So the afternoon bootcamp sessions were all about alternative reality games for me. I couldn't wait to get into sessions with folks who had actually created ARGs and hear what they had to say. But it turned out that the sessions were about so much more than just listening to others. More hands-on play!
I have to say that I really liked the way the "Narrative Puzzles," "Build Your Own Practomimetic (ARG/RPG) Course" and "What's Your Game Plan" sessions were structured. There was a lot of attention to time and making sure that the presenters didn't take up all the time in talking. That's SO easy to do, especially when you are excited about your topic, and I know everyone had a lot more to say. But in the true THATCamp spirit, the emphasis was on interaction. And to be honest, the experiences are starting to blend together in my memory. This is by no means an indictment of the experience at all, rather it highlights that the same ideas and themes were woven through all the afternoon sessions that I chose.
The first main theme for me is the importance of group interaction and the fun of working together. The folks from the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry brought a language puzzle for us to tackle in small groups. We really did build on each others ideas, and I know for sure that I never would have gotten as far toward the solution alone. I am terribly impatient with puzzles and give up pretty quickly (or look for the walkthrough somewhere). But the interaction of a group keeps me focused and willing to keep working. In the "Build Your Own" and "What's your Game Plan" sessions, we also did small group activities, to come up with a history ARG focused on Ellis Island for the former and a crazy game combining elements of Scrabble, resource management and building to teach critical reading skills in the latter. These exercises were more open-ended, of course, since we were asked to invent something new rather than discover the one right answer as we were in the AGOG puzzle, and thus the group interactions involved more negotiation and consensus-building. Someone mentioned the improv game of "yes, and" as a technique for working in groups, and I love that idea. If the idea is to use game mechanics to turn tasks into quests, what better game to play in meetings and group activities?
Another, more sobering topic that was raised again and again was the repeatability of educational ARGs. Are they, as the big, commercial games are, one-time deals, like a rock concert or special event? Are they simply too time-consuming to maintain? I can certainly see the problems with maintaining the websites, ensuring that the phone clues work, having material stashed at the right place at the right time, to make sure the narrative unfolds smoothly. Another issue is keeping track of players. People are unpredictable and may take unanticipated paths or actions, solving puzzles too quickly or not quickly enough, or veering out of the puppetmaster's control to end up who knows where. I wonder if we are looking too much toward the classic commercially-produced games like I Love Bees and World Without Oil. Perhaps instead our models should be the multitude of independent, amateur ARGs that proliferate on sites like the unfiction.com forums. I don't really know who those amateur puppetmasters are or what drives them to create games that are flung out into cyberspace in the hopes that someone will follow the trail or tumble down the rabbit hole. But some of them manage to create compelling games and gather an enthusiastic crowd of players despite clearly not having the budget or staff of the commercially-produced games. It's something to ponder, anyway.
Actually, these two points are two sides of the same coin, I think. The attraction for me in alternate reality games is the reality. Achieving the performance of belief that Evan Jones talks about in his TED talk depends on the external clues and cues supporting and reinforcing that belief. The reality needs to match, as much as possible, the narrative that the player is investing in. That means the phone numbers actually connect, the websites exist, clues are found where they ought to be. Creating a convincing alternate reality superimposed on the real world as well as managing the players zooming off in all directions, that's an enormous task. Nearly impossible, in fact, especially without the budget and resources of a commercial enterprise. But on the other hand, as all the bootcamp sessions at THATCamp Games proved to me, the real essential element is the group buy-in. ARGs are, at their most fundamental level, simply games of let's pretend. And sure, you can play by yourself. But the the game, any game, becomes much more real, more urgent, when it is played out in a group. Participants reinforce each other's commitment to the process. If everyone plays along, they have as much to do with the creation and maintenance of the alternate reality as the puppetmasters do, if not more so. So while it was endlessly fascinating and enlightening to learn about the ins and outs of the various ARG projects in all of the afternoon sessions, in the end I was most struck by the process of collaboration and invention that we engaged in and the effects that process had on the groups. Our invented-on-the-fly games, half-baked and beyond rough, were important to us because we were all invested in them, even though they were created for imaginary students in invented classes. We were willing to play the game.