One of the most startling things about alternate reality games is what their players can achieve. When you have tens of thousands of highly motivated and tightly-knit players who urgently want to get to the next scene, even the most obscure puzzle can be solved, no matter what language it’s written in, or what specialised field it relates to; one of the players, one one of their friends, will know the answer.
Faced with this, ARG designers have become engaged in a deeper and more subtle game with their players, always testing to see how much they can challenge them while keeping things fun. In Perplex City, I saw players come together to write and publish a book in a matter of weeks, and contribute millions of computer hours to crack a desperately complex code. In other games, players have formed cross-country networks to communicate and analyse information with incredible speed, and travelled thousands of miles to help each other.
Given the right game and the right challenges, there are few limits to what players can achieve. And if people will give so much for something that is ‘merely’ a game, what more might they give for a game that also has a serious purpose?
A Game to Cure Cancer
Today, together with Cancer Research UK, I’m launching a new project, Let’s Change the Game, that will develop an ARG whose aim is to raise money for cancer research. Like other serious games, the ARG will also educate people about cancer and raise awareness of it, but unlike other serious games, its success will be measured directly on how much real change it can cause, through fundraising. Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. Last year, it spent over £250 million purely on scientific research, supporting over 3000 scientists, doctors and nurses. That research benefits everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Yet even that sum is just not enough compared to the task it faces.
Cancer Research UK receives almost all of its fundings from donations from the public. Through its TV ads, mailings, billboards, races and stores, it manages to send its message to millions of people across the UK. However, that message isn’t reaching young people as well as it used to. It’s not just broadcasters and advertisers that are suffering from young people moving away from the TV and traditional media – it’s charities as well.
Alternate reality games are a solution that combine every form of media into a powerful, distributed game, something that can reach young people, and everyone else who is familiar with new media. That’s why we think an ARG can help Cancer Research UK raise its profile among the youth, and raise funds from them.
I am not going to be designing this ARG.
A Catch-22 situation currently exists in the ARG genre. There are precious few opportunities for aspiring game designers to gain experience in creating ARGs, and the ARG companies out there all tend to require experience. That leaves grassroots games as one of the only avenues available. While there have been some excellent grassroots games developed in the past, they demand vast quantities of time for development – which their creators willingly give – but also at least some money – which their creators often cannot spare. We want to help change this situation.
Let’s Change the Game is a competition where teams from anywhere in the world can submit their own game designs. The team behind the winning design, as chosen by judges who include Sean Stewart, Rhianna Pratchett and James Wallis, will then be invited to develop the game. They’ll have guidance and advice from the judges, plus the full resources of Cancer Research UK; that’s over 600 stores, monthly TV ads, hundreds of races and live events, and mailings going out to over 20 million people. It could be the biggest ARG, ever – and we’re giving new designers the chance to create it.
As for funding, I’m donating £1000 ($2000) towards the development of the ARG. It may not be enough, and hopefully we’ll get in-kind donations from other sources, but it’s my belief that this £1000 will be multiplied many times by the ARG into a much larger donation for Cancer Research UK.
A Scientific Experiment
Let’s Change the Game is an experiment. We don’t know how it’ll turn out. Much will depend on the quality of the game designs we receive and the dedication of the winning team. But if it does work, if it does raise money for cancer research, then this experiment will prove that games aren’t just distractions for the young or just a popular new form of entertainment – they’re a way to truly and unequivocally change the world for the better.
Visit www.letschangethegame.org for more information. The deadline for the first round of 500-word game designs is November 16th.