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.