Improvisation and ARGs

Viola Spolin discusses improvisation as the “free[dom] to experience,” saying that only it can “bring about spontaneity” (4) and continues to describe certain factors that stand as obstacles to reaching such a freedom, factors that thus prevent people from truly experiencing, such as the fear of disapproval and need for approval, competition, and the valuing of the product over the process, as well as factors that promote reaching personal freedom: a non-authoritarian power structure, mutually beneficial collaboration, and a focus on the process for its own sake rather than for the sake of producing a product. Spolin describes certain methods through which one may create an environment that encourages people to develop the personal freedom needed to experience their environment, the foremost of which is through games and play. She argues that games unite the elements required to create such an environment. They reject authoritarian structures, as within games, “players freely choose self-discipline by accepting the rules of the game;” (6) they are “highly social” (5)—most games cannot be played by one individual alone, requiring a group or community of individuals working together; and they focus on the process rather than ignoring it in favor of a product as the process is the only product of play.

Reading this, it occurred to me that this, while true of games in general, seems especially true of ARGs. I would challenge Spolin’s claim that all games are completely free from an authoritarian power, that within the structure of a game, all that is governing players is “self-discipline” (6), for while it is true that players may freely choose whether or not to accept the rules of a game, they have this choice only in choosing whether or not to enter the framework of the game. Once they have chosen to enter, they are bound by the game’s rules, and choosing to reject them brings with it consequences, such as the censure of fellow players, and potentially, removal from the game. Thus, even in games, one cannot escape the fear of disapproval that Spolin argues precludes personal freedom. ARGs, on the other hand, truly are free from authoritarian power structures. Rather than having a set of rules constructed by game designers that players are bound by if they choose to play the game, they have a fluid structure created by the back-and-forth between game designers and players. The shape taken by any particular ARG is determined as much by player responses to narrative elements and challenges set by game designers as by those narrative elements and challenges. In such a structure as this, in which the game adapts in reaction to player response, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ player response, removing the need for approval and fear of disapproval from the framework of the game. Furthermore, ARGs are certainly highly social, as the puzzles within them are often constructed so that they require a large variety of diverse skillsets, requiring that many people work together to solve them. An example of this is the ARG I Love Bees, in which messages were sent in many different languages, making it such that people who speak each of those languages had to work together in order to piece together the information that was being communicated to them. While many games are similarly social in that require multiple people to play, the collaborative nature of ARGs along with the fact that they are often sustained over a relatively long period of time promote the formation of meaningful connections.

Spolin argues that experiencing is the only way to learn (3), and in order to experience, one must “become part of the world around [them]” by “investigat[ing]” and “question[ing]” it, (6-7). By investing a sense of wonder and mystery into the ordinary day-to-day world, ARGs serve to encourage just that, not only during their play but even after they have concluded, making them, in my opinion, the answer to Spolin’s question of how to create an environment of true experience and learning.

7 thoughts on “Improvisation and ARGs

  1. I admit, I don’t quite remember where in our readings I read it, but wasn’t there a reading we did that advocated for rules in games, not as authoritatively restrictive, but rather restrictive in such a way as to inspire creativity. It was basically a reading that claimed that rules are what is fun about any game because of how it inspires us – kind of like how we tried to avoid revealing the subject we were talking about during the last improv exercise. The fun was in the play between a restriction and our wish to prevail despite them. It can even be claimed that the harder the restrictions/rules, the more rewarding it is when you win (like in difficult games like chess). Personal freedom, if defined by the ability to try different and new tactics, I think would be able very much allowed. While I do believe that a lot of games are actually more inspiring rather than dampening of one’s creativity, I am really curious to hear what kind of rules you think are particularly authoritative! Let me know sometime, on this thread or in person ❤

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  2. I agree that ARGs create an environment in which collaboration and social development are allowed to blossom. In addition to the multilingual challenges of I Love Bees, this ARG also included tasks which forced players to take pictures together and perform group actions at the phone booths, which seemed to take players out of their familiar comfort zones and force them to learn how to interact in an unfamiliar setting, which can in a way be seen as improvising. Therefore, the improvisation required by this ARG does seem to promote the formation of lasting connections, thereby incorporating the positive aspects of improvisation discussed by Spolin.

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  3. Your post inspired me to think of ARGs as not only capable of challenging our given reality by proposing a new reality that competes, but also able to set up a set of social rules that challenge the rules we abide to nowadays–the rules that foster creative expression and collaboration that many ARG players follow may challenge and replace the norms that makes them expect judgment, competition and value end results. As social norms have been internalized over time–I wonder if the conductive rules of an ARG may be internalized. If an ARG that encourages collaboration, freedom and creativity is played over a long period of time, will its players no longer abide to competition and judgments?

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  4. I am also interested in the authoritarianism that game makers hold, especially through shills. In many ways, ARGs are designed to convince us that there are no restrictions or authoritarianism, but that presence is still there.
    I wonder if Spolin values a lack of restriction or the feeling of freedom and how these two concepts are distinct.

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  5. This is a very interesting take! I would say that there are video games which adapt ARG-like elements and subvert what the player expects the rules of the game to be, but it ultimately still acts within it’s own confines. For example, Doki Doki Literature Club allows the player to leave the game and access its files, which modify the game’s narrative at a certain point. Though this may feel like a spontanous idea to the player based on the story, it is nonetheless hinted at and mechanically designed to work within specific confines. This raises another interesting question to me. Is it possible to adapt ARG and improvisation-like elements into a video game structure, or is that fundamentally at odds with the medium?

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  6. I was especially interested in Spolin’s idea of authoritarianism in games as well. In your post, you point to the fluid structure of the ARG one that escapes the constraints of other styles of games. At the same time, I can imagine how hierarchy can form within the community base of an ARG. For example, someone who solves a stumping puzzle can become considered a star, and people who do not contribute may be generally considered “less of a player.” The question that arises for me, then, is how do designers actively work to create a space free of authoritarianism/judgement past just the fluidity of the game? This is something I would like to try to capture in the design of my group’s ARG!

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  7. After reading your post, I began to understand the interaction between the puppetmasters and game participants. To me it appears that as much as the participants need the puppetmasters to plan and operate the game, the puppetmasters also need the participants. Of course the puppetmasters need the participants to actually make the game happen, but I also believe the participants are needed to keep the puppetmasters on their feet. That as a game maker is your greatest hope: that the game becomes not just a set of rules and clues but instead turns into an interactive battle between maker and player. This dynamic keeps everyone entertained while still keeping them guessing.

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