A Metaphor for ARGs

In his keynote at the Netherlands Festival of Games in Utrecht, Elan Lee compared a successful game to a magnet. A good game pushes away most people, but still makes them aware of what’s going on; it pulls people towards itself; and it charges those who come closest, so that they become part of the game itself, entertainment everyone else.

I thought this was a nice and simple metaphor for games and ARGs. OK, I still don’t understand the push part of it, but the notion that the closest players become charged really nails a core essence of ARGs. 16 hours after Elan’s keynote, I was in Cardiff, talking to a group of writers about multiplatform storytelling. On the train there, I resolved to talk a little about ARGs in general.

(And also about Perplex City. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t spoken about Perplex City much, but hearing Elan talk about I Love Bees (2004) and Last Call Poker (2005) reminded me of how neat Perplex City was, and how I ought to highlight that.)

Initially, I considered simply stealing the magnet metaphor, and I got as far as drawing a little magnet in Keynote when I decided that:

a) I really ought to try doing my own metaphor before stealing someone else’s (with attribution, naturally)
b) I wasn’t sure whether I could pull off the ‘push’ bit when I didn’t fully understand how the mapping worked

So I decided on a new one, about football. Some caveats – it’s not a genuinely original metaphor, since I’ve heard Dan mention it before, and I’m sure the comparison to sports has been made many times in the past – but it’s new for me and perhaps new in this specific case.

EVERYONE

Despite football’s massive international popularity, most people don’t watch it. This is true of almost everything; most people are not Christians, most people haven’t read Harry Potter, and most people haven’t watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It’ll also be true of your game.

However, even if you’ve never watched a single game of football, you’ll know about the concept. You’ll know that two teams kick a ball around, that they score goals, that Manchester United is a popular team, and that David Beckham plays. Through the efforts of its fans and players, football is at least comprehensible by pretty much everyone, which allows them to participate in the game, even in the most remote way (by watching celebrations on the news, or seeing jokes about it on TV).

FANS

One step closer in, we have football fans. This massive group encompasses everyone who actively follows football, from die-hard fans who hold season tickets and loyally supports at every away game, to interested outsiders myself who will switch on the TV if a particularly important match is on (say, the Champion’s League final).

The most hardcore fans are so dedicated, they’ll dress up at games; they’ll form a brass band that irritatingly plays the Great Escape theme tune at every England match; they’ll raise money for charity, and they’ll even buy their own clubs. These guys provide entertainment not only for their fellow fans, but for everyone. They often play football themselves in amateur teams.

If you considered the world of football fandom to be a game, then these hardcore fans would be the players. But I’m not. Because the players are actually…

THE PLAYERS

It’s telling that when we think of ‘football players’, we think of paid professionals like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney. Of course, a football player is simply someone who can play football, whether they’re 7 years olds playing with a tennis ball at school, or a 70 year old in the local pub team. Wayne Rooney is ‘just’ an exceptionally talented player, the hardest of the hardcore.

He, and other professional players, are so good that people will pay thousands of pounds to watch them every year. They provide the energy and the spectacle that turns football from being a simple urban game about 22 people kicking an inflated liver in between two posts into a worldwide phenomenon, complete with its own community, fandom, fan fiction and commentary.

This is what your game can become, if you can make it so good that people dedicate their lives to mastering it, and if it’s interesting for other people to watch them.

A COMPARISON

Starcraft is a science fiction strategy game, in which you direct an army from above to blow up your opponent’s. In South Korea, Starcraft is a national sport. There are at least two TV channels devoted to it, and the top Starcraft players are celebrities who open shopping malls, have fan clubs, win lots of money, etc.

None of this should be surprising. Starcraft is a fun game to play, so much so that:

a) Millions of people have played it
b) Hundreds of thousands of people are obsessed with it
c) Hundreds of people are fearsomely talented at it

Just like football. So, naturally, Starcraft has become a sport.

WHERE IT BREAKS DOWN

This football metaphor worked well at the multiplatform storytelling workshop today, and a couple of people said they liked it. However, it has a few flaws.

Firstly, it references a game that has no story. You could argue that the actions of players creates a meta-story about injuries, rivalries, transfer windows, etc, but that’s not the point of football; the point is scoring goals. This is not so true of ARGs with stories – which is to say, most of them.

Secondly, the metaphor fails to capture the wide range of involvement that players have in ARGs. In Perplex City, some players bought  thousands of puzzle cards and came to every live event; others just visited a couple of blogs a month; but they’re both, technically, players. In football, you have 22 players in a game – that’s it. You can have multiple teams and multiple leagues, but there exists a sharp divide between the guys kicking the ball and the guys watching them. A good ARG recognises and encourages a continuum of involvement, because it allows people to choose what suits them best. So I think that this metaphor is just too general – it works for almost any game, whereas I would like something a little more specific to what I do.

Of course, any metaphor breaks down when you inspect it too closely. I imagine that this football metaphor is best suited to a general audience, rather than an expert one. If you have a favourite metaphor for ARGs or games, or if you have ideas on how to improve this one, please let me know!

(Also, I’ll be putting my keynote presentation about ‘Why Stories in Games Suck’ online shortly.)

Briefly, on British politics

In case you aren’t in the UK or haven’t been following the news lately, there is something of a crisis in British politics. Partly caused by an expense scandal in which some MPs have been making rather dubious claims, the Labour government is now seeing cabinet ministers resigning more or less every single day. Forget about Obama’s speech in Cairo, or a plane crashing in the Atlantic – the one thing that’s on our TV screens every hour of every day is the political crisis. To be fair, we also had the local and European elections yesterday, but in this country, if it’s not a general election, it’s not a real election.

On confusing party and government

The response by Labour party MPs and activists to the resignation of cabinet ministers and/or rebel MPs is typically, “How dare they harm our party’s chances in the elections!” Take this quote from the Guardian:

The Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle, said grassroots members were angry at the “treacherous behaviour” of senior figures such as former communities secretary Hazel Blears.

“People are also bitterly disappointed with James Purnell [former work and pensions secretary]. More consideration should have been given to the damage this is causing the party.”

What Lindsay Hoyle doesn’t seem to realise here is that most people don’t care about the damage that James Purnell has caused to the party, because no-one actually cares about the Labour party any more. This is not an idle claim; it looks like Labour attracted a mere 23% of the local election vote today. Granted, people often use local elections as a protest vote, but 23% is disastrous any way you look at it. Less than 1 in 4 voters ticked the box for Labour today. No-one cares about damage to the Labour party.

The astonishing thing is that MPs are using this language in public at all. If this were America, you’d have people saying ‘James Purnell is damaging this country by walking out now’, etc, rather than being so tone deaf about what voters care about.

On cabinet reshuffles

It seems like there’s a cabinet reshuffle every year or so. I find the nature of these reshuffles to be mystifying. How on earth is any minister supposed to do a proper job if they keep on moving around so often? What makes a Health Secretary a good Home Secretary? Why does an Agriculture Secretary make a good Foreign Secretary? Why is it so difficult to keep these guys in a job longer than two years? Everyone knows how much inertia the civil service has, surely the longer someone is in a job, the more chance they have of effecting coherent and working policy. I note that the US seems to get along perfectly well by appointing Secretaries for four year stretches at a time, with much less drama.

On poor government and apathy

Stuart Ian Burns wrote today:

Basically, we’re screwed. When Gordon Brown eventually goes (and under normal circumstances he should), there’s no one to take his place, at least no one better (better than that?). The Tories will win the next election either way and they’re going to be just as rubbish, and all along, those of us who are desperate for something to believe in are going to continue to be sidelined in favour of greed and make-do and mend and the usual lies and spin.

If the Tories will the next election – and they probably will – it’s because, for most people, there is no viable alternative.

Why is there no viable alternative? It’s not because there is no ‘British Obama’. Of course there is the potential for a intelligent, charismatic and inspirational leader in the UK – there are 60 million people in this country, I find it hard to believe there isn’t someone out there who could do the job. No, I think there are two problems.

The first is that the British electorate are cynical and apathetic. It’s true. Exactly why this is the case is down to a combination of factors, including the political system, our country’s history and age, the media, and the current political climate. But I don’t think that we always have to be cynical and apathetic. There’s a reason people were obsessed with the US election last year – it’s because we wanted it. We wanted to be excited. I want to be so inspired that I’ll go out every weekend knocking on doors and calling people up and posting leaflets about a candidate I care about, a candidate who I think can really make a powerful, historical difference.

People will do that. It wouldn’t even take that much convincing – we already have a perfect model to follow. What I find laughable are the craven attempts of both the Conservatives and Labour party to imitate Obama’s grassroots and online strategy. They just don’t get it. You can’t just whack up a Facebook page and Daily Kos-like site, and expect people to take part; there needs to be substance and hope behind the structure. It’s like people who expect ‘social media’ to suddenly make their products successful – you’ve got to have a good product first.

The second problem is the structure of British party politics. As I am repeatedly told, we have a Parliamentary system here, not a Presidential system, and that’s why we don’t have public primaries to elect party leaders (and thus Prime Ministers). But that’s not a good reason – it’s just an explanation of a poor system. In any case, it is largely the MPs of the political parties who determine who their leader will be. What’s more, the existence of party lists means that prospective MPs are often parachuted into safe seats, for which they have to do pretty minimal campaigning and don’t have to face a primary challenger.

I gather that this may be changing with the Conservatives (I need to check the details) but the point is that the closed nature of party politics is such that a putative British Obama would have a hard time at becoming an MP, let alone party leader.

What’s the solution? My crazy idea is that the Liberal Democrats should decide to go for broke this election – they’re not going to win anyway, so they might as well try anything. First, they should cede power to the entire public (not just party members) in electing both MPs and the party leader. Then, they start a massively local and grassroots campaign to find out what people actually care about – and do this not simply by holding town hall meetings that no-one actually goes to, but doing a simultaneous door-stop/leaflet/online campaign. Next, harness the energy of young people (who are hopefully inspired by this) to ‘do an Obama’. It may not work, but at least they’ll have given it a real try. Of course, this all relies on having an inspiring leader, and while I don’t have a real beef against Nick Clegg, he’s no Obama.

Still, it’s an idea.