Through the Rabbit Hole…

Craig Hardgrove

The sweet smell of freshly acquired achievements….

Oh, that sweet “BLEWP!” you hear when you get an achievement in an Xbox game.  It’s so satisfying… it almost feels like you’ve, well, achieved something.  What if you could hear that same noise and get that same sense of satisfaction from doing more mundane, real life tasks like doing your laundry, or walking to the train station?  What if you could also do those things while having teenagers yell out obscenities about your Mom and talk about how much better they are at doing their laundry than you??  OK, that wouldn’t be as cool.

Anyway, this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane McGonigal’s ideas regarding games and reality.  She wrote a book called Reality is Broken about this subject.  At first I was skeptical of her ideas on making our own world more like the video game world, but after reading her essays and listening to her speak I find myself nodding my head and agreeing wholeheartedly.  Jane’s work lies firmly in the realm of “Alternate Reality Games” (ARGs), which I’d highly recommend playing if you’ve never been a part of or experienced one.  I was sucked in one through the rabbit hole left in an official Halo 2 trailer, that briefly flashed a link to  It was my familiarity with the Halo universe that kept me playing, which mostly meant that I checked the forums at unfiction constantly, at least in the initial phases of the game.  As the game progressed, however, pay phones started ringing across the country… and the people playing the game had to answer them.  I’d never been so excited to go out and find a pay phone!

What came through the phone were snippits of an amazing story that, unknown to the players at the beginning, was actually a mini-prequel to the events of Halo 2.  It was fantastic, it was mysterious, and at some point when the final moments of the audio-drama unfolded due to the actions of thousands of players around the country, I think I may have shed a small tear.  I was so moved by the experience that I decided to drive to an end-of-game event that took place in Chicago (I lived in Knoxville, TN at the time).  Looking back on it, I’ve never had a life experience as unique as playing I Love Bees.  I Love Bees certainly wasn’t without its flaws, various payphones didn’t ring and sometimes things got a little cheesy… but the coolest part about I Love Bees, for me, was that it opened up the possibility of bringing the world of video games into the real world, and it made me want to do things I would never have done outside of the context of the ARG.

So where’s the science?  I’m happy to report that people are working on it!  In fact, some of them quite well.  MIT has a group devoted to bringing science to ARGs.  Their recent game, called Vanished, was hugely successful, attracting 6,700 registered players who learned about artificial intelligence and actually went out into the world to collect real scientific data on temperatures.  Vanished targeted children, however, there is no reason not to include adults in these types of games.  In one such game that targeted adults and children alike, called “World Without Oil”, players were required to behave like they lived in a world that had completely run out of oil.  Among other amazing things, the game actually resulted in players figuring out how to make their cars run on biofuel.  This wasn’t just in the game world though, they actually made their real cars run on biofuel… all because of the game.  Thats amazing.  So that got me thinking, what else might be possible for players of an ARG?

Start with an ARG where people create things to progress the game.  They can learn all sorts of things in this process, just as I’m sure the players who modified their cars to run on biofuel did.  What if, at first, the game required players to build small circuits to unlock something on the web or to further the game’s story?  Then the game could require other players to write computer programs.  Then the game would require that the programs would have to talk to each other, and once successful, more of the game’s content opened up….  What if, closer to the end of the game, the game asked people to build a weather balloon or a model rocket?  What if it asked them to take pictures from their balloon or rocket?  Then, using all the systems the players have built, the end of the game asked the players to launch multiple balloons from different parts of the country.  The balloons will need to communicate with one another while they were at high altitude, using the electronics communication equipment and computer programs players built earlier in the game… What do you have at that point?  You have a home-brewed Earth-orbiting telecommunications system.  You have people that know a lot more about how to launch things into near low-Earth orbit, as well as about engineering and science.  You might, I dare say, have paved the way to the future of private space exploration.

Is this too much?  I don’t think so… the power of online communities is immense.  And small non-profit groups are already sending weather balloons to very high altitudes and acquiring video.  Check this out…

The video above was made by the Brooklyn Space Program, a small group in NY.  I say we make an ARG that harnesses the power of groups like these, and combines their talents with the talents of groups throughout the world in computer programming, electronics and science.  Under the auspices of a game, people will be inspired to do truly revolutionary things.  ARGs could potentially change the world.  And if you include real science and real scientific projects in games like ARGs, you have the power to educate as well as inspire.

PS:  Probably no updates for the rest of March.  I’m going to Moscow, just in time for the “re-election” of Putin.  I’ve heard that the Russian people are not exactly thrilled with this, so wish me luck.  And please, anyone reading this who is interested in collaboration on an ARG I’d love to hear from you.

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