How to create a collective experience in ARG

Since this week there are no readings, I decided to expore a problem I encountered during the ARG game design process (which was what we are finishing up in this week).

When we started to design the outline of the game and the puzzles, a problem arose: how to allow the experience of puzzle solving to be collective, in which every person is able to have their personal experience. One danger we are faced with is the possibility that a few more competitive participant would speed on in solving the puzzles, and would allow the experience of solving the puzzles to detract for the other players. Since the puzzle is solved, the next part of the story is revealled, and on the forum where everyone would talk about the progress of the game, there would be mentions of the progress. This would lead to the people that were lagging behind in puzzle solving to ask about the new story arc, and thus essentially skipping the experience of the puzzle (as they would just skip the puzzle entirely). Also, there would be posts on the forum on how to solve the puzzles, where some players would just use the solution, and not really think about the puzzles themselves.

One way we thought about is to create multiple paths for the players leading to the same goal. The different paths would contain different puzzles. Therefore, we essentially split the players up into smaller groups, where the progress of each group would be more consistent. Another thing we thought up is to vary the kinds of puzzles created, thus a single person would not be able to solve all of the types of the puzzles (unless the person is really talented). SInce the puzzles include knowledge of different areas, adding on to the fact that there are split storylines for the players to choose, an individual would most likely choose a storyline where the puzzles are more to the individual’s type, and thus it would be easier to solve the puzzles.

Another thing that was considered and applied is that we created some of the puzzles to be mandatorily collaborative, thus a single person would not be able to solve the puzzle on their own. I have said that the design of the separate storilines would converge at a given point, and at that given point, we decided that each separate path of the storiline eventualizes in a clue that combined together is the puzzle to adance forward. This eliminates the possibility that a group of people in a particular storyline wound speed past other groups in their storilines and find the ending of the story before everyone else. We also designed other collaborative puzzles, the intent is to which slow down the faster puzzle solvers to allow the slower participants to catch up. One puzzle we designed was an escape room puzzle which allowed the participants to work together to solve puzzle, this puzzle is intended to illustrate the effectiveness of collaboration and how it would benefit for people to work together.

But still, I think there are always instances where the pace of the game would be effected by individual players who are just faster than others, and there always are ways to decrease the effect created by this out-of-pace, such as creating additional puzzles, level up the difficulties of the puzzles, adding shills to maintain the balance of pace, etc. And one part of the ARG is teh unexpectedness of how things would go, and how the game designers would improvise to maintain this balance.

Reflection on ARG gameplay experience

Just a few hours ago, I participated in an ARG designed by DePaul University students today in the MADD center, and it was a really fun experience.

The gameplay started with a mock wine tasting where the creators secretly took our cups after the tasting. Then we are gathered together and were told that they have tested our DNA and have determined that we were part of the 500, an ancient race of people that interacted with earth. We were then given a very old journal and were told that we need to find stuff to open up a portal to the other dimension. This took the form of a scavenger hunt as we searched through the areas (outside of the building) around the library. Each location of the hunt was given as a hint in the journal. In the end, we found all the pieces of the puzzles wich were pairs of glass test slides with two colors on each slide, and a final box with a code. Then we were led back inside and were told that we need to fix an engine that opens the portal. We used the sequence of color on the test slides and the color mentioned in the journal to plug the slides in the machine and also connect the wires (also with colors on them). Then we are shown a short video about the mission to go to the other side and revealed us the answer to the code. We opened the box to find a glove (with electric wires on it, amongst other objects), and using the glove and our bodies as conductors, we connected a circuit and opened the protal, which marked the end of the test trial for the ARG.

One thing I really noticed in my experience in the whole game was that I was unusually hyped and energetic, especially during the scavernger hunt. This feeling is kind of the feeling of the participant/player beeding out as the character of the adventurer affects the emotional state of the player. I was really interesting especially under the circumstance that first I knew that this is formost not a real adventure, and secondly that this is not even a real game, as it is a playtesting for the game. Also, it is weird that this bleeding affected me very unconsciously, as I was really unaware of this heightened state of mind until after the game ended. After that, I could recall how I was walking faster than usual, how my voice was louder, and that I was so eager to find anything. It is one thing to talk about bleeding in and out, but to actually experiencing it in person, is really something else. Of course, technically speaking, this should not really count as bleeding out as first the established character is maliable and thus not set in place, and also that the affect of the character on the person is limited, and a bit ambiguous. But still, it was a very interesting experience.

In our reading of Guy Debord, he mentioned that: “The element of competition must disappear in favor of a more authentically collective concept of play”, and I could really understand that in the context of the ARG I played today. When we were doing the scavenger hunt, we werea automatically assigned as a group, which implies the elimination of competition, and as a result the group of players were very much collective in collaboration as a team. We never disperesed anywhere away from the group, and we never even argued about what the puzzles meant. There was an instance when I thought one of the clues lead to a statue around the corner, and was wrong in that assumption. But is was very interesting that all the people in the group trusted my judgement (as they all followed me to the statue), and even when finding out that the goal was not there, there was no disagreement or anything. It feels like everyone was centering on the goal, and this made the gameplay much more affective, and much more whollistic, as it encorporated every single person as part of the experience. One more interesting thing is that when we were opening up the boxes that contained the hidden clues in the scavenger hunt, we took turns opening them, someone even said something like “there is no rush, everyone gets their turn, nobody is left out.” Which really exemplifies how the elimination of competition grants this more collective experience. When we finished the game, and were discussing the pros and cons of the game, the creators mentioned that they were at first undecided about whether to put the players together as a group (eliminating competition), or just have them do the scavenger hunt individually (allowing competition). And in a sense they did the right choice, and the experience proved the effectiveness and arguably the neccessity of the disappearance of competition for more collective experience.

When Spolin talked about imporvisation, he mentioned seven aspects of spontaneity. And one of the first aspect is the feeling of personal freedom, and how we should not seek approval/dissaproval from the other (in the context of an ARG, the game designers), as this action inhibits the freedom of the player and detracts from the overall gameplay experience. In this game, whereas most of the time we felt free to do stuff, at some instances this feeling of the need for approval or dissaproval kicks in. At the very start of the game, when we are asked to find the clues (the scavenger hunt), we are not really sure the limit of the search. More directly, we are not sure whether we should search inside the building or outside the building. And as a result, we took a bit of time looking everywhere inside the building and even thought we found a clue. But we were confused to whether the object we found was a clue, and had to ask the game designers to tell us the truth. While the game designers tried their best to be ambiguous about the truth, she eventually told us to go outside to seek the clues. And I feel that this is an example of having to look to the game designers to approve or dissaprove. Of course, I believe that situations like this happens a lot in ARGs, and that is why there are shills in the ARG, to approve or dissaprove when the players are straying too far from the game. But of course, as a game designer, one wants to decrease the possibility of such an engagement of an outside force. Although this experience correlates to what Spolin spoke about the inhibition of personal freedom, it is also neccessary for the continuation of the game. One aspect of an ARG is that it requires rules, and the rules are what keeps the storyline and gameplay together. One way I see of solving this contradiction is to allow the players to discover the rules, where in this case, it is less a thing about approving or dissaprroving, but more about the player’s own decision whether to keep with the rules or to ignore them.

Video games as semi-ARGs

We have already established the fact that ARGs are different from video games in many aspects. But if we focus individually on the gameplay experience, there are a lot of similarities. One thing that I am intrigued in is the way the creator of a video game/ARG would try to guide the player to a certain goal via clues and hints. And how, ultimately, the choice is the player’s, and some end up deviating from the guidance and end up bringing some spontaneity to the gameplay.

In video games, especially in story-exploration games or point-and-click games, there are always hints to where the player should investigate. The intention is that it avoids the player to just randomly click at things and just find things at random without understanding how the findings connect to the story as a whole. Usually there is a hint bar, which will indicate a place to investigate, or flash at certain places implying the player should look more into it. There are other devices that try to connect or piece the story together for the reader, like the random news articles or journal pages found while exploring, or the weird writing on the wall, the blood-like arrows pointing to certain places. Sometimes, even the character the player plays as, will mention things like “I think I should stay in this area”, or “Going outside is too dangerous right now.” or “This door is jammed. I wonder if a crowbar would work.” All of this are hints to what action or what object the player should take.

In ARGs, we have similar hints. There are moles in ARGs who not only take tabs on the players, but also help them when they are stuck. Unlike video games, the player does not know if an object they are interacting with has anything to do with the ARG at all (in a video game, you can usually pick up important objects, while useless objects are not even able to be clicked upon). Thus, in order to hint at the objects that are important, ARG creators make the objects stand out amongst the enviroment. Like a scrap of paper with writing on it hanging by the branch of a tree; a usb by the toilet; weird photographs on snapchat that should not be there… This calls the player’s attention to objects that are worth investigating. Of course, puzzles work a bit differently in video games and ARGs (this is debatable). For puzzles in video games, they sometimes have a very simple goal, to allow the player to open a door to the basement, or to open a safe to get a pistol. They are very specific in what it leads to, whilst indicating that what they lead to is important (as worth investigating). In ARGs however, the puzzles sometime are used as a catalyst for further questions and puzzles, and the goal of a puzzle may not lead to anywhere. It is more like a bifercating cave, where choosing one path will lead to more bifercations. Sometimes, the puzzle will lead to something, but usually, the something it leads to is not physical–it may lead to a further backstory, another page of a report, or sometimes a location where you are required to find something else (as with the bifercating cave). Even when the puzzle leads to something physical, it is merely more of a symbol than an actual object. Why? because unlike video games, ARGs lack immediate action–video games can create stuff like zombie attacks, which require the player to use a pistol; or locked doors, where the player is required to have a key. Yet for ARGs, alot of the story unfolds in the imagination, and not in reality, and thus we do not require a gun to face off threats or a medkit to heal.

But of course, randomness becomes more of a thing in ARGs, as the players are virtually unchecked in their actions (since this is the real world). And thus there would be some weird but interesting side-plots where the player does not act as the creator intended.

For video games, because the player is restricted to a game, the creator can not only make clues, but also make limitations. Everyone has experienced the “edge of the world” where the player cannot go beyond a certain point, while it seems that there is nothing but an invisible wall blocking the player. The actions of the player is also limited, crouching, shooting (sometimes not allowed, like “Outlast”, running (sometimes not even that), examining objects, walking. But the creators will want the players to explore to their maximum capabilities, and not just follow the guidelines. Thus they put up stuff like easter eggs for the player to discover. However, throughout gaming history, another kind of “breaking out of limitation” was discovered by gamers, and we call that “glitches”, or, more simply. “bugs”. As games, there are always flaws to the production, and thus, not unlike the players in ARGs that choose to “mess up” the ARG by turning to the antagonist’s side (for example), players can break the game sometimes by discovering bugs in the game, like walking through walls, or flying, or crossing over the boundaries (the invisible walls). Compared with the “breaking the rules” actions of ARGs, the bugs discovered by the players are more unique in the fact that they require some very skilled manuevers sometimes, and now it has even become a way of playing the game.

About using social media to set up rabbit holes

This week we participated in using different kinds of social media to set up rabbit holes for ARGs. Through the presentations and the testing, we all discovered pros and cons of using social media as a rabbit hole. One thing that interests me very much is the spread of the rabbit hole, and the way we are able to tell people about the social media we are using (letting people know about the rabbit hole).

It seems that a lot of social media, though having wide spread dispersion, are at a loss in letting people “come upon” the rabbit hole. A very big reason of this situation is that the rabbit hole, set up via social media, is usually by a fairly new account. Therefore, the account does not attract much attention. Without attention, it is very hard to get a random stranger to notice the account. Of course, an older account may be better. For example, older accounts on facebook, snapchat,etc will already have a sizable friendlist. However, in this case we are still limiting our scope to a small part of the actual game. Anyone that is not a friend, still finds it hard to know about the account. In places like youtube or twitch, it may be easier to attract attention, as the algorithms allow a viewer to view similar videos (and popular videos). Thus getting to what is trending, or maybe become the top of a kind of videos, may work right? Not neccessarily. We have to know that for a topic to be “hot”, it is inevitable that a lot of people will be streaming or making videos on it. Therefore, even taking the trend, you are just one in a million (maybe some exaggeration) of a chance being watched by each individual. Adding on to that, the viewer often goes to the bigger channels, the channel that have longer time, more videos, more subscriptions… Thus simply doing a video related to a trend does not work. How about becoming the best at the topic? In class, people have suggested (in the twitch presentation), that we can find a topic (a game for example) that people like, but not many people are streaming. Good idea. However, is that really possible. Any MOBA games, or big RPGs or new hypes will always have a lot of people streaming it (think about LOL, or fortnite, or in the past dark souls), that leaves us with the less popular indie games, where less people have heard of. The problem with this is that, when uploading a video of smaller games, (apart from really big channels where there are already alot of fixed viewers), people tend to use generic language to describe the games: “three horror games”, or “five indie games”, or “five really bad games”. There may be some games that may require titles of their own, for example those really bad games on steam (which somehow people still love to see playing). But these are fairly rare, and hard to come by.

Now, lets talk about a potential way of attracting audience–reddit. It seems up till now reddit is not that popular with the majority any more, and even I only got to know about reddit stuff via youtube. But I find it interesting that there is a specific group of people on reddit, and on nowhere else (maybe youtube), who takes a liking to strange stories and rabbit holes of all kind. I remember there are forums of all kinds of scary stories, and all kind of weird encounters etc. Now, in this case, we simply do not need to attract audience (but say the believability of our rabbit hole), since there exist a ready-made group of people on these kind of things, and funny enough, there is already groups and forums that hold them together. Therefore, we do not need to do anything, but just post the rabbit hole, and inevitably poeple will come and discuss.

Harmful effects of bleeding

This week we talked about how a person interacts with his/her characater, either bleeding in to affect the character, or bleeding out to allow the character affect him/her. Through the documentaries, I saw how bleeding out can affect a person, and I wonder just how deep these affects can be. One can easily think of the news of people playing video games and turned up wielding a knife and stabbing people in real life; and sometimes a video game can affect the mental state as well, as we see many gamers collaspe in front of their computers, and some even dying. Yet I think the effects of video games are very individualized. Each kind of game targets a certain kind of person, and it only allows the “bleed out” to occur because there is already this notion or this intention present in the person before playing the game. Thus, technically, it should not be called “bleed out”.

For example, I think that people who get aggressive by playing video games already have a suppressed mental state of wanting to be aggressive, and that is why they choose to play violent video games (not to say that all who play violent themed video games aer potenitally violent). Playing such games is their way of releasing this “negative energy” outward–kind of like “bleed in”. And when they discovers that the game itself cannot indulge their fantasies, they turn their actions towards the real world. I think the game’s function in this, is not that of a affection, but rather more like that of an activator (in that it activates aggressiveness within the person), and a catalyst (in that it propells the notion of violence to grow). In some sense, this is a notion of bleed in rather than bleed out.

However, I feel that in ARGs, where a puppet master is able to amass a huge number of players, there is the potential of dangerous bleed outs. Each person becomes a player in the ARG, and sometimes, the responsibility of the requirement of the player affects the person outside of the game. I remeber that there was an ARG-like game, where at one part, the puppet master asked the players to sit in a room, with their backs to the door, and turn the lights off, while playing creepy music, and thinking fearful thoughts to themselves. It turned out that this kind of behaviour can induce heightened states of fear, and sometimes, even affecting the players so much that they would think of (and potentially committing), suicide.

In this case, it is scientifically explained that the actions affect the person, and thus it should be defined a bleed out. And we see just how harmful this can be. Especially in an ARG, where there are potentially thousands and thousands of people playing, and when they know nothing about how an action might affect themselves. Of course, at the time, they would think the requests of the puppetmaster weird and fun, but if we look back at this, and think about the potential casualties of this “game”, it does not look fun at all.