Cloudmaker Nostalgia

My good friend and fellow Cloudmaker Jay Bushman has written a beautiful and incredibly well-documented account of what it was like to be a Cloudmaker during the A.I. Game, or The Beast, or whatever you want to call it. Go read it. If you were a Cloudmaker, read it twice.

I was treated to a special sneak preview of this piece before it went up, and my eyes were so clouded by memory that I had no criticism to offer at the time. Even now, the only thing I have to add is a sort of coda about the aftermath of Cloudmakers.

When the game was over, we -- or at least I -- felt a profound sense of loss. That was partly because we were drunk on the experience, and when it was over, we couldn't be sure if that lightning would ever strike us again. That one factor drove many of us into making stories of our own.

But it was also because the daily life of work-sleep-school-shower became a kind of dream for some of us while the game was on. It was less intense and less rewarding, after all, than the amazing thing we were going through together. While I didn't suffer as a result, I did have friends who did. In response, I wrote the essay Deep Water, a plea for designers and participants in a pervasive story to be careful what we ask of one another.

In a sense, my work today trying to untangle knotty issues like the ethics of a pervasive game is a spiritual descendant of that same concern.


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Choice of Gender Roles

Are you familiar with Choice of Games? If not, you should be; they make light choose-your-own-adventure style interactive fiction for web browser and mobile device. It's a fun and timely concept, and I aspire to write a ChoiceScript game as my next indie personal project. (Full disclosure: One of the team members, Dan Fabulich, is an old friend of mine and a fellow Cloudmakers moderator.)

Thus far they've only done a couple of games in-house. In Choice of the Dragon, you get to live a titular life of treasure-hoarding and wizard-eating; in Choice of Broadsides, you're a young commanding officer aboard a naval vessel. 

Their approach to gender in their games is very, very interesting; in Choice of Broadsides, they essentially created two separate versions of the game -- one with a traditional patriarchal structure for men to play, and one with a gender-flipped matriarchal society for women. It's well-intentioned, to be sure, but the idea ultimately leaves me a little uneasy. 

I'm Not a Man But I Play One on Xbox

Here's the thing; in Choice of Broadsides, the male half of the game happens in... let's face it, in the real world, or in an historical variant thereof. The female universe is fictional. Never existed, never will. So the woman's version becomes a work of fantasy rather than historic fiction right off the bat. But more, swapping the gender roles and power dynamics to put the female in the more powerful position is... well, in a way, it's denying me a legitimate female experience in that world. This makes me sad.

A lot of games -- I am looking at you, Fable 2 -- give you the choice of playing as a female character in the same exact world. But that choice is basically a choice of avatar, and for the most part, the world doesn't react to your female-ness in any meaningful sense. You might as well be a man with breasts strapped on.

You may all be tired of hearing me talk about Dragon Age by now, but one of the things I found so captivating about that game was the overt sexism of some characters. It was incredibly satisfying to me to have a character take a dismissive attitude of me in the game, because I was a woman -- as in real life -- and have the power in the game to rise above it and prove them wrong, in a way I don't always have the courage or capacity to do in real life.

It bears noting that historical romance is a very popular genre. I speculate that part of the reason is the underlying power dynamic, where a woman in a position of relatively little social power nonetheless manages to get her heart's desire in the end. This is a very powerful fantasy.

Socially Just Fiction

Well then, what's the right way to do it? There are three basic approaches to dealing with sexism in fiction.

1. Telling your story in a sexism-free, utopian society.

2. Mirroring the gender-soaked world we live in.

3. The novel Choice of Games approach of reversing gender roles. 

Each of these has a terrible disadvantage. The utopian society won't feel true and can't address difficult issues; mirroring our world supports the notion that our current state of gender affairs is just how things are, and how they will be. And reversing gender roles can ultimately leave you with a series of games where you never really get the experience of playing as a woman, because the world never really lets you be a woman; it lets you be a man with some hand-waving around babies and pronouns.

It's not easy to be an activist and put yourself on the hook to speak out when you find injustice. But as difficult as that is, it's a lot harder to try to write good interactive content when you're trying to do the right thing, because there is literally no decision you can make that will leave you free of criticism -- well, short of just not making anything at all. And who wants that?

Walk a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes

There's a compelling counter-example to my criticism in the upcoming Choice game, Choice of the Consort. As I understand it, the default experience of the new game is actually the woman's experience, specifically as a woman who has attracted the attention of a philandering king. And so the flipped universe is the reverse of the Choice of Broadsides situation -- men are being placed in the shoes of the less-powerful sex. 

It definitely takes the tooth out of a lot of my criticism, because creating games where the initial or intended play experience is that of both genders is way less problematic than creating games where the default is always for men. Does the switch rob the men of the experience of playing as a man? Yeah, kind of. But at least both genders are getting the shaft in equal measures.

I find that far more interesting than building a matriarchal navy, in terms of ingenuity and ambition. As with the controversial FPS Hey, Baby, by putting a man in a woman's shoes and stripping him of gender privilege, it may shed light on something he never thought of that way before. Maybe it'll even subtly change a few hearts and minds against casual sexism. Stranger things have happened.

And finally: Kudos to Choice of Games for taking steps to address gender concerns in the first place. Indeed, they go a mile further, and are working hard to account for gay relationships, as well, which require additional layers of thought and world-building in their historical settings. 

And all criticism aside, every time we have this conversation, it helps a little more, and we all get a little better. I'm glad they're out there and taking this stuff seriously. 

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Unlocking Cloudmakers

It might surprise you to know that the old Cloudmakers Yahoo! group is still there. It's been dormant for years, of course, and we've locked it down to protect against spammers. But every now and again, I still get an email from somebody asking for their pending membership to be approved.

That happened today, and it got me to thinking that maybe there's a better solution.

See, the Yahoo! group is host to a lot of legacy information -- files and data that were created by the Cloudmakers when we were actively playing the Beast. But there's no way to make that information publicly viewable; the Yahoo! group simply doesn't have the right settings. 

So I'm thinking about copying the files and databases and slapping 'em up on a simple legacy page here on my blog (or, potentially, adding it to the archival material at, a better solution but not one I can implement by myself.) I feel like this would be a public good, taking a significant piece of our community's history and making it more accessible.

But given my Facebook stance of late, I'm also very sensitive to the idea that this might be a violation of privacy. So I'm taking it to you, the public, many of whom are Cloudmakers. Do you see a violation of trust or privacy if I were to mirror the locked Cloudmakers data elsewhere? 

...even the nightmare database?

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The Shredded Curtain

I like to make a joke about ARG developers being descended from underpants gnomes. This is a joke that works on two levels, and one of them is on my mind a lot lately, so please bear with me while I deconstruct it and render it completely unfunny.

The first level is pretty easy. For those of you who run ARG studios, the business model of the South Park underpants gnome may seem uncannily familiar:

1: Collect underpants
2: ???
3: Profit!

And sometimes that's exactly what it feels like we're doing, right? We're building awesome things and hoping that eventually, we'll work out how to make a living that way.

But the other thing underpants gnomes and ARG developers share, and the thing I'm here to talk about today, is secrecy. More specifically, that idea of puppetmasters hiding behind a curtain.

Secrecy has been a constant companion since the giddy days of the Cloudmakers, when we didn't know what the heck was going on, didn't know who was doing it, and loved every delicious minute of that uncertainty. Part of the fun for us was trying to catch the people behind this game-that-wasn't-a-game!

But this had a lot of pretty terrible side effects, from the actor at a live event who was followed into his off-duty life, clear to the internal strife over whether looking at packing slips for a return address was in the bounds and the spirit of the game... or not. It was exciting, I'll give you that. It was mysterious.

But it has to stop.

As alternate reality gaming reaches an increasing level of maturity and sophistication, not to mention pop-culture notoriety, there are a few incredibly compelling reasons that the habit and tradition of secrecy, of hiding the development team behind a curtain, is no longer sustainable. I'll even go further: That tradition has reached a point where it actively works against the interests of the genre, not to mention against the interests of any specific game.

Here's a prime example. There's a familiar song I see in comment threads about ARGs on places like io9 or BoingBoing, or in private chats, or in emails from friends. "I'd love to play an ARG," the lyrics go, "but I've got no idea how to find one."

It should go without saying that finding an audience is one of the top goals of an ARG. If you don't have an audience... well, you're just spitting into the wind, aren't you? So why has the convention persisted of not actually telling a potential audience that you're going to make something awesome and hey, you might want to pay attention, y'all?

Because it breaks the curtain? Because it's alien to our viral-marketing heritage? Because it admits there's a game? Shh... I have a secret for you. They already know it's a game. There aren't legions of wide-eyed innocents out there who think they're really finding kidnapping victims, infiltrating secret societies, or collaring insane artificial intelligences. No, really! There have even been games -- sequels and serials like Chasing and Catching the Wish and the Eldritch Errors series spring to mind -- where the players already know who's behind the game, and it doesn't seem to have hurt anything.

And here's another consideration, too, for those of us who are trying to build reputations, careers, and if I may be so bold, fan followings. If somebody is dying to see your next work, absolutely slobbering over the chance to participate in your next creative act -- go on, tell them what it is. You don't get bonus points for hewing to some pure ideal about rabbit holes and organic discovery of the experience. You just get a smaller audience to start with, and you risk the chance that a lot of people who'd love to play your game -- if only they knew it was your game -- are going to miss out.

There's one more consideration, too. If you can be open about who you are and what your work is, when catastrophe strikes (as it always does), you can open a channel of communication to deal with it. You can provide technical support for a Flash interface that isn't performing as well as it tested. You can apologize because your ISP was struck by lightning and you're having to rebuild three days of data. You can tell everybody that the live event scheduled for tomorrow is going to have to be pushed back a week because, sorry guys, but I have to go to my grandma's funeral, and anyway the actor you were going to meet, that you've seen on video fifty times already, has broken both legs and is in traction for the foreseeable future.

It's more elegant to write these things into the game. That should always be the first tactic. But some things really just won't work in the context of the story you're trying to tell... and that's totally OK. My experience is that your audience is going to be a lot easier on you than you ever will be on yourself. So cut yourself a break.

Am I saying that everything about an ARG has to be broadcast far and wide before play begins? No, of course not. That's ridiculous. Movie studios keep production details under lock and key, even while promoting the names of the stars, the directors, the screenwriters. Video games announce release dates far in advance, allowing the players to budget their purchasing decisions (and for some dedicated gamers, time off work). There's not a lot of reason for ARGs to have a different standard, and a lot of reason not to.

The good news, of course, is that secrecy in ARGs is increasingly going out of fashion, anyway. I'm making a big show of calling out the practice, but the battle's already been won -- so much so, in fact, that I can easily name several instances where the cat's been out of the bag during the run, or even before, from the last few weeks alone. Obviously Six to Start announced The Shadow War ahead of time. True Blood had an article outing them in the New York Times. Luce's Lover's Eye, mere days after its ARGfest trailhead, was profiled by ABC News as being an effort by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Alpha Agency is experimenting with blogging about the run, during the run.

Now we just have to overcome that underpants-gnome-like business model...

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The Good Captain in Review

A few weeks ago, The Good Captain, an adaptation of a Herman Melville story for Twitter, finally wrapped up. This story was written by Jay Bushman of The Loose-Fish Project.

The surprising thing about the Good Captain was how quickly it became a thread positively thrumming with tension. At first, it was admittedly a little difficult to follow the story, and I found myself tracking back frequently to make sure I really understood what was going on. But after the first several updates, as the scene was set and the story proper got underway, I began to learn some valuable lessons about tension and pacing.

The lesson is this: Giving your audience only the sparest taste at once with long pauses in between amps up the tension in a story like nobody's business. I should've known this from my Cloudmakers days, of course. That game primarily updated on Tuesdays, and the community would whip itself into a frenzy with anticipation of new content each week. But as it turns out, this effect works with more modest amounts of content, as well, and maybe even better.

That's because the anticipation gives each tiny piece a disproportionate significance. If I had been able to read this story straight through, I would have breezed through sentences like "Now I feel silly and I chuckle at myself. Dziga’s jumpiness must be getting to me." But when it's all I had to add to the story at once, I would find myself sifting through the story in my head word by word, trying to work out where it was all going. Was it foreshadowing? Was it a sign that something was about to happen? Could I take it at face value? What the heck was going on, here?!

And so this medium, tiny bites of story delivered intermittently, provided a fantastic vehicle for delivering incrementally more and more tense bits of story, and then, at the end, unwinding it all in a few short days with the final explanation.

Good work, guys. Can't wait to see your next one.

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