Social Proof and Sock Puppetry

In the ARG and transmedia communities, it's generally and broadly agreed that sock puppets are a terrible thing and you should never, ever, ever use them. In this context, sock puppets are personas under the control of the game dev team, either created specifically for that purpose, or sometimes friends of the team recruited for that purpose. They usually present as genuine members of the out-of-game player community, but speak the words the game design team want or need to be spoken.


Accusing a game of sock puppetry is serious. Getting caught engaging in sock puppetry is a high crime and will lose you a significant quantity of goodwill. But does it have to be this way? ...Maybe not. Or at least not always.


Killing Engagement


The appeal in sock puppetry is easy to see from the dev team's perspective. If you see your playerbase veering off into a catastrophically wrong track, or if you've painted yourself into a corner with a plot element or puzzle, and you just really, really need someone to say or do the exact right thing in the next hour or your whole house of cards will collapse, then just pretending you're a player doing the one right thing that needs doing is seductively easy.


Heck, sometimes you don't even need to set up a sock puppet; you can just say that somebody has done something necessary, when really nobody has. 


But when you do this, you're robbing your audience of agency. The entire point of creating a social media drama is to provide that feeling of participation -- that what the audience says and does and thinks actually matters. By just giving away the answers, so to speak, you're creating a situation in which you have shut the door on meaningful player involvement. Why on earth would you shoot yourself in the foot on purpose?


There's another wrinkle, too. If you create a fully fleshed-out player persona (say, to help manage group dynamics in a game) and it ever comes out, some members of your audience will feel deceived and betrayed. I understand there are arguments about artistic integrity that demand a designer do this. If you subscribe to this point of view, be aware that you are playing with fire. Don't be surprised if your reputation burns to the ground.


Ah, clever Andrea, if sock puppetry is so bad, then, what do you do when you're in a pinch? The solution is "never let yourself get put in this position." Easier said than done, friends. 


I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: Always structure your game with some avenue for getting the game back on track without resorting to sock puppetry. At every point in your plot, you need to scrutinize your structure to make sure you've left yourself a legitimate escape route, if it should come to that.


Let's say you absolutely must include a puzzle in which your audience must decipher a dying character's very last words, and your plot will fall dead in its tracks if this thing is not done. First: Don't do that. Just don't. Try to write around it.


Failing that, leave yourself room for the arrival of a letter that had been lost in the post for a few weeks, the discovery of some jotted notes on a napkin at the bottom of a desk, something.


Better yet, prepare for your audience to fail from time to time. Sometimes it's good to let them fail, and even intentionally set them up to do so -- nothing amps up the tension in your story so well or quickly as the feeling that something is at stake, and it might be lost.


Social Proof


There are other uses for sock puppets than faking solves and riding herd on group dynamics. Times and places where a little sock puppetry can even provide a key element to your experience! You can use them to provide social proof.


Social proof is the demonstration that something has been done or thought before by other people. The need for social proof is why few people like to be the first person to ask a question in class. It's why shows with a laugh track are rated as funnier by test audiences. It's why you have a better chance of finding a job or a date if you have one already.


Social proof is an important thing in a reality-based game. Sometimes the actions a player is asked to take in the real world -- calling a telephone number, picking up a dead drop, playing poker in a cemetery -- are kind of scary if they don't know that someone else is doing them, too. So you provide a little social proof. If you at least hint that somebody else is already doing a thing, you remove a huge psychological barrier to allowing your audience to relax and participate.


This is why so many games try to get players to blog, shoot video, take photos of their participation. You're creating social proof of involvement, which in turn makes it easier for other players to become involved. I posit that it isn't so bad to create content for the purpose of getting a ball rolling.


Walking the Line


I don't think I'd get much argument that creating social proof for your game is an inherently bad thing to do, certainly not tantamount to sock puppetry as it is commonly considered, even though the two practices have a lot of surface commonalities. So where are the lines between the one and the other?


There are two questions to ask yourself to determine whether you're setting yourself up for a rousing session of torches and pitchforks.


  1. Are you opening doors for further participation from your players, or are you closing them?

  2. Are you forming relationships with the community in which the players have a legitimate expectation that your persona is a real person?


If you are, through your actions, creating more opportunity for involvement going forward, and you aren't actively deceiving people, I think you're in the clear.


But what about you? Have you ever found a little sock puppetry necessary? How did it go down? And would you draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable differently than I have? I'm absolutely sure I haven't covered this exhaustively, and this is something of a touchy topic. Weigh in and let me know what you think!

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