The focus this week on social science experimentation and how it links with alternate reality games has been very illuminating. I am particularly interested in the intersection between two of the main pieces we consumed for this week – the Milgram experiment and the Derren Brown special – and assessing various conditions underpinning their ethicality in order to understand the way in which designers must balance safety and play.
The Milgram experiment is a hallmark within psychology and is one which I have encountered in a number of courses up until this point, but the reading for this week dealt with the subject matter in a much more narrative manner. I think it is often not understood how intimidating the set-up of the actual experiment was, and the perspective of subjects in it illuminates the great amount of stress which they were experiencing in the situation. The circumstances surrounding the shock, with the realistic sounds, flashing imagery, and convincing mechanical set-up are certainly enough to put someone into a panic out of concern. Similarly, the goal of the Brown special was to create a sufficiently realistic atmosphere such that the participant would experience legitimate concern and consider dire consequences to their actions.
One interesting commonality between both the Milgram experiment and the special was that, in both cases, the majority of people who participated stated that they were happy to have taken part in the procedure. I was wondering – to what degree an indicated positive participant experience (i.e. not regretting taking part in it) affects how outside observers perceive the ethicality of an experiment. Obviously if every participant left an experiment with permanent physical or emotional damage then it would be seen to be unethical, but there is no clear delineation with regards to ethicality. In the case of the former, there were actual institutional ethic concerns given its undertaking at a prominent research university which caused concern, which superseded the preferences of the participants when it came to discussion of concerns over the experiment and led to more rigorous academic discourse. This is not the case for Darren Brown, though. As someone who is primarily an entertainer, he is not subject to such oversight and is able to engage in tactics – such as excessive deception of participants – which would not get past any university IRB. However, in his case, the testimonials from participants at the end of the hour long segment speaking about their experiences and how it was positive is meant to lessen the impact of what we’ve just viewed.
So there exists a clear difference in setting between the two experiments, with game designers being more on the Derren Brown end of the scale, with a lack of oversight. When designing a game, the puppet masters are more akin to the experimenters, controlling the players along a preset path. This is to say that they have responsibility for things that happen throughout the course of the game and an obligation to account for player safety. Though the chances of Milgram-esque mental scarring seem inherently lower with the medium of ARGs, there is a threat of physical danger on occasion. And this raises the question of how much information to communicate with players such that this objective can be obtained, even at the risk of compromising a game. The designers of I Love Bees broke character to tell a player to flee from an oncoming hurricane, for instance. This leaves me with a few questions. Even beyond this, what level of deception is necessary to create a fun and engaging experience, and how does the nature of ARGs as a deceptive medium impact the experience of playing them? Is playing an ARG like engaging in a Darren Brown social experiment, where the false construct of reality is meant to propel you towards a singular take-away at the end?