Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Is TV programming a not-so-distant cousin of ARGs? (part I)

Jane McGonigal

Last week I got the chance to read Jane McGonigal’s dissertation on Collective Intelligence Gaming. The one with the I Love Bees ARG case study.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t help noticing some resemblance between C.I. gaming and traditional television programming.

But first, let’s go over a few concepts about Collective Intelligence gaming.

McGonigal identifies 3 stages which define a game-based C.I.

1. Collective Cognition

This is the stage where players get to know the fictional world they are entering. They search, collect, compile and analise game content, putting together pieces of a story line that’s been fragmented. And eventually, once the parts are brought together, the parts reveal the central puzzle of the game. In the case of I Love Bees, this stage includes the moment where players found the flickering URL at the end of the Halo theatrical release, when they accessed the website and discovered it was hacked, when they found the timer counting down to 24 August 2004, when they found out the hidden timecodes and GPS coordinates and when they exchanged e-mails with the website’s administrator. In simple words, players where gathering data and looking for meaning.

I Love Bees in a nutshell

McGonigal points out that massively distributed content becomes a core design requirement for this type of game. The reason is simple. This strategy evokes the need for players to come forward with anything they discover, so they can exchange information and move forward together. Without collaboration, it is almost impossible to collect all the necessary clues in a viable timeframe. Massively distributed content is the key that drives collaboration.

Young Beehive Minds :)

2. Cooperation

In the next stage, players presented their own hypothesis to the group of players, asking for feedback, collaboration and refinement of ideas. In I Love Bees, players organised themselves into three different groups according to their line of thinking. The Literal Thread believed the coordinates were simple longitude and latitude defined locations, and they should show up at these sites at the time indicated by the given timecodes. The Relative Thread believed the coordinates were real locations, but the surroundings were the key for the puzzle solving. And lastly, The Numerical Thread believed the coordinates were some sort of mathematical puzzle, and once solved, they would reveal a hidden message or a graphical image. At the end, due to the lack of other evidence, the majority agreed that The Literal Thread was the most solid approach. So the players showed up at the locations, where pay phones rang and messages were delivered.

Here, McGonigal emphasises the importance of meaningful ambiguity, which for her, it is crucial for the formation of a collective intelligence. The reasons are twofold:

a. It is a psychological device to draw players into the collective. It allows players to have different interpretations, contributing with ideas from their area of expertise. It gives players the freedom to experiment with the context, pushing boundaries at will.

b. It allows game-designers (or Puppet Masters) to present players with issues without imposing any pre-determined solutions. The game structure should be open-ended, and the puzzle ambiguous.

Coordination is essential

3. Coordination

This is basically the ability to make meaningful ambiguity to work in favour of the game. It means to have a system prepared for real-time redesign, which enables the collective mind to evolve. This sentence sounds a little bit too dense, let me see if I can exemplify it. In I Love Bees, the Puppet Masters would watch the progress of the game community in solving the puzzles (by reading their posts in message boards, for example). As the game was designed with an open-end structure, the game designers could see how far the players would go, and based on their outcome, create more elaborate puzzles for the next stages of the game. Designers could re-write the game in real-time to accommodate the increasing development of the collective intelligence within the game community.

There is a citation in McGonigal’s paper that compares this iterative process to the interaction between musicians in a Jazz band. Pure real-time improvisation based on the bits and pieces of information gathered along the performance.

McGonigal defines this real-time responsiveness as the “true power of a puppet-mastered search and analysis game”. The cool thing is that even if you are a player or a game designer you can be surprised at anytime. It is full-time fun. Any initial expectations can be surpassed.

Hey, this post got a lot longer than I had expected. So I’ll split it into two parts, and do the comparison in the next one. In this meantime, feel free to throw in any ideas on how C.I. gaming and traditional TV programming share commonalities.

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