Friday, July 27, 2007

Game Friday: The Aftermath of the ARG World Without Oil

There has been some fascinating coverage recently about the wrap-up of Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal's ARG World Without Oil, a huge community game in which players roleplayed within a fictitious scenario in which gas prices are at $7 a gallon, market and weather volatility is sky-high, and the state of both the natural and man-made world are in crisis.

World Without Oil ran from April 30 until July 12, during which time the central site provided a running commentary on the reactions--personal, political, financial, ecological--to a fictitio
us oil shock. Thirty-two "weeks" of events were condensed into the 10-week game, and each week, both in-game characters and real people--players all over the world--documented life in the new reality and swapped stories, solutions, and possibilities for survival. Players used all manners of Web 2.0--blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and more--to share content. If you go on the site now, you can access the "WWO time machine" and travel to any of the 32 "weeks" to see the stories at that moment in the crisis. There are also "threads" on the right column that present a variety of player-created tours of the archives.

The breadth and depth of content is staggering. Yes, much was generated by the game masters, but there are now 143,000 google hits for "world without oil," the majority of which are player-generated blogs, livejournals, photo pages, videos, you name it. On an early game week, week 14, I counted over 35 player-submitted photos, stories, and missions (actions to try to address the crisis). Overall, about 60,000 interacted with WWO resources during the game, 1,871 of whom actively contributed content.

I admit that I was not one of them. I followed the World Without Oil story with great interest, but was frankly overwhelmed when I checked it out early in its release. It is a far cry from the "calculate your carbon footprint" or other casual games about resource usage. It required much higher engagement than reading news articles on the topic; it was a huge growing, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression. I wasn't ready.

Now that it's all over, strangely enough, I am. I've spent several hours perusing the WWO time machine, finding the voices, images, and missions most interesting and applicable to my lifestyle. And while I am someone for whom massive brainstorming around likely world events was not compelling this spring, I recognize that there are many people out there for whom this is an extremely successful form of engagement. There are many players whose lives--and everyday lifestyles--were changed by participation in World Without Oil. You can still get involved. I can't wait to see the curriculum guides they release in September to get students playing the game. But the biggest question in my mind is: what lessons can museums (and game designers, and etc.) learn from WWO?
  • Good game design can encourage serious visitor participation on specific topics. One way to look at the WWO resources is to consider that a small group of game masters empowered and provided a platform for 1,800 people to generate content for 60,000 consumers (and growing). The content was substantive, and arguably constituted a meaningful addition to the body of pre-existing content around the effect of a major oil event worldwide. The game masters led, but did not overshadow--they harnessed and supported player contributions to the extent that some active players were mistaken for fictitious characters.
  • Complex, multi-faceted strategy games are possible, as long as the game design accomodates complex, multi-faceted topics and directions. The beauty of WWO's oil shock is the extent to which oil scarcity is already considered an issue that spans the personal, political, financial, and scientific, and WWO, recognizing this, allowed players to engage on the levels most compelling to them. The newly reopened Liberty Science Center was recently criticized by the New York Times for making everything "personal, urgent, and political." I wonder how the same critic would react to WWO! The more we can accomodate visitors/players who want to engage in any of a number of ways--personal, theoretical, active--the greater the potential involvement and impact.
  • Alternate reality can encourage players to take action in their real lives. Some people have criticized WWO as a waste of time, saying, "I explored a few links and watched a few of the videos, but stopped after a while because the real peakoil blogosphere is actually more interesting. The thing is, the oil crisis is already here, or a few months away. No need to create an alternate reality in which it's happening." But is that reader changing her lifestyle because of it? Reading articles about the real world doesn't always inspire action the way a challenge, a mission, or an immediate crisis does. As one player commented: "rather than just getting people to 'think about' the problem, it [WWO] actually gets a large and actively interested community of people to throw ideas off of each other through their in-game blog posts, and the out-of-game Alternate Reality Game community. There's some potential for innovation there, for someone to think up a brilliant lifestyle change for the better that people can start jumping on board with." The link to reality--to real news and real oil crunch experiences--furthers players' interests in the fictitious cataclysmic event, and the cataclysmic fiction spurs real world action. As another player put it, "We hope that the people who play the game will ultimately live some of what they 'pretend' if they don't already. "
  • Gaming can create communities around specific topics. Consider the "we" in the above quote from a WWO player. This person expresses not only an interest in how WWO has impacted his own life, but also how it might impact lives of others. He considers himself part of a "we" who have aspirations about the game's reach. Imagine if a visitor made a similar comment about an exhibit, aligning her/himself with the exhibit designers and or artifacts. Powerful stuff.
  • Multi-platform, multi-access: wider reach. Since I only engaged with WWO as a lurker and not as a player, am I less affected by its content? Probably. But that doesn't mean I'm not affected at all. One of the reasons I look forward to seeing the WWO school study guides is to see how they intend for people to "keep playing" now that the game is closed. There are lots of people out there for whom there are significant barriers to involvement in an online game of this type--but the same people could benefit from a "video of the day," a book collecting player journal entries, or a three-dimensional exhibit timeline of the experience. It's a little surprising to me that while WWO provided many platforms and topics on which to engage and contribute content, there were relatively few ways to receive that content outside the web. I'd also like to see a more attention paid to the "first time user" experience, so that people like me, who were overwhelmed at the onset, have a smoother path in (and are therefore more likely to play).
  • What if? is a question everyone can answer. In museums, desire to avoid the political often creates obstacles to creating meaningful content. When I saw An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by Gore's framing of climate change as a "moral issue." And I immediately considered that that argument is not one which museums could easily present. But by avoiding the now and focusing on a potential event, like oil shock, war with Iran, virtual consciousness, or any number of reasonable near-future events, museums can get away with a wider range of "imaginative" presentations. Even better if it comes from visitors/players and the authorative voice doesn't have to take a position.
World Without Oil was a major effort involving substantive content and platform development. While I don't necessarily recommend a museum taking on a similarly ambitious game initiative, we need to get involved in these kinds of experiments--as partners, action sites, and, occasionally, as leaders.

3 comments, add yours!:

WriTerGuy said...

The advantage to the serious ARG is that it doesn't take a massive amount of money. I designed the WWO game with that in mind from the beginning, because I knew the budget limit from the original RFP. In terms of telling story, the WWO game is very efficient; Mark Heggen explains this very well right here.

I wouldn't want museums to be too afraid of contemplating WWO-like collaborations for their visitors.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks--the link was really interesting. How would you deal with what I see as museums' primary challenge to involvement with games like this: namely, the fact that most visitors will not return to the museum more than once during the course of a year? Even in the rare situation where you have members who use the museum up to once a week, I don't know how you could approximate the same sense of urgency and involvement that an online game can.

WriTerGuy said...

Hi Nina - If I am understanding your question correctly, you want to know how to get a visitor to come to the museum (to experience an alternate reality) as they would come to a website (to experience an alternate reality).

One answer: You combine the two. You set up the game such that a player or players need to come occasionally to the museum in real life to move the online game forward.

Imagine if you will that the players come to possess a scrap of a sketch. They know it matches an artwork in the museum, but which one? A puzzle like this could bring many players to the museum, maybe connected to many remote players by cell phone; the remote players may be helping by searching through the museum's online catalog.

Each museum would have its own particular goals, of course, but I might venture that many are interested in bringing new faces into its space, especially young faces. I think ARGs are well-positioned to do just that.