Crowdsourcing to Victory

Crowdsourcing to Victory
The Making of World Without Oil

Nova Barlow | 18 Sep 2007 13:42
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Instead of Tombstone Poker with ghosts, or aliens on payphones, this spring brought one of the first serious alternative reality games (ARGs) into the spotlight. Backed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Eklund and his staff brought the typically fantastical ARG genre down to Earth by asking, "What would happen if the world ran out of oil?"

The answers became the core of World Without Oil (WWO). Through the month of May 2007, participants from around the world were invited to help simulate a global oil shortage by contributing stories and materials as if it were really happening. Each real day during the simulation represented a week in game time, with updated gas prices and reports by a cast of characters designed to help guide and serve as a contact center for contributions. WWO was not a game in a traditional sense, in that players had linear goals - it was about learning and adapting to various situations.

The Escapist recently had the opportunity to chat with Ken "Writerguy" Eklund to take a look at what he learned from WWO, hailed as the "first alternate reality game to enlist the internet's vast collective intelligence and imagination to confront and attempt to solve a real-world problem." A freelance game designer and author, he's spearheaded educational projects such as The Blackout Syndrome, cell phone games like Driv3r: Las Vegas and a number of Gold Box games.

Although WWO existed for a short time, its roots stretch back to 2005. At the time, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) was looking to create an online game that furthered their mission to "take creative risks, explore complex issues, and express points of view seldom seen on commercial or public television" and put out a call for proposals. Eklund pitched World Without Oil, and after a year of deliberation, the ITVS got back to him.

He began recruiting a team in late 2006 to get WWO to the "pre-game" stage, in which players were introduced to the back story but weren't yet able to participate. The original characters were a group of eight strangers stranded together in the airport during the 2006 Denver blizzard. Armed with a clue that an oil shortage was going to take place the following spring, the group established a website to compile data about the effects it was having, and to gather others to share their stories.

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Typical of the emerging Web 2.0 culture, participants in WWO found their means of creative expression through YouTube, Blogger, iTunes, LiveJournal, Flickr and other sites. By placing a value on community-created content, collaborative stories and realistic situations, WWO surpassed its original goals, drawing approximately 60,000 visitors to the official site and enlisting over 1,850 citizen heroes. Although the active participation part of WWO has ended, anyone interested can check out the robust archive starting at either the beginning to view everything in chronological order, or skipping to the end with the full archive.

In order to handle the intense volume of the multimedia the team received, programmer Mark Bracewell developed a customized solution for WWO. "The tool enabled all team members to see the current backlog of submissions by players," Eklund says, "and to process each submission and post it immediately to the WWO website within a few hours of its submittal. We linked to blogs, video, images etc. that players posted elsewhere, and we created blog entries for emails and phone calls and then linked to them."

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