The following blog post is my entry into the “ARGs are Serious Fun” roundtable discussion. The concept is basically this: a topic or prompt is posted somewhere (in this case, on Giant Mice) and people have a few weeks to make a blog post as a response to that topic. As responses are written, links to all of them are collected together so that you can see and comment on what others have written on the same topic. So, here goes…
I am writing this as “just some guy.” I am not an academic, nor is my degree in anything close to writing. The last and most advanced writing class I took, just after English 100, was something like Technical Writing 105. It pretty much consisted of writing user manuals that are neither Engrish nor kitten pidgin. I probably will not be citing references in footnotes or a bibliography or a Works Cited section or whatever the MLA has deemed correct and proper these days. I’ll write. You’ll read and (hopefully) be entertained. Deal? Deal.In the world, there are games and there are puzzles. Often, games are social and puzzles are solitary. Another typical view is that games are fun and puzzles are hard (but “fun” in that they are rewarding once solved.) Quick! You, the reader: think of three games! I bet you came up with things like a family around a Parcheesi board, a bunch of buddies at a poker table, a pair of old men at a chess board in the park, or perhaps a first-person-shooter deathmatch on the X-Box. They are usually social and have some balance of skill vs. chance: Chutes and Ladders is won entirely by lucky rolls of the dice, whereas poker requires some skill and some good cards, and chess is entirely skill–but they all have one thing in common: multiple players working with or against each other. Now think of three puzzles! The term “puzzle” brings about images of jigsaw pieces, crosswords, sudoku, and the like–more solitary behavior. That is not to say that there is a rigid link between game<=>social and puzzle<=>solitary. While there may have been true in past decades, that line is increasingly blurry. The same computer games that allow you to throw grenades at your friends and neighbors or play poker against someone a thousand miles away also allow you to play in single-player mode. Puzzles, too, can be quite fun in a social environment: a group of friends around a coffee table with a difficult New York Times Sunday crossword, a family around a cardtable assembling a large and complex jigsaw over Christmas break, and a disparate group of individuals across the internet trying to find the right sequence of commands to unlock a chunk of immersive fiction. Wait… wha? Yeah–this is where ARGs enter into my monologue.
Not all ARGs employ puzzles, but those that do almost always do so with the puzzles being a catalyst for getting groups of people to come together–much like the group of friends around the crossword. ARG puzzles are typically so large, difficult, and complex that no one person is expected to solve the whole thing. Collaboration is the key. Solving can be a lot of work, require some serious skill (and usually a wondrous “Eureka!” moment), but all of that serious work can be quite fun and is rewarded by unlocking the next piece or chapter of a larger story. The puzzles are serious work, but the collaboration and the payoff from completion is extremely fun.
With ARGs, even folks that are not “puzzle people”–who always say “I’m only in it for the story; I don’t do the puzzles”–end up with some serious knowledge and skill from something as fun and superfluous as “a story told over the internet.” With most ARGs, there is at least one point where a piece of information of questionable authenticity appears. This could be a website that may not be in-game (either through people’s misinterpretation or by deliberate gamejacking.) It could be a curious email. At any rate, nobody knows for certain whether the item is part of the game without employing some geek skills to do a little research. These skills used to be known only to a small subset of geeks, programmers, and internet architects. ARGs are helping expand that knowledge to everyday people. Folks that do not know how to write a single line of code are now quite proficient in performing WHOIS searches to look up DNS records, examining and interpreting email headers like a forensic scientist, and viewing HTML source code for anything that looks out of place. And, you know what? These new skills have the side effect of spilling over into other areas of internet usage. People whose knowledge of the internet consisted entirely of “if it’s underlined, it’s a link” started playing ARGs, learned these serious skills, and can now easily identify SPAM, prank, and phishing websites and email as if it was second-nature. I personally know several people who learned the power and ease of collaboration via wiki because of ARGs–and these people then went on to set up wikis in their workplace intranets. This is all absolutely amazing! A piece of entertainment, a diversion, with such beneficial side-effects!
At this point, I feel like I am writing the essay portion of the SAT test and should conclude with a closing paragraph saying something like “and this is why ARGs are serious fun.” quod erat démōnstrandum