Make *all* your audience into Heroes

My esteemed work colleague Alice Taylor posts some concerns she has with ARGs, namely that the typical treasure-hunt game dynamic ends up creating an incredible moment of live theatre for a very small group of players (normally tens or hundreds at most) and a more distanced, spectator experience for the masses.

In the 6 months that we’ve been commissioning online education projects, we’ve both seen a lot of proposals that use these ‘winner takes all’ formats. These are sometimes like TV reality shows, where the interactivity is limited to the audience voting on other participants, and sometimes treasure-hunt-style ARGs.

Whilst its inevitable that not all your users will become immersed in a game, I share with Alice a concern that we are importing broadcast ideas into online entertainment formats. Broadcast has one big problem with mass participation – it has a limited amount of bandwith in which to tell a story, so it makes sense to narrow the field of the story as time passes, until there is one winner who gets all the attention at the end. The X-Factor, for example, would be a complete mess if it tried to follow the stories of 12, 120, or 12,000 of its hopeful participants for more than a few weeks. The prize in a limited bandwidth world is to give more attention to the winners, until there is one person winning the ultimate prize of the undivided attention of millions of viewers. This is because bandwidth (and therefore attention) is the scarce commodity that broadcasting values most highly.

Online, we don’t have to worry about bandwidth scarcity. The scarcity of attention is more acute, but the answer is not necessarily to try to artificially focus attention using winner-takes-all gimmicks. If I’m interested in a player/participant/thread of a story, why can’t I follow it, even if most other people want to follow something else? Do we have to focus on one aspect of the story, and expect everyone to be happy with that?

Anyone who has heard me speak in the last year will have heard me rave about World Without Oil. This is not just because its an educational ARG, and we’re commissioning a few of them next year. The reason I love it is because it points to a future direction for ARGs, in which the story is not a funnel that directs a few people towards a unique experience, but an open, collaborative story in which lots of different threads can exist alongside each other. I’m not sure that WWO altogether solved the problem of how to help people navigate these threads, but it has shown an very productive new direction for ARGs, in which a story arc can be used as a structure for creativity, exploration and collaboration. Of course, MMOs have known this for a long time, and manage to combine overarching narratives with lots of tiny social groups sharing quests together.

For me, ARGs need to understand this dynamic in order to become a mainstream experience. They focus far too much on creating a coup de theatre for a few privileged players, and not enough on making every player’s experience remarkable. Even if this experience is something that they only share with a few friends, such as WWO’s Ped Party mission, it can still be a powerful and moving thing.

We don’t have to think in terms of funnels and winners in online storytelling. We can let stories fracture, multiply, escape and wither, depending on how we want to encourage our users to play with them. We should check the urge to rely on models inherited from the world of TV and experiment with new concepts of open, collaborative play. On the web, we don’t have to only have one winner – we can make all our audience into heroes.

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