Long-time readers will recall my interest in storytelling as a medium for therapy and clinical research, beginning in early 2006 with a post on Carolyn Watters' work with child cancer patients, and continuing with others, including one on Atari pioneer game designer Chris Crawford's StoryTron platform. (You can find the whole collection of FutureHIT posts tagged 'storytelling' here.)
Last week I wrote about a CACM article on the emerging discipline of alternate reality gaming. following up on that, I found an article in the FutureLab site by Tash Lee entitled This Is Not A Game: Alternate Reality Gaming and This Is Not A Game: Alternate Reality Gaming and its potential for learning. It's not part of the latest ARG buzz: it was published in July 2006.
Here's a taste:
It is the job of the game designers, or 'Puppet Masters', to weave the narrative through the different media to create a cohesive story for players. However, it is the players that drive the game forward, through the solving of puzzles closely connected to the plot. Generally puzzles are too complex to be solved alone, and so games are played with the support of an online community that works collaboratively to speculate, share expertise and overcome hurdles.
Storytelling is human nature, so the genre naturally has a number of antecedents; however, the birth of ARG as we know it is widely considered to have been in 2001, with the launch of an online 'wild goose chase' to promote Spielburg's film AI. It started with a credit in its marketing material for 'Sentient Machine Therapist' Jeanine Salla, alongside the actor's names. This anomaly tapped into people's natural curiosity and when they Googled 'Salla' they found her profile at 'Bangalore World University' where she worked - in the year 2142. From here there were countless links to other websites all set in 2142 - all convincing and seemingly 'real'. Those who had fallen down the proverbial 'rabbit hole' were rewarded with the discovery of an elaborate real-time story about a murdered man in which they were now active participants.
Tash is interested in the potential of ARG as a learning medium:
ARG seems to be an adaptable, interesting way to get people involved, and when done right can be a very powerful magnet, as well as having the ability to create strong communities of action. McGonigal (2003) [citation in Tash's article] explores the power of immersive games in generating social agency. In a similar fashion, could this power possibly be harnessed to create learning experiences for young people? Could the alternate and authentic realities of an ARG provide 'safe' arenas for children to practise and learn the skills required of them in the real world?
While the design and development of an ARG is a considerable endeavour in terms of time and energy, it's not a costly artform, especially in comparison to the development costs of a typical commercial video game. The skills required are in storytelling, information structuring, project management and asset/web development - far more accessible skills than those required in games development. Indeed, in the US there is a thriving grassroots scene, producing a multitude of immersive games to fulfil different purposes and appeal to diverse audiences. It is not inconceivable that, as well as playing specially designed ARGs to develop specific knowledge and skills, students will be able to become their own Puppet Masters and create their own 'unfiction' masterpieces.
There seem to be many advantages of ARGs over video games for learning. Firstly there is the fact that players are their own agents and use their own experience and knowledge in playing the game, rather than playing the role of a fictional character. Tasks and puzzles absolutely require social interaction and collaboration and are not reliant on pre-defined 'save points', which makes many video games inflexible in terms of logistics/time. Also there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the ARGs appeal equally to males and females - which isn't the case for many other genres.
I don't have time now to add my own thoughts on Tash's insightful essay. I consider it 'recommended reading', and the FutureLab site is an interesting place to explore as well.