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Just another ICM blog

What are games teaching us about us?

There are games designed to simply entertain us. There are games designed to test our knowledge and others designed to educate us. They’ve become an industry unto themselves as well as a tools to connect people and create community.

Debates continue to rage about the effects of violent video games on their players. But I’ve been wondering this week about other things we might be learning from games. Can they tell us something about our place in the world? Can various game forms go so far as to advance social achievements?

Pine and Gilmore include games in their experience economy model:

New technologies, in particular, encourage whole new genres of experience, such as interactive games, Internet chat rooms and multiplayer games, motion-based simulators, and virtual reality.

That has certainly been the case with the huge multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft or even Disney’s Club Penguin for the younger crowd, offering services that go the extra mile to create a unique experience for players.

But the reading reminded me of a game that came out in 2001 called Majestic. It was — for the time — an imaginative mix of online and real-time gaming designed to make the player feel as if they’d been recruited to solve a conspiracy.

An Aug. 10, 2001, Salon.com article on the game says:

Majestic_logoThe conceit of the game is that Anim-X, the Oregon game developer behind Majestic, has uncovered a government conspiracy; when Anim-X suddenly goes up in flames, you are asked to help the surviving staffers solve what’s going on. The game becomes a wild goose chase across the Net as you receive phone calls, faxes, e-mails and instant messages from a variety of Anim-X staffers and mysterious informers, directing you to research any number of strange alien conspiracies and nefarious government activities. … Majestic is a cerebral experience that is part story, part investigation and part adrenaline.

Majestic was loosely based on the Michael Douglas movie “The Game” (1997) where Douglas’s character is sucked into a series of events that appear to put him in danger.

I don’t know anyone who played Majestic, but I know there was a great deal of buzz surrounding it in the summer of 2001. Electronic Arts, which produced the game, was attempting to take players well beyond the typical gaming experience. For those people who fantasized about being undercover agents, this seemed like a safe way to live that life.

Unfortunately, the game never got a chance to test its slice of the experience economy theory. On Sept. 11 that year, the world changed. Though the game was designed as edgy escapism, circumstances beyond its control transformed it into something much darker. Play was suspended for a week after the terrorist attacks, but people’s interest in a game designed to poke at their paranoia disappeared quickly and EA shut it down in 2002.

Could this game exist today, now that we aren’t constantly hearing about changes in the threat level? How would it be shaped given the advancements in technology? Or has the niche for this kind of role playing been replaced by the big online games?

I wonder if anyone would attempt this kind of game again based on the idea that the investment in it could be lost if there was another attack on the U.S.

So, maybe a kinder, gentler version of the game could find a following. Something less dark and threatening, maybe an alternate reality game that uses the real world as a backdrop for its interactive narrative.

That is what the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle are trying to create with a project called Picture the Impossible.

A Nieman Journalism Lab story this week said that more than 1,000 people have signed up to play the game, which kicks off this weekend and runs through October. Players join one of three teams, each working to raise money for a local charity:

They’ll earn points through interactive challenges across the newspaper’s platforms, from crossword puzzles in the print paper, to scavenger hunts, to online games. “Picture the Impossible” has its own narrative storyline developed around key innovations in Rochester’s history.

Unlike Majestic, Picture the Impossible isn’t being staged only for profit. For the newspaper, this is about finding a way to reach out to the under-40 crowd who hasn’t developed the habit of reading the daily newspaper:

The game’s developers hope to test a project that can cross platforms — print, online, mobile, and community. More ambitiously, they want to see how a more playful, games-based approach can be used to mobilize a community around a certain issue — something that old-school newspapers used to be able to do quite effectively.

As C.C. Abt said:

Serious games offer us a rich field for a risk-free, active exploration of serious intellectual and social problems.

The results may be tangible — more newspapers sold, more traffic to the paper’s Web site, funds raised for the charities — but it also will be interesting to see what the players and their hosts learn from the experiences.

Category: Weekly Readings

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2 Responses

  1. Pat Daddona says:

    Excellent post, informative and nicely presented visually. Gaming may well have a role in news sites, as a side attraction, but I don’t think it will be integral. Except insofar as gaming principles like the immersion experience are used to enhance online news Web sites in such a way as to keep viewers and readers coming back. And in that way, I think gaming principles are already at work at most sites.

    • Chuck says:

      Thanks, Pat. You’re probably right about the role of gaming in newspaper Web sites, but as papers continue to search for unique content to bring eyeballs to their sites, this might help. And anything we can do to appeal to a younger crowd of readers should probably be explored.