Lack of Alternatives in Experiments

While I watched Push, I tried to envision myself in the position of the experiment subject (Chris) and asked myself what actions I may perform if I were pushed like he was. I found myself incapable of not agreeing to do the menial social tasks (like picking up a bag or transferring a coat to somewhere else)—as the alternative, not agreeing to do them, would be “rude” and “disruptive”. I also found it hard to not comply to some of the tasks that directly challenged moral standards—as what may happen if I do not comply is not known as clearly, while what may happen if I agree seemed planned out by Tom already. Even at the end, where Chris disagrees to push, it is after an alternative is mentioned by Eugene (you may push or leave). I suspect that knowledge of an alternative solidified Chris’s active choice to preserve the man’s life. Darren Brown narrates that the experiment subjects must feel as if “they have no alternative but to push”—and I think the lack of knowledge of what will happen if one chooses to perform what was alternative to the action suggested did contribute to the subjects being pushed to perform certain actions.

On reflection, I noted that such apparent “lack of alternative” is constructed—there is no real reason why one needs be polite to and trust someone with greater financial power, or why there needs to be greater and lesser financial powers at all. There is always more than one alternative, while the ones suggested by social norms are by no means more guaranteed for success than those suggested by our own instincts. Social compliance happens when only some possibilities are voiced and noted—leading to one’s temporary forgetting of there being more possibilities, or temporary belief that such alternates suggest bleaker futures. That the noting of other possibilities outside what is suggested may contribute to an active breaking away from social compliance may be cited to support the positive social impact of ARGs, while the Cloudmakers’ actions after 9/11 proves the fact that alternate reality games provide different outlooks on reality, and hence inform players of possible ways to treat social issues other than those usually taken up by society.

Yet from the experiment our group constructed I noted that a limitation of possibilities is required if one wishes to experiment. If one does not limit the variables a participant can be influenced by and hence the range of possible actions they may choose from, one will not be able to determine the particular variables that had influenced the subject’s actions, or whether the subject’s actions are informed by variables the hypothesis described. Hence, like situations in which subjects are pushed to conform to social expectations, experiments construct a similar “reality” in which only certain possibilities are pronounced, where it is hard to the subject to imagine the outcome from other possibilities and hence be pushed to choose from the possibilities given. This, to me, adds to the reason for a debriefing after experiments—subjects, noting the possibilities the experiment deliberately gives them, also learns how the experiment covers other possibilities and hence re-orient themselves outside the rules of the experiment.  

Improvisations in LARP

When the organizers of AAL narrated the rules, there was one that stood out to me—the one that prompted us to stay in character when interacting and solving problems. As I reflect on my experience playing as Liz Shelton, I started to really understand what the rule demands, and saw its resonance with the “Yes and” attitude and Spolin’s narrative on the transformations that happen in improvised acting.

I conceived Liz Shelton as a highly mobile character—sneaking into different locations with her stealth and dexterity, obtaining information from other characters via her high “lies” stats and engaging in secretive missions through her small frame and ability to conceal whatever she was carrying. In hindsight I see how this vision became a hindrance to Liz’s mobility as I kept returning to it during play: I considered, according to the plan, what Liz would do in each situation and questioned whether my actions fitted her personality whenever I acted. The result, beside an increasing awareness between the difference between Liz and I, was also a limitation in my actions—I balanced myself between the church and the devil, and failed to be involved in the plot of both the way I had hoped to; I kept rejecting the offers and opinions of other character on the grounds that “Liz probably will not agree to them”. Liz Shelton had, instead of granting me the mobility I expected when creating her, become a set of boundaries that hindered me from doing things I wanted to do.

Reflecting on the rule, I realized that I am thinking out of character when considering whether my actions fit Liz’s personality—I had inadvertently conceived me and her as separate people, while Liz would never know that she needs to follow certain rules in order to be herself. I was reminded of the improv prior to the game, where instead of considering what the character would have done, I placed myself in the scenario and presented honest, unrehearsed, not performative responses. The LARP experience inspired me to perceive the “Yes and” attitude as not only a way to interact with the cues of others, but also towards the impulses of myself—perceiving situations and my own thoughts in their totality without filtering factors through a pre-planned paradigm. I also realized that I might have been approving and disapproving my own actions according to how they demonstrate Liz’s personality, that I have constructed an imaginary audience and performed to them—even when there is no such audience approving or disapproving.

Liz started as a 12-year-old “trained observer” and ended as one—perhaps with more story to tell, but her thoughts and reactions to things are unchanged. As I begin to recall the many cues I had wanted to take up and the story lines I wished to pursue, I realized how Liz’s potential transformations are hindered as a result of out-of-character thinking. I also see how the true in-character attitude does not rely on self-restraint, but on experience as well as perceptiveness—what one sees is not drastically different from what one’s character may see (perhaps without environmental details), while one’s natural, most honest response from these experiences would be the response of the character.

The Social Impact of Games

In “A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for pro-social causes”,  Flanagan and Kaufman note that though games can “promote and instill pro-social attitudes, behaviors, and emotional responses”, the message behind games may not be heeded by players if they are directly stated. Flanagan and Kaufman hence advocate that the message behind games be obfuscated. Using the Montola et.al reading, I shall attempt to clarify why directly communicating social good messages through games may not incur socially good behaviors from the perspective of ARG theories. I will then demonstrate why obfuscation of the message is needed, and predict ways an ARG may produce socially good consequences.

Montola et.al, in their discussion of the Killer ARG, mentions how players are immersed in magic circles the minute they consent to play the game. Spatial, temporal, as well as thematic boundaries between the “real” and “unreal” become blurred as a result of such pervasive gaming. Players are hence induced to look at their own everyday reality in a new way and regard many factors in it as unfamiliar or problematic. This defamiliarization is what I take to be the reason of ARGs’ social impacts. They have been able to make normally boring processes (such as school) seem interesting, and to raise awareness on the many social problems players may not be previously unaware of—in that they induce players to take up new perspectives and regard these “normal” processes as unfamiliar, not normal, and open to questions.

These new perspectives are hence necessary in a game’s social impact, and players use them when the game presents an alternate reality alongside the player’s reality, where players can immerse themselves and from which, observe their own reality with a new eye. Direct messages for social good, like morals of a fable or aphorisms in philosophical texts, still address the everyday reality and speak within its rules and its paradigms. They hence run counter to the ARG’s ability to displace players from their reality, and may induce resistance if they ever show up.

The method for ARGs to advocate social good is implied: instead of communicating information pertaining to the real, one can focus on the player’s experience, take up their perspectives, note how they can immerse in the game and whether they are induced to take up new perspectives. This is supported by Fullerton’s emphasis on player experience—prompting designers to be “advocate[s] for the player”, to frequently “playtest” and try to predict aspects of player experience, their advice makes one realize how the recognition of a message or the decision to change one’s actions are all parts of the playing experiences, and that such an experience would inspire players to look at the world in a new light if it is enjoyable, immersive and defamiliarizing.

Application of Types in Improv & ARGs

Frost and Yarrow mention, during their discussion of the initial format used by the Second City, that a number of “social types”—including the “blond all-Americans and the Jewish schlemiels”—as well as some “regular ‘characters’”, reappeared on stage from time to time (47). They note that such social types are not “archetypes”—stock characters common to literary works, myths and legends (47). Such use of types specific to the time and place of the improv reminds one of how ARGs often abides to existing story genres or well-known motifs in stories during their initial stages—examples include the secret society of ParaSite, the meteor of DUST and the game’s identification with the science fiction genre, as well as the secret ridden house in Mystery on Fifth Avenue reminding one of similar architecture in detective novels or thrillers. Spolin as well as Sawyer et. al, helps explain why types are applied in improvisations or ARGs.

Types are useful in that they immediately spark recognition in the audience—knowing the cultural stereotypes of their time, or having experienced recurring elements in widely used genres, the audience is able to recognize the type advanced, to be aware of connotations the type is connected to, to expect certain outcomes of the story and to notice whenever the type betrays their expectations. Spolin praises how in uninhibited improvisations the audience is engaged in “a group agreement” with the actors, able to be “part of the game, part of the experience” while nonetheless “each member of the audience must have a personal experience” (13-14). As knowledge of types is shared between audience and actor, types help the actors engage the audience in a shared experience and to penetrate the surface of the type, to look at certain groups of society in a new light as the actors themselves build the type gradually into something more complex—a character, even. Sawyer et. al explain why each member of the audience experiences differently in their discussion of the “mind as internalized social interactions” (159)—due to each member of the audience having different experiences, their knowledge of types slightly differ and actors’ transformation of the types are bound to impact them differently. This also explains the exclusion of archetypes–since archetypes originate from stories instead of experience, every member of the audience would be likely to have similar, impersonal comprehensions of archetypes, and may experience similarly if archetypes, instead of social types, are used.

Yet the theory of the mind as internalized social interactions reminds one that types are built from social interactions in the first place—the “expectancy of judgments”, of “approval/disapproval”, of “competition” with other actors or of the audience as mere spectators or judges, all of which Spolin mentions as blocking experience and energy (8-14), have originated as social interactions and were internalized. As games and improvisation performances can transform known formulas of social interaction or install new ones, may an internalization of such interactions come about? Is such an internalization aimed for, or ought players be wary of the outcomes such internalization may bring?

The “Alternate Reality” outside ARGs

Montola and Sterno’s discussion on how ARGs challenge the magic circle proves implicitly how the presence of the non-player group, as well as “reality” outside that of the game’s, contributes to the gaming experience. Players’ alienation from the reality they were used to enables them to perceive reality through a novel angel, while the surprise they feel because of their alienation from the ordinary cannot be separated from the fact that they know what ordinary reality feels like. The traffic Russian Roulette, for example, may not feel as dangerous if the player does it as part of her daily routine, but its danger is perceived when contrasted with her ordinary walks outside the game. On the other hand, Players’ awareness that an ARG is partially “unreal” fuels their awe when the game proves its reality. This is shown by how players of The Source positively responded to Adia’s appearance, perceiving that her appearance increases the reality of the game and that the two realities have merged together. Player interaction with non-game reality can increase their in-game possibilities, and may give them the potential to alter the game’s plot. The uses of the environment players of Killer think of, emergent events produced by interactions between realities, as well as player’s protests during S.E.E.D. that coincided with larger protests at the time all demonstrate how “real” events and awareness of a real beside the game may alter ARGs, add to their meanings, and increase player involvement.

One hence wonders if a world-wide, whole-time ARG is truly possible without sacrificing the charm given by “limited” ARGs in which players are aware of a reality beside the game’s and an out group beside themselves. Suppose that the reality beside that of the game is completely muted, then emergent gameplay made possible by interactions between two realities may never be a part of the playing experience. Players may no longer have a reality to be alienated from when playing and hence may not see their everyday experiences via novel angels. They may also never feel the awe when the game demonstrates its reality—as there is no other reality to compete against, or that the game can interact with or merge into. The game without another “reality” beside it loses its magic, the terror it can generate through challenging boundaries, and the possibility of any expansion—it becomes unchallenged reality itself.

Hence if an Alternate Reality Game is to stretch all over the globe, it must exist simultaneously with alternate realities if it is to hold on to its charms outlined above. Though it can be played by all players and stretched over all their time, players must simultaneously perceive a reality not included in that of the game–they hence can be continuously surprised, alienated and challenged through the many realities they experience.