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.
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).
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…
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.
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.)