Playing Press at Watch The Skies Megagame

I hadn’t anticipated becoming Chief Reporter for the Global News Network after signing up to play the Watch The Skies Megagame last week. Maybe I’d be the Chief Scientist for France, or perhaps the Chinese Premier, helping directing essential climate change research with the world’s leading scientists, or high-stakes diplomacy with India and America.

Instead, I was dashing around a hall frantically writing quotes into Google Docs on my iPhone before a deadline that came every 40 minutes. It was like that first episode of Battlestar Galactica, but with an even shakier camera.

Excuse me, Foreign Minister, I’m Adrian Hon from GNN Press – can I get a comment on the outbreak in Belize? I’m sure our readers would like to know what kind of assistance the Chinese government will be providing. Yes, I’m aware this isn’t the kind of information you give out to anyone, but between you and me, I’ve got 11 million in commitments from three different countries. If you give me a hint… well, you could have a head-start in the next UN negotiations.

If you put a Model United Nations conference into a blender with War of the Worlds, you’d get Watch The Skies, a six hour megagame in which 40 people take control of eight nations, one news organisation, and one mysterious alien race. In our ‘Lite’ version of the game, each nation had four players: the Head of State, Chief of Defence, Chief Scientist, and Foreign Minister, each with their own unique abilities and responsibilities.

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While there’s a map with tanks and fighter jets, and there’s money and counters and cards, Watch The Skies really is more like Model UN than Risk: to achieve your objectives, you need effective diplomacy, not battle tactics and dice rolls.

There are plenty of other megagames. One is set in feudal Japan; another sees you battling a zombie outbreak. There’s even The World Turned Upside Down, about the American Revolution. There are genuine differences between megagames, but they all have the same delicate balance of roleplay, diplomacy, and utter panic.

Panic, because there’s literally no way for any individual player or even team to fully comprehend what’s really going on in the game. Sure, you’re in secret talks with the aliens and you’re plotting with Brazil and the UK to vote down France’s bid to chair the next scientific conference – but there’s no way you could know that America and China are about to move their fleets across the Pacific to capture a downed alien ship in Australia, or that Brazil is badmouthing you to all and sundry in the hopes of toppling your government.

Not unless you read the fearless, globe-trotting in-game news service, GNN, of course.

lol, jk – we didn’t know about any of it either!

I’ll admit, I was put out when my friend Matt and I were told that we’d be members of the Press in our game. I didn’t even know there was Press in Watch The Skies, and my misgivings only grew when the 15 minute introductory talk covered everyone’s role except for the Press. Eventually we were guided to a table with two ageing laptops, two laser printers, and a pack explaining just what it was we were meant to do, which was essentially:

  • Interview the players, who were motivated to talk to us because positive news stories might improve their nation’s Public Relations score, which would give them more money; negative news stories might do the opposite. ‘Might’ because we had no direct control over this mechanism, which caused some confusion later on…
  • Publish a one-sheet paper every game turn (i.e. every 40 minutes)
  • Avoid “tabloid-style shock-horror” reporting, because that’d make it easy for players to dismiss us

For a moment, I looked wistfully at the Chiefs of Defence receiving their briefing on how to deploy their armed forces on the world map, and then turned away resolutely. We might not have signed up to be Press, but by god, we would teach them what real writers were capable of.

I closed the two copies of Word they’d set up, shaking my head in disgust, and got both laptops onto the wifi, and accordingly, onto Google Docs. It wouldn’t be pretty, but with just two staff instead of a recommended three to six, our paper would have to be written and edited at lightning speed. I shared the documents not just between the two laptops but also with my iPhone, so I could write up interviews on the move without tediously emailing the text back and forth. Matt did the rounds of the nations, introducing himself as the Editor of GNN, while I grabbed a generic “GNN” logo from the web, stuck it to the top of the document. We were ready for battle.

Our first two issues were reported, written, edited, printed, and hand-delivered in just twenty minutes each, both coming out before the end of Turn 1. There was plenty to cover; Issue 1 covered the developing famine in Uganda, efforts to combat climate change, and military movements in Kazakhstan. Most players including us were still finding their feet, so everything seemed incredibly consequential, when in reality most of these events would be quickly eclipsed – for example, by the revelation that aliens existed, a sensational scoop that lead Issue 2.

This came about after I kept pressing the Japanese Prime Minister on why he was sending their navy to Australia. “Because we want to help them in these unsettled times.” What unsettled times? “You know…” Know what? “The aliens!”

I was, of course, unduly proud of myself for browbeating this poor teenager into breaking the game, and I swiftly assured him that I would always keep my sources anonymous. This didn’t stop me from parading around the hall demanding reactions from every world leader I could buttonhole, none of whom were foolish enough to take my bait.

And this is where the game broke for me, just a little bit. Within the game’s fiction, the Press weren’t truly allowed to know that aliens existed until a nation intentionally disclosed that fact in a formal game-wide announcement. Practically anything short of that prevented us from printing anything more than “lights in the sky” rumours. And as the game wore on, it became increasingly clear to that was where the real action was happening – not in the public United Nations meetings or international scientific conferences, and not even in the secret research of alien technology, but in the frantic and successful defence of Moscow against UFOs, a battle we couldn’t report on usefully.

We could ask people about the aliens, and they might answer, but there wasn’t any point because we couldn’t write about it – it was against the rules. Instead, our job became very transactional as nations came to us in the hopes of puff pieces to boost their Public Relations score, or often, to plant negative stories against their foes. This wasn’t necessarily boring, because it genuinely mattered to the game, but it felt very reactive.

We got things wrong. That’s what happens when you try to print a newspaper every 30-40 minutes with just two people. Quotes were mangled, Foreign Ministers mistaken for Defence Ministers, that sort of thing. Most players were extremely cool about it, except for one team that took a mistake extremely personally and didn’t let the matter go, even after a printed apology. Things really blew up when I told their representative I didn’t have time to interview them as I was trying to close out an issue; she said we were obviously biased against their team and that I was sexist.

It was at that point we seriously considered just walking out of the game. We’ve faced plenty of abuse in online games in the past, but not with someone literally in our faces who refused to go away. I couldn’t tell if this person was truly angry at us, or was role-playing in an unfortunate manner. Either way, this sort of behaviour is unacceptable in any game, and I’ve banned people from forums for much less.

Some games end without a public declaration of the existence of aliens. I couldn’t imagine a more abject failure as a journalist, and so it became our singular mission to force a nation into avoiding that end. Our secret weapon would be a set of cards that allowed us to peek at any Alien Technologies a nation possessed; we would blackmail a nation into playing along at the risk of our revealing all of their secrets. Failing that, we would reveal everyone’s Alien Tech and make a unilateral announcement.

Our backup plan was unnecessary, as the Chinese and British Prime Ministers agreed to our ‘proposal’ and attempted to make a joint announcement. This was against the rules, so the Brits did it on their own, and more or less instantly, their government was toppled in the resulting tidal wave of negative PR. I’m not quite sure why the ‘revealing’ nation should be punished for the announcement – surely they’d be able to spin it as being more honest and truthful than other nations? – but that’s another reason why the announcement often doesn’t happen until later in the game.

I felt bad for the Brits, but we had the lead story for Issue 6, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

With the aliens now fair game and GNN having inserted itself into the heart of world affairs, reporting became far more interesting. It emerged that the aliens had been blackmailing and negotiating with several different nations behind the scenes, all building up to humanity’s first official meeting with the ‘Conclave’, as the alien players called themselves. The US President, naturally, was invited to be humanity’s representative – and she invited GNN along as the sole other attendee to document this momentous event.

The meeting was held in secret, away from all other players, but because Matt had taken a laptop with him, a real-time transcription of the remarks appeared on our shared Google Doc. As he took down the story, I edited and formatted it so that we were ready to print as soon as they arrived ‘back from space’. Yes, I felt a real sense of journalistic pride when practically everyone in the hall poring over our Issue 7 to see what had been discussed. The US President herself used our reporting to co-ordinate an unprecedented heads-of-state meeting.

And then the world ended, not with a bang but in utter confusion. An asteroid hit Canada (something to do with the aliens trying to destroy a nascent AI hiding there, unbeknownst to apparently anyone else in the game); all the scientists ran off into a underground bunker in Siberia with unlimited food and entertainment; everyone went to Defcon 1; various representatives boarded a shuttle to exchange knowledge with the aliens, with no less than two of them carrying a suitcase nuke and a bioweapon; and that’s just the stuff I heard about in the pub afterwards.

Some players had expected a much neater conclusion, like “Aliens win, Humanity loses,” but they told me it wasn’t such a big deal that it affected their overall enjoyment of the day. I can’t say whether the game was planned to end in chaotic backstabbing; judging by other strategic games I’ve played like Diplomacy, it wouldn’t be an unusual or even an undesirable state of affairs. It might even be that the uncertainty encourages replays – certainly I’m keen to play again. Just not as the Press. At least, not for a while…

How to Play as the Press

Most people associate Watch The Skies with the political roles, so there aren’t many resources about how to play the Press. I wouldn’t say it’s essential to research the role beforehand – we didn’t – but here are some good tips from an experienced Press player, and an introductory guide for new players which also discusses the role of the Press in more detail than most roundups.

If you know you’re going to be Press, here’s how to do a good job and have fun:

  • Use Google Docs as your writing and editing platform. It scales to as many writers as you have, and it’s rock solid on the web and on phones.
  • Don’t try to make your paper look pretty; it’s more fun if you focus on publishing frequently and fast.
  • Before the game starts, introduce yourself to all the players. Tell them that you will make mistakes in reporting since you’re writing so quickly. Remind them that it’s not personal and you’re willing to print corrections.
  • Try not just publish people’s quotes and press releases. My personal best moment in the game had nothing to do with aliens, but was when used a nugget of information to bargain to get more and more, and ultimately to change the course of a UN funding resolution. Every player wants to know the inside story, and you can give it to them.
  • People will lie to you. It happens. Don’t take it personally.
  • If you have a few players on your team, assign them to specific beats. Rotating between them is fine, but you’ll build better relationships and get better stories this way.
  • Set up an inbox for written press releases and notes. If you’re frantically writing a story and have a queue of people waiting to talk to you, tell them to write you a note.

Thoughts on Organising Press

With the caveat that I’ve only played a single megagame and possibly don’t know what I’m talking about, here are a few ideas on how to best organise Press teams in megagames. Many of these will not be new, and some are just pointing out best practice:

Larger megagames with over a hundred players can benefit from multiple Press teams. This makes the game far more interesting, especially for the Press, who’ll now be focused on competing against other outlets for scoops and readers, rather than on making trouble.

Printing a newspaper won’t scale for large numbers of teams. It’s easy to forget to deliver a paper, and frankly, it’s not environmentally friendly to be printing several hundred of pages that are just going to be thrown away. Large games will sometimes display a liveblog or Twitter feed on a projector; here’s a liveblog example from the Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos Wide Area Megagame. In this case, the liveblog was set up to cater for megagames set up in multiple cities/locations occurring simultaneously (hence the “wide area”).

Liveblogs are well-suited to megagames, as you can publish stories instantly. In our game, we wanted to have enough news to fill an A4 sheet, which meant that stories we reported early in an issue’s cycle were often out of date by the time we’d handed them out. The downside is that it’s easier to miss or ignore updates on a projector screen. I suppose you could give teams dedicated news tablets or TV screens, but then things are getting mighty expensive.

Moreover, technology can stop working in ways that pieces of paper do not. It’s very easy for a network router to fall over when a few dozen people try to connect to it, or for a poorly-configured blog to become unresponsive when a few hundred people are refreshing it every few seconds. These are all solvable problems, providing you prepare well, have good technical support, and a solid backup plan.

All Press teams should have a Tips Line, whether it’s an email or Twitter account, or a physical dropbox. It’d provide relief for overworked reporters, along with overanxious diplomats who want to make sure they’re quoted perfectly.

Most importantly, while I’ve suggested that Press teams pre-emptively ask for players’ forgiveness in case of mistakes, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to enforce good behaviour. The game administrators must read out a short but clear Code of Conduct before the start of play, requiring that everyone act respectfully towards each other.

New Avenues

As far as I can tell, megagames are not a big business. Oddly, I don’t think it’s for lack of demand, because whenever games are announced, they tend to sell out very quickly. The problem is that megagames are few and far between – and presumably the reason for that is because they’re not very profitable. I can guess a few reasons:

  • Too many staff/volunteers required. Our game had around 4-5 volunteers plus 3-4 venue staff. That’s almost one staff member to every five players. It’s hard to find that many volunteers on short notice outside of games conventions, and if you wanted to hold games regularly, you’d need to pay them a proper wage.
  • Venues are hard to find. You need a decent sized hall to accommodate 50-100 players, and many halls don’t like people to bring their own food and snacks, as megagame players are understandably keen to do (to avoid spending any time away from the game).
  • Income is too low. We were charged £30 for six hours of entertainment, which feels way too low. I would increase that to £50-60, and offer a discounted student/young persons’ rate.

These are tough problems, but they’re not impossible to solve. Here’s what I’d do if I were setting up a megagame business:

  • Find a dedicated venue in a major city like London, New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, or San Francisco. A dedicated venue means you can invest in atmosphere-enhancing and labour-saving technology like screens, projectors, and tablets. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short lease because you’re just testing out the concept for a few weeks.
  • Run games every day: a 3 hour game on Mondays-Fridays, and two 4-5 hour games on the weekends. You need to make the most of your venue and you can’t do that just on weekends.
  • Encourage repeat visits. Unlike escape rooms, megagames can provide novel experiences even with exactly the same setup, because the players and roles will be completely different. What’s more, changing the scenario of a game (e.g. Zombie Outbreak vs. Alien Invasion) is nowhere as difficult as tearing down an escape room.
  • Use technology where it counts – not to replace face-to-face contact, but to distribute news, provide help and support, and announce the start and end of turns.
  • Make a deal with Shut Up and Sit Down to promote your new business. It was their series of videos (original, sequel) that motivated most of the players at our game to come along, and there’s no underestimating their influence.

I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of VR and Twitch streaming, and I’ve long wondered about designing a Zombies, Run!-themed running megagame/LARP. But those will have to wait for another day…

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