May 272006
 
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Second Life ARGOK the title sounds a little ‘space cadet’ and paradoxical but bear with me on this one because the implications go way beyond the focus of this post which is a quick orientation and guide to non-scripted but organised ‘social play’ inside a virtual world and a great way to plan a ‘real world’ Alternate Reality Game – or run a special form one inside the social virtual world. As you may have read on my previous post “The Personalization of Second Life” there are a few shared, virtual spaces that are infinitely personalizable and customisable.

Second Life is the leader in this area and so has become the focus of many activities that require represention – a sort of ‘real as it gets’ for doing real world-type things in – a place to create something representing the real world, our physical world. (As a tangent I personally believe we need to move towards creating new and non-representations of our real world as most folk in SL tend to midly enhance their RL existences, build precise replicas of the first life or a few enlightened ones are planning singularity! – I will not go into that rabbit hole as I posted about the Human 2.0 upgrade a few months ago).

Back to the post which in theory sounds complex. Inside Second Life people get paid for organising events and ARG puppet-masters will and should be part of that mix. We need to go beyond just concerts or dances or bingo – but whole in-world game-play, that has some sophistication and plays on the paradigms inherent in the space. Another rabbit hole of game within a game – but SL is not realy a game but a created society, which makes it ideal for what I describe below in the guide element of this post. So we have a real world in which to potentially do things with far more imagination but more importantly, at lower cost and more efficiently. It takes minutes to build a complex 3D structure and texture map it, hours to construct a building with multiple floors and seconds to travel anywhere. It is in this context and the imaginative aspects of this world that it dawned on me an environment perfect for alternate reality gaming.

Second Life ARG - streaming mediaI often think of ARG’s as similar in format to after dinner mystery games, a collaborative quest of a truth – but spread over months, and location. This is not to be derogatory about the form as real world narrative immersion can be profound and of course it goes deeper but it helps people get it. Borrowing from the earliest Greek mystery plays, theatre eg: mousetrap, 40s crime films, Hitchcock, 70s US cop TV plays, CSI, Lost, Da Vinci code, GoldRush etc etc “nothing is what it seems”. Form & genre evolved. Another way to describe them is to think of something like the X-files (which blurred reality and fantasy) played out in real spaces and media by the audience. A final stab at describing it – a search for the truth behind potential conspiracy, a quest for answers, a participatory game across many media types where lots of people help each other “get to the bottom of it”! It takes the mystery genre mixes in internet search and corporate culture sprinkles some console-like gameplay and adds a dash of real life constructs. The thing that seperates it from being a web quest is the physical element IMHO. So that is my version of ARG. There iare many and various definitions at wikipedia. But constructing any interactive service that requires a complex mix of story, multi paths and built, multiple, pre-rendered elements is hard work. MMORPGs, console games and web quests alike require a great deal of production planning and creation. It should be easy to recruit many folk inside SL to work together in creating ARGs (see below) that is part of the collaborative magic of the place. Making up a cross media game distributed across many platforms is a task not for the faint hearted. We have done a few very rough mini attempts as team building exercises at LAMP I run but they tend to be no more than murder mysteries with a few slim websites and real life role playing thrown in. The form needs a place where it is easy to create complex story structures and also have the real time element. So…enough preamble (yes I am typing this live into the wordpress box by the way!!) – even more worrying…

THEMES
Second Life ARGSecond Life has all the raw ingredients for great Alternate Reality Game production and execution. FIRSTLY, though the basis on which all of this depends is that “the virtual space is regarded as being complete and of itself a self contained reality AND all participants have a shared perception of the space” – (note: participants who are agreeing to share a common narrative and not ALL residents yet). In other words, in this case, Second Life IS the world for the participants and everything that happens within it has no references (or shouldnt have) to the real world – the one your sat in now. This may be the paradox to some who would say that ARG’s by definition may contain a virtual game, not so here, this IS the world. So a fourth wall has to be created, the role playing by the characters in a piece has to be kept within the world, no references to the first world and so on. The challenge is getting everyone on the same song sheet – old SLifers have a completely different take on the world than newbies of course – and everything in between. More later. The story structure of the ARG must be closely aligned to the world of Second Life – because the narrative is suggesting something parallel or ‘alternate’ to the world, it should not also become too fantasy (more later). Because then we step into World of Warcraft, or Everquest territory – and that would be easy to do. No the story world here needs to play off the everyday world of Second Life (OK those who have not spent time here may think I have lost it or am reading way too much into, what many call a computer game…).

Second Life ARGNo Second Life is a very immersive and time consuming experience – it is both worringly addictive yet extends in the most compelling way ones “dreams & desires” – but I digress yet again. Themes that would be easy inside SL include conspiracies around property given the relative high cost of land. Others around the many locations and buildings in terms of history, and previous events that may have happened there. Much could be built into corporate take over, the large shopping malls and potential mafiosa regimes. There are many ‘real life’ characters inside SL(due to the fact that they are ‘in’ the world most days) that could be used as something to generate myth – these ‘regulars’ do in fact constantly role play as well so they could be used. Also as many activities such as building, lectures, dances, concerts etc take place – anything can be built to that. Another kind of theme which a few of us have been improvising around in public spaces already 😉 would be the bizarre concepts around a ‘revolution against the overlords that run Second Life’. Bear with me on this one – a kind of phythonesque, satirical, nonsense stab at the ‘system’ on which SL runs. Can the inmates take over the asylum, biting the hands that feed it, Neo escapes the matrix and so on. There are many themes to explore as the backbone of an ARG inside Second Life that do not need to resort to fantasy.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Second Life ARGSecond life has so many potential tools that designers of ARG’s inside it can draw on. It affords many things that are very difficult or nigh on impossible in the physical world, yet in SL are taken as granted. Here is a non-exhaustive list that from my experience so far could be used as virtual reality, alternate reality game tools.

Easy and always on communication: IM and chat is ubiquitous inside SL. So talking to characters in front of you and in parallel IM’ing distant ones is VERY easy. Also you can deliver out of band, in other words leave messages for others with guarenteed delivery – now think sms or even email in the real ‘global world and the multiple carrier, spam nightmare. This is where global players can instantaneously communitcate in-game.

Location, location, location: To get to anyplace in Second Life one simply teleports. This means the whole 200 000 people world can be readily explored and therefore distributed widely and not tied to a specific location. That is not to say one location could act as base with dense areas of gameplay.

Inter character exchanges: This is where any character can pass you objects, directions, teleportation coordinates, animations, notecards – the list goes on. A tool such as this really means clue discovery and passing stories between players is a breeze.

Grouping: To create teams inside SL is also very easy, and new members can be added on the fly. Members of your group can be tracked across the built in maps.

Orientation: SL has many ways to find things, people and know where you are. The built in search engine can point you at any person, event, place, object inside the world. So placing clues and red herrings etc: is also very easy. The mapping is incredible and zooming, scrolling across the many thousands of buildings combined with instantaneous teleporting on a double click means you can get anywhere from anywhere.

Second Life ARGScripting: It is incredibly easy to put script into objects in SL. I used some pre-compiled code last night and modified it to build a greeting object (one that talks back based on pre-set text input) AND an answer machine AND something that sends you notecards AND even got into scripting motion – so things can move to locations on input or follow characters. So bespoke elements can be quickly added into the mix.

Animation: Not an obvious element of the SL tool set to use, but well animated characters who are real life (inside Second Life) add to the sense of reality I think. Even though the character may look like Brad Pitt (just realised one of mine does a bit!) or some kind of cat woman, if the movements are fluid, then the world is all the more usuable and once immersed doesnt lead to sense of disbelief. True immersion should afford that. So get good skins (the texture around your avatar) and override (basic) animations using an AO (animation overridere) for your characters.

Identity: This is a great area to explore in ARG’s as characters avatars can change at the drop of a hat. In otherwords a surfer dude can change into an office worker in a split second in front of you (choose a rather ‘normal example’ for brevity!). But what that means is that one can really play on the ‘no one is who they seem’ mentality here. Great for conspiracy and diversionary tactics…

Virtual Cross-Media: SL allows movies and sound to be streamed via the web into the world onto screens and through objects – opening all sorts of possibilities. Also objects can contain sound bytes and have logic – so entering the right code into an object could produce a video on a large screen to appear, or a clue to be automatically sent to your inventory (the place where all your ‘stuff’ is held). There are virtual working radios, tv, phones (including ones that use the real world participants voice played through the character), obviously print, posters and so on. All the things a puppet-master (those who make traditional ARGs) would need 😉
Breaking the fourth wall: I would not do this myself but you can link to web pages – which boot an external browser – but dont go there.

There are many other tools believe it or not that I may add later when they become apparent…

RECRUITMENT

Second Life ARGFinally one of the drawbacks of Second Life is that bespoke elements, objects and clues can only be placed on parcels (land) that the owner has allowed or placed there themselves. So in a distributed virtual alternate reality game (now that is a mouthful!) you will need a few recruits to both role play and allow physical clues or evidence to be pre-set. This should be an easy task as networks of like minded machinima, social design and others pushing the gaming element are easy to find inside SL, to communicate with and offer to help them in their pursuits – to reciprocate. Or as many do you can pay a small fee.

DESIGN

Without going too mcuh into the design process of a social game within a game-like environment primarily because I have things to do in real life now! The design of the game here should follow simple rules – test, do some test runs on virtual strangers to make sure they get some of the directional elements. Make sure that the real players have enough knowledge of the mechanics of the world (how to use it) so they are not locked out because they cannot work out how to teleport (as a simple example). Cover your backs – if a clue becomes to difficult to decipher make sure you have an alternate way for them to get to it, a character prod and so on. Then the design of the ARGamePlay – whether everyone has to get all clues OR some are given only to certain teams who have to work together OR more usefully a mix of both of those make sure the timing is carefully worked out. If some things are easier than others then you will have teams losing interest once they have done their bit, if things are too hard, they may give up. But these sorts of techniques are discussed elsewhere by far more capable people – this post is about moving the ARG into the virtual space both for easy of production and to use some create tool sets built in already. I/we will be creating a bunch of VARG’s (virtual alternate reality games) at AFTRS and LAMP and will keep you posted on how it goes which should dovetail with the machinima we are starting to play with. One of the real problems I can see (which many of you would have already spotted) is that the ‘way of life’, the grammar of existance inside Second Life takes a few days or weeks to grasp – and then the control mechanics too. To newcomers it is a confusing world and orientation is quite steep. So for an ARG to work well all participants must be fully ‘immersed’ and understand the shared space and so called SL normality – whatever that is. There are enough shared ground rules though for it to work in my opinion if the participant is given a week or so to be acclimatized.

As a post script: The point of this post as I suggested at the beginning is not just to talk about one kind of service creation inside a virtual space but to point out that once all parties are agreed that the ‘virtual world’ becomes THE world and nothing else exists outside it, many, many things become possible. Especially as I have been seeing already – the extention into things that are totally new and not representing our first life in anyway shape of form. But will leave that to another day. I am becoming more and more resistant to talking about the real world inside the immersive space as it truly inhibits real creativity – so if you see me in there at anytime, please be yourself 😉

Posted by Gary Hayes (Hazlitt) © 2006

Append: Looks like all great ideas come at once all over the world! Someone else with ‘ARG inside Second Life’ motivation no less than a day after this post 😉 – and who nicely refers back here. Cool – strength in numbers!

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  8 Responses to “Alternate Reality Games in Virtual Spaces”

  1. Gary, you’ve presented some great ideas here. I’m not sure anyone else has posted such a detailed analysis of Second Life’s ARG potential and options before.

    You’ve raised too many points for me to reply to succinctly, but the one that sticks out the most for me is the idea that Second Life is a place where residents share a certain perception of the world. If you mean perception in the the simplest way–the way the virtual environment is displayed on a monitor–I would have to agree. However, if you believe that all residents have the same idea of what Second Life represents or “is,” I disagree. In my experience as a 2-year resident of the space there are two main lines of thinking about Second Life. One is that it is a constructed world used by real people to do real and pretend things–basically a non-immersive space (or as immersive as is useful). The other is that it is a real world inhabited by characters who do things that affect the world and other characters–an immersive, narrative space.

    Second Life is often misclassified as a MMORPG. In my opinion, Second Life is not a game any more than a web page is a game. Both Second Life and a web page can host a game, but are not a game unto themselves. Because Second Life is not a game, it cannot be a role-playing game. It can be the *site* of a RPG or social RP without game elements, but there are some major immersion-breaking obstacles to role-playing, many of which you list in your Tools of the Trade section. It’s hard to believably role-play an elven princess, for example, when a giant robot teleports into your magic forest and starts trying to sell you and your pixie friends attachable genitalia.

    I think it’s possible to stage an ARG inside Second Life as if Second Life were a real place, but I think it would be extremely challenging to do so. The main reason, as I mentioned, is that not everyone agrees on what kind of place Second Life is (in this case, perhaps you establish what kind of place you want Second Life to be for the purposes of your game). I don’t log in to pretend Second Life is another world, but lots of other people do. The second reason is that there are lots of reminders that Second Life is a constructed world (IMs, interfaces, etc). The third reason is that there is no established narrative to Second Life itself. Attempts have been made to overlay a story to Second Life, but try getting a hundred thousand people to agree to the same story…

    If I was to involve Second Life in an ARG (and the chances are pretty good that this may happen in the future), I’d use it in the same way as the internet. I’d use it to drop clues and create paths for players to discover and follow, and I’d have a good reason why clues and paths can be found in Second Life, but I wouldn’t treat it as a real space any more than I’d ask players to imagine the internet as a real Information Superhighway.

    Last year, an ARG involving Second Life was launched as part of the annual SL Game Developer competition. It was called “EVA” and was created by SL resident Gary Bukowski. Unfortunately I was too busy with work projects to play the game, but Bukowski planted some clues on my blog Clickable Culture during the game (my blog has a modest following of SL residents). I had planned to interview Bukowski for a post-mortem piece on his game, but never found the time.

    Ref:
    “A ‘Second Life’ ARG Under My Nose”
    http://www.secretlair.com/index.php?/clickableculture/entry/a_second_life_arg_under_my_nose/

  2. Hi Tony,

    Caught me by surprise, just in the middle of editing a little 😉 Thanks for the perceptive comments and yes I agree with the main thread of it. Also for the link, I was surprised when I googled around that there was very little ARG work exclusively inside VR enviroments.

    Yes I agree totally that a virtual space like Second Life means many things to many people and I did mention that a couple of times that this could only work if the ‘players’ were role playing that Second Life was, indeed a world unto itself. As you say if a giant robot jumps into your location to sell dubious goods 😉 then the game can be ‘interupted’ but I would say not over? In a real world ARG you can still be picked up by the police when involved in a tricky hunt, or hit on by a local prostitute or many other ‘truth is stranger than fiction events’.

    “Because Second Life is not a game, it cannot be a role-playing game” – in which case I must reply is real life a game? Probably is – work, money, love, celebrity, media and so on. But I believe these things do exist inside virtual worlds and so can be utilised as story pivots…you probably disagree, but I am basing this on my experiences so far. Some people find the world more immersive than real life! I wonder how much resident research has been done in this regard? Anya recently posted about this at http://anya.blogsome.com/2006/05/27/heterotopia-and-my-second-life/
    I suppose the thrust of my post was that a group of SL residents who, like a RW ARG, are aware of the game, become involved and suspend their disbelief and stay in game – we can surely duplicate the same experience as in the real world? Part of the reasoning I mentioned why SL is ideal is the reason you use against it – that it has no narrative. I think for those inside the world there are alredy some shared narratives that you could use – and I mentioned them in ‘themes’ – but i also think narratives can be constructed through the use of ARG type devices and of course large groups into machinima and ‘representational’ role playing events – and large shared events like the recent BBC transmission and 20th century fox screenings.

    “but try getting a hundred thousand people to agree to the same story

  3. Also worth mentioning Tony, your “2005 Linden Game Dev Comp” post that highlights a few other ideas for SL – as you indicate also a fine line between Murder Mystery and ARG 😉

    http://www.secretlair.com/index.php?/clickableculture/entry/sl_game_developer_competitors/

  4. re: Interrupted does not equal over
    Definitely an interruption doesn’t mean the end of game play, but it could take players out of their immersion, depending on what their expectations are. In real life, we have certain expectations around interruptions–for example, if we’re doing something that might attract the attention of the police, or a security guard, or a prostitute. Such an interruption might suspend immersion but not necessarily break it. In Second Life, an ARG designer would have to provide for interruptions of a more immersion-shattering nature. Certainly we can ask players to suspend their disbelief, depending on what we’ve presented Second Life as. If we provide for interruptions such as system messages in our premise (“You are entering a constructed virtual world where an autonomous software agent carries the clues you are looking for”), then immersion (and game play) isn’t easily destroyed. I think game play can always be restarted, but achieving consistent immersion relies on player expectations set by the premise of the virtual-world excursion.

    re: Some people find the world more immersive than real life! I wonder how much resident research has been done in this regard?
    I wonder about this too. I’ve never heard of any formal research along these lines, but Second Life residents often discuss this sort of thing on forums and blogs. As I mentioned earlier, there seem to be two camps: One sees SL as an immersive world with fictional elements and other sees SL as a sort of tool in the same way as the WWW and IM are tools. I fall into the latter group, but I know there are certain resident factions, such as the Goreans, who maintain a cohesive fictional environment on their own private islands.

    re: we can surely duplicate the same experience as in the real world?
    In my opinion, we can provide a similar experience, but not the same experience. The chief difference is that SL in particular tends to make lots of information easily available, limiting the level of secrecy or mystery. Additionally, there is a greater level of immediacy and accessibility in SL than in the real world, even with real-world tech like cell-phones and laptops. Because in Second Life we exist in a digital environment as avatars, we can fly, teleport, find out if someone is on or offline, instantly communicate with any online avatar at any time, find out who created an item and when, find out an avatar’s true name (regardless of appearance), change appearance on a whim, rez virtually any object instantly. In real life, it’s harder or impossible to do any of this. In real life I can design an ARG puzzle based on the time it takes to travel from one location to another–I can’t do this in Second Life since travel is instant. In real life, I might receive a mysterious object in the mail. In Second Life, I can easily find out exactly who made the object, when it was made, IM the owner of the object, possibly duplicate it, instantly give it to someone else, etc. So I don’t think we can duplicate a real life ARG in a virtual space. I think there are special considerations, features, and exceptions that make a virtual-world ARG unique. These qualities could definitely be harnessed for an interesting game experience, but it can’t (in my opinion) possibly be the same kind of experience as an exclusively real-world ARG.

  5. All good points and yes I agree with most. I think a virtual ARG will indeed have unique characteristics and I will back down on a blow-by-blow duplication of a real life ARG. You raise the tools again from my original post that I believe can be used in unique ways though – the fact that secrecy and mystery are difficult doesnt mean SL doesnt have its own equivalents of those, I for one think there are many secrets there, hidden behind a thousand closed doors, underground and on sky platforms – and that is not to mention the ‘human/avatar’ story!. I also think the easy things in SL (like the ones we have mentioned) should be used as the shared vocabulary of the ARG (as a simple example finding the maker of an object doesn’t mean that gives the game away because it has been designed so we ‘expect’ you to find the maker of the object, and potential IM and TP over to them, to move onto the next element). We use what we have available and that was my original point again – these ways of being (the tools) ‘are’ part the shared narrative to some extent. Good game and ARG designers of course work with the environment they are working in…lots of fun ahead methinks, getting a model that works!

    Best Gary

  6. This ARG XI, all inside PS3 Home http://twurl.nl/jj1nyo echos of my post from 3+ years ago ARGs in virtual spaces http://twurl.nl/7aq2y6

  7. @BettinaTizzy Thanks re post. Actually the orig post ARGs in Virtual Spaces is better as good comments from @tonywalsh http://bit.ly/8UtyNq

  8. @sarn meant to send this link to that post http://bit.ly/9ylQ4f good comments from @tonywalsh on alternate story in virtual worlds

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