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  What’s ‘Fair Game’ In Alternate Reality?  
 
 
Posted 2007-11-01 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
The 40th episode of the ARG Netcast features a great discussion about what constitutes "fair game" in Alternate Reality Game play based on what players are willing and able to do versus what the puppetmasters have planned. In my opinion as a contributing designer/writer to such games, the "this is not a game" conceit which largely defined the genre early on is a double-edged sword.

If, as a puppetmaster, you decide that "this is not a game," you had better ensure your not-game is sealed airtight against the deep digging some players are willing to do. Such digging (discussed in the netcast) includes brute-force password hacking, intensive sleuthing for the real-life people (game makers, actors) behind the scenes, or decompiling Flash executable files to search for revealing clues.

In my opinion, if you're making a not-game, you have to accept that this means there are no rules. I think players are entitled to use whatever means necessary to dissect a not-game for clues, provided they obey social contracts and actual laws. Like supervillains, puppetmasters often overestimate the sanctity of their secret plans due to conceit: Surely they're more clever than the heroes. And we all know how that turns out.

The way I see it, making a completely air-tight not-game is a nigh-impossible task, and there's usually very little to be gained except for the thrill at "outsmarting" your players. Actually, there's a lot more to risk if you go the not-game route. Confusing the lines between fantasy and reality can have frustrating and sometimes destructive consequences--not only is the fabric of your fiction at stake, but real people are involved behind the scenes and as players. It doesn't take much to hurt a game's credibility, a person's privacy, or their feelings, no matter how well-intentioned those involved might be.

By admitting it's a game, game-makers give themselves plenty of wiggle-room. If it's a game, there are rules and boundaries separate from "real" life. Because it's a game, players agree to play by the rules, which may be made explicit, such as distinguishing what is "in-game" from "out of game," or implicit, such as "hacking the game could ruin it" (cheating, basically). Frankly, if you're not going to admit it's a game, and you haven't designed your not-game perfectly, it's going to break the moment the players either ask themselves if they're involved in a designed experience, or ask each other what the designer means for them to do. And it takes a very good--maybe even ideal (i.e. impossible)--designer to craft themselves completely out of the play experience.
 
     
 
   
 
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Dinozoiks wrote:
Wow! Thanks for that Tony. Just posted a bunch of other tips here... http://www.dino.co.uk/labs/2008/45-tips-when-designing-online-content-for-kids/ Hope it helps someone... Dino...
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Yeah, there's a lot of weird common sense things I've noticed they've just omitted from the design. No idea why though....
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