Let’s make-believe (Part I)

Last couple of days I’ve been reading some of Jane McGonigal’s work and I am quite intrigued by some of the conversations that she engages in. While I am finding out interesting backstories of some of the ARGs that are considered to be milestones in this still-yet-to-be defined field, I am observing interesting parallels and differences between these games and other cross-media works that I wrote on in my dissertation. For those of us who are not familiar with the marvelous world of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), here’s a brief primer on the topic: ARGs are an experimental gaming genre that blurs the lines between reality and fiction by conveying a fractured narrative through Web sites, text messages, snail mail, phone calls, and even real-life interactions. Of course, the reality is that no one really agrees on any particular definition as the genre is currently being defined as we speak, but whatever people see it to be, there are a few things people agree on: that its mantra is “This is not a game” and that the first ARG was the Beast produced to market Steven Spielberg’s that upcoming movie AI. Not that ARGs try to pass themselves as “real,” but that its mantra implies that the genre denies its “game” status. Dave Szulborski, one of the important figures in the field who (unfortunately) passed away recently, explains that ARGs don’t attempt to  immerse the player in the artificial world of the game (as… say some of the Massively Multi-Player games or virtual worlds try to do), but that a successful ARG immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player. The Alternate Reality Game does not really want the player to think of the game world as an alternate reality at all, but that the ultimate goal is to have the player believe that the events take place and characters exist in her world, not in an alternate reality at all (31).

So… this brings us to an interesting juncture… We have players who get used to looking for puzzles, clues, and unusual events in their daily lives even after the game finishes. This is primarily because ARGs, by definition, do not take place in a “space apart,” and as a result, lack a clearly defined “magic circle”… So much so that players may end up having difficulty adjusting to real life after the game ends. The moderator for Cloudmasters (which was the group of players that participated in the Beast), Andrea Phillips, writes a “recovery guide” after the Beast ends: “You find yourself at the end of the game, waking up as if from a long sleep. Your marriage may be in tatters. Your job may be in the brink of the void… You slowly wake up to discover that you’ve missed the early spring…yet now, here we are, every one of us excited at blurring the lines between story and reality. The game promises to become not just entertainment, but our lives” (qtd. in McGonigal “This Is Not a Game”).

According to McGonigal, the immersive power of ARGs lead the players to be seen by others (who are the “sane” bunch, I assume) as people who are the “credulous lot” and the game to be considered as a “schizophrenia machine” because it encourages to view everything suspiciously and look for clues everywhere in the hopes that these clues may lead to some obtuse puzzles. McGonigal rightfully asks: “Really?” and questions whether the testimonials regarding the effects of these games should be taken at face value. She asks whether the players genuinely believe in the realness of the game or the game-ness of the real… In other words, are they really believing or affecting credulity? (“A Real Little Game”) Thus, McGonigal makes a distinction between “make-belief” games and “make-believe” games. While she views the former as the actual belief of the “realness” of the experience, she notes that the latter is the performance of belief to ensure the continuation of the experience. Of course, for a group who is smart to track down the most obtuse clues and solve the most complicated puzzles, the former proves to be unlikely.

Accordingly, in “A Real Little Game: A Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play,” McGonigal notes some of the outstanding efforts by the players to *not* remove the curtain between the puppet masters and the players. At the time, the game designers and its sponsors stonewalled the press which was questioning the game’s association with Spielberg’s movie, A.I. Elan Lee, one of the designers of the game, explains that they had to push it as an experience that never admitted that it existed. In order to explain the voluntary surrender of the players to the pleasure of the narrative and game, McGonigal accounts several incidents that could have been potentially disasterous for the game. Although the game was clearly set in 2142 AD, the players were not bothered by this “slight” incongruity. According to Lee, none of the players presented much of a resistance in any of the premises the designers set forth. To top it all, there were mistakes that the game designers  made that could have seriously jeopardized the  continuation of the game. For example, someone, by using the “WHOIS” lookup query, discovered that all of the game-related Web sites were registered under the same name (an oversight which wouldn’t be made today). While the designers anticipated that this discovery would irrevocably shatter the illusion that the Web pages are independently created, owned, and maintained and put an end to the game, the announcement (which was made by a player) was met with anger and resistance by others who feared that experience would end. Later on, players discovered that the Microsoft corporation was behind the Beast because the domain names were registered under people affiliated with Microsoft (Elan Lee being one of them). And as one of the players explains “Ahh, Microsoft is trying to control our minds… But you know, I am OK with that.” According to McGonigal, players actively chose to ignore the rupture in the game reality and continued to play “as if.” McGonigal quotes from some of the players: “Let’s put aside the fact that perhaps, under the surface of the game lies an unsavory plan to get the majority of the players to purchase additional software, game players, books, and DVDs.” Despite the fact that  designers at times knowingly made errors to see who would take the bait and publicly out them, they were surprised to see that no one took the opportunity. Even when one of the players hid a piece of information that was needed to solve one of the puzzles, other players acted quickly to come up with solutions that would allow them to solve the puzzle anyway without any puppet master intervention.

The eagerness of the players to continue the experience despite the fact there are obvious clues that it was a game posits an interesting contrast to some of the other cross-media experiences that have occurred. Forget about cross-media… As a society, we seem to be infatuated with the question “Is this real?” For instance, when I am teaching literature classes, I am sometimes surprised to see some naive questions that come up or comments that are made in class discussions. When I was teaching Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, my students were outraged: “This is disgusting!” “How can this be…” “Is this for real???” My response has always been “Does it really matter whether it is real or not?” But even then, some of my students were still reluctant to let go of their cultural baggage to “experience” this outstanding novel. Because Humber Humbert *is* a pedophile…  Looking back at the research on LG15, I also see a stark contrast between how the fans of LG15 reacted to having figured out that Bree never existed and that everything was a show put forth by a group of producers who weren’t even a part of a big corporation and the Beast which was put forth by a beast-like corporation like Microsoft. I intend to investigate why that may have been the case in my next blog post…

One thought on “Let’s make-believe (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Let’s make-believe (Part II) :Pandora's Box

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *