Gameplay Experience

For my gameplay experience this quarter, I took part in a playtest at the MADD center run by Peter McDonald. The game began when the group I was with was invited to participate in some wine tasting. The researchers in lab coats then informed us that they had tested our DNA and discovered we shared DNA with the 500, a group who came to earth a long time ago. The researchers told us they needed our help to fix their interdimensional portal so they could get back to their city of Gnighton. Then, we were handed a notebook which contained clues for a scavenger hunt. Once we collected all the test slides and the box that we found during the scavenger hunt, we went back inside and fixed the portal using the test slides which had colors marked on them as clues. Using these color cues, we matched the correct wires to their outlets, completed a circuit, and solved the game.

One thing I noticed during this gameplay experience was how much it reminded me of an escape room challenge. This could be due to the fact that we were a small group–only about seven of us were players in this game–making for a more intimate, collaborative experience. Furthermore, this was simply a playtest, and for that reason the experience felt like a one-time experience of an escape room.

Considering this is a game-in-the-works, upon reflection I was wondering what the aims of the final game could be. It seemed to me that this game as a final product would have the moral of either conservation or climate change, because the box which we had found through the scavenger hunt contained flowers and seeds. Additionally, the researchers from another world relayed how they came back to Earth to bring supplies back to their home, since their city was experiencing a drought. Additionally, the notebook contained letters with a lot of color used as imagery; these colors also related to things like Lake Michigan and the Chicago sky changing color due to pollution. In thinking about this, I thought, too, about Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan’s research on embedded games. In their work, they “introduce the concept of ‘Embedded Design,’ through which potentially sensitive, controversial, or counterattitudinal ideas or themes in games are crafted in a way that is less overt and less obviously didactic or ‘message-driven’” (3). I felt this to be the case with this playtest as well, for the sci-fi aesthetic of the game and the nonmoral and purely-for-fun scavenger hunt helped to override any explicit messages about climate change. While a game like Awkward Moment cited by Kaufman and Flanagan inserts specific “bias cards” into the game to get their message across, the fact that this game’s (speculative) ethic is embedded into the gameplay as well as interwoven into the actual game story makes it at once less didactic and more pervasive.

I also believe that this game aligned with Guy Debord’s situationist definition of play. He asserts that “the new phase of affirmation of play seems to be characterized by the disappearance of any element of competition” (l. 4). This was very apparent to me while playtesting: because so much of the game relied upon our help as a group, the scavenger hunt was a completely collaborative effort. While I figured out one clue was by the school bookstore, Aaron figured which statue would harbor the next clue. However, I agree with Debord’s other sentiment, that “play cannot be completely emancipated from a competitive aspect; its goal must be at the very least to provoke conditions favorable to direct living” (l. 20). Though here Debord is speaking on a larger scale, making a claim for how play should factor into an overall capitalist world, it holds true for this specific game as well, for it still maintained competition, just in a different form. What I mean is, we all worked together to beat the game itself: to finish the scavenger hunt and fix the portal. It was the players versus the game. It seems, too, that this form of competition is another form of “embeddedness” that the game utlizies; necessitating collaboration to solve a problem forces players to be more aware of their own responsibility and to keep each other accountable. This is the case with climate change as well, to learn how each individual’s part plays a role in the large scale maintenance of our planet and home.

Oh, the places you’ll go

A concept that kept coming to mind while watching Felix Barrett’s interview is the role that space plays in how “immersive” a game ends up becoming. These Punchdrunk productions, like “Sleep No More,” aim to, as Felix puts it in the interview, place audience members “in a real world film.” Although Felix describes how the creators of the game “tried to break all the rules of theatre that [they] could come up with,” uncovering what happens when the structure of theatre is disrupted, structure is still pertinent for the success of these performances. Space is structurally foundational to performance. This reminds me of earlier in the quarter, in our first improv exercise as a class. Our classroom shaped this activity: we were told to split into two groups, navigate the room, and count objects contained in the room. The rules–or the potential breaking of them–were always conditional based upon the space we were in.

One example of how place is inextricably linked to an immersive experience is in Felix’s description of the McKittrick Hotel in New York City as a “building [that] was versatile enough” to allow for an inherently sensory experience. Without a venue like this one–where players/audience members/performers can eat, play, and even sleep–the sensory and tactile elements that are intrinsic to the production cannot be fully explored. Felix even zooms out further, admitting how the pace of NYC itself is suitable for a performance such as “Sleep No More.” As he aptly puts it, “New Yorkers [snaps] are in,” ready to dive into the individual, performance-rich elements of the production. In a way, this can also be seen as a form of collective effervescence: spaces like NYC and the McKittrick Hotel, contrary to London, as is mentioned in the interview, elevate the experience overall.

In thinking about space and performance and how the two can be incorporated into the alternate reality games we are designing in class, I think about the way that performative elements can enhance participation and investment in these games. As demonstrated by the netprov “Grace, Wit and Charm,” theatricality does not have to be the main element of a game, but can still be incorporated into alternate reality games to reach out to a broader audience. All alternate reality games are narratively based, and as such theatre easily molds to the core of the game: its story. In creating a story that is lovable, the game is also more replicable. As is mentioned, too, in Felix’s interview, “Sleep No More” is a replayable game, as the interviewer claims she has gone three times and is still uncovering new details each time.

To summarize, by entangling stories with specific places and spaces, alternate reality games can really grasp the player and thrust them into the real world, which in turn further pushes them into the game. Though transmedia is a good tool to spur players on, by paying particular attention to the spaces that puppet masters place their players in, these games can have a more resonant– maybe even more emotional and memorable–effect on the player.

How ethical is netprov?

One of the most interesting aspects of Wittig’s netprov which is “situated at the intersection of literature, drama, mass media, games, and new media” is the latter component, that of “new media”. The opening act, the “time-travel game,” is a “micro-work of imaginative fiction on the spot,” and Wittig aptly surmises that “had [they] all done this in text messages or in Twitter [they’d] have been doing netprov.” The way in which netprov is inextricably tied to social media networks strikes me as somewhat precarious in our current political climate. Summoning back to McIntyre’s warnings of living in a “post-truth” society, a form of play that relies on false narratives, on the moments “of vertigo where people don’t quite know whether it’s real or not” seems to me a slippery slope, especially since netprov and and “fake news” share hostile platforms like Twitter. Mark Marino’s game “Los Wikiless Timespedia” is a good example of a potentially dangerous form of netprov. The game “imagines the Los Angeles Times going completely to an online wiki format and then getting derailed;” considering the contemporary upsurge of “fake news” articles that circulate the web, a game that intentionally uses the template of a news organization seems to be transgressing the ethical boundaries of netprov.

Even more troubling is Wittig’s “idea for a netprov that could be done in conjunction with the Presidential election in the U.S. in the Fall 2012.” Although he is presumably “joking around” in this instant, and that “netprov is usually parodic and satirical” there needs to be careful consideration when crafting netprov or other sorts of alternate reality games. Jane McIntyre warns that “some facts matter more than others” in an era in which individuals interpret truth through their feelings rather than through objectivity (McIntyre 10). Such a netprov may have only comedic and fun-inducing intentions, and yet the outcomes may include political turmoil and chaos.

Despite this skepticism towards certain examples of netprov, other elements of the format are very appealing. For instance, Wittig says that “even though most of the story was carried in Twitter, for “Grace, Wit and Charm” we actually had two nights of live theater at Teatro Zuccone in Duluth.” This idea of translocating a story–from the cerebral, creative, literary realm to that of the real, physical, palpable world–through play is highly appealing, especially since I personally think altering the world through literature is extremely fun: think of Harry Potter World, for instance. Additionally, netprov can, in this way, keep the spirit of literature alive in an increasingly digitized world; in using platforms like Twitter to tell stories, social media no longer caters solely to the “clout” generation.

Bleeding and Performance

The concept of “bleed” can definitely be applied to Lady Gaga and the way she is presented in the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. As Sarah Lynne Bowman writes, “role-players sometimes experience moments where their real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill over into their characters’ and vice versa;” this seems to be true, too, for Lady Gaga and the way in which she represents herself to her fans (l. 2-4). To begin with, “Lady Gaga” is a separate identity from Stefani Germanotta, and in some sense this is the avatar that Stefani chooses to represent in her career as a performer. Additionally, Gaga channels more than just her usual persona of Gaga; naming her album Joanne is not only a tribute to her dead aunt, but also a new identity that Gaga takes on: she “bleeds” into Joanne when she asserts that since Joanne was her father’s sister, and she her father’s daughter, that she herself is Joanne. It is through this “bloody” channeling that Gaga is able to manifest into music the essence of her aunt in the single “Joanne”.  

However, while Lady Gaga is comparable to role-players in that she merges identities with her musical personas, her position as a role-player is performative in a different way from gamers. For one, Lady Gaga must consider how her character will be received by her fans; she cannot just assume a new identity and become the girl who wears a t-shirt and jeans, for her fans expect her to be a spectacle: wearing a meat dress to one award show, arriving to the Grammy’s in an egg. Her “bleeding” is therefore always contingent on an audience’s reception.

Additionally, the “players accept the premise that any actions in the game are taken by the character, not by the player” through the concept of “alibi” (l. 25-6). As such, the player has the option of escaping completely into the magic circle of the dream world. Conversely, Lady Gaga does not have as much flexibility in regards to the alibi, for two reasons. The first, as aforementioned, is her character’s dependance on fan response. The second is that her career is inextricably linked to these characters; from a Marxist perspective, she experiences alienation from the self when assuming a new character in relation to her economic livelihood as derived from a chosen character.

In thinking about the different stakes that “bleeding” has depending on context (bleeding in a game versus bleeding in a career) I wonder, too, how bleeding can be a negative side-effect of a game, because sometimes “the intensity of emotion has become overwhelming to the mind, causing confusion and difficulties with immediate processing and distancing” (l. 48-9). Thus, the puppet master has an ethical responsibility to create a world where players can escape their day-to-day selves, without losing themselves in the process.

Thinking Ethically About ARGs in a Post-Truth World

While reading Jane Mcintyre’s ‘What is Post-Truth’ and ‘Fighting Post-Truth’ for this week, I thought about how the abandonment of objective truth in favor of the prioritization of feelings could have ethical consequences for ARGs. To what extent could players in these games sacrifice certain truths all in the name of having as much fun as possible? Mcintyre uses Oxford Dictionaries definition of post-truth as “‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’” and qualifies this definition herself, writing that, “the prefix ‘post’ is meant to indicate not so much the idea that we are ‘past’ truth in a temporal sense… but in the sense that truth has been eclipsed–that it is irrelevant” (Mcintyre 5). I thought about this definition as applied to ARGs, wondering if the mentality that is maintained within a ‘post-truth society’ has the same pernicious effects when applied to the context of a game. However, one must first ask: is the world of an ARG a post-truth society? It is true that an ARG does align with “the post-truth era” in that it does “challenge not just the idea of knowing reality” but also “the existence of reality itself,” as is best evidenced through elements like rabbit holes. It is necessary for the ARG to blend in with reality well enough so that these rabbit holes seem not-so-unordinary; conversely, these rabbit holes are meant to stand out in such a way that the future players question the not-so-ordinary conditions of the rabbit hole, whether it be in the form of a strange e-mail or a suspicious letter in the mail. Though reality and unreality blend in this way, it seems that the method of questioning reality that ARG rabbit holes depend on actually counteracts post-truth behavior: players are meant to seek out the seemingly bizarre or illogical rather than accept it as reality. While a post-truth(er) may toss the suspicious letter in the trash, the ARG player might instead investigate it further, to figure out if it does truly fit into the realm of normal, everyday life.

Furthermore, Mcintyre writes that in a post-truth society there is an “overarching idea that–depending on what one wants to be true–some facts matter more than others” (Mcintyre 10). Once again, ARGs push back against these post-truth belief systems, necessitating almost the opposite mindset in order to play and progress within the world of the game. There could be a certain narrative of the game that a player had in mind that he or she must actually abandon in order to continue on in the game, therefore negating the idea that “some facts matter more than others” on purely emotional grounds. However, the fact that puppet masters can in fact alter the game depending on the mentality and trajectory of the players does seem to reinforce some aspects of “truthiness” (Mcintyre 5). Game designers, puppet masters, and even actors must be weary of facilitating game narratives led by the players and must know when to draw the line between sticking to an original plan and abiding to the whims and wants of the players. This is especially true for ARGs that focus on education of a younger audience, for such players are more susceptible to falling into patterns of magical thinking and are more vulnerable to confuse actual reality that deals with objective facts with game reality that centers on fun. One possible solution to this potential consequence of an educational ARG would be to specify exactly when a certain task or lesson embedded into the game is “true” in the sense of objectivity and not feelings or fun, like in ARGs that rely on ‘historification’ as a main device for the storyline of game.