The Smithsonian's Got Game

The Smithsonian takes the plunge into an alternate-reality game.

Aug. 1, 2008— -- An alternate-reality gamer, typically very tuned in and tech savvy, enters a game through a rabbit hole a la Lewis Carroll.

Well, almost. Lewis Carroll didn't have a computer -- but just as Alice followed the white rabbit into his hole to discover Wonderland, gamers dive into their alternate realities via text messages, e-mails, podcasts, blogs or mysterious phone calls, to name a few ways. All it takes is one entry point.

Now, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has gone where no museum has gone before, providing a rabbit hole for the new alternate reality game, or ARG, called "Ghosts of a Chance."

In partnership with the ARG design company City Mystery, the Smithsonian has become the first museum to sponsor an ARG, a move it hopes will inspire other museums to follow suit.

"I hope other museums do follow, and I think they will," said Smithsonian's Georgina Bath, the interpretive programs manager for the Luce Foundation Center of American Art. "The idea of game-playing is much more common in science museums, and we are not as familiar with the practice in art museums."

Seeking to engage their visitors at a deeper level, the museum hopes to show artwork in a new, more intense light, allowing for unprecedented interaction with their collections.

What interaction, specifically, will be unveiled by gamers and remains to be seen, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum will wield its powerful presence throughout the game. Confused yet?

ARGs are not your standard board game. There are no rules, no goals, no apparent finish line, and in fact, no board at all.

ARGs are massive, multiplayer games that allow players to interact with an alternate reality using real-world events and clues to do so.

The games are designed by "puppet masters" who effectively begin the games, but can lose control of the game's direction once the curiosity of the players leads the game down other paths. Remember Alice's surreal journey from mad tea parties to the croquet grounds with the queen of hearts?

"Ghosts of A Chance" was introduced on July 19 in Boston at "ARGFest-O-Con 2008," an annual event where some of the most die-hard players on the planet gather to whet their appetite for the newest arrivals on the ARG scene. The official launch will come September 8, 2008.

About 100 people turned out to see the teaser in Boston. What they saw was a speedo-clad and oiled up Mr. New England, sporting multiple tattoos. Not even Alice had a view like this.

But ARG-ers aren't easily distracted, and after some brief ogling they got down to business at hand -- or on the body, as it were.

Discovering the first clue hiding in multiple (henna) tattoos, they were off and running. Within half an hour, pictures were online and at the fingertips of eager gamers who missed the launch.

Soon enough, gamers had stumbled upon the Web site, and the game had begun. The curiosity of the ARG-ers perpetuates the game.

For gamers, the lines quickly blur between the real and the imagined, as characters develop and gamers themselves become invested in the game.

Bath said she hopes people discover things through the game that they have never seen before, and view the artwork in completely new ways.

"We definitely saw 'Ghosts of a Chance' as a really good fit for us," said Bath, noting that once she understood the concept of an ARG, she realized how in sync the game's goals were with those of the museum.

"The Luce Foundation Center is about discovering, exploring and having fun and I think ARGs definitely play to that," said Bath.

Most ARGs are free of charge and open to all. However, a computer and cell phone are vital for a true ARG experience.

Lightning Speed Interaction

ARGs are the latest new medium to generate online communities, and they do so by merging story-telling with the digital world of the millennial generation.

These communities band together (virtually, at first) to solve clues and puzzles that eventually lead them to the end goal. However, unlike standard games, an ARGer rarely knows the end goal when they join. Players say they participate for the love of the game.

"Players don't have any goals," said Jonathan Waite, an avid ARG gamer and owner of the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, an online forum and news site for all things ARG related.

"The curiosity factor is first and foremost, and you start questioning everything," added Waite. "It becomes nearly impossible to tear yourself away from it. We just love to play."

John Maccabee, puppet master and CEO of City Mystery, the San Francisco based ARG design company that created "Ghosts of A Chance," agreed that it goes beyond the traditional game mentality where there are winners and losers.

"It's really not about winning, it's about playing," said Maccabee.

The greatest ARG hit to date was Microsoft's 2004 game, "I Love Bees," which was a viral and successful marketing tool for the video game, "Halo 2."

Three months after starting with a modest base of 25 players, "I Love Bees" amassed three million players internationally.

All it takes is a small group of dedicated ARG-ers to spark interest in the World Wide Web's ARG community -- a community of 18- to 45-year-olds that is growing by the day.

Within minutes of Mr. New England's unveiling of the first clue, bloggers were already furiously reporting, virtually gathering to put their heads together to figure out the next clue.

"Once you get information, you post it, or blog it or text it, and the information flies around rapidly," said Maccabbe.

He explained that the individual players must document their journey through the game to advance others.

"It keeps spreading and building and building," said Maccabee. "There's really no limit."

The Collective Curiosity of a Community

Collective intelligence has permeated the Internet-powered world, allowing people to instantly collaborate across the globe. And ARGs are a testament to its success

From a puppet master's point of view, Elan Lee, director of Microsoft's "I Love Bees," once said, the goal is "to create puzzles and challenges that no single person could solve on their own."

Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, noted that the phenomenon of collective intelligence is not new, but that ARGs is just the 21st century application of it.

The center, which opened in 2006, aims to make collective intelligence a serious academic subject and focuses on ways that people and computers can connect so both human and machine can act more intelligently together than either have ever done alone.

"Collective intelligence has existed in our society for years," said Malone, who described collective intelligence as "groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent."

Since the advent of the Internet, however, new forms of collective intelligence have emerged. Malone pointed to Wikipedia as an example of the "new Internet-enabled, decentralized collective intelligence."

According to Malone, this decentralization is both geographic, in that the players are not always physically together, and organizational, in that control is dispersed among multiple players.

Collective intelligence has traditionally been more hierarchical, but Wikipedia and now ARGs allow peers to interact on the same digital plane with little centralized control.

In ARGs, individuals discover and unfold pieces of the puzzle, but only when the community contributes to a group analysis does the game develop. And as the game continues, the players begin to set the course based on both individual and collective knowledge and curiosity.

ARGs give control to both puppet masters and players as both parties sign on for the wild, virtual ride together. And now for the first time, a museum will be caught in the fray.

"This is a new way for gamers to interact with the museum's collections," said Maccabbee.

"To a certain extent, I think museums worry that they are losing these younger generations, and so are particularly attuned to penetrating this generation," he added.

ARGs however, are not in danger of losing their audience, and Maccabee sees ARGs as a great tool for museums and libraries to hook the cyber-centric generation.

"This is where entertainment is going," said Maccabee, "and we are part of the movement."