The other night I attended a sort of mini-conference on transmedia at BAFTA. I’d walked by the venue several times in the past (it’s on Piccadilly) – it’s rather unassuming, but inside it’s got a plush theatre with things like “endowed by Sir Elton John” inscribed on the back of seats. Anyways, I’ve been a big fan of transmedia ever since playing some of the first ARGs that popped up in the early 2000s, and I’m always interested to see what’s going on in the field.
The first speaker was Andrea Phillips (live from New York via a flawless video chat!), talking about the recently completed Facebook game-for-change America 2049. Set in a dystopian future United States, players are agents of the Council for American Heritage and are tasked with tracking down a troublemaking terrorist. The game is sponsored by a human rights organization that wanted to raise public awareness of various issues like human trafficking and reproductive rights. I played for three weeks before losing interest/having to do other stuff. The basic game mechanic of clicking on squares and getting letter-number pairs to solve substitution codes wore thin very quickly, but it was the anvilicious video (especially the grating hosts of Good Day Every Day) that got to me.
That said, the game had some fantastic design elements that I want to see used again. Major problems (or perhaps “goals”) with ARGs are replayability and audience reach – when something takes place over a number of months and involves rather a lot of stuff going on, it’s hard to jump in any time after the beginning. It’s easy for people to miss out entirely. Having been the chronicler of every event in an ARG in the past, I can say without reservation that keeping up with events can be enormously, time-consumingly difficult. While this kind of time-exclusivity may serve to add to the mystique of ARGs, if you’re trying to reach as wide an audience as possible you want something that people can start at any time. However, part of the appeal of the experience is precisely that real-time feel. We do love waiting for a countdown timer to reach 0:0:0 and something awesome and one-of-a-kind to happen, and players can come to look forward to regular content updates. It gives a sense of progress and flux and so adds to the reality of the experience.
America 2049 takes a very clever approach to this issue by tying content updates to the player’s progress in the Facebook game. If they’re in week three of the game, the websites have week-three content. It’s absolutely brilliant, and means you can start at any time you’d like. To be honest, I’m incredibly surprised that it hasn’t been done before – has anyone who played Majestic or Missing: Since January recall if they had progress-indexed content?
Another trick with persistent ARGs (like the for-pay ones just mentioned) is that people will write about them. When a player googles something from the game, they may discover that the top link is actually an Unfiction forum thread, hints & tips guide or review rather than the in-game website they were hoping to find. America 2049 handily side-steps this issue by having an in-game search engine (Zooglio) that filters the results to keep in-game content at the top and blatantly out-of-game sites out of view. Of further excellence is the fact that it’s perfectly sensible for a new search engine to be popular that far in the future (and the fact that it works by filtering content is especially amusing given the nature of the dystopia in which it is used).
But I digress from the topic at hand! Andrea didn’t spend much time on these design elements, in favour of an explanation of how the game was created and what went into it. A highlight was her revealing that the celebrities featured in the game (Margaret Cho, Victor Garber, Harold Perrineau and others!) all donated their time because they are interested in the rights issues promoted by the game. Good tip for big-budget looks on smaller-budget funding!
The next speaker (he and all the rest were there in person) was Noam Sohachevsky talking about what he’d learned in trying to make Picklive work. Picklive is a game in which players pick football players, pick actions they might perform during a match, and then set the laptop near the telly so they can watch their picks rack up points as the match goes out live. Adrian Hon (who co-organized the event) said that it was “trying to hijack football”. Noam framed the talk around “designing for split attention” – I got out my notebook immediately, as I am always interested in how people outside of cognitive psychology think about attention. To my surprise and enormously geeky delight, he immediately quoted William James, specifically:
It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others
As rather a lot of research into inattentional blindness has shown, we can miss obvious events if we are paying attention to something else. A useful way to think of it is that attention is a limited resource, and our cognitive systems are always working on allocating it efficiently to ourselves and our environments. If you allocate most of your attention to counting basketball passes between players, you have little left for other things, and so might miss something else. In the case of Picklive, allocating attention between the game on the computer and the live match proved frustrating for players.
Another point Noam made was that we like patterns. In some ways, that’s precisely what we –do- as human beings; we notice patterns around us, give them meaning and understand them and try to manipulate them to our advantage. If we pick a good forward and bet he’ll score goals, it’s pleasant to see that player’s icon go “ping! +1” at regular intervals, and for the rest of the icons to ping at the appropriate times in line with some recognizable pattern. However, the real world is noisy. Patterns are difficult to suss out from raw data, and once again it’s frustrating when nothing you do seems to matter.
This aspect somewhat surprised me, as research into the illusion of control suggests that gamblers, when given the opportunity to make choices about truly random outcomes, will feel that they have some influence over the outcome. There’s a reason slot machines give you so many options about which rows, columns, and diagonals to count and to be able to stop. However, perhaps in the case of Picklive the outcomes being determined by real people and the splitting of attention are interacting to minimize the illusion of control and making the situation difficult to deal with.
Noam brought up a similar, mobile app from Heineken called Star Player, where you are asked at certain points of the game questions like “will he make this free kick?”. The advantage of this approach is that the player’s attention is called for at a time of low activity during the match. This would allow the attentional system to allocate its resources appropriately and with no conflict. There are several theories of attention which revolve around the fact that a “high load” (ie; there’s a lot of distraction, or you’re trying to do something tricky simultaneously) makes attentional processing difficult. If you want a live game to not cause attentional difficulties, it pays to index use input to moments of low load – to fit the pattern of highs and lows and work in the spaces between the noise of real live data. As Noam put it in his talk, “match with the beats”.
Some real puzzles come out of this view: how do you capture real-time data? The Picklive company worked with a service that provided data on what was happening in matches, but needed to comb the data and figure out how to read it and use it. I imagine if they could construct a pattern out of that noise, the game could pick opportune moments to query for user input! That’s not a trivial problem, of course. Never mind how to do it: what kind of patterns of activity would work? People also like to have real-time feedback for their actions – if you wait for low activity to ask for a choice, how long would players have to wait to find out if it worked?
I scribbled rather a lot in my notebook, and this blog post is already rather unwieldy. I shall sum up the last two talks (Alexis Kennedy talking about EchoBazaar and Varytale, and a presentation on BBC2’s upcoming math show/puzzle challenge The Code) in an upcoming part 2.