OK 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.
I 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…
Second 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…).
No 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 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.
Scripting: 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…
Finally 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.
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!