The strength of the Collegeology Games project I mention in my 21st Century Scholar posts is intimately tied to our collaboration with Tracy Fullerton, Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, and her game design team. Jeff Watson’s blog below describes a fascinating project that illustrates just why Tracy and her students are at the forefront of game design. –Zoe Corwin
Just over three weeks ago, we stopped the countdown clock and launched SCA Reality (a.k.a. Reality Ends Here, a.k.a The Game), a collaborative production alternate reality game that takes place over 15 weeks at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). Since then, groups of students from across all divisions of the SCA have banded together into groups large and small, lasting and temporary, to collaborate on making media artifacts based on creative prompts generated by the collectible trading cards that are at the center of our game. The thing has a momentum all its own, and it’s exhausting to keep up with. But as anyone who has ever run a live action pervasive game or ARG (alternate reality game) would know, it’s also exhilarating and crazy fun.
Breaking down boundaries
SCA Reality is a collaborative production game wherein players earn points and “level up” by creating and completing mediamaking challenges. As players cross point thresholds, both in terms of overall points and weekly points, they receive customized “trailheads” leading them to intimate and offbeat encounters with SCA alumni, artists, and other industry professionals. This reward system, combined with the intrinsic fun of creative sandboxing and performance, leads to serendipitous peer discovery and collaboration across the various divisions of the cinema school. Transcending these divisional boundaries is one of the primary mandates of the game—we’ve gone to lengths to make sure that players are not identified by their major, but rather by the kinds of things they say and do in the game. So far our approach seems to be working: players from the screenwriting division are making absurdist video games, writers and animators are working on live action films, production and interactive students are telling stories with “character artifacts” and fake Facebook profiles, and students across the board are quickly embracing a cross-platform or transmedial vision of the future of entertainment.
A Procedural Creative Prompting System
The game is driven by a card-based “procedural prompting system”: by sharing, trading, and combining cards, players create challenges within the constraints of a connectivity play mechanic.
As designers, we knew from the start that it was important that the challenges in our game come from the players, not us. We knew that a set of challenges curated “from on high” would take away many crucial aspects of agency and authorship from our players—and since those things are at the heart of the kind of creative and performative impulses that underly engagement with our game, we knew we needed to protect them. We also believe that players should author the challenges themselves because in our experience, doing so is an integral part of what’s fun and engaging about these kinds of games. In this sense, Reality Ends Here has a lot in common with other open-ended collaborative production games such as SF0 or Super Going.
On the other hand, we felt that a total lack of constraints could be hobbling to creativity, particularly for players who are not already ensconced in strong “maker” or DIY communities and practices. As Orson Welles famously said, “the enemy of art is the lack of limitations.” Brainstorming, story workshopping, or any kind of creative spitballing without clear constraints and anchors will often drift into outright confusion. To address this issue, we devised a simple card game that structures and limits creative brainstorming in a manner similar to a Tarot deck or an idea generator like Grow a Game. Here’s how it works:
Through this card interaction, players generate creative prompts of varying complexity based on the number of cards they manage to integrate into their Deal. These prompts then function somewhat like Fluxus “event scores,” guiding the actual creative production phase of the Deal by specifying the kinds of media to be used and a range of ideas, physical objects or places, and narrative or figural elements (collectively referred to as “properties”) that players must incorporate into their project.
With the complete set of cards numbering in the several hundreds (we’re keeping exactly how many a secret for now, in case an enterprising player discovers this post), the number of possible combinations is practically endless, limited only by the specific cards that a player or group of players has access to. Since players start the game with only 9 cards (7 random and 2 which they select themselves from a draw of 10), trading, pooling, and earning new cards through gameplay is essential. This face-to-face social interaction strengthens in-game player bonds and further accelerates creative serendipity and discovery.
Once players complete a project, they submit their media artifacts through the website, then “justify” their work on video, explaining how they satisfied the conditions of their Deal. All this material—including a clickable list of cards used in the Deal, the completed project, the justification video, and the list of those who collaborated on the project (including links to their profiles)—then appears live on the game site, sharable with the world.
Some highlights from the game so far include:
- A beautifully-constructed Character Artifacts Deal, featuring hand-made love letters, mock telegraphs, and typewritten correspondence with mysterious “redacted” passages.
- A one-shot short film featuring some rather random German dialogue, a great promotional poster, and a very effective DIY steadicam.
- A wide-ranging discussion thread about the Long Take card, including video samples, recommendations, and other kinds of knowledge sharing (all cards in the deck have their own page where discussions like this can take place).
The website also serves as a social networking platform for SCA students, faculty, and alumni. All players have profiles on the site which aggregate all their Deal-making activity and status updates, along with displaying any photos they have submitted to the site. Profiles also include an evolving data visualization that is generated based on the kinds of Deals and activities that the player has been involved in.
While most of the site is publicly viewable, including player profiles, some of the social networking functionality is semi-private, primarily because we wanted to create a kind of exclusive workshopping space (which we’ve named The Bullpen after a historic cinema school workshop space here at USC) where players could feel free to brainstorm, ramble, and even trash-talk “behind the curtain.” Other features not immediately visible to non-players include the Leaderboard, which tracks scores on a weekly and overall basis in a variety of dimensions; the Card Lookup feature, which players can use to view and discuss individual cards in the archive; and the Members Directory, which players can search by name or keyword when looking for collaborators or new connections.
Informal, Optional, “Secret”
The game is not mandatory for SCA students. It’s not even openly publicized at the school. In fact, we’ve gone to lengths to try to keep it under the radar. The Reality Committee, the benevolent group behind this project, wouldn’t have it any other way. The game is meant to belong to the players, not the other way around. Players have discovered it on their own, picking up on clues we’ve left around the campus—clues hidden in old cameras, left near our mysterious flag which intermittently hangs off the third floor balcony, or hanging from LED throwies we’ve stuck to the underside of staircases. One by one or in groups, they have come to the Game Office, gone through the initiation rites, received their game cards and website logins, and started playing.
Three weeks into the game, we have over 120 players, a dozen completed Deals, and over 1500 comments, status updates, and photo posts on the website. Would we have more players if we made it mandatory? Certainly. But we doubt they would be as committed, or that the game would mean as much to them. Students discover this game the same way they discover things like the college radio station. They hear about it, and if they like the sounds of it, they show up and pour their hearts into it. And since everyone who comes to the School of Cinematic Arts is in some way interested in making media—or at least talking about making media—the game has a natural pull.
Finally, many players have responded to the various layers of intrigue and mystery that surround the origins of the game itself and the strangely subversive tone of the game’s communications. These more “traditional” ARG elements augment the collaborative production game with puzzles and secret codes that lead to additional encounters with alumni, special cards and game powers, and impromptu excursions.
To learn more, check out the public face of the site here, or follow us on Twitter. If you’re interested in participating—or just in having a peek into what’s going down in the Bullpen—send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact @remotedevice on Twitter.
About the author
Jeff Watson is an interdisciplinary media practitioner with a professional background in screenwriting, filmmaking, and experience design. His doctoral research at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts focuses on investigating how an increasingly mobile, ubiquitous, and interoperable communications infrastructure can enable new forms of storytelling and social engagement.