game designer at the non-profit think tank.) The only thing we know for certain is that not all future developments will be desirable ones. To make good decisions in the present, we need to imagine, understand, and evaluate a whole range of future scenarios. Not only the best-case scenarios that pose the most exciting opportunities, but also the the worst-case and mixed-case scenarios that pose the most challenging dilemmas.

As Gravois points out in his essay, we need only think of "the Bush administration, which has been roundly condemned for planning the Iraq war around a set of best-case scenarios.... 'We will be greeted as liberators' was good, but 'Mission Accomplished' was even better. Visualize, guys, visualize! A little negative thinking might have gone a long way in all those situations."

Indeed. I am coming to realize the importance of thinking negatively about these kinds of really big picture, world-changing issues. Global politics is a good place to start. So is the environment and oil dependency.

I may not have explicitly realized this when we first started the project, but it's so obvious now: World Without Oil is at its heart an experiment in negative thinking about the oil dependency issue. Historically, in this respect, is the first game to engage a public collective intelligence (over 35,000 players currently) in explicitly negative thinking about a major social and political issue. (The military and other crisis-response agencies have doing it privately for decades, of course, in things like "war gaming" and "crisis simulations".)

World Without Oil's rather earnest embrace of non-wishful thinking is what really makes this project so risky--and, I think, so important. We're more than two weeks into the live game, and so far a lot of the player-created content is documenting a rather dire alternate reality. You can see explicit fear, pain, and suffering in their creations -- even some apocalyptic undertones. In the first two weeks of play, the game has received over 1000 blog posts, videos, podcasts and other submissions -- and a lot of it is like this letter about separated families in California, this video about rolling blackouts, this blog post about a crumbling IT infrastructure, this voice mail message about taking refuge outside of cities, this video about getting stranded abroad by folded airlines, this video about closed and empty grocery stores, and even this email about civil war.

The latest headlines from the World Without Oil "reality dashboard" mirror the dark aspsects of the reality that the players have imagined and collectively documented. They report: "FUEL RIOTS: Violence Erupts in Seven Cities":

Furious mobs smashed windows and set fire to cars across the nation after disclosures that a number of oil company lobbyists were present at last week's closed door hearings on the proposed National Mass Transit Initiative. The Bill's defeat in the House, followed a day later by the announcement of yet another record breaking quarter for 2 of the nation's largest oil companies had left a sour mood in cities struggling without adequate public transportation.

Is there any real benefit to an alternate reality that identifies more problems than it solves? Shouldn't this kind of game try to produce solutions -- and not just detail the myriad and diverse aspects of a potential crisis? This is a question I've asked myself as I've watched the game unfold.

But Gravois' essay and Cerulo's book reveals the importance of telling a compelling story about potentially negative outcomes. Just the act of imagining something other than our desired solution can be a major turning point, a breakthrough. In the case of World Without Oil, players are vividly imaginging something OTHER than the hoped-for scenario in which U.S. easily weans itself off of oil through a combination of alternate fuels and reduced consumption, without any disruption to our country's way of life or any real breakdown of society.

It's not all negative, of course. But the negative is necessary to change the conversation; out of negative thinking, a different - and more realistic - positive effort can emerge. Perhaps the most rewarding part of puppet mastering World Without Oil so far has been to watch the players start to find pockets of optimism - potential ways out - of the "think negative" scenarios they have helped to construct. They have fully embraced a rather dark vision of a future oil shock. Now they are beginning to focus their efforts on generating responses that make the best of the worst-case scenario.

You can really start to see this in action, for instance, in this beautiful web comic about creative transportation "by any means necessary" (it's the seventh in a series of comics by the same player). Or in this fascinating journal entry about the comforts of a new kind of government rationing (the 12th in a series of fictional journal posts from the same player). I adore this series of photo-blog posts about a whole family doing guerilla gardening in their neighborhood. (Just one of many player groups living at least part of their real lives as if the fictional oil crisis were true.) It's really an amazing process to watch overall, and one that I'll look forward to seeing play out over the remaining two weeks of the game, which concludes live play on June 1.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Do you drop spot? (plus: Go get this right now!)

Do you drop spot? I do! A drop spot is a kind of alternative mailbox -- hidden in plain sight.

Drop spotting is just plain awesome, and I love it. It's a lot like geocaching, only:

-no GPS coordinates or GPS device required!
-less rooting around in remote areas!
-more visual clue-iness!
-and usually less driving involved to get there.

So instead of creating geocaches in the wilderness or out-of-the-way place, drop spots are hidden in plain sight, often in crowded urban environments. I learned about it last December from a very cool, smart undergrad in ITU-Copenhagen - drop spotting is very global!

Here's why I bring up drop spotting now. Drop spots are becoming an increasingly important part of World Without Oil.

One WWO hero in Illinois is doing guerilla gardening and is using Drop Spots to mark the sites of the secretly stashed seeds. He writes:
According to John Jeavons "how to grow more vegetables", the bare minimum it takes to grow a subsistence diet is 4000 square feet per person. My yard total has less than 2000, and now I can't use the best parts of it without getting evicted. So what am I doing? I'm planting my food wherever I can. I've dropped a few fruit trees around town, in public spaces I walk by daily. I dress them up with mulch and the like to make it look like the decorative ones the city puts in. So far noone has notices. I got some "volunteer" tomatoes that grow like wildfire at my mother's, and spread them around town. I hide seed potatoes in the carefully landscaped city flowerbeds. I've found where the wild onions grow and spread them. I blow dandelions in the wind, even though I'm not eating them yet. This is called "guerrilla gardening", and it's very civic minded. In some ways I reclaiming the Commons, making public land productive for the citizenry. Anyone who wants to can help themselves to the food when it's ready, I'm planting enough to accommodate."

A WWO hero in Kentucky is using a Drop Spot to trade life tools to help others get through the oil crisis. She writes:
This Drop is on Preston road, right under I-64 and across the street from the "Green" parking lot. There is a patch of wild bushes/trees, concrete, another patch (where the drop is located), concrete and then a final patch. You shouldn't have to actually step into the patch, I placed it about 2-3 feet in and covered it up with some leaves/branches. It's a plastic "gallon size" ziplock bag.

And for all of your San Francisco area readers who might not be playing WWO yet, this is your chance to get involved. Emil, one of the original WWO team members, writes:
i've set up a San Francisco drop spot for exchanging essential goods, notes and anything else you can shove in this strange little stash. hopefully only fellow world without oil heroes will use it. i've kicked it off by leaving one of evie's favorite books (you know her as mpathytest). the chapter 1 explanation of how we got into this oil mess was, well, mindblowing. and the rest of the book should help any wwo hero think of some ways to innovate our way out of this crisis. if you pick up the book, leave something else behind for me or other wwo heroes. cool.a few hints for finding the spot: it's at ground level. it's about halfway between bluxome and brannan. it's on the east side of the block. if you see a statue of a saint or a monk watching over you from behind a gate, you're in exactly the right spot. no digging required. just stick your hand in and reach to the right.

If you are reading this in the SF/Bay Area, GO GET THIS SOMA drop spot (near the CalTrain) RIGHT NOW! It's your perfect window into the game. Jump through it! Go!

What are you waiting for? The world needs saving, and if you live in San Francisco, you are the person to do it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is it ethical to play during a time of crisis?

I honestly never thought I'd live through this kind of turmoil in the U.S.

Burning cars, vanadlism, looting. EVERYWHERE.

Even here in Berkeley. 3 women were attacked and robbed yesterday at the biodiesel refueling station. It's come to that. It's not enough to fight over oil, now we're fighting over alternative fuels?

8TSOC's Week 10 Update pretty much sums up the current state of the domestic crisis for those of you reading this from other parts of the world. Not that you're necessarily better off, what with the Australian secesssion conflict, the Chinese warships in the Straits of Malacca, the rebel forces in Nigeria... well, all I can say, seriously, is: WTF, World? WTF!!

If you're like me, you're probably reading this at home, hunkered down in front of your computer, because you're basically in hiding. You don't want to deal with the reality of all of this. You don't have the freaking gas to go anywhere anyway and are afraid to use your bike because you'll probably be mugged for it.

For most people, it's hard to live like this. It's REALLY hard to get any work done. It's hard to go about the everyday business of life. Let alone any play.

Here's the thing. I think we need to play. Well, yeah, of course you knew I was going to say that. For years, I've been saying that pervasive games are a powerful way to exert influence on spaces, to change public behaviors, to alter reality. So now I'm feeling like I shouldn't be at home cowering behind my laptop. I should be out in the real world, playing in the now ubiquitous empty parking lots, gathering people together. Maybe if we start playing together, we'll remember how to live together.

I know what you're thinking. It doesn't feel reasonable or ethical or productive to play during this kind of total societal breakdown. Part of me feels that too.

But maybe the opposite of all that is true. Maybe to rebuild our institutions, we need to play together. And maybe we need play to make it safe to go outside again.

As you know, I've been teaching ubiquitous game design at San Francisco Art Institute this semester. Through that class, I've met a lot of amazing young game designers. And so last week I asked them to help with this. I've asked them to design some real-world games for people like us to play in this new world without oil. I asked them to design physical games that we could play together in public, keeping in mind the fact that we basically can't depend on driving anywhere and are dealing with so many different kinds of everyday chaos.

Several of my students have masterminded one. It's an adventure walking game, and it's called LnC2k7. (Bonus points if you can post in the comments a correct translation of the name!) And I have to say, it is brilliant. I went out and played it last night. It was definitely weird to be playing during crisis. But it felt right. And we met so many people as we played, and that felt right too, talking to them, not being scared of strangers but friendly again. In a way that we were before all the oil was lost. You can download the rules here. You can see photos of other people playing it here. Or you can just start by calling this number: 1 888 349 6448.

So here's the big announcement. When we have some more of these games, I'm going to hold a public game festival. That's right. In the middle of this crisis, we are going to go to a park, or an empty parking lot, and we are going to play. Games. Big games. Playground games. No technology, no boards. The games we used to play when we were kids, in the streets, or at recess. This will happen soon. Probably in just a couple of weeks. A playground festival for a world without oil. You heard it here first.

If you want to help, play the games we come up with, or make up your own games. Be brave to play them, out in public, in the midst of the chaos. Let the games put a little structure, a little sociability back into the world.

Post here a link to anything you create, and I'll make sure other netizen heroes find out about it. (While you're at it, follow that link and sign up to be a hero yourself, okay? There are 1342 of us so far and counting.)

(No idea what I'm talking about? Go here immediately!)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Play Now! World Without Oil is LIVE!

Originally uploaded by Avant Game.
Play it-- before you live it.

Stop whatever you're doing. Take the next 30 seconds to sign up as a citizen hero for World Without Oil.

WWO is a game for good -- the first alternate reality game to tackle a real-world problem. Gamers to save the world? Hell, yes!

The game is live as of yesterday, and I hope you will check it out. It runs until the first week of June. There are all kinds of ways to participate -- you can read the fictional characters' team blog, you can browse real-character player-submitted blogs, videos, audio messages and images. If you're inspired to really get involved, you can tell your own story by submitting your own original content imagining and documenting YOUR real life during an oil shock. You can send us URLs, emails, or call our game hotline (1.866.WWO.TSOC)

If you want the fictional backstory on the game to help you imagine what to create, you can start here. And if you want the REAL backstory on the game (warning: ARG spoilers!), you can check out these quick project facts.

And finally, a great background article on the game.