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Playing for Impact: Ritual, ARGs, and IRL Change

“Reality is broken. Game designers can fix it.”

So says JaneMcGonigal, game designer and researcher, when talking about her quest to use massive multiplayer gaming to solve social problems facing the world today. Her point is provocative and the argument is persuasive. However, it can be contended that the point is slightly different than the basic statement, “Reality is broken.” In that case, one might assume a singular, objective, reality. Instead, perhaps the case is that realities are multiple. Cultural communications and media scholar James Carey says, “Reality is not a given, not humanly independent of language… Rather, reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication…the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms.”[1] This production, according to Carey, is dependent on ritual. That is, ritual is key to how realities are constructed and he points out the importance of understanding this phenomenon in the context of human communication and our communities: “A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of message in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but representation of shared beliefs.” In any case, McGonigal and Carey’s assertions on reality and how games have a positive impact on social change, in real life, can be examined through Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

ARGs include the use of multiple technologies to augment reality and the real-world as a platform in game play. We already have ritualized the use of the multiple technologies in our real world lives. Additionally, just as real life is, ARGs are interactive and social in nature. Game designs are narrative based and promote players to connect with each other while contributing to building the game’s story during play. It is key to the ARG that players are collaborating as they are problem solving and building their narrative through a participatory culture. The skills needed to play and win these games are the kinds of skills needed to approach problem solving in our world today – McGonigal calls players super-empowered-hopeful-individuals (SEHIs) and she takes them to task in games she designed, like WorldWithoutOil (WWO), Superstruct, and EVOKE. Each of these games constructs an alternative, virtual reality that allows players to propose solutions to real-world problems. In WWO, a game created to imagine the first few weeks of a global oil crisis, players created solutions to living without oil-reliant resources in their daily lives. In order to play the game, participants implemented the solutions they created in their REAL daily lives leading to a positive impact on oil consumption outside of the game reality. For example, players biked to work, or grew their own food, and used a preferred mode of communication (blogs, videos, voicemail, etc.) to report on their activities, communicate with each other, and encourage each other. The epic win of this game is not through beating the last level in an immersive computer environment. Winning WWO happens in a player’s daily life as she is empowered by the knowledge that her action does have a direct impact on the future of our world.

McGonigal says: “Gamers are trained to believe they can win.” When we play, we are practicing for real life. SEHIs, she says, come together with a sense of “urgent optimism” and extreme self-motivation, build trust and cooperation by weaving together social fabric (she adds, “We like people better after we’ve played with them.”), are excited by “blissful opportunity” (that is, the notion we are happier working hard if it is the right kind of work), and are creating “epic meaning” for themselves. Imagine injecting these notions into the existing framework of one’s daily life – As World Without Oil shows, it is possible through the mere playing of the game. Though WWO as a game is over, the record of this game is maintained in an online archive. Lesson plans are provided for teachers to use in the classroom. These plans do not just show students how to play a socially responsible game. Instead the WWO archives seeks to persuade teachers and students to continue to play their own versions of the game, thus preparing another generation of gamers to understand that their own actions have an impact in their daily lives and the lives of others. Though he did not address ARG games specifically, Carey says this is the goal of studying human communications: “to understand the meanings that others have placed on experience, to build up a veridical record of what has been said at other times, in other places, and in other ways; to enlarge the human conversation by comprehending what others are saying.”  WWO does this, and does so with a socially conscious purpose. Or, as quoted on the WWO archive site, “If you want to change the future, play with it first.” (Stefanie Olsen, C|Net)

ARGs like WWO designed are to persuade players to use creative collaboration without a focus negative consequences for failure. In fact, contrary to some existing problem solving systems, for gamers it is through meaningful play and repeated failure, feedback, and behavior modification that winning becomes possible. Again, it is not necessarily that reality is broken. Perhaps, instead of looking at reality as broken, it is our approach that we need to adjust. Using ARGs in this context persuades us to change our routines, to augment our habits within reality, and to play together to positively impact our world.

Resources for Alternate Reality Games 

[1] Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society by James Carey (1992)