ARGfest-o-con 2011 & Experience Design

by Kevin Makice

I was fortunate to have an opportunity not only to speak at ARGfest, but also to gain a deeper understanding about the creativity and process that drives alternate reality game development. While it is unlikely there will be priority made to develop game mechanics into the base Kuali Student installation — a few years from now, maybe? — there are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be gained from the project work in the ARG community.

Some highlights …

Getting Buy-In

In the “ARGs for Marketing” panel discussion, the focus was on how to sell a grumpy exec on the value that can be gained by investing resources into an interactive game. The way David Varela, Sarah Smith-Robbins and others talked about the process of getting buy-in is quite familiar to UX designers trying to evangelize the value of active stakeholder participation in system development. “If there were a formula, it would be formulaic,” said Varela. Whereas media starts with a script, transmedia begins with a strategy. Smith-Robbins emphasized the importance of having the execs play a game, to understand what they are asking to build, so expectations of the experience and the outcomes are clear.

For a game to have a chance to generate real engagement, it has to be fun and as free from the “middleware of lawyers” and oversight as possible. Communities, when empowered, will police themselves and reward well-designed, enjoyable games with positive personal investment. That investment must be mutual, too. “It is interesting to look at the ghost towns left after games had ended,” Smith-Robbins said. “Those brands started the conversation, but they aren’t interested in continuing them.”

Generating Artifacts

John Maccabee gave an interesting demonstration of how quickly a simple story and a few puzzles and props can generate new social objects. Maccabee is the CEO of CityMystery (for some background, read this interview), the creators of the first museum ARG. His talk began with a short historical science fiction story involving time travel, but it quickly involved a large helium balloon, magnets, glue, a fork, and a texting-based puzzle that required close listening and some web surfing. In 25 minutes, that activity spawned digital pictures, a clear record of progress to monitor later, new connections between participants, and a giant souvenir balloon that gets a second life as a kid plaything in our living room (including a free advertisement to all the people who saw us tote the balloon home that something strange just happened).

Game artifacts (I’m avoiding using the term “swag” since one of the Saturday talks muddied the water a bit), whether they be digital or physical, are ways to embody both memory and value of the game experience. Geoff May of 4D Fiction curated a museum of the physical artifacts, an impressive display of past gaming that rekindled memories and sparked new conversation around them. Designers of any system should understand that participants in any experience will look for similar opportunities to save value in this way.

Watching the Doing
John Maccabee’s short transmedia story spawns new social objects

Game Mechanics for Storytellers

Studio Cypher‘s Ian Pottmeyer, one of the people instrumental in bringing ARGfest to Bloomington, gave a talk outlining some of the basic terms and considerations when designing a game. The ARG community is brimming with quality storytellers and puzzle experts, but there may be room for improvement on the nuts and bolts of game design. Ian’s advice includes:

  • Provide something for everyone, to recognize that people participate for different reasons
  • Make clear the options a player has when deciding how to participate, especially when the interaction is a temporary deviation from the normal set of activities
  • Make use of expected skill sets of the players
  • ARGs are cooperative, but there are different ways to design cooperation (e.g., gating vs. tethering)
  • “Victory is not the same as fun” … provide small conclusions within a world of never-ending stories
  • Failure should be informative (show players how they can improve)

If one considers almost any development project, many of the above concepts map directly to notions of feedback, contextual inquiry, social computing, and need-based design.

Gaming in Education

Ted Castronova (Indiana) and Drew Davidson (CMU) gave the educators’ perspective on gamification within the classroom. For Castronova, experimentation with points-based learning ended in disaster. He claims that the gaming concepts that map to what students hate about classroom learning (player interaction, relative standards, delayed rewards, game masters, risk, hard mode, listening) don’t lend themselves to gamification in learning. What they do like, according to Castronova, are rules, absolute standards, work grinds, restarts, and agency. “They don’t want to be punished for mistakes” without a chance to try it again. The big insight from Davidson — who had to endure emergency dental work to give his talk — is that games should be “snackable,” able to fit easily into our existing lives and be completed during the small chunks of available time. He also makes a claim that “cheating is learning,” with a caveat that learning opportunity can still be designed.

Kuali Student isn’t addressing class content or structure, but these are helpful lessons to make present in understanding contemporary student expectations of engagement with their education.

Overcoming Challenges

The afternoon panel picked up where the morning one left off, talking about the problems one encounters when building transmedia projects. Rob Jagnow, Andrea Phillips, and Tony Walsh reiterated on some common themes, like supporting multiple audiences and empowering players to collectively shape their own experiences. Little rewards show that a contribution is being made by the community, that they matter to the puppetmasters, and helps players invest more deeply in the experience. “The illusion of player agency can be good, if it is a good illusion,” said one of the panelists. Empowering players also means letting go of a set action plan, and having multiple backup plans at the ready. Most importantly: provide an out-of-game backchannel to talk to the players, where honesty is critical (“The characters in the game say This Is Not A Game. It is not meant to be a hoax.”).

I compiled a list of participants in the #argfest hashtag on Twitter, giving anyone interested in talking to active members of the ARG community about 50 possible contacts.

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