Monday, September 08, 2008

An ARG at the Smithsonian: Games, Collections, and Ghosts

Today, the Luce Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) is launching what they claim is the first ever alternate reality game (ARG) in a museum. Why would an art museum create an ARG? To expand their audiences. To tap into maker culture. To take a new twist on the role of narrative (especially fictional narrative) in the interpretation of artifacts. To experiment with the web as a medium for extension of onsite experiences. And yes, to collect lots of photographs of peoples' eyes.

But the eyes were just the beginning of a major theatrical and experimental project called Ghosts of a Chance. I spoke with Georgina Bath, manager of interpretive programs for the Luce Center, and John Maccabee, game designer from City Mystery, to learn more about SAAM's plans for the next six weeks.

A New Kind of ARG

Like most ARGs, the Luce Center's Ghosts of a Chance is an interactive narrative that rolls out over several weeks. There are no rules or explicit ways to "win"--instead, players hunt down clues, discuss the possibilities, and take actions they think may lead to fruitful new experiences and information. In this case, the setup involves two young curators soliciting contributions for a new exhibition and attempting to cleanse the museum of "spectral interlopers," which are, as we all know, an unacknowledged hazard in modern collecting institutions.

Ghosts of a Chance is in the emerging sub-field of non-commercial ARGs that are directed to a general rather than niche audience. While other major non-commercial ARGs (for example, World Without Oil and the forthcoming Superstruct) are focused on saving the world, Ghosts of a Chance is perhaps the first ARG to use material culture and interpretation as the basis for the experience. And while SAAM is steering the content, Ghosts of a Chance is being produced by City Mystery and the Playtime Anti-Boredom Society, some of the same fine folks who brought you SF0.

Reaching Non-Gamer Audiences

ARGs can be confusing. They thrive on secret websites, mysterious codes, and bizarre incidents. All motivation to play comes from the players themselves, since it's not clear where the game is going or what the point is. Ghosts of a Chance is trying to break down some of the exclusivity of traditional ARGs to appeal both gamers and non-gamers. The initial "ask" on the website is specific: create a necklace and mail it to the Luce Center. Sure, it's the necklace of the subaltern betrayer (who doesn't have one of those hanging around?) and it's being requested by a haunted 23-year-old curator who uses his MySpace page as a professional homebase, but heck, who isn't up for a little ghoulish informality in the world of staff disclosure?

The point is that the City Mystery team is trying to give non-gamers a gentle introduction into the wild world of ARGs.
The game website is clear. The initial rules of engagement are spelled out. And the "stuff" of the game is real stuff, artifacts created by players and sent to the museum. There will be several live events in DC throughout the course of the game, culminating with a five-hour extravaganza on October 25 in which drop-in players of all kinds (families, non-gamers, etc.) can experience the game in full without prior participation. Finally, the game will be packaged as a scaled-down, repeatable 90-minute programmatic experience that the Luce Center can deliver at any time in the future.

That's not to say that Ghosts of a Chance won't also appeal to ARG enthusiasts. While today is the official launch, Ghosts of a Chance had its "trailhead" (ARG-speak for a first entry point or teaser) at July's ARGFest in Boston, when a heavily-hennaed clue (see image) crashed the conference and gave a whole new meaning to the term "marketing exposure" as applied to the Smithsonian. For the last two months, excited gamers have been debating the potential meaning of game-related minutae, including the fact that the Kennedy Center, which is administered by the Smithsonian, opened exactly 27 years to the day before the launch of Ghosts of a Chance. Coincidence? I think so. But comments on the gamers' forum like:
An internet collaborative [sic] art display in a national museum?
Is it me, or is this very frigging cool!
are frigging cool indeed. Ghosts of a Chance is a great example of the museum leveraging a niche community (ARG-ers) to energize and provide seed content for participants who are new to participatory gaming. In the same way that the Bellevue sculptural travel bugs project tapped into the geocaching community to energize new audiences around public art, Ghosts of a Chance brings gamers into the museum as creators of highly interpretative, narrative-laden content.

In most cases, when a museum requests submissions of content created by visitors, whether text, video, or artifacts, the participation level is lower than expected. But the world of ARGs thrives on participation for its own sake, and people on online forums are already planning their subaltern necklace designs. Georgina Bath, the manager of interpretative programs at the Luce Center, has cleared her office to make room for the deluge of packages she expects to receive. In the eight weeks leading up to October 25, Ghosts of a Chance may primarily attract hardcore gamers, but those gamers will in turn create the meat of the experience for more casual participants on October 25 and in the 90-minute program package.

The extended timeline, multiple audiences, and varied points of entry for Ghosts of a Chance has made SAAM reframe what it means for a program to be a success. As Georgina put it:
This museum often focuses primarily on attendance as a yardstick. I was concerned that there would be so much focus on the live event on oct 25 – what the weather would be like, etc. that the attendance on that day would be a real reflection of how the game went. But I think everyone understands now that it’s not about the live event—it’s about the online buzz. The whole game as a package is going to be considered.

The Behind-the-Scenes Process

I was astounded, while talking to Georgina a week before game launch, at how often she said, "I don't know," when I asked how some facet of the game would work. Yes, the Luce Center and City Mystery are seeding the narrative, but they expect the gamers to steer the game. This takes huge trust on the part of the museum. They don't know what they are going to get, and they want it that way. Georgina described the ARG as a natural extension of the Luce Center's focus on open-ended discovery--but it's a long way from one-page scavenger hunts to the necklace of the subaltern betrayer.

And while the contract negotiations sounded hellish, the internal support for the game was surprisingly easy to come by. Staff responded positively to "what if?" questions as in "What if we wanted to accession these artifacts?" or "What if we want to go behind the scenes of the Congressional cemetery?" Georgina told me their original plan was to put the user-submitted art out on coffee tables in the informal Luce Center lounge for visitors to inspect and manipulate. Registrars, however, reacted against this, arguing that it would set a bad precedent for behavior in the rest of the museum if visitors were allowed to touch what looked like artifacts in the Luce Center. Instead, the registrars requested that the game artifacts be officially entered into the collection database and stored (and accessed) the way other artifacts are--via appointment, white gloves, that sort of thing. In this way, the secret rules of museums become new hoops for the gamers to jump through--hoops that will likely add a level of delight as they expose the inner workings of the museum.

ARGs and Museums: Opportunities and Challenges

I'm curious to see how well Ghosts of a Chance accommodates people new to the world of ARGs. If executed well, ARGs can be a powerful interpretative tool for museums, which thrive on obtuse stories and objects, each an opportunity for discovery and relational narrative. As librarian Aaron Schmidt once commented, libraries are also ideal places for ARGs. They have multiple locations throughout municipalities, and their shelves are full of codes. By tapping into familiar tropes of these places--whether art collections for the Luce Center or the Dewey decimal system for libraries--ARGs can hook people more deeply into institutions and their exhibits.

But ARGs require narrative consistency that museums may feel uncomfortable adhering to. Are you ready to construct fictional, alternative narratives about your collection? Are you willing to give visitors intentional misdirection? There are consistency problems on the Ghosts of a Chance website that hurt its fiction: some of the language seems to bounce between meta-explanation and game interior. Why is Ghosts of a Chance called a "Creative Initiative"? Is the initiative the exhibition or the game? Why do they refer to "the Ghosts of a Chance reality" as if it were different from real reality? I have trouble with the use of the words "game" and "initiative" when the narrative context is curators putting out a call for submissions to an exhibition. Is the fiction real, or is it fake?

Hopefully, it's real enough to get lots of people (even you!) participating. To start playing, check out the website, send Georgina a necklace, or contact the Soap Man. And if you want more on the meta-concept behind Ghosts of a Chance and ARGs in general, read this extensive coverage last month from ABC.

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Nina, thanks for this really excellent writeup. I follow a lot of blogs to keep up on digital interactive projects in various contexts but yours is really the only one i know of that covers the museum space well. And I always appreciate the level of depth you get to with your posts. Keep up the great work!

Nina Simon said...

Thanks, Josiah!
Since you are in the digital interactive world, I would love it if you would consider creating a page or question set on the Museum 2.0 live archive with your particular take on what's useful here. I know the blog serves multiple audiences and I'd love to understand better what everyone wants and gets from it.

computer screen said...

Hi Nina...

Your blog is excellent... and your articles and projects are fantastic... In this case this project is very very original...