This blog post is up late because I’ve been in Los Angeles for a week, attending Wyrd Con, a convention of participatory culture.
One of the more interesting conventions I’ve attended, Wyrd Con combined both panels on larp, transmedia and alternate reality games (ARGs; more on this later) with innovative convention larps and ARGs. In the mornings, you could learn about gaming theory; in the afternoons, you could practice it.
Wyrd Con is only in its third year, but the mix of theory and practicum, of intriguing game line-up, high production values, and interesting people, made this convention one of my favorites. Although it’s still developing its identity, it’s got loads of promise, and if it were closer to me, on the east coast, I’d be there every year. It’d be a great choice of con for Nordic larpers wanting to experience the arty American way.
Enough with the preliminaries, on to the good stuff, subtitled, because I broke the blogging rule and wrote a long post.
Team transmedia — a friendly tribe almost uniformly dressed in black clothing or business casual — could be found watching panels or networking at the hotel bar and other locales I failed to uncover. I don’t think I’ve ever given away all the business cards I’m carrying, but it happened here thanks to team transmedia.
Meanwhile, team larper chilled largely on the lower level, where most of the games ran. Easily identifiable by their jeans, T-shirts, and/or crazy costuming, they spent the convention playing and/or talking about games.
The staff’s attitude was very laid back and welcoming; this was the most photographed/media-ized convention I’ve been to; I liked that there was a staff member dedicated to liaising with GMs before their larp events.
Awesome Game Designers Who Happen to be Women
Coolest thing about Wyrd Con: SO MANY women designers on the transmedia and larp sides. I talked with some transmedia ladies, who told me that their field has almost half women designers, and many women spoke on panels. On the larp side of things, while the player base was about 40% female, women ran MORE THAN HALF THE GAMES.
What I Learned About Transmedia
The stuff I know about transmedia probably wouldn’t fill a teaspoon, so take my comments with a bucket full of Cthulhu guts. I did get a nice introduction to both transmedia and alternate reality games (ARGs).
For starters, defining “transmedia” is a little like defining “freeform” — ask three people and you’ll get seven definitions with different details. Near as I can tell, it seems to mean something like multimedia storytelling, using different platforms to tell one story, begging the question — is something like this interactive piece on Darfur transmedia storytelling? I wonder whether there’s a requirement of interactive-ness inherent in transmedia, and if so, whether this Darfur piece meets the bar. Clicking isn’t enough on the ARG side of things, that’s for sure — alternate reality games seem to require some sort of deeper engagement.
What I Learned About ARGs
Before this convention, my main understanding of ARGs game from a couple essays and this video on the Conspiracy for Good, which I learned about on my trip to Knudepunkt 2011. (Sidenote: the Nordic folk who helped make this have a new ARG about to launch).
Thanks to the panel, ARG 101: An Introduction to Alternate Reality Gaming, moderated by John Greg Gomez with speakers Bret Shefter, April Arrlington, and Maria Alexander, I learned a bit more about ARGs, including some of the terminology. The entrance to an ARG, the “rabbit hole,” is often not publicized or is deliberately hidden. For example, in The Beast (2001), a game produced for Stephen Spielberg’s A.I., designers hid one rabbit hole in the movie poster, listing Jeanine Salla as “Sentient Machine Therapist” in the credits. Googling her name sent players to the start of the game.
ARGs often produce a “hive mind,” a collective of individuals working together from disparate locations to solve a puzzle, from hacking into a website, to assembling information dispersed widely in time and space by the designers. Players collect information stashed in various media — websites, real world locations, via phone calls, tweets, in online video, etc — and piece it together to solve puzzles that then reveal new bits of the story — like an elaborate scavenger hunt.
ARGs are also pervasive, and at times conflate the real world and the game world, as in the game Red Cloud Rising, where I mistook a nasty sodden pair of pants wadded up on a NYC park bench as a potential clue. This plays into the “this is not a game” aesthetic, also characteristic of ARGs, which I didn’t fully understand as a concept. This is not a game seems to involve telling players that the game is not a game, which contributes to an ARG’s pervasiveness, but it also seems to refer to a linguistic point. ARGs aren’t games in the proper sense because they aren’t closed systems with rules that are defined, rather, the playing of the game helps define the rules and the narrative.
I left the panel with a number of questions, later discussed with a couple of transmedia folk — have standard structures for ARG narratives emerged, ways of defining beginning middle and end? (Answer: no, all ARGs are different, though they do use common sorts of puzzles.)
As ARGs are a participatory medium, I’m also intrigued by what counts as participation — at first glance, it seems like ARGs create railroad narratives that shepherd players through a pre-determined story. Of course, the players can solve puzzles and unlock the narrative quickly or slowly, and the bonds they make with co-players would influence the experience, but I wonder how much control players have over the narrative. Are ARGs susceptible to the criticism levied at Sleep No More, that nothing you do really matters when it comes to changing the story’s outcome? Or are some ARGs more open-ended?
The panel also recited some of the history of ARGs, the big canonical games that influenced their brethren. Made me wish for a Nordic Larp–style book documenting the most important games from this nascent medium.
The Purposes of Transmedia
Jeff Gomez gave an awesome keynote that covered his stirring life story, and how he’s used roleplaying games on a personal level to keep himself happy, and on a professional level, using his knowledge of how characters work to advise companies like Disney. He also gives seminars and has produced curricula aimed at helping kids overcome personal difficulties.
To me, this opened up questions about the goals and potential goals of ARGs. Most ARGs appear to be tie-ins designed, at core, as advertising that intrigues consumers and pulls them in (in contrast to traditional “push” advertising, which is forced on consumers in the form of TV commercials, website ads, etc).
The way team transmedia talked about their projects mirrored this — rather than discussing the story, the novel, the movie, they talked about developing a “property.” This terminology is interesting both because it’s neutral — it doesn’t commit to one medium over any other, leaving the end product open — and because it also emphasizes the commercial value of creative endeavor, transforming it into a commodity that can be monetized.
As a writer, I believe artists deserve to be paid — handsomely paid — for their work. And certainly, partnering with a corporation to tell a story and advertise wares is a natural fit. But certainly, it’s not the only way to do transmedia storytelling (though perhaps it is the only sustainable way?). I mean, look at writing. I can write advertising copy to sell stuff, I can write newspaper columns to inform people, I can write essays to persuade politically, and short stories to get across an artistic vision. These different sorts of writing all pay different amounts, but the opportunities are available.
For this reason, it intrigued me that I mostly heard about corporate opportunities. I can’t tell whether that is a facet of creating an ARG — it requires lots of investment (of time and money) to get the player base, and to create the types of puzzles that will interest players over the game’s timeframe, so corporate funding is required — or whether it’s a facet of the community as it now stands, and these other niches are yet to come. To me, the ability of ARGs to activate an audience and move it to action suggests some interesting possibilities. What about a game designed to turn out more voters? To uncover contemporary injustice? To enthuse participants about supporting their local art communities?
Jeff Gomez suggested I check out Shankaboot, a Lebanese webseries with a transmedia component aimed at highlighting artists throughout the Middle East. Are there other projects I should know about?
I kept busy during the convention. I gave a talk on Dungeons & Dragons as the American dream, based on my paper in this year’s Solmukohta book, States of Play (free download at the link), and on some content from the blog.
I also ran the jeepform games Previous Occupants and Doubt, as well as an Ars Amandi workshop with six players that went well enough for three of them to come play in a Doubt pickup. So I kept busy. And now I’ve run Doubt like eight gazillion times. (Check out Amanda Mielke’s photos of the Previous Occupants game here, #125 through 322.)
I sold a handful of copies of Leaving Mundania too — after all, I was on book tour.
Friday night, I participated in an insanely fun run of Kirsten Hageleit’s Sunken Places, in which the players forestall a war between elves and goblins by designing a game — to be played by disinterested players with no concept of the stakes — to decide the outcome of their conflict. It’s a game about making a game and getting other people to play it. After the characters create “the game” they grab random con-goers to play it. I was one of them.
The Sunken Places characters wanted us to interact with the convention, so we had a fun time scavenging for players with various costume items, posing and photographing costumed folk to resemble the art deco tarot cards we’d been given, and going on a pictorial treasure hunt.
In the evenings, the convention had a spate of larp-themed films running in one of the rooms. While I missed Lloyd the Conqueror, I caught the amusing if somewhat gender-straitjacketed Marital Combat, a 25-minute high-production film about a fighting couple stranded inside a larp, filmed at a game many of the audience participated in. The evening also introduced me to my favorite larpy web series to date, Walking in Circles, a comedy about a D&D party that can’t find its way home.
Wyrd Con was a great place to meet folks interested in larp with more serious themes, folks intrigued by art larp. A bunch of us found each other and pow-wowed on Saturday night, talking larp theory, plans for new games, and organizing strategy. Kirsten Hageleit started a tradition too with an informal rant, “when I ask about your character I don’t want to know everything about your character.”
We argued too, about where this scene is going and whether it’s really sustainable, and we liaised with folks more interested in boffer games, and found some common ground. I felt tremendously enthused — we’d doubled our number by the end of the convention, a sure sign of interesting things to come out of the US.
- This con wasn’t as wild and crazy as other cons I’ve been to. That meant people slept and were even capable of holding intelligent discussions at all times of day
- Wyrd Con had lot of polish, from the convention badges, to the documentary photographers and media presence, to the technical acumen displayed on the panels.
- Not much gnarly long hair, or as many hipster outfits carefully designed to look nonchalant. I saw calculated haircuts, crisp blazers, weird jewelry, and almost everyone made some sort of idiosyncratic statement with their dress. Folks seemed more conscious of the image they were projecting to the world.
- Diversity! Holla! My local scene is largely, but not exclusively, white. I found it refreshing to see that love of geekery cuts across racial boundaries — a substantial contingent of Black, Asian, and Hispanic participants attended. It’s either a reflection of the area’s demographics, or Wyrd Con should share its secret weapon of inclusiveness with the rest of us.
- Many of the larps that I didn’t get to play looked fascinating, from J. Li’s emotional drama The Lake (as Aaron Vanek pointed out, she seems to have invented Nordic larp in a vaccuum) to Mike Tice’s Death in Valhalla, a murder mystery involving the Norse gods that used logic as a mechanic and scored rave reviews from its players. There was an arcade-style boffer mod and an ARG undvertised in the elevator. Some of the most intriguing, mechanics-light games I’ve seen at conventions.
- Fascinating conversation with David J. Peterson, who created the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Apparently, the way to make a new language is to start with a proto-language and evolve it. (Easier said than done). He and his wife, both linguists, knew a ton about how language has evolved (surprise!), and explained it with great facility. Apparently, a lot of people into language creation start during childhood.
- This con had a good mix of people, academics, industry professionals, larpers, and organizers.
- Highly recommended.
Other Wyrd Con write-ups:
- How To Larp Blog
- Amanda Mielke’s lovely photos
- Description of Sunken Places, with photos of tarot card re-creations
- Live Game Lab’s Recap
Seen other Wyrd Con debriefs? Did I get something wrong about transmedia? Have a game I ought to know about? Post ’em in the comments.