Bleed in ARGs

Sarah Lynn Bowman describes bleed as the phenomenon of players’ “real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill[ing] over into their characters and vice versa.” She says that it is something that happens when “participants… engage in role-playing;” it occurs when people play a character. Sarah Lynn Bowman argues that bleed is a process by which emotions or physical states from the real world enter the magic circle or by which those from within the game exit the magic circle into the real world, implying that bleed is a process that breaches the boundaries of the magic circle. These arguments seem to suggest that in order for bleed to occur, a magic circle must exist, and players must step into that magic circle to inhabit characters that are not themselves, implying that bleed can only occur in games that contain an explicit magic circle keeping the real world and the game world separate and in games that require players to inhabit a character. This made me wonder how bleed would work in a game in which the magic circle includes the players’ real world, merging them rather than dividing keeping them separate and in which the characters that players play are themselves. Would bleed still occur in a game such as an ARG?

Sarah Lynn Bowman describes how in order to enter a game, players must accept “a new set of social rules, both implicit and explicit,” and thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is a something that players do need to do in order to enter an ARG. ARGs may not have any explicit rules (that would require acknowledging themselves to be games, which would go against the “This Is Not a Game” aesthetic), but they do have implicit rules. For example, in order to really play an ARG, players must buy into its narrative, interacting with it as though it is real. However, players do not necessarily have to truly believe it is real, which led me to realize that when playing an ARG, players often do inhabit characters; they usually inhabit characters are, for all intents and purposes, identical to them, except for one crucial difference, they believe that the ARG is real.

With this in mind, I began thinking further about the idea of bleed in ARGs. Bleed-in, it seems to me, would be irrelevant to ARGs as the structure of an ARG’s magic circle includes the players’ real world. If no aspects of the players or their real world remain outside the magic circle, there is nothing for players to unintentionally bring into the game world through bleed-in. It seemed likely that bleed-out would occur in ARGs in a similar manner to the way it might in other games, such as LARPs; that is, elements of the world within the magic circle and of the players’ game world personas could affect their out-of-game selves. In fact, as Sarah Lynn Bowman mentions, “playing close to home provides an inherently weaker alibi,” and “will likely produce greater bleed.” As players of an ARG usually play characters that are the same as their out-of-game selves except for the fact that they believe in the narrative of the ARG, bleed-out in an ARG would probably be significantly greater than for many other role-playing games, such as LARPs, in which players usually play fictional characters rather than their own selves.

Entertainment and Ethics

When watching the Derren Brown special, the thought that kept going around and around in my head, holding my focus through the entire show, was that what was happening seemed wrong. Derren Brown’s manipulation of his subject into doing progressively more horrible things, all the way up to the point where he was being pressured to kill a man, struck me as extremely unethical.

As we talked about in class, manipulation of a subject’s behavior, through conditioning or altering their perception of reality, is fairly common, particularly in reality television. Many shows, for example, reward participants for displaying behaviors such as aggression or conflict-provocation with greater screen time, encouraging, and essentially conditioning, them to act in ways that are potentially damaging to themselves and to those around them in order to create situations that are more exciting for the audience to view. And while techniques like these, too, seemed unethical to me, I couldn’t’ shake the feeling that what Derren Brown was doing was somehow worse. As I thought about it further, I realized that the issue that stuck out to me most about what Derren Brown was doing was the lack of consent. The subject consented to be on the special, it’s true, but at no point during the process did he know what he was consenting to. While in many other forms of reality television, subjects are not necessarily aware of the manipulation they will experience when they consent to be a part of the show nor even while they experience the manipulation as a part of the show, they are aware of their participation in the show during every moment that they are a part of the show. With this knowledge comes the ability to leave at any point that they choose. The subject of the Derren Brown special, on the other hand, does not have that knowledge, and thus does not have the same ability to leave. He believes that everything that is occurring around him is a part of the real world with real world consequences, and the consequences for leaving a real-world version of the situation that the special manipulates him into are very negative, effectively taking away his freedom to leave the situation at any point he chooses. An important aspect of consent is that it can be revoked if the person who gave their consent to a situation no longer wishes to engage in that situation. The Derren Brown special does not allow this for their subjects.

I think there is something to be taken away from this that is relevant to game design, particularly to the design of ARGs. The TINAG aesthetic of ARGs mean that the game never declares itself to be a game, making it possible for players to be unaware that what they are a part of is a game rather than real life. I don’t necessarily think that this is a problem. I think, instead, that it is something to be aware of when designing a game. I think it is important to ensure that players remain completely free to leave a game at any point in time, whether or not they know that it is a game. This ensures that consent is maintained throughout the game and that any players participating in the game do so of their own volition.

LARPs and Improv

Last week, I played a LARP called “Ask Again Later.” Having never participated in a LARP before, there were a few things that stood out to me as interesting and as valuable parts of the play experience.  

One thing that I thought of was the “yes, and” principle of improvisation. Vickers describes the “yes, and” practice as “accepting and building on a partner’s offer, as “aligning with another person’s energy and redirecting it” (1). During play, it felt as this principle was an extremely essential part of the roles of both the STs and the players. As players, we were offered a world and some situation in that world. Though the STs built the world and the situation in which we were playing, in order to bring the world to life through building a scene within it, it was necessary that both players and STs accept what was offered to them by others and add to it in some meaningful way. Players were first required to accept the situation they were placed in and then to add to it in the form of taking some element of it and interacting with it in some meaningful way. The STs then had to accept and build on the player responses to their situations, even if the response was nothing like anything they had anticipated or built the narrative around. It was this constant back-and-forth that created meaningful and spontaneous scenes that went in directions that neither the STs nor the players could have taken them alone.

An example of this that I experienced during the game play was when I and some others were placed in a situation in which we discovered my town contained witches and devil worshippers. We decided to respond to the situation by conducting a ritual prayer to rid the town of the devil and its influence. The ST that we were with accepted this response and built on it by appearing as a ghost and informing us that our prayer had called forth the ghosts of our loved ones beyond the grave. This sparked a back-and-forth between the players and the ST in which each person built on the ideas of the others to create the most vivid and intense scene that I experienced throughout the evening in which conversed with dead loved ones and following which we decided to exorcise the town of all ghosts. Without this “yes, and” framework, I think the LARP experience would have been completely static, as it is what allowed for the creation of such intense and meaningful scenes.

Furthermore, as Spolin says, “freedom to experience” is required to “bring about spontaneity” (4) and I felt that the LARP and the “yes, and” principle that was its framework created that freedom. The “yes, and” principle made it a truly collaborative experience rather than a competitive one and the knowledge that your scene partner was going to accept your offer, no matter what it was, and build on it, lessened the “fear of disapproval” and judgement that Spolin argues hinders spontaneity. As a first time player of a LARP, I was a little apprehensive about participating, but I soon found that the environment created by the LARP was one that made me feel comfortable with offering my ideas and participate fully, making it a freeing and enjoyable experience.

Role of the Game Designer

Tracy Fullerton described the role of the game designer as being “an advocate for players,” (2), a portrayal which I found extremely interesting. It framed the role of a game designer in a way that I had never thought about it before, as I had always viewed the game designer more as an artist, who’s primary role it is to focus on generating and realizing their creative vision through the medium of game. I had always viewed the audience response as a secondary concern. However, I think Fullerton’s player-focused description highlights an important difference between games and most other forms of art: the unique relationship they have with their audience.

While other art forms, such as literature, paintings, sculptures, and movies are created to be viewed in various ways, such as through reading, observing, or watching, games are created to be played, and thus interact with their audience in a way that is different from most other art forms. Art that is created to be viewed has a complete existence outside of its audience—a movie exists as an art piece in its entirety even when it is not being viewed. Being viewed by an audience member does not change or add anything to the movie; it might change the audience member, but it does not change the art piece. A game on the other hand is only completely realized in play. Parts of a game exist outside play, such as rule structures, characters and other narrative elements, and any physical pierces like a board or cards, but due to the participatory nature of games, it is only through interaction with players that they are brought into existence in their entirety. I think this is particularly true of ARGs, which often do not even have rules and structures that exist outside of game play. Though they usually have developed characters and narrative elements, which are usually aspects of games that exist outside of play, because of the way ARGs evolve their narratives through interactions with players, building them as the game is played based on player responses, I think even the narrative elements of an ARG aren’t complete when separated from the element of player interaction. Thus, Fullerton’s player-focused view of the game designer fits into this idea, and as such, makes a lot of sense to me as an approach to game design.

Fullerton’s definition of the role of the game designer as an “advocate of the player” (2) also immediately made me think about another aspect of game design that I hadn’t thought a lot about before participating in an ARG as a player: making sure that the structure and narrative of a game keep players safe, both physically and emotionally, throughout gameplay. To me, it seems like this is one of the most important elements of a game designer’s role. During gameplay, particularly that of ARGs as their TINAG aesthetic and their hazy boundaries between the game realm and reality often leads them to be vague in communicating to players the kinds of situations the game will place them in, it can be hard for players to monitor the situations they are in and to ensure that they avoid situations that make them uncomfortable (which is not to say that discomfort is something that should necessarily be avoided in all situations—it can often create a space for growth—but there are certain levels beyond which discomfort is perhaps more detrimental than it is beneficial, and it can be important for people to be able to avoid these). Thus, I think it falls to the game designer to both endeavors to create situations that would not generate such discomfort and to ensure that within the game, there are ways for players to remove themselves and recover in case they do need to do so.

I’m interested in hearing about what you thought about the Fullerton’s description of the role of a game designer, whether it captured what you think of as the role of the game designer or whether you think it excluded elements that are central to your view of the role of the game designer.

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.