ARGfest-o-con 2009

ARGfest was a few weekends ago. For those not in the know, this is a convention for people who design (both professionally and as a hobby) and play Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). The most notable ARGs are marketing campaigns for video games, movies, and TV shows and are played out over mediums like websites, telephones, billboards, and real-world events. Wikipedia has a lot more to say about ARGs than I can summarize here.

I got to meet, re-meet (sorry, [info]clayfoot, I’m sometimes really dense when it comes to remembering things), and reencounter old ARG friends.

The event kicked off on Friday. People were encouraged to make robot heads (one person make a really awesome cylon head) for an event called Robot Speed Dating, run by the Must Love Robots guys. Nobody really knew what this was going to entail, but it turned out to be a typical little fun ice-breaker type of game. Each person was given a piece of paper with a puzzle and some “subroutine” envelopes and then had to go around and solve other people’s puzzles. There was some kind of point system, and I believe if someone solved your puzzle, you got a point? The puzzles themselves tended toward the basic visual word riddles, for example “head” written on one line and “heels” on the next, and you’d guess it was “head over heals.” If you got stuck or wanted extra points, you could open a subroutine envelope and follow its instructions. I was with a contingent of lurkers, so didn’t really play, but those that did seemed to be having a great time.

This was followed up by the cocktail party. I think this party was great, and it was fun to chat with so many people. The only thing I disliked about it was the price of things at the cash bar. My martini, while nice, did not feel like it was worth $9. Kim’s $10 glass of red wine looked like it came from an $8-ish bottle. This was a pretty big WTF.

After this, there was a grandiose plan for Elan to get his blue-LED UFO stunt kite and fly it from the roof of the hotel. There was only one problem with this plan: the access code to the roof exit. Nobody could get the door open, and then an official-looking guy (who could have been a janitor for all anyone knew) strolled by and inadvertently scared everybody off. As @misuba said: “What made a stairwell full of ARGers stop trying to brute-force their way onto the roof and run? The guy with the KEY. *sigh* #argfest” An exodus to the waterfront provided a new locale for the UFO kite, but the wind was not with us. After a number of failed attempts (and a really funny video — who has the video of the kite smashing into the camera?), it was decided a break for donuts was in order. I always get a kick out of seeing newbies’ first encounters with Voodoo. Maple-bacon for the win! The night was concluded with some people going to the Shanghai Tunnel bar for sitting and beering and some people going to the Fez for 80s night.

The panels themselves I have to recount from hazy memories and spotty notes, so I will present brief summaries:

  • The indie ARG panel was a great opener. I missed the first little bit due to a lane closure on the Ross Island Bridge making my bus late, but what I did see was great. It featured the Must Love Robots guys and was fun to hear how things unfolded from their perspective. It seems that every year there’s a story of a couple of people doing something creative on the internet that pushes the bounds of storytelling, and then later learn about ARGs. Pieces of this talk were a modern update to “I’m a what-master?”
  • The talk by The Jejune Institute absolutely floored me. I think this was the sleeper-hit of the whole of ARGfest, perhaps of the whole previous year’s worth of ARGs. To over-simplify and suppress spoilers, I guess I can say that this is a sort of trail of hidden-in-plain-sight public art installations about San Francisco, with the entry point being crackpot fliers (think time cube and Alex Chiu’s immortality rings crossed with newage scientology) with tear-off phone numbers posted around town. The creators really wanted the feel of Disneyland — a world with hatches and trap doors — in real life, and from what I could tell of their presentation (again, without revealing spoilers), they were quite successful. If you are in San Francisco before the end of the year, when it supposedly gets shut down, look them up; stop by their “induction center.” During the presentation, they passed out kool-aid in plastic cups with abstract designs on them. Nesting two cups in the right way caused the abstracts to combine to reveal a message (“jazz hands” and a time, which coincided with a part of their presentation).
  • The blurring the lines panel was the same old crap on a different day. People want to take an ARG-like experience and make it “real.” They want to make a game wherein the player can’t tell it’s a game. They want a Michael Douglas movie. You know what? Michael Douglas’ character attempted suicide to exit that particular game. It has been shown time and time again that players are uncomfortable with a “real” story or game without that “wink” from the puppetmaster/author/storyrunner to let them know it’s okay to suspend disbelief. If someone I don’t know was kidnapped and the kidnappers were sending me information in coded messages in real life, I’d call the cops. In a game, I’d decode the messages. I really do not want to be completely immersed in someone else’s fictional world without a safeword, mkay? Thanks for playing. Please drive through.
  • The tribute to Dave Szulborski was touching. He was a visionary figure in the ARG world and made a lasting impression on everyone present.
  • The Mazda 33 Keys panel was somewhat interesting, but the talk was a little slow compared to the others and was focused on a game that played out entirely in the French-speaking bits of Canada.
  • The Pirate-themed panel was also a little slow and not as interesting, as it played out in German(?) markets, but was a different take on ARGs. In this case, it was themed around business pirates — fictional multinational businesses, banking, embezzlement, and world domination. The ARG was focused toward students and was used by a consulting company as an assessment for creative thinking, teamwork, and social interaction. The results were then used for recruitment. It’s one thing to give someone a written test; some people can just ace such tests and that does not show how you form and work with a team. It’s another to put them in a real-world scenario and watch groups self-organize and see which people assume leadership roles. Overall, it was a pretty creative application of the ARG framework.
  • The final talk was about the future of ARGs. One of the panelists came from a screenwriting background to ARGs, so brought that storytelling dynamic with him. There was talk of “ARG without the G” and “ambient fiction” (which is such a cool phrase). For example: some of the Twitter and blog-based fictions like The Loose-Fish Project. There was discussion of people migrating from a one-way moving-picture communications device in their living room to a two-way device by hooking it up to a media center and internet connection. There was talk of the current set of ARGs being like massive rock concerts. If you missed Woodstock, you’re S.O.L. Sure, there are plenty of tales recounting Woodstock/ilovebees/The Beast, but you’ll never experience it firsthand if you missed it. What some people want is the ARG equivalent of an album. While that is very possible and can still be quite fun and is definitely replayable, it is obviously a different experience from a gigantic concert. There are still things to be worked out in this realm, but there is certainly demand for, to continue the metaphor, both concerts and albums.

Dinner was amazing. This, I believe, was the first time we had a keynote dinner, and Jordan Weisman did a wonderful job of riveting us in our seats. He’s a great storyteller and it was good to hear about his projects from his perspective. Everyone has heard about The Beast, the original ARG, from the perspectives of other people on the project, but I believe this was the first time he talked about it publicly. It was fun to hear about his Battletech and Virtual World ventures, as they touched me even before ARGs. (I worked at Virtual World for a few years and some of the elements later woven into ARGs were present there. We were never allowed to call it simply a game or video game, it was always an “experience.” We were always in character.) After the keynote, I even got him to sign my old Virtual Geographic League book (a sort of fictional history book explaining how Virtual World came to be; completely written in character and seamlessly weaving in elements from real history.)

Overall, it was a great conference and a great weekend.

Posted in: Dear Diary Portland Puzzle Games

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