On the Ethics of Pervasive ARGs

I am currently writing my blog post for next week about the Jane McGonigal “This is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” reading, which really piqued my interest as it synthesizes themes of drama/performance, truth-seeking/truth-finding, and pervasive gaming.  More interestingly, the reading purports the idea that ARG players are highly ineffective at determining game from reality in various alarming ways.  In the following response, I am going to offer an idea that is a bit countercurrent to our previous discussions and want to discuss more about the ethics of ARGs. More specifically, I want to propose that highly pervasive ARGs are dangerous and should not be supported, for several reasons that I see in the reading. (not necessarily my actual opinion, but a valid implication from the reading that I think is worth exploring)

There seems to be an issue with the fact that when ARGs end, the players are so immersed in the gameplay that the magic circle is still blended in with everyday life.  The immersion was so intense that “players complained of losing not just sleep, but also jobs and friendships” and the experience was described as “waking up as if from a long sleep,” having lost everything.  While this kind of addiction and immersion also occurs outside ARGs with other famous addictive games (I’m thinking your Starcraft, your League of Legends), the difference here is that players are enamored to the point where they still try and play the game outside the pervasive game, viewing the real world as a game.  For example, when the gamemakers of Push, Nevada announced that the game was over, players essentially “hijacked the game and continued to play, despite the fact that its puppetmasters had abandoned it, even though there were no new clues.” 

When game players view real life as a continuation of the game, spiraling out of puppetmasters’ control, there are many dangerous repercussions.  One is that video games have no essential real life consequences to losing, and so people who mistake real life for a game may begin to view life with the same attitude of zero consequences, which can lead to dangerous scenarios.  For example, the paper discusses how co-founders of Cloudmakers group post-9/11 decided to try and approach the attack as a puzzle to solve; it could have spiraled out of control, until the groupmakers had to take it upon themselves to cease all “play.”  It is not uncommon to see this sort of mob or herd mentality promoting dangerous or illegal activity, and the article even notes how there were activities like “hacking into an in-game coroner’s office…was identical in practice to the process of hacking into a non-game coroner’s office” or the notion that gamers ‘could have built the atomic bomb if the solution was put in code.”  It is almost more frightening to imagine a reality where the Cloudmakers did not cease investigating the 9/11 tragedy and used any means at all, legal or not, to uncover the “truth” all in the name of gaming and “puzzle-solving” over actual justice.  Another possible negative repercussion is that these are all generally scenarios where puppetmasters/gamemakers had best intentions in mind—what happens when a group of gamers are mobilized by gamemakers who want to cause harm?

Last, I want to discuss the idea of “truth” again, as it relates again to previous readings of post-truth and truth-finding.  While in previous discussions we have hypothesized that ARG gameplay can lead to objective truth finding among “fake news” and false statements, this paper seems to suggest the opposite.  As suggested before, many players of such immersive games begin to view real life as a game and solve mysteries under the guise of puzzles and not actual truth-finding; the flaw I see here is that in a game, the gamemaker has already created an answer or solution to a puzzle, while in real life, there is no objective verification of a solution.  I can see situations like the 9/11 game investigation lead to dangerous conspiracy theories unlike those of “flat earth” and “anti-vaccines” when gamers are lead to their own conclusions.

The logical conclusion for me now is that true game pervasiveness and full mastery of a “This is Not A Game” game may not even be ideal (in contrast to previous readings and discussions which lauded pervasiveness in games). Once situations get to the point where there is no killswitch on a game, and puppetmasters saying “This isn’t actually a game” encourages players to play more rather than less, harm can easily come.

I have several questions and would love to start a conversation. Do you agree, first of all that true pervasiveness (inability to separate life from game, ludic from ordinary) may not be something we want to attain in games? Do you have any suggestions as to how puppetmasters can prevent this kind of dangerous herdlike behavior, if it is possible? Is it a good or bad thing to view high-stakes scenarios in real life as a game (and what are the implications or consequences of doing so)? Should we support or discourage these vigilante-like game groups and how can we compare them with other groups that exist like Anonymous?

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