ARGFest #2 : Intro and Thursday Decom

ARGfest 2010 ended about a week ago and I am just starting to decompress. I have several serious criticisms about the way that the event was run and even about the content and commercialization of the space but I want to make sure I am clear that the staff of this years fest were fantastic. I think a lot of my issues came out of the raw deal that the organizers had to adapt to.
The hotel experience was swanky and high brow. Our first issue was that we didn’t know which hotel the conference would be in until after we had scheduled our rooms. Apparently another hotel had given the committee the run around until they could “book a bigger conference.” Anyhow, we got a good deal on rooms at the Regency which had fast, free WiFi and breakfast (mmm waffles).

Onsite at the W, the space was pleasant and even more-so the parties were fantastic.

Well the only downside was that they didn’t take into account us vegetarians.

Overall the sessions were pretty good. I don’t know why but I seem to always bristle at these things if it doesn’t seem like the presenter really knows their shit. I guess it comes from falling into presentations at conferences where I didn’t know what I was talking about that well. I know I was grumpy the first morning because I had soaked up the WiFi on the plane all night and got no sleep (but got caught up on a lot of email).

Thursday July 15 Sessions Overview:
My first criticism of the space was that there was no WiFi, rather no conference WiFi. I heard in retrospect that the hotel wanted to charge $20 per participant per day for access (when they usually just gouge their guests for around half that). Ya know, I understand the gravity of the decision, but I wish the organizers had found a way around it because it made it hard to be there without normal access. We ended up connecting with a guest of the hotel who helped us out with a basic, free, low end connection. Enough for email and twitter is all I require.

Beyond the Brunette – Andrea Phillips. This was an excellent, well researched, funny presentation about the clichés within the ARG dev community of the beautiful brunette (female) that gets in over her head and needs help or saving as the sort of trigger for the ARG. Phillips provided a nice overview of women’s roles in games and deconstructed the damage both to the games and the esteem of the players. This was my first tweek and I looked around the room. The audience, the devs and people who want to be devs (& marketers) were pretty homogenous. Mostly white and predominantly male (though that mix was much better than the racial mix). Now I know this dialog comes up frequently for me, and I am guilty of being a white male pretty much my entire life. Why is it us at conferences? Are we not welcoming to ethnic diversity?

1) Can Transmedia Save the Soap Opera – Brooke Thompson & 2) ARG TV – Nina Bargiel, Mike Monello, Owen Shiflett – I regretted missing these two sessions, but want to offer a comment anyhow. I wonder about saving TV or connecting with TV because I don’t see a model for this in the evolution of newer media. For example film started with a connection to theater, but moved beyond that as it realized the nature of itself as a medium. Extending the function of a property in a single medium by tacking on another seems more like a gimmick that anything with staying power.

We Want to Play!– David Tenenbaum & others – this was sort of interesting, bring out a group of people with varied play experience and see what they have to say. The lessons were clear, story & community. However, the thing I neglected to notice is that this discussion is the same in the video game community, and even in higher education (though the take aways are different). Players will only ask for what they know, they won’t ask for something new (except perhaps to say “something new”). This is problematic. I think I would have preferred a backwards look at what was most fun, challenging etc. I don’t think any of the players was especially amazing (you know like the professional Starcraft players in Korea) and that flattened the responses. I also don’t think that any of the players were designers, though I believe a few had dabbled. The panel came off as a vacuous love fest.

Small Group Block – ARG game jam. Okay I got really excited about this, the small group block had a chance to MAKE and play a game. Wow, what a way to find out about the whole scene. Well we ended up in a conversation with Peggy Weil that lasted too long and were 10 minutes late to the session to meet with an empty room. ARGfest – where is the leader of this workshop. Brooke eventually came by and offered some help with the city and materials, because she had to replace another workshop leader but this was disappointing. Thomas and I decided to forge ahead. Taking into account what we had learned in the morning (from the players, god love them) and our observations of the group we thought we had a good chance to do something interesting. We ran the workshop. Now I need to make clear that we didn’t go into this blind, but have a background in gaming, LARP, invisible theater, film, video, interactive media, MMO and many other sources of theory and practice. In other words we know the foundational skills, though we don’t know the precedents within the medium. I am going to be writing two more posts on the game we developed. The first will lay the groundwork and talk about it from a player perspective, hopefully with a way to minimize spoilers. The second will be a designer perspective and will lay bare all of our machinations.

Dotmocracy Wrap-Up – the idea was interesting, but the implementation was a little difficult. Answer surveys on paper with a marker, tally said responses and talk about the results. I have to say though that the questions were pretty good. “Do you have to play ARG’s to design them?” It was sorta sad that this was promptly discarded at the end of this session. (actually they made it back into the survey room but remained in a pile never to be posted again).

The World Outside – Evan Barba – Evan is an interesting PhD student doing some very narrow work in Augmented Reality. I have to say that I enjoyed his presentation and other than the fact that AR is totally overhyped at this point, so much so that it is nearly impossible to find out what the state of the technology is or where it is reasonably applicable, AR is quite interesting. He covered a few of the basics, but really didn’t bother to demo anything (really? WTF?). My beef with AR is that it is primarily driven by people with smart-phones, that it’s computational intensity is being pushed towards the likes of ATT and Verizon. The subscription model for data is broken, and if the only way to get into AR is via iPhone or Droid then I am gonna wait and watch for a while. Beyond that I have seen little beyond “gee whiz” though I do know that it exists. Evan’s work seemed out of place, undemonstrated and full of “gee whiz.”

Day 1 decom:

Overall I have to give the first day of ARGfest high marks. I did manage to meet some interesting people, dinner was fantastic and though we didn’t actually crack into the popular crowd the people were generally nice to us as newcomers. I started to sense a desperation to “go mainstream” which oddly I have seen through most of my career in new media. If I remember correctly I started to catch wind of the new buzzword in the community which is oddly attributed to Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling.”

It is nice to hear a little theory bandied about, but frankly I don’t think the general crowd gets what Jenkins is talking about. I think there is another post in the comparison, but I have to confess that I do not know his work that well either. But that I can fix : )