GameCamp ’08

I spent a big chunk of yesterday sitting in Sony’s living room talking about games with interesting people.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

The occasion was GameCamp London – an unconference about games. As an event, it could have been the bastard mashup of a gaming conference and a private loft party in London’s East End, (minus the drinking and cheeky lines of coke). The venue was Sony’s 3Rooms, a plush private space full of designer couches and game consoles Sony has hidden behind steel doors somewhere near Spitalfields market.

GameCamp is organised along the principles of BarCamp: the conference is announced mere weeks before it’s supposed to happen, no one is supposed to have a big, formal presentation prepped, but everyone is supposed to talk as well as listen to the other campers. It was the first time I’d been at something like this, and the format works quite well. Informality is key.

Among other happenings, I attended a couple of really interesting discussions on ARGs.

James Wallis Levels With Us

One was by James Wallis, who asked us “ARGs – are they fucked?” He said the subject was a riff off a recent blog post:

This is the big problem I have with the state-of-the-art in ARGs: it doesn’t scale for density. The more ARGs there are, the less successful each of them will be. There is a limit to the number of ARGs that one can play or follow at the same time. Even with the low-investment ARG-alikes such as Lonelygirl and Kate Modern, where the majority of players’ involvement doesn’t go beyond watching a few minutes of video a day, there’s only so many that people will want to follow.

Basically, said James, ARGs have become more and more mainstream, and there are now too many of them around. This spoils the TINAG ethic, so ARGs will die.

I don’t entirely agree that this means ARGs are ‘fucked,’ to use the technical term. There are also way too many books and movies out there for anyone to follow them all, but the better ones still seem to find an audience. In fact, books and movies get larger audiences because they’re well-known media. ARGs are just starting on this path.

Makes collecting contacts a snap . . . Besides, if you ask me, one of the most important things about ARGs isn’t the established form of ARG as distributed entertainment experience. Heck, even the guys who make them are starting to think that there’s a lot more to ARGs than following the pattern laid down by The Beast.

I think ARGs are important partly because they embody the concept of pervasive gaming. That is, ARGs are examples of using game dynamics to improve other activities, like collective intelligence training, telling short stories or collecting business cards. This is what Jane McGonigal was talking about in her GDC rant earlier: the power of using games to improve life.

James himself had a great example of this – right on the back of his business card. It’s a game called business card snap, and the rules are on the right (the pic gets bigger if you click on it).

Politics: The ARG

Another good discussion was led by Tassos Stevens from Shoal Media, who led us into a look at the political implications and possibilities of ARGs. (i.e. what if people start protesting inside The Lost Ring?) The discussion eventually wended its way to this idea: could you organise a political party as an ARG? Use game dynamics to animate the political process, and you get points for canvassing, campaigning, fundraising . . . you level up from drone, to officer, to minister, to – Prime Minister? It’s crazy, but it could be done . . .

Anyone who wants to brainstorm this with me – you know how to get in touch. I’ll co-GM a political party any day of the week.

As for me, I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about gaming so I lead a practical workshop on how to kill a person with a single elbow strike. The best bit was trying out our kiais on the rooftop terrace and hearing them echo off the Bishopsgate towers . . .

Many thanks to Bobby, Dan and Adrian for putting this together (and letting me come)!

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8 thoughts on “GameCamp ’08

  1. James here. My point isn’t so much that an increased volume of ARGs breaks TINAG; I don’t think TINAG is necessarily core to the ARG-like experience. I believe that as the number of ARGs increases, each one will find it harder to attract an ‘aniseed’, the small but intense core of players at the centre of each ARG, around which the rest of the player-community coalesces. My theory’s more developed than that, and I have a model for an ARG-like game that doesn’t have these problems (I’m not enough of an ass to call it ARG 2.0) but there’s a limit to what can be covered in a half-hour session or a 700-word blog post.

    Your session was something of a hit, I gather. All the attendees were female?

  2. Well, the more ARGs there are, the more each of them needs to compete to get the aniseed, it’s true. But if the rules of competition hold, shouldn’t that just mean that we’ll get better and better ARGs – not a collapse of the genre?

    . . . as for the workshop in applied killing techniques, we had two guys and four girls. Sharp elbows, those girls. Most effective.

  3. One would hope we’d get better ARGs. But the present systems of rabbitholing and trailheading ARGs mean that it’s impossible to tell whether an ARG is going to be any good until one has already dedicated a good amount of time–days, even weeks–to it. Taken with the fact that it’s impossible to be fully involved in more than a few ARGs at a time, that doesn’t seem to be a recipe for quality.

  4. Hmm. I see your point. In a way what we need here is a trailer function, or a book jacket function, for ARGs. You can look at 30 well-edited seconds of a movie and decide whether it’s worth devoting two hours of your life to watching the whole thing. Same with books – read the back and you grok it, right?

    Is there an equivalent for ARGs or other games?

    Not yet, really. Most game trailers tend to be excercises in graphics rendering porn – “Oooh! Look at all the reflections! Twenty THOUSAND independently animated warriors at once!” – but this sort of thing doesn’t actually say much about the gameplay. The trailer for The Lost Ring is quite cool, but gives almost NO indication what you’re getting into. It leaves you thinking ‘OK, yeah, I’m in! Now what?’

    Book jackets and movie trailers give you an anticipation of the full experience, using the same medium you’ll be experiencing.

    You could do this with an ARG. I think it’s possible by focusing on three things: the real-life experience, previwing gameplay and mentioning star power.

    The star power is the easiest:

    MOVIE GUY VOICE: This autumn, the creators of The Beast invite you to experience a real-life adventure like you’ve never imagined . . .

    . . . followed by a trailer where you see real people doing stuff in the game. This is the ‘real experience’ part: you see people doing cool stuff, with the implication that you could do this too. If you spread it the right way this doesn’t have to be uncool.

    Even better, tease with the actual gameplay. Start with a small addictive casual game that has some sort of connection to the gameplay of the bigger thing. numb3rs attempted this with Chain Factor. That didn’t make a mega splash, but the principle is sound.

  5. That is an amazing idea – getting people to organize an ARG for a political party. I’m looking for a new ARG to get into. Any advice?

    I keep trying to pitch the company I work for that ARGs are the way to advertise, but they can’t see it. Do you mind if I link your site?

  6. Hell no – link away. But you’d be better off linking to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about when it comes to ARGs – like Jane McGonigal or Dan or Adrian Hon. Dan deserves credit for the political party idea – we were sitting next to each other when this came up and it’s based on an old concept of his for another game.

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