I thought for a long time that I was going to be a psychiatrist, because I’m fascinated by the way people think (and was massively influenced by KPax.) I even did the first term of a degree in psychology, because I loved the subject so much but then I realised you have to do a lot of statistical stuff and cutting up brains and it really wasn’t for me. But I’m still fascinated by the way the human brain works and what makes it tick, particularly where that intersects with writing, games and creativity.
Above is a really old experiment by Fritz Heider & Marianne Simmel. I first saw it in relation to studies of autism. In case you can’t be bothered to watch the video, essentially it shows a load of shapes moving around. Participants were then asked what is happening. The vast majority told a story involving elements like “one shape’s playing a trick on the others” or “the shapes were arguing so one of them hid” – in other words, ascribing human motivations to a bunch of shapes. Autistic people, however, saw the video for what it was – a load of shapes moving around (And they’re the ones described as neurologically atypical!) The Youtube comments alone are interesting. Many people willingly, eagerly build on the story, even though they know it to be just a psychological test. Others argue that it isn’t shapes moving randomly – they’ve purposefully been organised in a way that encourages us to search for meaning. A lot of them talk about the fact that the interpreted story is the only thing that ‘makes sense’.
But such assertions only underline the point of the experiment. A triangle can’t be angry. A circle going inside a rectangle doesn’t have to ‘make sense’. But it’s in our nature to constantly search for meaning, to create stories where there are none. This is both a problem and a benefit.
It’s a problem when it comes to things like news reporting, because news channels increasingly seek to create simple narratives where they are either large and complex, or non-existent. For example, news channels are keen to follow the ‘human tragedy’ aspects of disasters or wars, but are less interested in the wider socio-political aspects of these events.
For writers, though, this desire to fill everything with stories is a benefit. It means we can be more ambiguous than we think we can, because many people are eager to fill in the blanks. It means giving people the tools to interpret a good story are perhaps more important than the story itself. This is equally applicable to games and fiction writing, but especially applicable to Alternate Reality Games.
I’m relatively new to ARGs, so please forgive me if I use incorrect terminology, or misunderstand some aspects of the form – I’m still getting to grips with it, and you can feel free to correct me. My first I completed only towards the end of last year (although I believe it actually stopped running well ahead of when I managed to complete it). That ARG was Legacy of Cr0n. In a nutshell, Cr0n posits the idea that two secret organisations vie to control our history. There’s the evil Ministry of Provenance who seek to edit history to aid their own ends and cover the actions of their agents (the Kennedy assassination being once such act) and the good Cr0n, an even more mysterious group of agents concerned with recording the facts of history and exposing MoP’s lies.
Cr0n was a free to play ARG conceived by the University of Nottingham with the intention of teaching players about digital provenance (eg. where information has originated and how those origins affect how far it may be trusted.) It was a broad, brave project with a lot of exciting ideas and was ultimately fun to play. My naivety surrounding ARGs meant there were several aspects seasoned players would probably have taken for granted that I found fascinating and unusual. For example, it took me some time to realise that many of the ‘Agents’ sending me messages and discussing how to move forward with missions were other players and not part of the game’s immediate cast. There was an interesting blur between actual game content, player-created content, and flat out player conjecture. Sometimes this led to a confusing lack of direction where we had no idea what to put in our ‘reports’ (basically quizzes that checked how well we’d understood/completed the various mini-games and research tasks), but for the most part it meant play was freeform and natural. However, Cr0n felt very much like what I suspect it was – the product of a team that understands code and gameplay, but has little understanding of writing, plot or narrative structure. As a university product, this struck me as odd – universities literally have writers at their fingertips, so why weren’t they used here? Cross-pollination between faculties really needs to happen more. The story felt as if it was being made up on the fly, something several players commented on with mild disappointment. On a more basic level, each written piece, although thematically interesting and cleverly intertwined with real-world history was often hampered by pacing, POV and grammatical errors.
My second attempt at ARG domination is the BBC’s Last Hours of Laura K. Here, players are given twenty-four hours worth of video footage from various sources, plus social media accounts of key characters, in order to solve a murder. That ambiguousness I spoke about earlier is used to great effect here, with the player unsure of what is relevant and what isn’t – there is no narrative to speak of, Laura’s whole life is on display, and so the player must determine what strands to follow. It’s very well written, and the characters are deep and believable. However, in many ways, it’s almost the opposite to Cr0n. It feels as though it’s made by people who thoroughly understand story, structure, plot, characterisation etc, but are less familiar with providing players with signposting and goals. I’m not done with it yet, so I’ll withhold final judgement, but at present, my feeling is that it would have benefitted from a character guiding players such as a police officer or family member seeking the truth about Laura’s death in the way that Cr0n’s high level agents were there to offer hints to us noobs.