Lexington was the Gameboard

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On Friday, the IdeaFestival New Media Factory hosted Greg Niemeyer (left) and  Ozge Samanci (below, left) from the University of California, Berkeley in a workshop on alternate reality games, or ARGs.

Niemeyer began by defining games as a "way for two or more participants to have a conversation in a fictional gamespace," and offered examples such as "Ring around the Rosey" that demonstrate our use of games in early learning.

His slides from Friday may be found here.

Games are free, separate from reality, rules-based, limited in time and space. As distinguished from the game as a whole, game outcomes do not produce profit.

Fun or playfulness, the resulting feeling of being in the moment, is a powerful feature of game play. Like the suspension of disbelief while watching a movie or attending the theater, this playfulness can lead to knowing that can't be planned, because unlike in the theater, the game outcome is indeterminate and dependent on interaction. Games are in that sense are transformative. This phenomenal effect can be abused just like any other diversion. 

Niemeyer has said that games will be the dominant 21st Century medium.

Games cut across many existing disciplines. For example, in anthropology, they might be thought of as  "rule-based, participatory, systematic instances of culture." In medicine, the pair offered examples of games in a diagnostic or therapeutic setting.

Because they offer a safe space, games are played when people are trying to process a societal change.

There were several exchanges on the use of games as a IMG_0282pedagogical device. Niemeyer said that games are not the only answer in learning, but they will reach some people that can't be reached otherwise. Traditional teaching and learning methods combined with games are better than traditional teaching methods alone. "This has been well established in the literature" on the subject, according to Niemeyer.

For a descriptive case study of one well known ARG, read '08 IdeaFestival presenter Jane McGonigal's paper on "I Love Bees" (PDF), in which she explores concepts like distributed intelligence in real world games. 

In the second half of the day, the pair launched a game based on the texted-clues from the University of Kentucky "swim team," who had filched some very expensive and historic items, and who were making certain demands. Teams of detectives, each with an appointed leader, were canvasing whole city blocks on the east end of Main St. in Lexington looking for various ransoms notes, which were collected and put together to identify swim team's central demand, pictured on the lamp posts above.

In the debrief, team members reported some interesting insights.

  • Some, for example, knew more about how they had traditionally navigated the town, and what downtown shortcuts might exist between destinations.  
  • Some reported that they had become more "them" in acting in-game.
  • Some businesses were suddenly visited by flash mobs looking for clues, which prompted on participant to suggest that an alternate reality game might be great way for the businesses to promote themselves.
  • The clues were not vandalized, "which said something about Lexington." 
  • The recipients of the first text message were designated team leaders, but leadership status changed for some groups depending on the information being shared. 
  • Some people were more comfortable with ambiguity than others.
  • There was moment of realization as two groups converged on a location that they were competing for clues. But the success in finding one clue, once broadcast, made many people happy. They shared in the success. 
  • One group member discussed how she had interpreted someone walking toward her as a game participant, someone planted in the game to offer a clue, and was disappointed that she was not.
  • The control of information within and between groups said something about how leadership was exercised and the role of privileged information in general. "Be careful about game design," Niemeyer said. Information, and who has it, has historically been viewed very differently between groups.

The group talked, intriguingly, about how a reality-based game might be scaled up.

I used tweeted several quotes from the meeting on Friday @ideafestival. Please follow.

Wayne