[-empyre-] Ken, Claudia and Paolo

Ken Eklund writerguy at writerguy.com
Fri Mar 22 16:01:01 EST 2013

From: Claudia 

> C: Thanks Ken! you previously mentioned that you are interested in bringing these simulations to educational settings. Was WWO used in this way?
/Ken: Yes, but not by us at the time. World Without Oil's funder, ITVS, is a public media nonprofit, so we the makers didn't have any educational agenda; as public media ITVS is all about getting people's stories heard, especially those people who aren't heard or seen on mainstream media, so that was our goal for the game. The players used WWO to educate each other about community, resilience and petroleum dependency. And then after WWO was over I developed a series of lesson plans which PBS liked and they posted them in the Educator's Resources section of PBS.org. So middle and high school teachers have been running their own mini-WWOs in their classrooms for about 5 years now. I stumble across new WWO videos now and again on YouTube.

From: paolo - molleindustria 

> P: I followed World Without Oil closely when it came out. It's a really fascinating experiment in roleplaying and Alternate Reality Games. I always wondered why, despite the significant media attention, there are so few examples of this kind. Since Ken is with us, I'll take the liberty to go into more specific designy issues.
> P: We are obviously talking about a different level of engagement and a different kind of model player here. These games typically ask a lot from the participants and require a certain predisposition and sustained commitment. From the designer/developer side, it seems to me that a project like WWO needs a serious promotional effort to gather a critical mass of participants (relying on established network and organizations), and there is a degree of user self-selection in the process. Since the "content" is either collectively created or revealed gradually, I assume most people joining an ARG have a vague idea of what an ARG is beforehand. Similar projects like Jane McGonigal's Evoke have built-in viral campaigns. They essentially reward players for bringing in other players, but that's a bit of a turn off for me. I'd rather experience something first and then, if it's compelling, tell the world about it. I wonder what are your thoughts about it.
/Ken: We should differentiate right away between what I do and what typical Alternate Reality Games are. The short version follows; the long version is at the end of this post: text cut and pasted below from a Q&A I wrote earlier today for a journalist.

My games do have a different player model: I design them to include as many people as I can. I try to make the "on-ramp" as gentle as possible. As a result, I find non-gamers, elderly people, people at the lowest level of computer literacy, etc. in the player pool. 

My games ask for a willingness to believe and immerse in their fiction. That's all they require to play. 

My games typically do not have a promotional budget.

Because they are about something, they do self-select for people who are concerned with that thing. But if the thing in question is "energy" or "education" the net is still pretty wide!

Most of the people playing my games have no idea what an ARG is and if told, probably don't think of my game as being one.

I worked for Jane on EVOKE: that was a very different style of game. Jane is an outspoken thought leader on games and gamers and as such, she creates virality wherever she goes. The people who evangelized EVOKE didn't do it for any sort of in-game reward (I can't really remember if one was even offered), they did it because of its social component, the game got better as more people played. It has to do with synchronous vs. asynchronous play, Paolo. In synchronous play, you can't afford to wait, or else your friends miss out.

> P: Another aspect that I always tried to wrap my mind around is: how do you manage agency in a distributed and collaborative storytelling/brainstorming effort? Formalized games, digital or not, provide a tight feedback loop that make the player feel like their action actually matter within the game system. Even in roleplaying games or free-form storygames players are constantly negotiating, affecting and limiting each other. My understanding of WWO or Evoke is that puppetmasters/organizers come up with a series of challenges along the line of "let's all think about how to save Africa" or "let's imagine how your daily life would be during an oil crisis" and then ask the players to produce social media content (blog posts etc) in response. I know sometimes there are external rewards for participating (like scores or prizes) but I didn't find examples of players engaging with each other and coming up with something unexpected, something that is more that a short essay. I'm sure you analyzed behaviors and user-generated content and maybe you can give us some insights.
/Ken: Paolo, I feel that you're missing the element of narrative immersion. People like to feel they are in a story, or to put it more accurately perhaps, they feel they are in a story and they would like their life events to follow the script. For many people, attaining an arbitrary reward in someone else's closed feedback loop is a complete waste of time. It has no relation to the story they feel they're in. 

Whereas attaining a reward that does relate to their story does matter to them, even if the feedback loop of it is so sloppy as to be practically non-existent. 

EVOKE had a powerful framing story: in the future, it is the young people from less-advantaged countries who know how to fix things when crises happen, because they are used to making things work with social skills. The young people who played (and there were a lot of them, from all over the world) were willing to fulfill missions as part of that story, even if those missions might seem very similar to schoolwork at times. (They complained about that often -- as they completed the missions.)

WORLD WITHOUT OIL also had a powerful framing story: now that the oil crisis has started, how is your life changing? No matter who you are, that question has relevance. And unlike EVOKE, there are no missions, no dicta, no "official" guidance at all. Nothing is written! Until a player writes something, and we post it, and another player makes a video, and we post it, and a third, fourth and so on. 

And then what? The story continues. The player who told us about their life in the first week of the crisis learns it's now the second week. Now what's happening? The player surveys the other players' experiences, incorporating what they like and discounting what they feel is inauthentic, and they post again. And so on.

And then what? The story continues. A tapestry is being woven. Themes emerge. Impactful and insightful expressions rise to the top and become models of play. A community self-assembles.

So the good news is: you don't need to manage the agency, it manages itself. Which is good, because you have no power to manage it and never did. You do have some small influence -- the horse can feel the pressure of your knees, let's say -- but you've completely thrown over the reins. Thus the importance of creating a good story and frame. 

Way back in the beginning, Paolo asked, "Why are there so few examples of this kind of game?" I honestly don't know.

Ken Eklund answering a journalist's questions on Alternate Reality Games:


> What defines an ARG?

An alternate reality ("something different about the world") and a space to play in it.

> What do you think makes ARGs popular?

ARGs can open up extremely rich play experiences – games you can physically be inside, for example, or game narratives that you authentically write yourself. Gamemasters can design ARGs that treat their players like people – i.e., complete with emotions, ideas, empathy, desires, and will. Even a faltering taste of that caliber of experience can create a dedicated fan.

> Can you please tell us a little about World Without Oil? What did players do? 

The alternate reality of World Without Oil (WWO) is that a global oil crisis started (on April 30, 2007). The game site at worldwithoutoil.org created a wide open space to play with this "what if?" idea. It posed as a citizen nerve center for the crisis; it asked people to report on what was happening to them, in their city. It believed everything, but valued the citizen reports that had authenticity, the ones that got at the hidden truths of our civic and economic structures and our society. WWO had a metaframe, in that players knew they were collaboratively creating a map of strengths and weaknesses of the way we live now. They knew they were creating something relevant to the other players and to society.

> What set it apart from other ARGs?

As other ARGs do, World Without Oil created an immersive website, run by characters with backstories, etc. But from that point on, everything gets different. The game is not scripted, meaning the characters (and gamemasters) don't know anything more than the players do. This transparency means players aren't trying to guess what the gamemasters are up to, which has always struck me as using a steamhammer to crack a nut. They are instead trying to discern what a global resource crisis would actually be like, which is a challenge much more in line with their capabilities. It also means that WWO encouraged players to immerse themselves in the WWO story and never come out – because the more deeply immersed a player became, the better their play. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of WWO's unique design.

> What real world impact did World Without Oil have, or was it intended to have?
World Without Oil was never intended to have a real-world impact beyond as an "engine of expression." I designed the game to focus on the mission of ITVS, the public media non-profit that funded it, and the ITVS mission is "let's hear the voices of people who otherwise never are heard" in the media. In one month of play WWO gathered about 1500 stories from people all over the globe, and these stories were remarkably rich in expressions about people's hopes and fears. 

That said, World Without Oil did have impacts beyond what we intended. The game was a Webby finalist ("Best Internet Game") and won awards and recognition for activism, art and environmentalism. What these awards mean, I feel, is: people saw they could come together in a creative online space and discuss real-world issues. People saw a game can include the whole person in its play. People saw that one way "to shape your future is to play with it first." People saw that for some questions, crowdsourcing gets you to a better answer than expert opinion. People saw a game can be not only relevant, but insightful. 

And of course World Without Oil did have personal real-world impacts. Immersion in the game revealed to players where their actual lives were not as resilient as they would like, and created a persuasive context for taking action about it. Players wrote to tell us the game changed their lives. It's six years later – six! – and I am talking to you about it. It's a game-changer.


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