Cars burn in downtown Nashville. Police patrol Boise after massive power outages, widespread looting and near-riots. Our intrepid video correspondent, Kal, rides through San Francisco, taping a team of out-of-work deliverymen who steal as many bicycles as they can fit in their van.
“Some might say these guys are taking the easy way out,” Kal gravely tells viewers. “But I’ve got a feeling that if this crisis continues, we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of crime.”
Scenes from the latest apocalyptic sci-fi flick? Not quite. The crisis in question, the source of all this mayhem, is a global oil shortage. And CPB is responsible for it.
World Without Oil is an online alternate reality game presented by the Independent Television Service. CPB financed the project as part of ITVS’s Electric Shadows initiative. The venture funds experimental online storytelling projects and social issue games that are not attached to broadcast programs, says Cathy Fischer, senior producer for ITVS Interactive.
The game, ITVS’s fifth Electric Shadows project, cost around $100,000 to produce. It launched April 30  at worldwithoutoil.org and officially runs only through June 1, though producers will archive the site and all its content so it remains available after the game ends.
Like most alternate reality games (ARGs, to their devoted community of players), World Without Oil is essentially a sprawling online game of communal make-believe that relies on its players, recruited via word-of-mouth and viral marketing, to flesh out the narrative and solve problems.
A player doesn’t meet up with a computer’s virtual intelligence but with the actual brains of other people who want to play.
Such games inherently rely upon the sort of Web 2.0 buzz concepts that old media companies are desperate to distill and bottle, such as social networking and user-generated blogs, photos, videos and more.
“ARGs are sort of the first art form to truly utilize and tap into the nature of what the Internet is,” says Jessica Price, associate editor at ARGNet, a news site covering the games and their community. “They’re net-native, they’re not imported from some other platform.”
They also intrigue academics who see in their collaborative interplay an ideal means for observing and testing collective intelligence — the “many minds working as one” phenomenon responsible for Wikipedia and the like. ARGs also hone players’ networking and collaborative problem-solving skills—valuable abilities, according to experts, that traditional education neglects.
“Everywhere I go, people are intrigued by the possibilities of these games and see them as a new way of fostering engagement,” says Henry Jenkins, co-director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. “I’ve talked to several foundations who would like to do civically oriented ARGs because they train research and collaboration skills.”
Previous large alternate reality efforts have been more commercial, promoting movies, videogames and cars.
World Without Oil is the first to focus its players’ energies on a social problem, according to the game’s creators, who include ARG superstar Jane McGonigal, lead designer of 2004’s renowned ILoveBees game. It asks them to imagine a world reeling from a sudden oil shortage, describe how the crisis might unfold for individuals and propose simple ways to adapt.
“By playing it out in a serious way, the game aims to apply collective intelligence and imagination to the problem in advance,” says the game’s website, “and to create a record that has value for educators, policymakers, and the common people to help anticipate the future and prevent its worst outcomes.”
World Without Oil invites users to, per its slogan, “play it before you live it.”
Writer and veteran game designer Ken Eklund conceived the game in 2005 and got the ITVS grant to produce it last year. His team built a website to launch and publicize the game and put together a group of “puppetmasters” to play characters and start up the play of the game. McGonigal served as the “participation architect.”
But it’s been the participants themselves, or “netizen heroes,” in the parlance of the game, who have done much of the heavy lifting.
As of late last week, the game had attracted more than 40,000 unique visitors. Just over 1,700 active players contributed their own game characters and more than 1,300 “stories” about the ongoing crisis on blogs they created — in-character entries detailing how they’re coping with shortages and civil unrest, illustrated with photos of burned gas stations (repurposed for the game), videos and podcast reports from cities across the nation and beyond, comics, tips about backyard gardening and much more.
“We’ve kind of gone past the point where we’re the ones running the story,” Eklund says.
Plenty of buzz accompanied the players’ buy-in. More than 3,000 bloggers linked to the game, Fischer says, and a relevant Google search netted close to 250,000 hits. An Austrian site (Der Standard) and a French site (Le Monde) are among the top 10 sites driving traffic to World Without Oil, Fischer notes.
PBS Interactive, which helped to promote the game among bloggers, has no additional ARG plans in the hopper but the buzz has been encouraging, says Kevin Dando, spokesman. “We’re watching how it goes and learning from it and are very open to doing this kind of thing,” he says.
That makes sense, Fischer says. World Without Oil fits with “the goals of public media in general, taking a creative approach with participation at the center of the game,” she says. “It takes media to a different level using the Internet to reach beyond the limitations of the television screen and beyond borders.”
Online storytelling, real world action
Pubcasters have been trying out computer gaming for a few years, of course (earlier story, July 31, 2006). PBSKids.org includes dozens of games for kids. Last year’s A Force More Powerful, by York-Zimmerman Productions, was based on the company’s influential 2000 pubTV doc series about the mechanisms of real-world nonviolent political action. KCET in Los Angeles has incorporated games from independent designers on its website.
This fall, ITVS will launch another game — Fatworld, a more traditional educational Sims-esque project that plays with obesity and nutrition. This summer, American Public Media will release a sustainability game that helps users visualize their own impact on the environment, tied to the Public Insight Journalism project. Meanwhile, many of the 88 proposals CPB has received for its $20 million American History and Civics Initiative include video game components, says John Prizer, one of the project’s overseers.
Because alternate reality games are open-ended and driven by human rather than artificial intelligence, they are only as good as their players.
The games take all sorts of forms but generally revolve around a narrative, which is often splintered and hidden behind various puzzles that players work together to solve.
Designers create and guide the scenarios—often by playing characters themselves—but the other users frequently choose where they take the plot.
“In a sense, you’re putting the ultimate faith in your audience that it can tell a story that’s compelling and that people can learn something from,” says Joellen Easton, an analyst for APM’s Public Insight Journalism project who has researched serious games and participative media. “It’s essentially open-source fiction.”
Such games rely on a “this is not a game” ethic—players and designers almost never break character. They incorporate the real world into the narrative. Phone numbers mentioned inside the game actually work; players receive text messages from fictional characters and have real-life meet-ups to exchange information. In World Without Oil, for example, characters set up “drop spots” in San Francisco, Louisville, Ky., and elsewhere to exchange plant seeds and other tools for getting through hard times.
Marketers have found promise in ARGs’ rewarding, sometimes addictive, qualities. Perhaps the most renowned of these was ILoveBees, a sprawling web-based puzzle famous for revealing information via calls placed to payphones, which players found by using GPS technology.
That game drew roughly 3 million participants, according to its developers, and was eventually revealed to be an elaborate introduction for Microsoft’s intergalactic shoot-’em-up game Halo 2. More recently, Audi and producers of cryptic network dramas Lost and Heroes created similar efforts.
World Without Oil is the first such game to revolve around a social issue. Unlike other prominent ARGs, the goal isn’t to solve a complicated puzzle — or build brand loyalty.
Instead, this 360-degree thought experiment asks players to focus their minds on a scenario that may someday seem less far-fetched: a progressively worsening oil shock in which global demand outstrips supply and high gas prices disrupt lives everywhere.
It’s a “sort of creative problem-solving platform that has been out there, like war games and simulations,” McGonigal said earlier this month on APM’s Future Tense podcast. But to have so many people playing on such a platform is “really unprecedented,” she said.
Players’ first instinct was to imagine the sort of apocalyptic societal collapse presented by gritty future-fearing sci-fi films. Letters, videos and podcasts detailed families being ripped apart, violent crime, rioting mobs and government inaction.
The player named Green Hornet described the Washington, D.C., Metro system as being overrun by overheated multitudes with “bad human smells.” Would-be riders frequently pass out from the discomfort and “what we all fear are the inevitable suicide bombers.”
San Diego, meanwhile, suffered “constant water interruptions from power outages and pump breakdowns,” according to intwoworlds. Peak Prophet in Nashville took viewers on a video tour of his usual gas station, now looted and utterly deserted.
“One surprise for me was the readiness of people to take on an apocalyptic vision,” Eklund says.
But over time and through subtle prodding by the game’s puppetmasters—though Eklund says designers don’t tweak submissions or “script out the story”—players began to offer simple real-world tips for living a less petroleum-dependent life.
Players submitted video gardening tips, arranged carpools and urged one another to change their lightbulbs to energy-saving flourescents. They sent in photos or video of themselves performing “missions,” such as preparing meals using only local food or coming up with activities beginning with every letter of the alphabet that can be performed without using petroleum products.
“The big accomplishment is we’ve gotten this collective imagination to sketch out how something like this might happen,” Eklund says. “Not just on the macro governmental level, but on the ‘what would something like this feel like’ level.”
The game’s web team will stop advancing the story June 1, but hopes the communities developed over the past month will endure in some form. The creators will archive the game to preserve the players’ contributions and highlight the game’s narrative themes, and hope the result will resonate beyond the borders of cyberspace.
“ARGs blur the edge between their alternative world and reality,” Easton says. “So they also make people question aspects of the real world, too.”