Thursday, September 13, 2007

Obliged to Play: Using alternate reality games to improve our environments

As a Biological Anthropology major at Harvard I learned that PLAY was serious business. When I was in high school my father had often quoted Mark Twain as saying "work is anything a body is obliged to do; play is anything a body is not obliged to do", and I took that to heart. But at Harvard, studying sociobiology and evolutionary biology and ethology with E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould and Burt Holldobler, among others, I came to learn that large brained animals, in fact, were obliged to play, and that play had evolved and was encoded in our genes (and those of other mammals and of birds; the jury may still be out on fish)because it confers fitness advantages over those animals that do not play.

We know now that play and games among young animals, are serious precursors for survival in the adult stage. They are serious adaptations, so serious in fact, that it can be argued that not playing is maladaptive to the point of being life threatening.

The book "Primates in the Classroom" by J. Gary Bernhard; 1988 (an analysis of the sociobiology that makes most schools so maladaptive) points out that play is important for child development, critical thinking and broad learning, and that the failure of most education systems may be the way they discourage productive play.

Many parents and teachers, by contrast, are concerned about the time their children spend playing "mere games" and today, with the advent of realistic simulations of 3d environments that seem to inspire "obsession" among those who play them, there is deep concern that children are "losing touch with reality" and are somehow being harmed by their desire to "play" in this new medium. After all, if people are spending their time learning to adapt to virtual reality, how well will they fare when faced with the "true reality"?

This may be where ARG's can play a profound role. ARG's are "Alternate Reality Games". They can be distinguished from "mere" virtual reality games in that they make use of all realities and all media that the human animal can perceive and interact with using her five senses.

An ARG makes potential use of computer-based audio, video, text, internet, web and 3D virtual environments, of sms, telephony, television, books, magazine, comic books, films, theater and concert experiences, libraries, local and foreign travel experiences and social networks... in short, every possible medium and environment from which information and experience can be garnered and through which puzzles and problems can be solved, insights discovered and connections made.

I won't go into the history of ARG's except to note with irony that one of the first was apparently a tie-in to the Steven Spielberg film "A.I." and the point of the game was to help the fictional robot child find his way home. People around the world became so obsessed with helping the distressed android that they went out of their way to engage in collective problem solving with complete strangers.

Today, with the gap between the rich and the poor widening and the number of urban homeless people and homeless international refugees fleeing war and environmental devastation, it would be nice to think that we could harness this kind of obsessive energy and turn game playing into the collective construction of a true "alternate reality". Hopefully it would be a better reality.

Since games model the real world and give us a chance to safely role play alternate behaviors in response to simulated environments, it would be advantageous (and adaptive, I believe) if we could use the physics engines and other game developer tools to simulate areas of the world where the poor live and suffer and where their environment has become unliveably degraded, and let people -- both those who "have-not" and those who have the means to help -- role play the difficulties of life in those areas and then collectively work toward alternate reality solutions.

Throughout such a "sustainable development ARG" the "players" could experiment with solutions to intransigent social, political, infrastructural and environmental problems, and then, in order to "win" the game, could vote on the most appropriate and hopeful solutions.

In this way a properly designed "environmental ARG" or "social change ARG" could become a new force in democracy and participatory planning.

My idea is not wholly new nor untested. Already plans are in development for "serious ARGs" (which will hopefully be as fun and engaging to play as they are important) and many of them can be found at the Alternate Reality Gaming Network.

Here are a couple of quotes from their site for definition:

"These games (which are usually free to play) often have a specific goal of not only involving the player with the story and/or fictional characters but of connecting them to the real world and to each other. Many game puzzles can be solved only by the collaborative efforts of multiple players, sometimes requiring one or more players to get up from their computers to go outside to find clues or other planted assets in the real world..." obsession-inspiring genre that blends real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online community...

"These games are an intensely complicated series of puzzles involving coded Web sites, real-world clues like the newspaper advertisements, phone calls in the middle of the night from game characters and more. That blend of real-world activities and a dramatic storyline has proven irresistible to many."

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a plethora of games out there that taught proper environmental science, technology and development theory, helped us solve the "intensely complicated series of puzzles" involved in protecting biodiversity and ending poverty, and actual became irresistible to many?

One such game is fortunately already under development. It is called "Tomorrow Calling" which challenges players to evaluate what it will be like living in an environmentally challenged world. It is linked to another deep ARG called "World Without Oil" which uses Youtube videos, blogs and personal websites to create an environment of truth telling through the eyes of the everyday citizen as the backdrop for the game. It poses the question "how will we survive in a world without oil". By playing through the game the hope is that we will use our swarm intelligence to find answers.

My wife, Sybille Culhane, and I, T.H. Culhane along with our colleagues Andy Posner and Michelle Finnel, are now working on our own Environmental ARG, to be set primarily in the slums of Cairo Egypt and the jungles of Central America, inviting players to help solve both urban and rural development problems by playing through the deeply imbricated connections between city and countryside.

The first step in our ARG is the creation of 3D virtual environments that model the historic slum neighborhoods and informal settlements of inner city Cairo and the rainforest villages of northern Guatemala, and to that end we are begining to learn Google Sketchup so that we can make these environments available as .kml files to be integrated into Google Earth. On these kml maps we are beggining to plot infrastructure information, such as the presence or absence of water pipes, electric substations and transformers, renewable energy systems, rooftop gardens, sewage connections and treatment plants, and microeconomic data such as preference information on the demand for hot water, solar thermal systems, photovoltaics, and other public and private goods that policy makers could help provide better access to if they knew what was going on at the household level.

The game, ultimately connected with a fully immersive and interactive experience (perhaps built as a Half-Life Mod using the Havoc Physics Engine?) would theoretically take you into the houses and huts and give you the chance to interact with the people and learn their needs and difficulties. Armed with this knowledge the game would then allow you and others to mod the environment, much as one does in The Sims 2 and SimCity 4, and see if you can help make these parts of the world better.

One of the goals of the project is to take advantage of and introduce new Data Visualization Tools that finally are making it easier to wrap our minds around difficult concepts and the significance of large and complex data sets. In particular we are inspired by the tools Hans Rosling presenting at the TED conference in a paper called "Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you've ever seen".

At this point we are in the planning stages, and we invite any students, professors or other citizens of our global commonwealth to participate!


WriTerGuy said...

This is all very cool, but I sense an element missing - the _game_ part. Put another way: where's the fun?

Plotted games such as Dying In Darfur work because the possibility of success is built into the game. If you stick with it, you will save those people, and that's fun. The simulation you are building, in contrast, will not always have a clean outcome?

WORLD WITHOUT OIL was unplotted, but it connected with people because it was about their lives. By imagining their own lives with less oil, the players supplied the plot, and that was very fun for them.

As you know, many serious games don't achieve their potential because they fall short on fun (and by "fun" I don't just mean a pleasant shallow moment but also a satisfying long-term experience). Heck, many non-serious games fail to be fun as well.

T.H. Culhane said...

Thanks for your comment WriterGuy!! We truly appreciate articulate, detailed and intelligent feedback such as yours (on blogs I find too many people express their displeasure or disappointment or confusion in hostile ways that are unproductive!)

I have been struggling to come up with a better answer to your stimulating question than "the first step -- or let us say "the first round" -- in our ARG is to invite the collective intelligence of the players to solve the puzzle of how to make a serious game fun." In that sense you have already made a contribution to the game.

But we have been thinking a lot about that issue and have proposed that the fun in the game will come from "raging against the machine" and fighting "the system".

This is no mere metaphor -- we mean it quite literally -- the players will fight against the computer system - against the binary logic of "the machine" whose artificial intelligence programming will be steeped in (and now I AM being metaphorical) the paradigm of modernism with its unforgiving "either-or" logic and its assumption that development is a zero-sum game.

Because much development theory uses this narrow logic (a fact pointed out in the 1960s by Andre Gunder Frank in his classic essay "the Development of UnderDevelopment" , our game will pit man against machine by letting the AI espouse the notion that "to have haves you need have nots" and fight to maintain the status quo, while the players will operate under the idealistic assumption of Buckminster Fuller that it has been possible since around 1973 to elmininate poverty and suffering and their is no longer any excuse for there to be "losers" in development.

The part of the game that pits man against the machine will occur in a classic virtual gaming environment, and at time could devolve into the violence of a first person shooter if the players desire.

The primary landscapes will be contemporary Cairo Egypt and Peten, Guatemala.

The in game A.I. will be characters representing government officials, conservative citizens, business and industry leaders and religious fanatics among others. They will try hard to stop any progress toward "greening" the city or the village if it threatens their interests.

The real players (human intelligences) who take on avatars in the virtual part of the game will assumedly do so in order to try out their skills as technology transfer agents, diplomats, relief workers, negotiaters and innovators.

It is not inconceivable that some people will decide to play on the side of the "status quo", and that could make things even more interesting.

The point is that people can try out ideas in simulation before commiting to them in the real community. If the local government officials protest, if the police arrest, beat or kill the "do-gooders", or if fanatics or thugs decide to get rid of the agents of change, then the game can get quite exciting indeed.

All of these things are also possible in the real world, but we think it is much more fun to PLAY these scenarios rather than suffer the consequences in the real world.

By playing, it is hoped that we will become more sophisticated when it comes to real local action, and avoid in the real world the danger and violent conflict that would be fun in the game.

Your further thoughts are welcome!