Sunday, October 8, 2006

Virtual Alternate Reality Game (VARG): A Proposal

Three things that are in my head...

...and what happend when they smashed together.

I'm currently reading "The Night Watch," by Sergei Lukyanenko. It's a neat fantasy book about vampires and witches and sorcerors in modern day Moscow. Originally written in Russian, now in English. Fun stuff. It supposes a system by which all folks with supernatural powers of any kind, called "Others," are bound by a treaty so that there won't be a huge war that wipes out most of mandkind and earth and them and various bad things like that. So that's in my head; a world with another level of secret "stuff" going on. A battle in another magical dimension that takes place all around us.

Two. I'm almost always thinking, at some level or another, about Second Life. Although I don't play it much anymore, it still fascinates me. That plus the fact that anytime anyone with an actual company starts an account, the press release gets picked up in the media. But one of the reasons I stopped playing was that it had become, for me, a glorified, very pretty, chat room. And I've got plenty of people to chat with IRL, at work, at home, in IM, on email and on the blogs I frequent. Bumping into random people, faeries, furries, Goreans and mechs is fun... but I really have/had other stuff I should be working on. If there had only been a real "purpose" or more of a "game" to SL, I might have stayed on longer and done more. I hear that frequently from other folks, too. I tried becoming more of a builder at one point, to see if that would do the trick. But the 3D system in-game, while amazing for being free and letting you build your own content for a VW... well, it's still tricky and often cludgey. And you basically have to own land to really get the most out of it. And you then need to go use Photoshop to make textures. Which is a bit of a busman's holiday for me. And then you need to do scripting/programming for your stuff. And then I'm tired. So I just sit around at the bottom of an ocean and chat with people who look like large cats. What to do in Second Life?

Three: One of the blogs I keep an eye on, and have marked over there -- >, is InfoCult. Bryan talks about lots of neat stuff, but one of his frequent topics is Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs. From the Wikipedia definition:

An alternate reality game (ARG) is a type of game that overlaps the game world with reality, by utilizing real world media, in order to deliver an interactive narrative experience to the players -- a kind of surrealism. ARGs are typified by involving the players with the story and its characters, by encouraging them to explore the story, solve plot based challenges, and interact with game characters. ARGs can be delivered via websites, email, telephones, or any other means of communication which is readily available to the players.

There have been a number of famous ARGs in recent years. See the Wikipedia link above if you're interested or the ARGN Network, and bookmark Bryan's blog for ongoing coverage. It's fascinating stuff. But the basic idea of a game that goes on using real world media and events, intertwined with the same tools we use for work and other play... that's been in my head, too. So...

The Virtual Alternate Reality Game (VARG)

So... What if a group of people were to take the ARG motif to Second Life? I mean, lots of groups have all kinds of explicit alternate realities going on inside SL; they do Star Wars builds, they have islands that look like Hawaii, they have various S&M roleplay sits, etc. etc. But all of these suppose an understanding by all and every player that, yes, our little corner of the virtual world is different; incoherence. My reasons for being a furry do not overlap your reasons for being a Jedi do not overlap her reasons for being a dominatrix.

A good ARG, however, is built around coherence -- the idea that the real world is indistinguishable from the created situations of the ARG world. Its differences are implicit, and only then when you know it's a game.

So... how could you build a VARG on top of Second Life? A game inside the non-game? Several ideas have come into mine wee haid.

  • An economy based VARG. Each player joins by putting up a certain amount of $LD (Second Life currency) into a general pot. Some portion is held for a final prize. The same amount is used by each player to start an SL business, and at the end of the game period, the player with the biggest bank account wins. The game could either specify a certain type of business, be a free-for-all, exclude certain types, etc. All transactions would need to be recorded and public or some such nonsense.

  • Social VARG. How many friends can you make in a week? How much can you boost your ratings? Offer prizes.

  • The alien digital critters VARG. Pretend to be aliens from another dimension who have been either doomed or ejected or sentenced or something to a digital world -- Second Life. Totally roleplay the crap out of it. Maybe have several factions. Kinda like "Highlander" for SL.

  • The Knights Templar VARG. Start a whole secret society whose purpose is to do... something bold and moral. Stop having in-game sex? Start having more sex? Better sex? Wipe out in-game gambling? No bling? Pick an ethical (or aesthetic?) gambit and have at it. Either something that really tickles your fancy or something that would just be fun to implement from a, "Wow. That's changed the world," standpoint.

  • The Dojo / Guild VARG. Start a teaching society whose goal is to make folks into better scripters, builders, texturers, animators, etc. Preach the gospel of "DIY" on the grid. Have levels in several professions. Grant journeyman and master's status. Rate players and shops. Become the AAA of the multiverse.

Come to think of it, putting the last two of those together (or the last three?) would be interesting. The point is to figure out some overwhelming reason to be doing something with an overwhelming reason, and then stick to it in the game world.

This would be lots easier in SL than in the real world. Why? Because SL is built to be built on. You'd also have an easier time converting characters than you would people in a real life ARG (did I just type that?).

The last thing that occurred to me was that you could probably make some actual scratch doing this, as there is a real economy inside SL. If your VARG created objects that could be sold, a la the Dojo VARG... it's a game with a product. If it was a service VARG... same dealio. Here's a scene that popped into my head to leave you with...

Jayorg Maybank looked up at the half-finished temple wall he was helping to build along with four other apprentices. When they were done, the detail work would be exquisite, having taken the five of them nearly six hours each. But it would be worth it, as it was the project that would finally earn them their Journeyman Builder Badge. After which they would be allowed among the pleasures available on Cyan Island, rather than just skulking around the sandboxes and lame discos of the Apprentice Zones.

One of his compatriots was complaining about the work on in open chat, but Jayorg hushed him. "Shut up, Tael," he IMd. "You never know when the Master may pop in." Tael did shut up, and Jayorg could almost imagine that his avie was surly as he continud to apply textures and create new 3D shapes for the wall.

Once Journeymen, Jayorg knew, they'd be allowed to work on teams with animators and scripters, and that's when the real money could come in. So far only one of his pieces -- a rather nice pair of shoes, if he did say so himself -- had been accepted into the Guild Store. Of course his Master, as his sponsor, received 25% of all commissions and the Guild got another 25%. But he'd already made 2,400 LD in one week. The Guild Mall had incredibly strict taste and requirements, and it didn't hurt that there were always live fashion Artistas from the Social Hall on hand, 24/7, to help guide any shoppers.

He'd heard that when the Guild reached 500 members, and the Guild Chest had at least LD 1 million, that they would begin work on Magenta Island, which would be both a home for the Masters, and a place of rare services for invited high-rollers. Rumor was that the Journeymen were already working on a class of animated objects that required over a thousand hours of scripting each. Of course those were just rumors... If a Journeyman ever actually spoke to an Apprentice of his/her tasks and was found out...

Jayorg finished the final touches on the scrollwork of the wall lintel and placed it just-so. He paused to look around at the temple garden and was truly amazed and still a bit taken aback that he'd been accepted into The Guild. Nowhere else on Second Life could you find original work of this quality, because nowhere else were 300+ citizens working together, learning together, all under one plan. And the Guild's plan? The Commandment of Moral Beauty:

Our Second Lives are gifts. Gifts of time to communicate, connect and create. We will not waste these lives in idle chatter, nor in lewd acts, nor in gambling, nor solely in the contemplation of others' work. We will strive at all times to make this Other World a better place. More beautiful, educational,  civil, intelligent, interesting, pleasant, moral and profitable.

Six months and hundreds of hours of modeling and texture work... But Jayorg was *this close* to becoming a Journeyman. And even if would take him another six months... he believed in Moral Beauty in Second Life. When he went elsewhere on the grid and saw all those avies whose houses were cookie-cutters of each other... saw the chair campers... saw the chatters. They were having fun, sure. And that was fine... But he was... accomplishing something.

The temple garden stretched away into the distance in all directions; east and west, and up into the air, and down into the ground. Beautiful and original and designed by architects and planners, the Guildfounders and Masters and Journeymen. Somday he would call them "peers." He would walk with them and plan the new islands and towers and games.

But for today... there was another arch to build. And a temple to complete.

Just one idea... A real set of goals inside a virtual world. I don't have time to build it, but I'd sure like to visit...

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