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.”

The team discovered the game’s collaborative nature presented some unique challenges for the puppet masters (ARGs’ version of game masters), who traditionally attempt to be as invisible as possible. “We had the idea that via our characters, we could pose challenges to WWO players: call for them to pose a picture that included a WWO sign, for example,” he says. However, the team discovered because the game was so good at engaging new players, not everyone was accustomed to throwing himself into the experience as veteran ARG players were – at least not without a little gentle nudge from behind the scenes first. “Players were happy to do stuff if our characters did it first. By the time we realized this simple truth, however, it was too late for some challenges. One of my characters was a 15-year-old girl, for example, so to show her with a WWO sign I needed to hire an actor, and I just couldn’t arrange for an actor to play her in time.”

Players and puppet masters alike felt emotional as the game drew to a conclusion. “The last week was an agony of sorts – no one wanted the game to end, but I had to end it. It was really hard,” Eklund says. But everyone involved in WWO learned something. “Through the game, I learned that withdrawal from cheap oil is going to be much worse than I thought. Without adequate preparation, there’s no way that the burden of energy deprivation is going to fall equally or fairly, and that sort of inequality will result in terrible suffering that could tear this country apart.” WWO‘s motto, “play it before you live it,” barely managed to stay a few steps ahead of reality, as gas prices are beginning to mirror those in-game. By looking at the problem of an increasing demand for petroleum now, WWO aimed to help people think about the future and leave behind a vast repository of ideas to help citizens, policy makers and educators anticipate the problems that could come up and prevent undesirable outcomes.

Eklund learned several things from a game design standpoint, and in the process helped create a new genre. “I would describe WWO as a serious alternate reality game, a ‘SARG,’ if you will,” he says. “‘Serious,’ because at heart, it’s all about confronting a real-world problem, and ‘alternate reality’ because the problem is in the future. … It’s different from many other serious games, because it does not put forth a worldview or prescribe a course of action, and it’s different from many other ARGs because it has no preset narrative, but instead asks the players to collaborate on creating and telling the story.

“I remember in the pre-game seeing a number of ARG lurkers come forward. What drew them out seemed to be the serious subject or the freedom from puzzles or just the open democratic tone. I was really happy to be presenting a game for them.”

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WWO has helped expand the ARG genre into a more serious and educational realm, but is the field ready to move more in this direction, or will it remain a niche genre, kept alive by marketing stunts? Recent commercial efforts in the field such as Iris (Halo 3) and the The Ultimate Search for Bourne have failed to take off like ilovebees did, but the ARG field hasn’t lost any steam in its progressive efforts.

As more and more designers are showing interest in the genre, posting on ARG-specific forums and blogs, Eklund believes ARGs will share a trajectory similar to the serious games genre. “WWO has opened up a whole new dimension to ARGs, which will bring a whole new field of potential sponsors to the table and exciting subject matter, too,” he says. “The traditional field will continue as before, and that will be where the bulk of the money is. But now there’s the potential for exciting hybrids, where a commercial sponsor links with a non-profit organization to put on a SARG. The commercial sponsor brings money, and the non-profit brings gravitas to the game. Such games could be both powerful learning [tools] and wonderful entertainment.”

Nova Barlow is the Research Manager for The Escapist and Tap Interactive. She is also a regular contributor to WarCry.

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