Imagine a world where oil reserves are running out and you must cope by developing alternative ways of getting through your day. Some people might call that reality, but it's also the premise of an upcoming Alternate Reality Game,"World Without Oil," set to launch April 30. This game has been on the radar for a while (at least, I started hearing whispers about this game back in February), and it's already gotten a lot of coverage thanks mainly to Jane McGonigal's mentioning it at her GDC keynote. She also discusses it in a fascinating interview with Gamasutra. With an acknowledged star like Jane and a timely and interesting premise, this game has a lot going for it, and even hearing Jane talk about it gives me great hope for the genre and for gaming in general.
Some details about the game are still sketchy, but so far it's benefitted from a fairly transparent curtain between the puppetmasters and players, which in this case is a good thing. The ARG's premise involves an impending "oil shock" which will happen on April 30 (when the game begins). 8 individuals who met each other while snowed in at the Denver airport know about this impending event and believe that once it hits, something will have to be done to save our. I'm guessing that that something is probably where we come in.
The website has a number of top-notch sponsors listed, including Independent Lens, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and besides Jane, we also know that Ken Eklund (a.k.a. Writerguy) is behind the scenes. So in one sense, there's no question that this is a game, which may suggest that this is not strictly an ARG, or at least not a traditional one. In fact, the website, Eklund's resume, and the various news stories about it make sure to use the term "Alternate Reality." To me, this suggests two things, both of which are probably good:
1) People already know what ARGs are. There's no need to fiddle around with "Media Experience" or "Immersive Entertainment," lots of people have at least heard of ilovebees, so they have a pretty good idea of what to expect from something called an Alternate Reality Game. This is important because I think (hope) we're entering a new phase for the genre where games can get better at what ARGs are good at, rather than everything being about novelty and experimentation. Once Alternate Reality Gaming as a generally perceived concept can get well enough past the "Oh Gee, what's this!" factor, we'll see better and better games.
2) The tension of disbelief or "This Is Not A Game" effect (TINAG), still seems to exist, but instead of achieving this ambiguity by withholding information (e.g., their identities), the PMs have a premise which is so closely tied to reality that otherwise out-of-game news reinforces the premise and essentially becomes part of the game itself.
I think that kind of boundary crossing is going to become important to playing the game because Jane dropped something really intriguing in her Gamasutra interview:
That sounds like a really difficult balance to strike, but if anyone can do it, I'd say Jane and her team can.
The other – and perhaps more obvious – angle I find really interesting and encouraging is the way this game sets out to actually change player's lives. Regardless of how the plot unfolds and how the game itself works, it's clear that some aspect of playing this game will involve doing things that are good to do anyway. Unlike the "Planet Green Game," which attempts to influence players' behavior by presenting them with impressive facts, WWO has the potential to influence behavior by making a game out of it. It's not simply that WWO will encourage us to transfer our conservation/survival skills from its made-up world back into our real world. Instead, with WWO, our reality itself becomes a game, and eco-friendly behavior is not simply a moral or political obligation impressed upon us by the persuasiveness of the evidence, now, it's also play.
If you're interested in playing (and you should be) there's a player wiki set up at Oilless.info by thebruce, and the unForums' trailhead thread is up to about 12 pages. Don't let that intimidate you, though. Most of the discussion so far is players talking about how excited they are about this game.
For my part, I'm hoping to play as much as I can, and if there are community or team-based activities involved, I'd very much like to get together with people around Gainesville. I accidentally got a head start today by missing my bus and deciding on a whim to just walk the remaining 5 miles to school rather than ride my bike. I discovered a new greenway/boardwalk that made a decent shortcut, and I had a nice conversation with a lady from New Hampshire. If you know me, you know that casual conversation with strangers is not something I do that well or that often, but today I was glad that being forced to forego gas-based transportation gave me that opportunity, and I suspect that this is the kind of experience the puppetmasters are hoping for.