On the Inside Looking In

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On October 3, I received an email from Brian Clark of GMD Studios entitled "A very strange introduction". In the email, Brian excitedly but tenatively pitched to me an offer to act in the tile role in the ARG he was currently writing/producing, Eldritch Errors. He mentioned that had he not read my myspace, which talks at length about what a geek I am, and my blog, which is a dream journal, he would've been more trepidatious about approaching someone in this manner. But am I ever glad that he did!

My first introduction to ARG's came in the form of research that I had done for a podcast [episode 29] that my husband, my friend, and myself put out. The concept was difficult to grasp, at first, mainly due to the fact that our gaming background has always been in roleplaying games. In RPG's, there is a clear line between "character" and "self", or at least clearer. When you are "in game" you are not you, but a character that you have created; and when the game is over, you go back to being you. ARG's are different, in this way, because while people maintain an "in game" and "out of game" understanding, their persona "in game" is really them, the actual person. Granted, in some cases it is an amplified version of themselves, but regardless, it makes the interactions complicated on a whole new level that is not touched upon often, and most times purposefully avoided, in RPG's. There is a whole set of philosophies that I won't even begin to get into that talk about the intricacies of the relationship between character and self, but they are well worth checking out for the interested reader.

So now I had my first opportunity to delve into a living, breathing ARG.  Better yet, it was an ARG based in something that I thoroughly enjoy: Lovecraftian Horror! Learning about the game was a strange and lengthy process. While being brought on as staff gave me an inside track to the story elements at play, I still felt as if I was peering into a completely foreign world. Hundreds of Craigslist Posts later, I was even more confused. My questions were all answered, though, in correspondence with Brooke Thompson, who is not only a brilliant writer but a giving, caring, and passionate person. Brooke not only listened to my ideas for the character I was to portray, but incorporated them with excitement and enthusiasm. As a story creator myself, I was impressed with her ability to give so much creative input to someone who just walked onto the scene.

My experience with everyone on staff was fantastic. Brian's enthusiasm and willingness to incorporate my ideas made me feel welcomed, and when the event was over and he said "I'm so proud of you guys!", I knew that the care and effort I was putting in was truly appreciated. It takes a lot of trust to let actors run away with your players into the woods for 28 hours with no way of contacting you! J.D. was amazing in every way, not to mention a great actor to boot! I really just can't say enough good about him. The other actors were fantastic to work with as well. Dee's positive attitude and laughter kept us all going (even when we feared the cart had defeated us). Miguel and I spent long hours figuring out the complex set of feelings and interactions between the characters we were portraying, and while on the trip any time we had a second or two without the players around, we squealed (in whispers) and gossiped like excited school children about all the unfolding drama.

The really rewarding thing, though, was seeing the players' reaction to my portrayal of this character.

I've been acting my whole life, really. Ever since I started playing pretend in my backyard when I was old enough to talk. Unlike most people, however, I never stopped playing pretend, I just changed the venue. To me, as an actor, there are degrees of importance. You owe a deep sense of integrity and understanding to your character, but you also owe an incredible experience to those who are involved with that character. In this way, a character has to give more of themselves than a regular person would. A character has to be willing to take small hits to their integrity in order to tell the story for everyone else. The true test of an actor is finding a way to do this while making it look seamless when held in contrast to the integrity of that character.

As an actor, I am aware of my audience. I'm aware of the effect that too much or too little eye contact will have on people. I'm aware of how allowing myself to be completely ingulfed in my character will look and feel to others, and how they will literally feel the change if I slip out of that character for even a moment. I know that by intensely feeling an emotion, I can make others around me feel that same emotion. All of these things were incredibly important in the West Virginia Camping Event.

The entire experience was, and continues to be, absolutely fascinating to me from a philosophical standpoint, as well. My background in gaming, as I mentioned, is heavily RPG based, but even moreso is specialized in Live Action Roleplaying (LARP). As to why we gamers have given such atrociously unappealing sounding names to our beloved hobbies like ARG and LARP, I really cannot say, but that's really besides the point. In LARP and ARG both, so many of the same issues are pertinent. I hadn't realized, in full, just to what extent this was, but it seems more and more to be the case the more I come to understand the ARGing community, and especially Eldritch Errors, which is a heavily story-based game.

I will talk about a couple of the issues that surface often in both ARG and LARP, and how they differ in each community, but first I wanted to offer a very simplified explanation about why I think the communities have so many commonalities.

First of all, ARGs and LARPs both are community-based games, in which you have a large and very mixed group of people. Any time that a group of a certain size is involved, communication becomes a key issue, as well as the need for feeling a sense of belonging and additionally a sense of being special. Contradictory feelings, yes, but still very present in any community, really. Also, the ARG and LARP communities draw pretty heavily from a similar demographic. Usually this is people who (proudly) label themselves as "geeks", but I would say in general most of them enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasy story, and have a great propensity for imagination and suspension of disbelief. And we all like Firefly. That's right. All of us.

There is also an interesting parallel in ARGs and LARPs when looking at "in game" and "out of game" information. Here also, interestingly, is where the divergence lies. For the most part, participants in an ARG represent themselves "in game". They are not roleplaying, but rather they themselves are reacting to the information and situations presented to them. There is a clear understanding, however, that the happenings are not "real", and they know that there is an Iron Curtain somewhere. They just hope not to find it, and if they do find it, it can become disappointing. Still, they employ suspension of disbelief, and keep their "in game" and "out of game" knowledge separate.

Participants in a LARP, too, have a separation between "in game" and "out of game" knowledge. They know that the situations they are being presented with are not real, and have a very clear understanding of where the curtain lies, because they themselves are on the "out of game" side of that curtain. The fictional characters that they create and portray, however, lie on the "in game" side of that curtain. They also maintain suspension of disbelief, perhaps to an even greater degree than is required in an ARG, because the entire scenario of being a different person in a different reality is that much more unbelievable.

It leads me to question, though, just how much are ARGers unwittingly roleplaying? Certainly, some people play up a divergent side or amplified version of themselves, so is that not a character, in a sense?

One of the major philosophical points that has come up in my understanding of LARP that also applies equally to ARG deals with methods and motivations behind play. In the podcast, we covered this in Episode 21, in a segment we called "Playing for yourself vs. playing for the game". This goes back to the age old question of doing what is best for oneself, or doing what is best for one's community. Sometimes, the two overlap, but often enough, they do not. I believe it to be within human nature to want to feel special or unique, and maintaining secrets can quickly lead to this feeling. This, in both ARG and LARP, can turn into a larger problem for the community in general, as game masters/puppet masters often hope for information sharing as a means of distributing plot. I find it interesting, though, that in LARP, people have the excuse of "It's what my character would do," to justify taking a selfish action or withholding information, where as in ARG it is simply "What I would do". The lack of a separation between self and character forces people into a role where they must decide for themselves what is better for them or the game. The question of compromising their character's integrity by sharing information when they don't feel that they otherwise would is no longer a point of consideration. They must choose between giving to the community or harboring the information in a very real sense. In life, it is necessary to be selfish in many situations, or you will end up getting walked on, so to what extent in these community-based games is that necessary or appropriate? In LARP, this becomes very different, because if someone hates your character, you don't take it personally.  It is not you they dislike, simply an imaginary person that you play. In ARG, though, the repercussions of someone disliking you seem very real.

Another point that I wanted to address was covered in Episode 25 of the podcast, and that segment was entitled "Are the emotional experiences that you have in gaming 'real'?" On this topic I feel that ARGs have a particularly unique view. My own personal feelings on the proposed question are that yes, the emotional experiences that you have in a gaming enviroment are real, provided that you personally feel that they are, and that you take something away from the experience. They may not be as powerful as an emotional experience that you have in your "real" life, but they ceratinly can be! Due to the nature of ARGs having little separation between self and character, this goes doubly for ARGs. While the player knows that the happenings in an ARG are not "real", they still can become quite invested emotionally in the goings on, and especially with the non-player characters with which they develop friendships, rivalries, or even romantic interests. In that way, emotionally differentiating how one feels can become a complex challenge. A psychologist would have a field day with these situations. I offer, though, that games like ARGs are a healthy environment in which to explore the intracacies of emotional states. In my opinion, people like to feel. They like to be filled with joy, but they also like getting dragged over the coals. They like to feel gratified at accomplishing their goals, but they also like to be infuriated by someone who stands in their way. Logically, this dosen't make a whole lot of sense, but I believe that feeling any strong emotion of any kind is preferable to feeling nothing. In environments like ARGs or LARPs, people can safely explore their emotions, and if it becomes too overhelming, they can shelve it, simple as that. Personally, I am a big fan of allowing the emotional experiences in gaming to teach me about people, the world, and especially myself.

The West Virgina trip was a fantastic endeavor for me personally, not only as an actress and a creative person, but also in my everyday life. Every last one of the players touched me in one way or another, and the online community has also been of great impact. The experience was incredibly rewarding, not only for the progression of story, but for the emotional catharsis that comes in meeting someone and caring for them, wanting to befriend them or help them or protect them. It makes me look forward even more to the continuation of the story, and my further role in seeing it all unfold.

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"My own personal feelings on the proposed question are that yes, the emotional experiences that you have in a gaming enviroment are real, provided that you personally feel that they are, and that you take something away from the experience."

I've thought about this a lot since West Virginia. Strangely enough, I feel as if I have a deeper connection to the other campers and to the characters. (Or is it to the actors playing those characters?) It's a connection similar, although admittedly probably not as deep, as to the one formed between people who have gone through a traumatic experience together.

In reality, we didn't go through a traumatic event. We only played one. Yet, somewhere deep inside, I still feel the emotions as if we did. And don't worry. That's not a bad thing--I'm not having dreams of being stuck in the outhouse while bears and cult members attack me or anything. ;)

Brian Clark Author Profile Page said (November 11, 2007 12:55 PM):

In reality, we didn't go through a traumatic event. We only played one. Yet, somewhere deep inside, I still feel the emotions as if we did.

I've been thinking alot about that too, Michelle, especially about the psychology of theater aspects. It seems related to Stockholm Syndrome or hazing as well as the bonding that happens among survivors of a tragedy ... but you're right, none of those things were real. It seems more connected to the concepts of "learning through role playing" (where the fiction is understood as fiction but still has residual transformative elements.)

What seems to underly all of them is the neurochemistry of human bonding which doesn't seem to care if the forebrain knows it is all roleplay or not. It is also part of what underlies one of my favorite big words, propinquity, which ARGs and immersive entertainment (and, Hell, the Internets) play all kind of digital havoc on.

Caroline Murphy-Himmelman said (November 11, 2007 2:26 PM):

You bring up another very interesting point, Michelle, as to whether or not it is the actors or the characters that you bonded to.

I know that for me and Miguel, during and after the event, we felt a very new senes of connection that stemmed from the fact that probably no one else in our lives would ever fully be able to understand what exactly it was that we did, and what we got out of it.

I also feel a sense of connection to the players from the WV trip, but it is also very strange because I know that none of you really met me, while I did really meet all of you. In there is a strange power dynamic... which makes me wonder what level of power or control is necessary for games like ARGs and LARPs between the staff and the players.

johnny_fiv3 Author Profile Page said (November 12, 2007 4:48 PM):

My personal takeaway: I have to say that the majority of my bonding occurred with my fellow campers, followed by Dee, JD, then Caroline and Miguel. The order is reflective of the degree to which I felt the individuals' own personalities were coming forth vs them acting out the character's persona. This is not to detract from their performances in any way, I felt they all did an excellent job in their roles. The bond with my fellow Ameri...uh...campers goes without say, they were who I expected them to be (at least I hope so). For the "GMD Traveling Players Theatre Troupe" though, I sensed (or at a minimum, assumed) that the main characters were primarily playacting and I made less of an emotional investment toward those relationships. Of course, this did reduce the impact of my final experience and I'm still not sure if I'd make the same choices if I had them to do again (which I might). It can be a conscious choice to be be willing to trust someone to manipulate your emotions for the promise of an enhanced experience.
Trust is the key here.
It's a confidence game.

J.D. Ashcraft said (November 14, 2007 1:00 PM):

Fascinating. While I certainly feel like I got to know the WV campers I was also amazed at how in-character they were that weekend. Very impressive, and fun! It's a subtle thing, but especially when it came to storyline talk, everyone on the mountain was in Eldtritch land, there was no OOC talk, no openly discussed game play, that I saw anyway. At that point, the line between theater and game is thin and there is effectively no distinction between players and cast.

That works both ways, we get to play too. At a live event the cast has no way to cut to the next scene, story development is itself a game-like task that is both nerve wracking and thoroughly enjoyable. As is online play of course, there's no predicting players deciding to kidnap a main character or telling another character's boss to P.S. eat shit :-0 You have to be on your toes.

As to the emotions, if anything, they would seem to be hyper-real in that you don’t get either IC feelings or OOC feelings, you get both. Like when I simultaneously felt both awful and delighted upon hearing that 1 am screamfest :-)

johnny_fiv3 Author Profile Page said (November 14, 2007 6:17 PM):

I was also amazed at how in-character they were that weekend. Very impressive, and fun! It's a subtle thing, but especially when it came to storyline talk, everyone on the mountain was in Eldtritch land, there was no OOC talk, no openly discussed game play, that I saw anyway.

Hehe. Two sides of the same challenge coin.
Just as you guys would go off alone to discuss plot points, we also had our moments of OOC discussion. I recall one instance where I was sitting on the front porch and had just gone on at length over some EE related thing I don't currently recall. I think I mentioned "conclave" and you and "Devon" looked at each other then went off together. I turned to Rowan (Carrie) and said "I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, I feel kinda stupid" and she said "You sure sounded convincing". Then there was the "bear bet napkin". After all the "bear talk" Mapmaker (Nick) had written on a napkin "even money says the dreamers get eaten by bears overnight" or words to that effect and was sharing with the rest of us. Good times.

Remind me to kick you guys for taking joy from our screaming alarm clock. By the way, Late Wednesday night after the PM chat, my wife told me I had shot bolt upright in my sleep shouting "Emmet!". Well done Mr. Ashcraft.

I was a bit sad that we didn't get a chance to talk with all of you OOC when we got back to Cass, but I understand why we didn't. I suppose some of the excitement and mystery of the event would have been diluted. I suppose chatting between books will have to do ;)

Celina Author Profile Page said (November 15, 2007 4:54 PM):

Usually this is people who (proudly) label themselves as "geeks", but I would say in general most of them enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasy story, and have a great propensity for imagination and suspension of disbelief. And we all like Firefly. That's right. All of us.

I only have 3 words to say about this:

Good Evening All :)
I have been trying to comment on here for awhile. I am only a "Computer Geek" in the Making. LOL I have had quite a few group experiences that have involved 3-5 day events mostly. The greatest things always happen and we become more of a Family/Tribal unit. The same dynamic can happen in the workplace, or even I was Modeling often... there was a sense of Group/Family and looking out for each other. We also have the same "Tribe" dynamic among the stuff I do in Music. Even without the missing Cult leader or followers, there were other issues or possible worries at hand. Bears, Food, Water, Bob Cats, Warmth, etc. I hate to go primitive on this...but we too are "Pack Animals" and we can and have had the ability to bond with others, perhaps, since the beginning of time. I also felt close to each of you in your own personal and special way! More importantly I felt that we were a Tribe. We worked together... and nobody came down the Mountain maimed, broken, or hungry.(giggle) Except when you guys thought we were going to have you, literally, for dinner...(muhahaha)...I think we felt safe together. And everybody acted like they had camped primitively all their life. I think the basic Psychology is Survival and Teamwork. Thank goodness we didn't have any "Buttheads" in the group. Things could of been a little tenser for the moment...but I think we still would of played it out as a team :) (And voted the Butthead into a "Time out" in the woods.... with the bears) LOL I will say it once again "I could not have been up that mountain with a better group of people"!!!
Hugs to you all!!!