Everyone from the ACLU to the NRA has easy forms you can use on their website to automate an email to your U.S. and state Senator or U.S. and state representative.  Some U.S. Senators’ offices report receiving upwards of 30,000 emails a day.  It’s really easy to punch in your mailing address and shoot off an email — you don’t even need prior knowledge of who’s representing you to get yourself “heard.”  I don’t rightly remember (I’ll have to check this reference when I get a second) but I think it was in Clay Shirky’s recent book, Here Comes Everybody, that some Senators’ offices are now saying they really don’t read these automated emails.  Why should they?  Why should they care, especially since the level of commitment between typing in your ZIP code and writing a letter to send in the mail is so wildly different?

So these things are easier on the internet, but the ease of use is a double-edged sword.  There’s no way to verify that each of these individual users are actually individual users.  All the content is, more or less, the same.  It is so easy to use these contact-your-legislator forms that the sheer volume of emails makes them less compelling to the people who are in power.  Moreover, I might be able to sit at my computer, on my couch, and shoot off an email to my Senator, but the level of commitment between sending that email and going to my polling place are also wildly different.  Again, why should my legislators care that I know my ZIP code (or that somebody knows my ZIP code)?

It’s been equally hard on the community organizing end to get people who commit to a cause on the internet (see: the millions of signatures on sites like iPetitions) to do anything in the “real” world.  Again, it seems to be a function of ease-of-use.  It’s easy to type in your name and submit a signature on an iPetition, but canvassing door-to-door?  That’s not only a huge time commitment, but it can be highly discouraging and a use of personal energy.

But something peculiar happened during the run of I Love Bees (see previous post). The “puppet masters,” the people who ran the game, discovered a way to mobilize people who were committed to the game on the internet in “real” life.

The puzzle worked like this.  Players got a set of 210 GPS coordinates with no indication of what they meant.  Between that and a countdown clock on ilovebees.com, they figured out that near these 210 coordinates were public payphones.  When the countdown clock zeroed out, many of the phones had players at them to answer them when they rang.  (I’d recommend reading Jane McGonigal‘s paper on collective action in ILB for more information about this phenomenon.)

Sure, it’s not canvassing, but the kernel is there.  People who get drawn into a cause — some collective goal — on the internet, and it’s translated into “real” life action.  How do we move the ARG/CF model to political organizing?

I realize there are problems with this concept, like transparency, for example.  Do you run a game and then disclose it as a promotion for a political cause or candidate?  Or is the political cause/candidate an explicit part of your game or story?  They’re questions that are worth mulling over.  But to me, ARG/CF is a tool that is being widely overlooked as entertainment or advertising.  (I counter with: what is politics but slick advertising?)  I read Jane McGonigal’s blog regularly and I’ll say — there are people out there who are working to change this idea of ARG/CF as (to put it simply) un-serious.

There’s some serious ARG/CF stuff out there.  Take, for example, the brilliant World Without Oil, part game, part collectively-written science fiction, part group problem solving project.  Or McGonigal’s upcoming Superstruct, which has a truly fascinating byline: play the game, invent the future.

So, what games have you played today?  I recommend McGonigal’s writing if you want to think more about games.  And: how can play be part of the limited fork?