Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chaotic Community (UPDATED)

Here's a little thinking out loud on a topic I call "chaotic community" -- or, "the really crowded sandbox".

It's a really long post, which I thought about a lot before posting. So if you just want the quick version, here it is (and also, a new P.S. at the bottom):

1) Truly global game communities are fundamentally different from more localized game communities, leading to a new experience that takes some getting used to -- for both players AND designers.

2) What's so different? The social experience is way more chaotic than we're accustomed to. This chaos can both be cool and productive, as well as sometimes confusing and disruptive. Understandably,there are plenty of players and designers who really want to reduce the confusing and disruptive part of the chaos. So this post is a small attempt to make one game slightly less confusing and disruptive for all of us, so we can get on with the important part: more playing!

3) My personal POV: Chaotic community isn't going away, in games or in other online collaborative environments, and it isn't all bad. It's fun and cool to bump up against something you don't recognize and to try to figure out what it is and how it works -- even if it seems like it might "break" the bigger system at first glance. Getting all of those moving parts to work together in a bigger, more interesting machine -- well, that's awesome. And it's a challenge worthy of really smart, creative people -- in other words, the ARG community. So even if there are bumps along the way, it's an exciting time for all of us to be experimenting and playing with each other. It's an exciting time for both players and designers to be inventing new ways of interacting with the rest of the really crowded world.


If you're playing The Lost Ring, then you're standing in a very crowded sandbox. Go ahead and wave hello to all those other players in other countries wielding their own brightly colored buckets and shovels. It's pretty chaotic, isn't it? You might not understand what they're saying, and you might not recognize the way they're playing. That's because players in China, Brazil, Japan, France, Spain, Argentina, the United States, Singapore, Germany, and so on -- well, they don't all approach games in exactly the same way. Global gaming styles are different! And if you're trying to find the lost ring, then you get to spend a few months playing together differently in the same sandbox. And that means you have a very unusual opportunity: the chance to be intrigued, and perhaps not-a-little confused, by what people you've never played with before are doing. To me, that intrigue and beautiful confusion is maybe the most fun and most important part of the game.

Some sandbox background: Alternate reality games have always been a bit of a "sandbox" for the players. In the videogame and MMO industries, "sandbox mode" means a player gets to turn off or simply ignore offical game missions, in favor of self-guided exploration. In sandbox mode, players explore the game world however they want, with whatever goals they invent for themselves.

The thing about ARGs is that historically, players have almost always been thrown immediately into sandbox mode, by design. There is no other way to play, no linear path to take. The puppet masters create an immersive world -- that's the sandbox. And the sand is everything the PMs create: the characters, the missions, the media, the stories, the puzzles, and the games.

Out of all of this sand, the players pick up their favorite clumps of the game and build new and interesting things. Usually, when it comes to ARG player creativity, we think about "player-created content" like wikis, videos, podcasts, guides, in-game blogs, and swag. More subtly, the players are also creating unique "journeys" that focus on favorite characters, or the real-world missions, or on unpacking particular aspects of the mythology. They dig their own tunnels through the sand to pursue what in the ARG world they love the most.

PMs watch what the players pick up and burrow through, and then the PMs throw more of it into the sandbox, to help the players build and tunnel through more of what they like. That's the fundamental art of puppet mastering. (Fun fact: when the PMs temporarily run out of new content for the players, which inevitably happens on any popular ARG, the players may choose to keep playing anyway, trying to solve puzzles that might not exist or provoke interactions that fall outside the scope of the game. This is typically referred to behind the certain as "chewing on sand.")

Now usually in videogames, sandbox mode is an intensely personal style of gameplay, and if you're the player, you don't have to worry about other players arguing with you about the experience you decide to create for yourself. Even if you're playing online, the virtual world is big enough that other players will leave you alone to play however you want.

But in ARGs, because gameplay is often so collaborative, and there's supposed to be very little experience that a player can have alone, sandbox mode can create interesting -- and sometimes contentious -- intersections of personal gameplay style. That's because some players might be building an elaborate sand castle, and other players might be racing through the box to make supercrazy tunnels, and other players might just want to squish the sand between their toes. And when your castle meets my tunnel and their toes, well it takes a bit of paying attention to let everyone have their fun.

The Lost Ring is kind of a more crowded sandbox than a lot of other ARGs, in the sense that it brings together multiple communities who are playing in different languages and often with particular cultural differences in gameplay style. And one thing the PMs have noticed is that the player communities often crave different game experiences. One group wants lots and lots of live roleplaying with characters; another group barely seems to notice that the modern characters exist and are entirely focused on the ancient legend. One group wants to discover clear, straightforward explanations of the game mysteries; another group seems to crave a never-ending unraveling of a mythology that is more fun the messier it gets. (Here, I'm talking about -- in no particular order -- North America, Brazil, Spanish-speaking Latin America, and the UK. Can you guess which is which?)

As a global puppet master team made up of 8 multi-lingual PMs, we have the benefit of watching everything unfold from above and explaining it to each other. One thing I've learned from this project is that it's not always easy for the players to notice how different their gameplay styles are, especially if they can't read the content on the Japanese wiki, or the unusual game summaries on the Chinese MSN Live pages, or the chatty messages on the Brazilian Orkut community. Yes, some translation happens, but they're not immersed in each other's communities the way our PM team can be. So the players don't necessarily realize how many styles are being expressed simultaneously, and they don't necessarily see how much fun another group of players might be having approaching the game content with a different cultural frame of reference.

So what we're seeing, awesomely in The Lost Ring is kind of like a giant flash mob where instead of acting like a perfectly unified, well, mob, participants are actually interpreting the flash mob instructions quite differently, and no one is yelling at them through a megaphone to STOP BEING DIFFERENT AND ALL PLAY THE SAME WAY.

Now, according to old-school ARG rules, that might not be a good thing. Everyone's on the same team, so everyone should agree to exactly the same approach, right? And besides, it's really fun to be perfectly synchronized! Someone really SHOULD get on a megaphone and get everyone back on track, perfectly in sync.

But suddenly, I don't want a megaphone. I want BINOCULARS. I am gasping with awe and joy to see so many ways to play with the same sand. I am realizing: It might turn out to be even more fun to be open as a player, to work hard to stay open, so that I can be amazed by lots and lots of mini-mobs spinning out their own interpretations side by side, all expressing their own spirit of play.

But that's not historically native to ARGs. And whereas 90% of The Lost Ring players have probably never played an ARG before, the 10% of The Lost Ring players who have are really important members of The Lost Ring community. And sometimes it seems like they're hoping someone will pull out a megaphone.

A recent example of this phenomenon can be explored in depth in this 139-post "Couberteam" thread on Unfiction, which is the premiere forum for English-speaking ARG players, and where numerous bilingual The Lost Ring players have been collaborating with the English-speaking community. It's a really illuminating example of what can happen in a very crowded sandbox. So let me take a moment to describe what's happening, and why it' s happening. My goal in writing about it is really to encourage a diversity in gameplay approaches, and to support players in a diversity in play styles. Because I believe there are fun, important benefits (as well as obvious challenges) in supporting them simultaneously.

So: The main conflict in this Couberteam thread stems from a difference in gameplay style. One player community invented a mysterious group called the "Couberteam" as a part of their unique, extreme-roleplaying approach. Inventing this group was unprompted by the characters of the PMs. But it certainly announced their unique game style to the rest of the world, and to us!

What we understood, but what some other player communities weren't as easily able to see, was that the Couberteam group was part of a larger, interesting phenomenon: Players in Spain, Argentina, and Brazil (countries that together make up about 42% of our player community) have been seeking a more intense "role playing" experience, where even their interaction with other players are "in game" and "role played". They don't want to explain everything they're doing to other players all the time, because that would be "out of game" -- instead, they want the other players to play along and play with them as if the game really were real. Happily for those players, our puppet masters in Spain, Brazil, and Argentina share this preference, and have been able to explain to the rest of us PMs the popularity of this style of roleplay. And so they have been facilitating lots of fun roleplaying in those communities.

So some of these players announced themselves as Couberteam, which would allow them to adopt a particular style of gameplay and invent their own missions, eventually in collaboration with PMs who were happy to support their sandbox activities. As a result, one of our PMs worked with the players to create a new in-game sub-plot. We don't expect all players to engage with this sub-plot, just like we don't expect all players to engage with 100% of this very big experience. But for those who are curious about it, the Couberteam missions are a very real part of the game that the players and PMs have created together.

Most player communities were oblivious to any of this, which was fine, because it wasn't 100% essential to everyone's game experience. But one other player community was a bit confounded by it because the Couberteam WAS visible and interacting with other player communities -- and the intentions and goals of Couberteam weren't clear.

This hit up against a tradition in ARGs. Typically, the English-speaking (and really, the original) ARG community considers almost all interaction with other players "out of game". At least half of discussion on any forum is what you would label "meta" -- discussions of the game as a game, the goals, the rules, strategies, etc. They expect other players to be 100% forthcoming, and not at all coy or playful about revealing their intentions as players. There is a certain beautiful efficiency to this style of play, and it can prove very effective for creating a powerful team and lots of collective intelligence. Players who love that style should play that style! But for some players new to the ARG genre, it probably feels a little too efficient. They seem to want a little more mystery and the opportunity to expand the world, even if that makes it messier. Those players might spin off something different with some new sand that the PMs throw in. And anyone who feels like playing with THAT sand, can. Or you can ignore that sand. That's what a sandbox is. And in a global sandbox, you're STILL going to have local gameplay styles. The local within the global. It's a good and a beautiful thing.

So what is boils down to is this: As an ARG designer, I don't have a problem with different player communities wanting to try different approaches. I actually encourage it, because I think we all benefit from it. I think you can adopt different styles and still collaborate. That's the algorithm for powerful collaboration! So I don't think that every ARG player has to agree to the same approach just to be a part of the same game. And I certainly don't think it's the Puppet Masters' job to define a single approach to the game, or to try to prevent different kinds of gamers from proposing unique paths through the game. When their path twists and intertwines with your path, that's when minds get expanded, when individuals get amplified, when things get interesting, when powerful new combinations of personal strengths emerge.

When I make an ARG, I want to make really cool sand. I DON'T want to post a list of do's and don'ts for playing with the sand, other than: Play fair, play nice, be creative, and add something interesting.

Yes, we're playing the same game. But we're different, and in ARGs, we have ALWAYS come together as a collective intelligence to benefit from those differences, not to squash them.

Collective intelligence, by definition, is designed to aggregate and harness what is unique about everyone into a more powerful and diverse whole. It doesn't FLATTEN difference, it engages difference!

Sure, that can feel messy sometimes. A sandbox is by its very nature messy, and chaotic.

In fact: Some people have taken to calling ARGs "chaotic fiction" (a term coined by Sean Stacey). What I would add is this: It's time to embrace the chaos at a community level, as well as at a content level.

In chaotic fiction, the fun is putting the pieces of the story together to make a whole. The fiction is really widely distributed and chopped up in really difficult, complicated ways -- on purpose. Players have to immerse themselves in the chaos and create a meaningful story out of it.

In The Lost Ring, and most likely many increasingly global ARGs and MMO servers to come, you're getting not only chaotic fiction, but also chaotic community. And that's awesome. The players aren't all on the same page when you start. You have to bring them together, and find points of connection -- even though the community will always be distributed in really difficult, complicated ways. Welcome to the future of global gaming. The community is more chaotic than ever, and the rules of the genre aren't going to evolve to be simpler. They're going to evolve to be more diverse and often conflicting, and players and PMs have the truly enviable challenge of being on the leading-edge of learning to thrive in these very crowded sandboxes.

P.S. Just to add one thing: I've been annoyed by chaotic community myself in the past. The most obnoxious I've ever been in my entire life was a couple of summers ago when I was at a camp and encountered a group of people playing Werewolf with one rule differently than I had traditionally played it. I was a complete raving lunatic all weekend trying to convince everyone to play by my rule. I was more of a raving lunatic than you could possibly imagine, and to this day I can't believe any of them still talk to me. Yet that weekend, we all kept playing together, at least in the same room, even though we were running multiple Werewolf circles and playing by different rules depending on the circle. Somehow, we got through about 24 hours of Werewolf in a single weekend, eventually trying out all kinds of new hybrid forms, although also doing a lot of eye rolling and muttering under our breath at each other too as we rejected each other's favorite rules! Do I still think my favorite rule is the best way to play? HECK YES!! But eventually I came to believe that it's also cool to bump up against other play styles and rules that show me other ways to approach the same game. Let's not overlook the fact that in any game, people sitting in the same circle have to play by the same rules -- it's true. But we can run lots of circles in the same room and move back and forth between circles, too. It's the moving that makes the confusion, but we can try to get past that! So, respect the rules of the circle you're in, but if someone doesn't know them or wants to play differently in a different circle, or maybe even try to tempt you over to their circle by showing you some strange new strategies, that's chaotic community, and that's good and interesting.