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Alternate World Design During the Pandemic and Beyond

As artists who want to motivate thought, action, and the desire to change the world, we create alternate realities made up of interactive challenges and participatory events, which take on urgent social and political issues, such as climate change.

The primary form within which we work is the alternate reality game (ARG). ARGs are transmedia productions that tell a story across media forms and platforms. They are almost always collaborative, last for several weeks or months, and play out in both online and physical spaces. Instead of having a clearly defined entry point, such as a video game “start” screen, these experiences do not announce themselves explicitly as games. A player might access an ARG narrative by finding what is called a “rabbit hole” that leads down a game trail. For example, players might discover an Instagram account that belongs to a character, which leads to a website with a codebreaking puzzle. The solution to this puzzle in turn yields a link to an interaction with a character who appears, via video, on the Twitch livestreaming platform. And the transmedia trail continues from there.

Through participatory challenges, ARGs transform participants from passive viewers to active players who complete thought-provoking challenges, roleplay within the narrative, contribute to emergent worldbuilding, and develop the sense of agency and community necessary to tackle both local and global problems. Our ARGs have all experimented with a mixture of game mechanics, multilinear storytelling, and improvised live performance. Most recently, we applied our experimentation to create two game- and performance-based interventions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—A Labyrinth and ECHO—which included hundreds of quests and a video-based choose-your-own-adventure format that led middle school, undergraduate, and graduate students, as well as staff and university alums, through a series of challenges that kept them connected to one another in this difficult time.

As the co-directors of these projects, we sat down to discuss issues that motivate ARG creation and how this form helps us think about the possible futures of games, performance, and livestreaming techniques.

an actor onstage

ECHO (2020) live-streaming trials in the storyteller room.

Patrick Jagoda: Given the shutdown of most in-person activities around the United States and across the world, 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have been a difficult time for the arts, including theatre and performance. The collaborative work we’ve done together at the intersection of digital games, live performance, and network art preceded the pandemic by several years, yet these techniques have felt particularly pertinent, even imperative, for creating art during the last year.

What have you learned from making alternate reality games that translated into creating digital art and performance under remote pandemic conditions and beyond?

Heidi Coleman: I learned experientially that digital art doesn’t mean a lack of presence for either the creators or the participants, and intimacy in the work was achievable in an interactive, co-created way through a digital platform. In ECHO, our most recent ARG, we were able to execute multiple theatrical spaces to transport audiences, which felt necessary in a Zoom-weary aesthetic.

I’m still fascinated by using a “team” or collective approach that values areas of expertise—where the “exquisite pressure” of the process has created cohesion—as opposed to a more traditional hierarchy. (“Exquisite Pressure,” as Anne Bogart and Tina Landau explained in Viewpoints, “comes from an attitude of necessity and respect for the people with whom you’re working, for the amount of time you have, for the room you work in, for what you’re doing with all of these.”) I’ve experienced unproductive chaos before and as a result have been a little wary of going down that rabbit hole. However, this way of working seems maddeningly thrilling and, given this past year, I don’t know we could have created any other way.

In A Labyrinth as well as ECHO, we created “quests” for players to complete in order to uncover narrative. And there were moments in the online play that players had to work together to complete tasks in order to open portals. In our conversations, you sometimes mentioned characters as gatekeepers or “trials” for players, and I’ve been wondering what it is about this kind of competition or trial that is so relevant in 2020.

Digital art doesn’t mean a lack of presence for either the creators or the participants.

Patrick: The word “trials” brings up two different connotations for me. The first is the prominence of competition in places like the United States. So many popular games are competitive: sports, tabletop games like chess, and battle royale games like Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s not just games, of course. Our culture celebrates the victors of competitions from entrepreneurial Twitch stars who win the attention game to the world’s billionaires who collectively gained about $1.9 trillion during the pandemic in 2020.

The second association I have with “trial,” especially during the pandemic, is that a trial can be an assessment of a person’s endurance or resilience, or the act of testing something by running an experiment—in science, this might be a “clinical trial.” Now, when we produce trials in our games, in the form of team quests or individual puzzles, I think this is the space we’re operating within. In 2020, during A Labyrinth and ECHO, the test was one of enduring a pandemic that tried most people’s mental health, threatened their physical health, scrambled their habits, isolated them, and made any future more difficult to grasp.

The trials we create in our ARGs are also experiments. Linear novels, theatrical plays, or films can be “experimental” too, but I think we consistently run actual experiments in our work. Some of these experiments are social, having to do with how someone forms a deep community online—one that exceeds the prefab scrolling and “like” dynamics of social media. Others are formal, leading us to explore how to take a form like the escape room and transform it in an online context, or what the best methods are for combining emotionally satisfying storytelling, multilinear narrative structures, and open-ended improvisational acting. And then there are myriad technical experiments that have to do with livestreaming and moving audience members among different online spaces.

a game screenshot

A Labyrinth (2020) video-based collective choose your own adventure sequence on Twitch

Heidi: We are constantly running experiments on ourselves, the work, and player engagement. The discovery is what I find thrilling on every level in a “will-the-spaceship-make-it” kind of way. The two pandemic games have been experiments in form as well as leaps of faith in the team’s ability to pivot in changing conditions. What was distinct from our previous work is the lack of possibility to playtest and refine, which meant we needed to retool while the games were in play.

With A Labyrinth, we had the chance to really lean into a completely online interactive game that created connections player to player and player to site—players engaging with each other with a shared goal while engaging with narrative and having distinct points of view. This result in spring 2020, though flawed, yielded enough positive responses from players and imagined possibilities from us to continue to work further as we did in the autumn 2020. In ECHO, we addressed the many limitations of Twitch—including lag time and persistent advertising—with the program that our collaborator Marc Downie created, which is aesthetically breathtaking and structurally nimble in the live ability to shift audiences through digital space.

A Labyrinth had proven that players would engage with each other and the action of collaborative movement, or operation of an avatar, but was less satisfying due the lack of person-to-person interaction. The experiment of ECHO was having intimacy with a performer while engaging as many players as possible through simultaneous rooms.

A game at its best isn’t a way of teaching people but of exposing them to new dynamics and potentials with a problem.

Patrick: A room has been our unit of experiment across several ARGs. One example would be ECHO, a game that asked players to find a portal that led into an “echo” world that was identical to our own, except for an alternate timeline that included no spread of COVID-19. Additionally, people in the echo world had developed a technology for traveling through portals and exploring a metaverse, while our world had not. For our ninety-minute finale, after a month of gameplay, we split the online audience that moved through the portal into thirds. Each third had to traverse a unique room— organized around a different game mechanic, performance style, and genre—before returning together in order to share information. We created a puzzle, a story, and a magic room, and each of required different types and rhythms of improvisation for both the actor who facilitated a unique challenge and for the players who had to respond via video or chat in real-time.

Heidi: Improv is an regular approach of ours. How do you see the evolution of improvisatory performance as realized in ECHO?

Patrick: Years ago, we began to explore game-based improvisation by thinking alongside practitioners like Viola Spolin and Rob Wittig. For Spolin, any game worth playing—like improvisational theatre—has a problem that needs solving. A game at its best isn’t a way of teaching people but of exposing them to new dynamics and potentials with a problem.

In ECHO, one of the most interesting formal improv instances occurred in the chat room that preceded the livestreamed interaction with a series of actors. Marc programmed that room to produce visual effects in response to specific words and symbols. For example, if you typed in the word “red,” the word would automatically appear in red on screen. Similarly, typing in a repeated slash or other punctuation mark would produce a new visual effect. Players began to experiment and riff on those affordances.

Over time, we’ve moved from individual or small group improvisation to a truly collective improv that includes inputs from hundreds of players at a time. We’ve run live ARG events in which twenty actors at a time understand the overall narrative arc and improvise within it based on player actions and emergent conversations. We’ve also fundamentally changed an ARG story that runs for several months based on the creative contributions, roleplaying, and misrecognitions of players. For me, that has been an experiment with scale and, given the quick pace of rewrites and adjustments, with time.

How do you think about the history and present of improvisation, as well as its importance in creating ARGs?

an actor onstage

A room as the unit of experiment in ECHO (2020) in the puzzle room

Heidi: Formally, we are creating an interactive sketch with the audience, and in the “storyteller” room in ECHO we were able to capture an individual audience member’s video and project it onto the wall with the performer to be “in-scene,” which has the thrill—and anxiety—of being pulled from the anonymity of the house to be on stage.

I’ve been thinking about Spolin’s style of coaching catalytic action from the sidelines, “creating interaction that makes process and change,” literally giving performers feedback as the work developed, and we inverted this by asking performers to encourage audience participation.

I’m interested in further exploring sociologist Neva Boyd’s observation that games are “psychologically different” than dramatic acting, particularly as you and I so frequently reference “being method.” We weave our identities into characters, and this synthesis creates a “problem” or complications that influence narrative. For example, we wanted to have live performers in ECHO, but as an ARG, we play the narrative as real. Kirsten Fitzgerald, as the artistic director of A Red Orchid Theatre, is very recognizable, so how could it be that she appeared as a character from an alternate reality? The invention of the mirror world with a divergent path from our own, a world that was pandemic-free, rose from the “problem” of recognizable performer. We have been keeping Spolin’s five major keys—physicalization, spontaneity, intuition, audience, and transformation—in mind, approaching them equally from the actors’ point of view as well as the audience’s point of view.

Looking ahead, what are “failures” from these past two games that you think are worth approaching again?

I’m interested in further exploring sociologist Neva Boyd’s observation that games are “psychologically different” than dramatic acting.

Patrick: For me, the biggest opportunity for working through a failure—especially in a middle school game like the one we’re currently working on—has to do with deep narrative. Both A Labyrinth and ECHO were developed from within a pandemic that didn’t have an end in sight. We were working from a world permeated by anxiety and uncertainty, and with attention spans that couldn’t hold onto the intricacies of our usual multi-month game world. There were narrative and character details that were either lost or required extensive redundancy.

There are huge advantages to running a game for several weeks or month. Unlike a one-off performance, there’s the opportunity to impact people’s habits and commitments, which is vital when addressing an issue like climate change or a global pandemic. The emotional impact of living in a game world for such a long time is also considerable. Given that this next game may supplement or even replace a climate change curriculum, there is a guaranteed player commitment for two to three planned weeks. We have a shot at experimenting with deeper lore.

I want to zoom out from our work for a moment. The last year has seen some attempts at slightly more mainstream experiments at the intersections of games and performance. One example would be the mix of reality TV and gameplay in Facebook Watch’s Rival Peak. Another is the viral ARG-like #PBhere experience on TikTok. A platform like TikTok is interesting because its algorithm gravitates toward unusual videos that will catch people’s attention, very much like the ARG rabbit hole concept. It also supports the “This is Not a Game” aesthetic that is central to ARG design: the idea that no one explicitly tells players that they are indeed playing a game and instead allows them to negotiate the very status of the unfolding event themselves. What do you see as the future of the transmedia art form?

Heidi: It’s difficult to separate hope from prediction but I want to “yes, and” your deep narrative point. We dabbled in virtual reality a bit with our first ARG, the parasite, and I think as technologies develop it will become increasingly possible to be even more immersed in an ARG narrative. I’m interested in shifting to find a solution to the clunkiness of standard chat. Up until ECHO, players interacted by uploading videos or through chat, but then the platform got the capability to bring in live video feed from players’ computers. I’m watching my daughter play Among Us and use Zoom to communicate with other players. This seems to be a workaround to chat that includes improv, including the performance of deceit as they watch each other’s faces as they play the game for additional information on who the assassins might be.

I look forward to the return to the moment we can loop back in live performance as an extension of the worlds, because when there’s a tangible manifestation the matrix becomes magic. TikTok extends an invitation between users to respond and it’s exciting that we are moving away from passive consumption with algorithm interaction. I find TikTok’s “This is Not a Game” aesthetic deeply satisfying as users create and share short-form video. But what I long for in the near future? Being able to get together in a room with other designers and write on the walls and hug them.

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