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Eric: Cancer in the Collective Detective

First and foremost, I'm going to talk about Alternate Reality Gaming in this post. If you don't know what that is, go to The Haunted Apiary and the late, lamented Beast/A.I. Game (which I'd point to Cloudmakers.org to show you, but Cloudmakers seems to be gone. So here's a like to an archived version at The Internet Wayback Machine).

These are immersive games, using the nature of the web to build communities to solve their puzzles over the web. They are a unique art form on the web, using search engines (the Beast was reached by people who noticed "Jeanine Salla" being credited as a "Sentient Machine Therapist" in the trailers for A.I.) and internal links to build a consistent game world (thus, Alternate Reality Gaming). A couple of sites -- Cloudmakers.org and Spherewatch -- formed around the Beast to solve its core murder mystery. Along the way, the masterful writing seduced us.

I was a Cloudmaker, and proud of it. I checked the sites daily. I obsessed over clues. I shared what I had to share. I even did a fan site of the thing. It was exciting and wonderful. I still miss it.

Well, all indications are the same team who did the beast are doing "The Haunted Apiary," starting at I Love Bees and going from there. The theory is it's connected to the Halo video game, and from all accounts it's pretty cool.

One of the tasks the Beekeepers have been working on in the game is restoring the functionality to a crashed/insane ship's AI named Melissa. Melissa has been slowly designating some players as 'crewmembers.' And today, Melissa and one of those players collaborated to capture (or destroy) another AI, named the Sleeping Princess. It was a pretty cool move, unexpected....

...and, in a way, signals a death knell for ARGs as we've known them.

You see, the community that formed around the Beast -- the Cloudmakers -- was intensely remarkable. It was the best part of the game. Better than the puzzles. Better than Sean Stewart's astounding writing. Better than the visuals. Better by far than the actual movie A.I. We came together as a group -- a collective detective, as the term came to be -- and brought monumental results. We were part of something huge, if just for a little while. And it all worked because the moment one of us found something out, they told everyone else. We made our decisions collectively. We posted our mistakes collectively. We played our game in collaboration. When an AI named Loki had become a threat, we learned that he was attracted to nightmares. So Cloudmakers started posting their nightmares online, baiting a trap for the monster. And we destroyed him, and were rewarded with a remarkable Flash animation involving all of our efforts.

The Beekeepers were working in that same way. Triumphs were collective. Mistakes were spread about. But now, some of the players are keeping secrets from others. Some are making decisions unilaterally, not collectively, and having tremendous impact on the game. Suddenly, a small portion of the players have incredible power in the game... and suddenly, there is real factionalism to be had within the 'collective detective.'

I know at least one player who won't post his speculations on the Unfiction forum board, because he's afraid someone will use his speculations in ways he won't like. We've also seen that by keeping secrets and making decisions on their own, players get to have disproportionate control over what happens next. And casual players suddenly aren't players. They're advisors to the people who can have an impact on the game. Or they're groupies. But someone solving puzzles and posting speculations doesn't have the same impact that the people talking on the phone to Melissa do.

Some players are already aligning behind the Sleeping Princess, to free her. They've admitted this is now a goal. Others are "crewmen of the Apocolypso," and are going to further Melissa's ends. Others are probably going to help the Pious Flea. It will probably be lots of fun....

...but it's not collective. It's not collaborative. People now know secrets can be more powerful than sharing. People now know that the other players might do things they absolutely disagree with and there's nothing they can do about it, so they'd better do it first. And people now know that their contributions by their very nature are less than the contributions others put in.

The game goes on, but the Collective Detective has cancer of the massmind. And I don't think there's a cure for it. When the next big ARG goes live, people will go into it with these lessons burnt into them.

Like I said, Cloudmakers.org was missing when I went to go looking for it, this morning.

Maybe that's just as well.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at September 24, 2004 3:59 PM

Comments

Comment from: Alexander Danner posted at September 24, 2004 11:32 PM

Sean Stewart? As in, author of the wonderful novels "Galveston" and "Mockingbird," among others? Is this the same Sean Stewart?

If so, then I'm doubly sad that I missed out on this game. I would have been very interested to see the results of putting a genuinely talented storyteller on such a project.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at September 24, 2004 11:52 PM

The very one, Alexander. It was intensely wonderful. Stewart crafted dialogue and characters alike that were beautiful and terrible. I think most of us fell in love with Laia Salla during that game, despite knowing intellectually that she was fictional. And when Mephista died....

Well. Let's just say I owe Sean Stewart many many beers.

Comment from: zamphir posted at September 26, 2004 8:47 PM

You should really go read William Gibson's latest, Pattern Recognition.

Also... You could not expect that in this era of "Survivor" that anything would be... "innocent" of these kinds of memes for very long.

Have you already seen someone try to log in here and post SPAM? Do you doubt that it's coming?

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