Last week I received an unusual email from IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a research agency under the supervision of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (United States) in regards to this open RFI dubbed UAREHERE: Using Alternate Reality Environments to Help Enrich Research Efforts.
It’s not every day I am contacted by a foreign governmental agency (I am Canadian), particularly ones devoted to intelligence gathering. The email itself was amusing in both its sweeping overreaching and vague request married with dry attention to detail.
I had two concurrent thoughts: 1) it was written by a bot; and 2) it was the rabbit hole to an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). I immediately forwarded it to Tom Liljeholm, one of my producing partners on The Karada. Tom and I met in 2010 when I became the hardcore ambassador player of the ARG he produced as a component of the juggernaut Conspiracy for Good (CFG) transmedia experience. I soon became surprised to find out CFG was referenced in the RFI as the only ARG specifically mentioned by name.
Since IARPA had not reached out to Tom, or anyone else I could find in the ARG community, I decided the grass roots Alternate Reality Game I produced last year, titled Work with No Pants, must be how I got on the radar of this intelligence gathering agency that runs, according to its website, “high-risk, high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide the United States with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.”1
Suddenly it dawned on me: the government must be interested in how to simulate working without pants. Obviously.
Having produced the world’s only pantsless ARG puts me in a unique position to respond to the RFI’s six questions that I’ve been given the *generous opportunity* to provide my expertise to IARPA free of charge. In order to do so, I will also draw upon my experiences with both Conspiracy for Good and the recent theatrical pervasive immersive experience Zed.To/ByoLogyc (produced by my friends at The Mission Business) of which I attended the live events as a “professional player” (as I like to refer to myself in these contexts in which I fluidly cross the “curtain” throughout the production’s run).
I post these answers freely and publicly for all with interest to read as opposed to submitting it to IARPA…because frankly intelligence gatherers in the United States government should know how to google as well as anyone.
1. What, if any, social, behavioral, and/or psychological research has been conducted using AREs (to include ARGs)?
To my current knowledge, the majority of the social, behavioral and psychological research using ARG’s outside of educational and entertainment contexts is being conducted by the industrial military complex and its affiliations with a few exceptions. This fits into the long legacy and collusion between the field of psychiatry and intelligence gathering and the precedents set in the study of simulated realities in of themselves as being pioneered by U.S. military interests, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment funded by the US Office of Naval Research being one of the most known instances.
However, The Mission Business’s Zed.To is a fascinating example of an ARE that married foresighting with theatre and pervasive gaming to understand audience behaviours as part of Trevor Haldenby’s study at OCADU’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation Master’s program. It is of interest to note Zed.to’s climactic “big reveal” of the narrative during the final live event exposed the entire ByoLogyc fictional “program” as an out of control simulation gone wrong, critically highlighting the problematic nature of simulation research and foresight into audience behaviours as “the rats in the maze” gnawed their ways out of the cage.2 The Mission Business would go on to earn the titles: Winner of 2012 WorldFuture BetaLaunch Best in Show and Winner of 2025 International Design Innovation Award for the production company’s innovation of marrying the study of foresight with theatre (in addition to several other awards won outside that context).
2. Is there evidence that ARE/ARG-based research provides greater external validity than other methods of social, behavioral, and/or psychological research?
The simplified version of this question is: does the “near real world contexts” ARGs aspire to generate more genuine interactivity and responses that can be applied as generalizations of human behaviour than the usual methods.
My response is a resounding no for the very reason that much of the research into audience behaviours during ARG experiences has often concentrated on the how and what and when of participants behaviours and rarely the why’s of them: what is motivating players to buy into the fiction and participate in the first place and to what extent are their artificial behaviours being manufactured contrary to their naturalized behaviours with “reality.”
Fictional “realities” problematize data collection during an experience. My behaviours while playing CFG and Zed.To were not based on my own standard behaviours but within fictionalized personas I projected. While I was considered the model “ambassador” player, my motivations for being a part of both experiences were very atypical: I was planning to write transmedia case studies as well as hone my own skills at participatory theatrical puppet mastering and this informed much of how I interacted during the experiences. Many of the conclusions I have read on ambassador players have been dead wrong from my own insider’s perspective on the motivations behind my own behaviour and observations of others simply because they take participants behaviours too literally and at face value.
There is simply no standard player of an ARG; however, even the “typical” player of ARGs are situated far outside the mainstream, and studies rarely take into account cultural differences, particularly storytelling cultural differences, between players (with this exception by Jane McGonigal). Participants from Sweden, who are well acquainted with LARPing, behave vastly different than the uninitiated from Toronto, and yet all modulate their behaviours within the simulations, both consciously and unconsciously, to varying degrees.
3. What are the key elements to incorporate when designing or using AREs/ARGs for research purposes? What may be the biggest challenges for designing or using AREs/ARGs for research?
AREs, such as the Standford Prison Experiment and both CFG and Zed.To’s final live events, are “relatively” contained and easily controlled – insofar much the production management style can be compared to herding cats.
ARGs are uncontainable and live, partially, online and sprawl in unexpected ways. They can easily grow wild and out of control as information spreads like a virus.
Back in 2010 (this is pre-Occupy movement by the way), Conspiracy for Good had several moments when the “hoaxing” aspect bit the production, or Nokia rather, in the ass. To understand what went wrong, you need to also understand what went right. The game was designed to appeal to players who had a softness for social justice within a context of fighting against a corporation that had been inciting a government to invest in mobile spyware technology against its citizens. This allowed the context for the buy in in which players would perform acts of social good to the benefit of the various charitable partners as part of the overallcross-promotional social benefiting strategy.3
To launch the narrative, a “fictional” player named K4Ycee released this leaked video on The Pirate Bay (who later colluded to legitimize the “hoax” by including Blackwell Briggs in the long list of companies threatening to take legal action against the pirating platform). It was a brilliant strategy as the video, once posted on Youtube by a savvy player named Azure Wolf, quickly gained hundreds of thousands of views virtually overnight. Left-wing anarchist organizations with a hard-on for social justice quickly organized to take Blackwell Briggs on…until they discovered 1) this was an elaborate hoax as part of a viral marketing campaign 2) Nokia had bankrolled the production, whom the anarchist groups were well aware of the similar controversy Nokia itself had been embroiled in back in 2008 when they provided the government of Iran technology to monitor their citizens over mobile networks.
Let’s just say…the shit hit the fan. Once anarchist and social justice groups connected the dots they quickly organized to disrupt and vandalize the campaign as well as both Nokia and Conspiracy for Good’s Wikipedia pages ala inciting blogs such as this one titled How to Piss Off Nokia without Leaving Your Chair.
Remember this was prior to the Occupy movement and during the infancy of internet memes which later would prove to help harness the power of massive collectives loosely organized to socially spread both defensive and offensive information. The internetz does not take it kindly to be lied to…especially by corporations or governments, regardless if it is part of a fictional “game” that promises to provide an outlet for social benefiting or part of proposed research intended to protect citizens from so-called “future adversaries.” Pissed-off anarchist groups did much to dissuade casual players from joining the game as they infected the forums, the IRC chats, Youtube comments and so on, dampening much of the game’s initial explosion and potential for growth.
The lure of using ARGs that extend online and uncontained not only as a form of intelligence gathering but also as a way to spread misinformation to its citizens via “fictional” agent provocateurs cannot be overlooked, but neither can the outrage of large groups opposing these tactics that have the power and means to disrupt them. ARGS can be seen as narratives to be crowdsourced in order to assemble the fiction but they can also be hacked and hijacked to shit by those with cause.
4. How might one design an ARE/ARG that combines periods of controlled data collection as well as periods of “free play” and interactions?
Typically, many ARG’s start out by a call to action in which players “apply” to become part of a “nefarious” organization via a website or email requesting applications (such as resumes for employment), which blend both fictionalized (personae) and real world data (email addresses). This real world data is then tracked via cookies, etc. throughout the experience while the fictional data generates much of the game play.
These calls to action are not dissimilar to IARPA’s own UAREHERE RFI. In fact, the UAREHERE RFI strikes similar resemblance to the incidental SAVER CORP ARG, Conspiracy for Good’s own call for employees via the Blackwell Briggs website, and Zed.To’s VIP program via ByoLogyc’s website. It is ironic to note that IARPA’s website call to action tagline is “Be the Future,” while ByoLogyc’s was “Where You become New.” If it wasn’t such a boring and unimaginative call, I would have questioned whether UAREHERE was part of an ARG a few seconds longer than I did (although the .gov did give it away).
Conversely, many games also put forth calls to action for contrary fictional organizations (often modeled after antagonistic hacker/social justice groups) within the narrative framework to encourage participants to take down said nefarious organization (usually a corporation or an intelligence gathering governmental agency) by becoming moles during the application and fictional employment process. For Conspiracy for Good, this converse operation was manifested through first the “I am Not a Member” campaign and then maintained by the “organization” Spira. For Zed.To it was the hacker group organization EXE.
Simulated fictionalized questionnaires were likewise incorporated into both Zed.To’s live event at Nuit Blanche (in which at one point I served as a volunteer medic surveying participants for comic/dramatic purposes) and Conspiracy for Good’s final live event Into the Belly of the Beast. Yet neither of these fictionalized data collecting moments, from my knowledge, was used for any purposes outside of gameplay.
I however look forward to reading Trevor Haldenby’s dissertation that will outline the findings of his meta research and data analysis of Zed.To as a study of simulations in of themselves.
5. How might subject recruitment, screening, and informed consent be performed for an ARE/ARG, while limiting priming effects that may occur when explaining the purpose of a research study?
Through the process of doing additional research for this public answer, I was a bit shocked today to find out that Nokia funded a study during Conspiracy for Good (separate from the production) in which researchers acted as moles during the participatory experience to produce this paper in which I personally was quoted (anonymously) several times. I was wholly unaware while giving my answers during the post-game filmed interviews and surveys that this feedback was being used to further the understanding of psychological behaviour of players they had “studied” during gameplay when I mistakenly believed I was simply providing critical feedback of the production itself. No doubt I had signed waivers allowing the collection of said data but don’t recall ever having the true purpose of this collection ever revealed to me during the process. This sheds new meaning on the old ARG tagline: This is Not a Game, and it leaves a bit of a sour note on my tongue. To my knowledge no player of Zed.To has similar complaint towards the research component of the experience, which was more or less transparent throughout its run – at least, I was well aware of it.
In my own observations, I don’t think it is possible to limit the priming effects while also gaining informed consent. Conversely it is highly unethical for research based on artificially created simulations to take place without informed consent. While there has been a push from some governmental bodies to legally lie to its citizens by releasing misinformation and propaganda, I would like to caution any governmental agency against creating any ARG like hoax in the public sphere for research purposes, by highlighting the difference in behaviours to those “primed” such as the players of the game who discovered CFG through the internet forum on Unfiction versus those who were “hoaxed” such as the anarchists who stumbled across the video on the Pirate Bay.
For the players, taking down a nefarious corporation and running on the streets against “ractors” dressed as security groups were all a part of the fun. For the anarchists coming into the IRC chatroom thinking Blackwell Briggs to be a real company: this was a serious business. Several times seasoned players, myself included, had to talk down young Black Boc style anarchists from showing up at live events with a call to violence against Blackwell Brigg’s goons, who were really only actors. One young man even talked of firing pop-rockets at them if things got “too serious” during fictional protests. We quickly dissuaded him from causing trouble and explained the nature of the narrative before alerting moderators to the potential risks.
6. What protections can be put in place to maintain the privacy, safety, and anonymity of subjects? How have previous AREs/ARGs addressed these issues? Responses should consider issues regarding the collection of data via personal identifiers that may be sensitive (e.g. user names, phone numbers, emails, IP addresses, etc.), other data that may potentially be sensitive, and data security and protections.
As previously mentioned, IARPA contacted me, albeit through a form email blast. How did I get on their radar I cannot say: was it my experience and association with CFG, Zed.To, Veil Nanoscience, ARGFest, Work with No Pants, or the dozens of games I have played throughout the years…all of which have collected little bits of data on me in the first place?
Instead of answering this particular question further, I’d like to pose the question to IARPA: How can the citizens of the world be sure that any research conducting using an ARG that is open to online components not be used to disseminate misinformation and propaganda under the guise of the fictional hoax?
It is interesting to note that in the midst of Conspiracy for Good the G20 2010 Summit was taking place in my city of residence: Toronto, where the largest massive arrests against the citizens of Canada were happening a few blocks from my University, under the guise of a preserving a fictional “law” that the government had hoaxed the media and citizens alike inbelieving existed. This was also an event where the government has been accused, and not without cause, of using of agent provocateurs to incite violence and create the spectacle of abandoned police cars raging on fire to be filmed for “riot porn” in order to gain public sympathy, and so on. This event, that has also been accused of being very theatrical and orchestrated ala the Miami Model, also saw the arrests of key organizers of peaceful protests prior to the date as intelligence gathering agencies had infiltrated social justice groups for the purpose of preventing large massive peaceful protest from taking place.
In light of these tactics, I am concerned that IARPA’s mandate is to gain vantage over “future adversaries”, and wondering what guarantees are there that these fictional adversaries they are imagining in the quest to Be the Future are not the peaceful citizens promoting democracy, social justice, and government responsibility in both its own country and abroad. Exactly how near a “near-real world contexts” does IARPA imagine ARG intelligence gathering research to take shape? Especially when the only ARG they cited by name was very much modeled on an underground activist group keen on social justice taking down a corporation mired in governmental intelligence gathering interests and hell bent on intruding on the privacy of its citizens.
On that note, I leave you with this excerpt from Borges’ Of an Exactitude of Science with English translation below:
“. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”
Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
From Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley Copyright Penguin 1999
1.Ironically, one of the other ARG’s I’m affiliated with is Immersive Fiction’s Veil Nanoscience, which I consulted on and wrote the companion novella [Del]’s Diary a fictional account of several real life victims of the CIA’s MKULTRA project, of which I did exhaustive research into.
2.As zombies, but that is another matter entirely.
3.It is interesting to note that several players went on to take part in the Occupy movement to varying degrees, and I am personally unsure if they would have if it had not been for their experience with Conspiracy for Good.