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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.

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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