Editors' Introduction to "Real Worlds"

Editors' Introduction to "Real Worlds"

2008-05-01

Editors Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin introduce a group of essays on games that exceed the bounds of the tabletop playing session, the game console, or the computer screen - games that emerge out of, take place in, or encroach on, the real world.

Real Worlds

In the previous sections, we have focused on media playable around the tabletop and at the computer or game console. The contributors to these sections have focused on role-playing and story within these media - and have generally done so with a tacit assumption that the settings for these characters and stories are evanescent, fictional worlds known only to the players and existing only for the time of play. Rebecca Borgstrom, in fact, makes a point of the fact that even those RPG groups that play in worlds described by highly detailed published material are still playing in many different worlds, albeit ones constrained by their adherence to those data points specified within the publications.

But this is not always the case. Wizards of the Coast’s Roleplaying Gamers Association (RPGA), for example, attempts to unify tabletop game worlds across multiple player groups. They do this by creating particular “campaign worlds” for individual game systems (often Dungeons & Dragons) and long-term story arcs within those worlds. Many other types of “living” campaigns are run by individual player groups or by other companies. RPGA, because it is an organization owned and operated by WotC, is limited to WotC products. The association sponsors gaming events and provides individual player groups with role-playing scenarios. Member groups are expected to play the scenarios in a certain timeframe and report back the results to the RPGA. The events that occur most commonly among the player groups affect the campaign world and are reflected in the next group of scenarios released by the RPGA.

So, for example, if a majority of the participating player groups succeed in defeating a particular villain, that villain’s defeat becomes canonical, and he will not play a part in future RPGA adventures. If, however, most of the player group met defeat at the hands of the enemy, the villain will still be active in the campaign world in future adventures. This sort of distributed network of reality-builders could be seen as roughly analogous (or a rough analog) to Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) RPGs such as City of Heroes or World of Warcraft.

Several of the contributors in this section have much to say about persistent virtual MMO worlds, but they are not the only sorts of worlds under discussion here. Sometimes the borders between these worlds and our own can be quite fluid, as evidenced by virtual EverQuest items being sold on eBay, or Chinese sweatshops that do nothing but farm for World of Warcraft gold. In fact, many of Second Person’s contributors themselves move between quite a few different worlds, working innovatively in both computer and non-computer playable media.

D. Fox Harrell’s GRIOT performances occur both in the real world and via the innovative digital procedure he describes in his essay. Helen Thorington was trained in radio drama; Talan Memmott and Lev Manovich were both trained in the visual arts; Kevin Wilson was well-known in the IF community before moving into tabletop RPGs and, latterly, board games. John Tynes and Greg Costikyan began their careers by writing for tabletop RPGs but have now moved into designing for digital media. As has Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen, whose work is mentioned several times in this volume. After the CoC RPG, Petersen is probably most known for working on the original Doom.

This diversity of genre, structure and aesthetic forms creates a veritable multiverse of worlds to discuss. Where to begin? Well, the contributors to this section have a tendency to focus on the areas where one world borders another: where gaming edges up against politics, performance, or pedagogy touches on play, or MMOs abut real life.

John Tynes, co-founder of Pagan Publishing, begins this section by making the case for separating games into “escapist” and “engagist” categories. This division is partly categorical and partly polemical; Tynes’s games themselves have elements that bear directly on the real world, and that often refuse to be rationalized into a purely fictional structure. Engagist ideals form a heavy part of Tynes’s work as a game designer, and many of the contributors to this section could also be said to conform to engagist principles.

Most directly, Sean Thorne has taken one of Tynes’s own works, the tabletop RPG Puppetland, Reprinted as an appendix in the print version of Second Person. and used it as a tool to teach his grade school students the basics of creative writing. Here we see a form of “engagism” at its most direct: a role-playing structure that can be used directly as a pedagogical device.

There is potential here for political engagement too, as Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca show in their essay, and Kevin Whelan in his. In the first case, Bogost and Frasca demonstrate how a video game can become a method for explicit political activism - in this case, a tool to assist U.S. presidential candidate Howard Dean in his unsuccessful run for the 2004 Democratic nomination.

Whelan discusses tools for political activism that draw more on ideas of traditional theater. The role-playing here has one purpose: to prepare members of the activist organization ACORN to be better able to recruit new members and educate people about the issues of importance to ACORN.

The various correspondences between role-playing and storytelling structures discussed in this book and the possibilities afforded by the traditional theater are beyond the scope of our discussion in this introduction, but they are far from unimportant. Tim Uren contributes an essay that provides a brief overview of improvisational comedy structures, conceptualizing them as games whose rules are discovered over the course of performance, and also as stories that have already been written by a hypothetical playwright.

Joe Scrimshaw follows this with a short discussion of his play Adventures in Mating, which incorporates some of Uren’s improvisational concepts into a structure drawn explicitly from the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s (and which might remind some readers of Kim Newman’s novel Life’s Lottery, discussed in Section I).

Nick Fortugno discusses a different form of theater, one that draws on the tradition of tabletop RPGs as well. A Measure for Marriage, the live-action role-playing game (LARP) he discusses here, has a very obvious, and very real, real-world consequence.

“Puppetmaster” Jane McGonigal describes her work (such as I Love Bees, under discussion here) as creating “power plays.” These power plays, which incorporate many forms of traditional and new media into their performance, differ from traditional game structures in many important ways; McGonigal even draws parallels with traditional theater, and ultimately she argues that they reveal dramatic interpretation as an emerging game mechanic.

The trans-media aspects of I Love Bees, especially the elements of location-specific Global Positioning System (GPS) content, are also present in unexceptional.net. Creator Robert Nideffer has also woven something like a traditional narrative into the work, while at the same time developing innovative game technologies. So has Teri Rueb; in her work Itinerant, she has also brought narrative into the GPS-driven space of “locative media” - in fact, two narratives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and one of her own.

Performance and theater can exist in less physical venues as well. Adrienne Jenik and Desktop Theater combine elements of scripted and improvisational theater to perform original works such as Santaman’s Harvest in virtual spaces such as the chat rooms of The Palace.

Torill Mortensen, Jill Walker, and Celia Pearce each discuss Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) RPGs. Mortensen and Pearce both address the concept of identity in MMOs in different ways: Mortensen by examining the ramifications of portraying fictional characters in a virtual world (and by extension, other forms of RPGs) and Pearce by describing how these fictional personae can come to form virtual communities in the online world. Walker’s focus is narrower: on the specific network of quests in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and how these quests create narrative densities in areas of virtual space.

Finally, Adrianne Wortzel provides us with a description of her Eliza Redux project (itself self-consciously modeled after Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA and its “Doctor” script). Wortzel’s artwork brings physical and virtual worlds together with an additional layer - streaming live video of a robot performing the role of a therapist to interacting audience members across the web. As our social spaces become ever more varied, questions raised by Wortzel’s work may prove increasingly pertinent.