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As friend and colleague Adam Liszkiewicz has recently noted, FarmVille is a terrible game. It doesn’t even really qualify as a game, under Roger Caillois’s six criteria of games, and no matter what credence you give to classical ludology, you have to admit — there is an unprecedented number of people who continue to play, despite the absence of any of the rewards of play, or any of the rewards of labor. Zynga, the company that runs FarmVille, continues to make an absurd amount of money from hooking or scamming its players. Which is something that Jesse Schell neglects to mention in his DICE 2010 talk about design outside the box.

Now, before I begin, let me make perfectly clear that I am skeptical of the idea that Caillois’s criteria constitute a complete and definitive measure of a game. (i.e., I think that Caillois’s criteria are necessary but not sufficient.) Nor am I resistant to the idea that this definition can change. However, thinking about Martin Roberts’ talk at a conference this past fall and reading a bunch of Adorno has turned me a bit curmudgeonly. Ultimately, I think there are not a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about the things that games can do, while simultaneously being skeptical about certain deployments of gaming and the “fun” buzzword. And, as an industry and community, we desperately need more of that attitude.

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Recent discovery: the need to write really involved blog posts that take multiple days to write. I spent a couple hours yesterday and at least an hour the day before trying to flesh out this post I’m working on about Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and video games, but it’s just not working out. I think it’s been making me feel a little batty. Or maybe that’s just because I spend most of my time in a black-walled room typing on a computer.

I guess also my brain has been moving very fast. It’s time for me to get down to business and start doing some coding for the (still) unnamed Red Light, Gren Light project. I’ve also been thinking about the social coding — as in, do I let campus security know what I’m up to, and that while what I’m doing is kind of disruptive, it’s “art” and “harmless.” Reading the books I got about campus architecture don’t make me feel very good. They sort of politely skim around the topic of control. Nobody wants to be overt, but also nobody wants to be critical.

I’m thinking about reading Lefebvre anyway, this is about not-just-architectural space, the construction of hybrid space in between physical and social space. Though I am sure the architecture has a great deal to do with it. Did you know  you need to sign up to use the open field next to the Center for the Arts? I understand this is the case. There is no other gathering space in the Academic Spine. Or campus, really. What does that do to you? My architecture books aren’t saying anything but I have my suspicions.

I think tomorrow morning I will be going to the University Archives. For now I am going to make broad gestures at this blog entry that might turn into a really serious paper at some point.

I’m starting to do my homework for designing and implementing the Red Light, Green Light game I’ve blogged about here in the past. At the moment I’m putting together a reading list about architectures of control, but I’m having a hard time finding any information specifically about designing campuses in response to the Kent State massacre. Since UB’s North Campus was built post-Kent State, I suspect that I might even be able to find specific information about the design of this campus as a response to that event.

The idea of putting together a bibliography for a game is kind of odd, but it makes sense if you want to make an effective intervention. I think it would be beneficial for players to have a resource to be directed to after the fact. And also something to prove that I’m not just a “fun” designer. I think I will make the bibliography available via AAAARG, both for political and practical reasons.

Anyway, if anybody has any ideas about additions to the bibliography for me to check into, please let me know. I’d really appreciate it.

Oh, and also, we can play Name That Game, since I’m not yet sure what to call this exercise.

So, I’ve been clearly doing a lot of thinking lately on why it is I’m so hung up on alternate reality games. I think one of the interesting things I’ve stumbled upon (or rather, failed to stumble upon) is a body of work critiquing the origins of ARG in what amounts to the glorification of consumer culture. I want to preface this with the fact that my thoughts about this issue probably won’t change how I look at the work I’m doing in terms of its possible efficacy, but I do think making these considerations is of utmost importance.

First, a bit on the history of the ARG. The generally-accepted first “true” ARG was the promotional campaign run for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., otherwise known as The Beast. This game ran for three months during 2001 — and much of what came out of the game served as an infrastructure for future ARG projects, whether corporate or independent. 42 Entertainment, the group behind The Beast, went on to become its own independent company. They’ve produced ARG-style advertising campaigns for a number of major clients, including Microsoft and Activision. While fan-produced and independent ARGs have been run, by and large the campaigns have been designed by professionals working for corporations.

Which should give us reason to pause. A form that has been described as “scary” by people I know, used to reach out to an enormous number of people through a variety of media, and then change their behavior through storytelling and problem-solving should not get off scot-free because it’s innovative. In fact, that should give us a better reason to look at it critically. Given the way a number of big-name academics talk about phenomena like ARGs, I would have thought there’d be just as many thinkers waiting in the wings, not necessarily as naysayers, but who are willing to raise the warning flags about the form’s origins and possible future.

As a bit of a side note, it goes without saying that I don’t think fandom is an unadulterated good, and that I have deep misgivings about the appropriation of fan labor by the major players that not just allow but encourage fan production. While I think there is much to be said about how fandom stimulates creativity and community, I also think that, ultimately, the fan is doing free labor for what is often a corporate interest. As much as the fan might claim that ze is promoting the work of hir favorite director, writer, actor, or whatever, those creatives often work under the auspices of a corporate interest — like a major movie studio, a game or book publishing house, or a record label. Regardless of the size or ethical quality of the brand being promoted, fandom ultimately is the promotion of a brand. Moreover, the existence of die-hard fans is itself a desirable brand characteristic for some audiences.

So I set out to see if there was any critical scholarship on the topic. And there is. It’s a single paper by a Swedish journalism scholar who is now at Oxford. It raises some of the critical questions that I had, and Henrik tells me that this article by Christy Dena might be another step in my direction. But insofar as a body of work is concerned, well, there just isn’t one yet.

Now this boggles my mind. As excited as I was initially about ARG as a form unto itself rather than simply an advertising form (and there are many out there who also are!), and as convinced as I am that the ARG form can be adapted and used for massively scalable critical pedagogy, there is a sore lack of critical academic work on the origins of ARG, why we should care, and why we should be careful. Especially because I’m embarking on a project that involves re-appropriating a consumer cultural form to the project of individual and social liberation, I think we should be wary about it. We should address the form with a critical eye if we expect to make significant social change through this kind of re-appropriation.

If anybody has any other leads on this topic, please let me know. I’d love to see any other inroads people have made toward this end.

As the first semester of my stay in Buffalo winds down, I can’t help but think what incredible luck I’ve had in being here. On a professional level, I’ve found a place where I can really stretch my legs. Every week or so I have a totally mind-melting day where new ideas just pop into my head fully-formed, ready to be implemented.  I love my colleagues on both sides of the hall, and I really enjoy the faculty I’ve worked with thusfar. On a personal level, I have fallen into the community I was worried I would lack. I am surrounded by people I can and want to support, and who can and want to support me. On a broad-spectrum level, I’ve found the perfect incubator for my ideas, a combination of people, places, and things that make everything seem possible. It’s full of challenges, of course, but I thrive in an environment where I’m required to fight uphill a good bit of the time.

Considering where my thinking is now as opposed to where it was four months ago, I think I’ve expanded and matured more in this semester than I have ever in any one semester ever. I already think I know what I will write my doctoral dissertation on. I am discovering that I’ve found my academic niche. I am going to be doing some heavy intellectual lifting in the next year or so. I’m also going to be making some games. Paid. To make games. (More on this later…much later, probably.)

This is a kick-ass track to be on. I haven’t been uber-productive yet, but this semester was about furious networking (with everyone from Hallwalls to the Graduate Student Employees Union) and figuring out what I can and can’t do. The great part is, everything I want to do will, at the very least, be tolerated. Maybe warily, but it will be tolerated.

Now all I have to do is finish up this semester’s work, reapply for my TA position, and keep my head up — every day is better than the last. This is the future I was banking on when I applied to graduate school.

I’ve been thinking more about my theories about alternate reality games as massively scalable praxis. I’ve been considering the secondary implications of using ARG for liberation, because ARG is a medium (or maybe more accurately, a cluster of media and best practices) that has been developed predominantly by commercial interests — look at how most of the biggest/most successful ARG implementations have been for advertising a mainstream game or movie.

Specifically, where is there a history of appropriation of media that are well adapted to organizing, education, or idea exchange, but were developed by commercial interests? I know that for much of the history of the industry of gaming, military and commercial research interests have been at the core of technologies that have brought us artistic and poetic practices in digital media, but in terms of intentional reappropriation, I’d like to find more, better examples.

I’ve been talking about this with solidad decosta, in what I hope is the beginning of a pretty epic collaboration. She brought up Peter Watkins’ 2000 film La Commune, which was formatted as a documentary about the Paris Commune of 1871, but was acted by largely nonprofessionals who did their own research about the history of the Paris Commune. Many of these were immigrants to Paris from France’s current or former colonies. Through their research, the actors were given the opportunity to reflect on and think about this revolutionary history, the plight of the worker in our age, and their own experiences.

How might this film be related to ARG design for social change?

Last night was great. I spoke with a number of people further about giant Red Light, Green Light, which is rapidly evolving into something way bigger and more epic than maybe I had initially planned, but that’s what grad school is for, I think. Stephanie has promised to find me a book about the design and construction of UB’s North Campus (as a structure of control, as a way to prevent student organizing) and Mark thinks I should undertake an architectural study of the campus to create a comprehensive overview of why an intervention like a SMS-enabled game of Red Light, Green Light should get us thinking.

And I think a lot. I think about the alienation of working at a commuter school, working in a building with white halls and walls and light grey floors, where even though we are an art department and neighbor another art department, public displays of aesthetics are kept to a minimum, tightly constrained, kept in their place. Even posters for department events (nice ones) get taken down if they’re not in their designated spot. (Paintings that might interfere with the overall aesthetic or ethical concerns of building use are strictly forbidden: take the example of a painting of a young woman vomiting that was turned around by building staff when dance parents came to visit.) I honestly find North Campus soul-crushing. I find CFA completely contrary to any sense of community space, of aesthetic development, of play.

I don’t think we have to take this sitting down. Giant Red Light, Green Light is evolving into a critical performance practice. Instead of trying to reach the goal (me on my humble laptop, planted somewhere previously disclosed) in the fastest time possible, players will instead have to form the largest groups possible and, within a half-hour, reach the goal. In order to win, players must organize. They must talk to people on campus they’ve never spoken to before. They need to challenge the campus protocols that say — keep your head down, do your work, don’t bother anyone else, go home in the evening.

I am still trying to come up with an appropriate reward for winning. Thoughts?

This is a big-deal idea I’ve been developing for some time, and I kind of want to air it out, probably because I’m lecturing on future forecasting games tomorrow in class. I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of praxis for the information age in activism and education, and what the logical outgrowth of a Frierian model would look like, were it to be adapted to the internet. I don’t think you can get better than alternate reality games, and I have a couple reasons why. I don’t think I’m going to delve too deeply into this at the moment, but this might evolve into a more serious paper at some point. For now I just want to sketch my thesis and show where I see the parallels that I want to draw out. (What I’m saying is, grant me some simplifications here, this is, after all, a blog.)

If we understand the Frierian pedagogical model to entail participatory education that encourages learners to draw parallels to their own experience, and values the experience of the individual, it seems to me that ARG is a great outgrowth of that kind of ethic in the area of gaming and play. I think that the focus on the real life of the player — and especially in recent models of ARG for social engagement — is key. Instead of making up a fantasy life from scratch, the player must deal with the advantages and limitations that are encountered in daily living. This forces the player to consider hir personal experience, and its potential as a tool for storytelling and modeling the world. That’s sort of radical in and of itself.

Using an ARG model to raise awareness about a social issue explicitly asks the player to engage in the social issue from their own experience, and also forces the player into encountering others’ personal experiences surrounding that social issue. This is valuable and humanizing. Also, the collaboration between people of varying perspectives and experiences engendered by this kind of play is very much like the kind of collaboration encouraged by radical pedagogical models that emphasize conversation and self-exploration in a group setting.

Another parallel I couldn’t help notice was that group problem-solving in both ARG and conversation-based radical pedagogical models leads to a sense in the player/learner that they have somehow stumbled on this information themselves. There is a sense of agency that arises from discovery instead of traditional, blunt presentation. In fact, at least as far as social engagement goes, many people don’t trust a straightforward presentation of information. (For good reason!) On the other hand, given clues and encouragement to think critically, people more often than not discover the important point — and their sense of ownership and discovery is key to creating the feeling that the information is important and impacts the player/learner personally.

All this is a great point of departure for the next steps in social engagement — actual organizing and acting. I think that the communities fostered by ARG-style play are enormously powerful for a number of reasons, the least of which is that they are more or less self-organizing, collectively driven, and have a sense of ownership over the information that they at this point possess. Give a community like this the right tools and information, and you have an empowered, organized citizenry. What I like best about it is the part where game play can empower agents who are part of a collective agent. As with radical pedagogical models, individuals are given knowledge and tools to do more.

The next question, of course, is what to do with this idea.

I really want to start setting up more casual, massive public games now that I’ve settled in here. Something I’ve been mulling over is a SMS-enabled game of campus-wide Red Light, Green Light. I think this could be really entertaining, considering that the buildings of north campus’s academic spine are all connected by above-ground hallways that run between buildings. Imagine trying to get down a regular-width hallway that is suspended above the ground, full of people who are playing Red Light, Green Light via txt!

The problem with UB is just that there is very little room for large group gatherings. Conducting a pillow fight or similar would not be as hilariously disruptive as it was at Michigan. However, I think on the Promenade, there are square tiles — it might be possible to set up that game of Giant Scrabble that I’ve always dreamed of but never was able to execute. The problem is, of course, getting teams together that are THAT big.

Giant Scrabble will involve team-based play — each player will be assigned a letter in advance of the game date, that ze will have to bring to the game. No one is allowed to disclose their letter to anyone else. Once the entire alphabet is assembled, team captains will pick teams. The order in which team captains pick their teammates is the order in which their letters will be played, instead of pulling randomly from a bag. (You would need a pretty large bag.)

The group of players who get to decide what to play next will be the 7 players whose letters are up on their team’s rack. Once your letter is played, you are “benched.” I kind of want there to be audience involvement — we could say that each team captain is in charge of managing players in play and can also consult spectators and passers-by. Of course this kind of team play, where teams are constantly in flux, endangers the secrecy of each side. That’s just part of gameplay in Giant Scrabble.

Giant Scrabble requires 3 umpires, who will score, arbitrate challenges, and ensure that each team has 7 active players at all times. They will also determine when a side is out of players who have yet to play, and what to do if a player must leave the game before ze has played hir letter. (In this case, I think it would be acceptable to pass the letter on to a player who has already played hir letter.) Umpires can also punish players for spying on the other team, but can’t punish spectators and passers-by for sharing insider information!

If we were to play Giant Scrabble on campus, I’d like there to be an announcer, and maybe we could webcast the event, as though it were a major sporting event. Then we’d also have an audio archive of the proceedings. I imagine Giant Scrabble would take a couple hours to play, just due to the considerations of having so many players involved. Maybe the players of the winning team in the first game of Giant Scrabble at UB could win a trophy, too.

Who wants to play?

A couple days ago I installed Tumbarumba. It’s a Firefox add-on that waits for optimal moments to insert a line of text that appears absurd and out of place into your regular web surfing, offering a peculiar kind of secret portal into one of several original short works of fiction. It’s a pretty cool concept, and I like the idea of little disruptive artworks as an insertion into your regular internet consumption. It surprised me that it took so long for me to get a tumbarumba, because when you consider my time spent reading on the internet (I’ve gotten back into The New Yorker) you’d think I’d get tumbarumba-ed left and right.

I really liked the function that makes you click through the tumbarumba a couple sentences before the plugin deposits you on an alternate reality webpage. It was humorous because I got tumbarumba-ed on my doctor’s homepage, and so I was sitting on the website, with the University of Michigan Health System logos at the top and a photograph of the outside of their building, reading a short story about the conversations inanimate objects have. Tumbarumba also interferes with images, it seems. I also like that once you’re tumbarumba-ed, you can go back and read the story again on the add-on’s website.

There is a lot of potential for disruptive storytelling and poetics here. And cool possible applications for ARGs — say after being rabbit holed you need to install a Tumbarumba-esque device into Firefox that will progressively disclose information that might be of importance to solving puzzles. Difficulty might come in getting people to trust this compromise in their browser security, though. I guess I trusted Tumbarumba enough, though.

The possibilities for disruptive poetics interest me, too. I find it interesting that the creators chose to program it with short stories as opposed to poetry. Perhaps there is possibility in overhauling Tumbarumba for use with verse that is not just disruptive but interspersed throughout a webpage. This might be more complex but would probably utilize much of the same program as the original.

Also, I kind of wish they had named it something that was easier to turn into a verb. Tumbarumba-ed is kind of inelegant, but then again, maybe that’s what they’re going for. Textual disruptions are sort of inelegant.

Update: as soon as I went to proofread this entry, I got tumbarumba-ed again!  Great fun.  This time the story took the form of this blog and was broken up into “entries” on the main page.  Sweet.


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