I was at the StoryWorld conference in San Francisco earlier this week. It’s great to see the beginnings of a cohesive community and body of thought emerge around transmedia and evolving narrative — it reminds me of the early days of the community coming together around virtual worlds, and what fun it was to chronicle that.

I talked to a bunch of interesting people, but only sat in on one or two of the panel presentations. Herewith some notes on one of them, titled Streets That Tell Stories: How Pervasive Gaming Engages Audiencespervasive gaming being the kind that inhabits the real world around you, that takes place over hours or days or weeks or months, and has as its playing field a building or street or city or actual, physical world. You may not have heard much of this kind of game before, but there have been some very cool examples (linked below, of course).

The panel addressed techniques and approaches for creating pervasive games, and was moderated by Christy Dena of Universe Creation 101 (among other things), and featured three panelists:

Some of the recommendations and experience that came out of the panel:

  • If you trust people to enter into the world you’ve created for them, they absolutely know what to do.
  • Design to accommodate different levels of engagement.
  • You’re not just working in one medium, you’re thinking pretty much 360 every minute.
  • You have to know what the space is like at all times of day, and days of the week.
  • There’s no point in feeling you should do something in a traditional way.
  • You want to be on the ground and scout out those spaces, see what opportunities arise.
  • You have to be able to improvise as a creator and as someone running these things.
  • We’re like Situationalists 2.0, we just have better tools now. — Jeff Hull

Hull introduced himself as Creator Director of Nonchalance, “a situational design agency” in San Francisco. “Situational experiences involve spaces and people and other things to add to the environment. This is in contrast to experiential design, which very often can be kept within the two-dimensional monitor-based realm. Our mission is to provoke discovery through visceral experience and pervasive play, by reengineering the way participants and audience members interact with media, with the space around them, and most importantly with each other.”

Hull’s Nonchalance is best known for a very cool pervasive game built around an organization called the Jejune Institute, in which players worked to solve mysteries whose clues were hidden around SF, take part in protests, and participate in other immersive experiences that took place in the streets and buildings of the city. To get more of a feel for the particulars of the Jejune Institute, watch the trailer, and read this New York Times piece about the game.

While this isn’t too far removed from alternate reality gaming as we’ve come to know it, Nonchalance seems to be aiming for a more immersive and pervasive experience than most of those we’ve seen before. I think there’s a lot of potential for this, especially when combined with tools and practices from more “traditional” electronic gaming — not to take away from the pervasive experience, but to enhance it and help drive players to engage.

Hazel Grian introduced herself by saying, “I write stories and then I make them happen for real.” Grian has worked in theater, film, improv comedy, made ARGs, utilized robotics, interactive toys, and “anything which people use or see every day, to bring the magic of a story world into people’s everyday lives and get them away from their computer screens, by making stuff they can feel and touch and smell.”

“After all that, I’ve now got the first full-time job in my life, working for Aardman Animation [producers of Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep, Wallace and Grommit, and more] helping to edge us forward into crossing over into the real world,” she said. Grian worked on the Star Trek ARG, and a pervasive game with an outstanding title that sounds like it was a lot of fun, 2.8 Hours Later. The trailer gives a sense of what the game is like: real-life zombies chasing real-life people through real streets as they try to make their way to resistance HQ in a span of 2.8 hours. One notable thing about this game is that it has proved to be a repeatable experience, and has been held in both London and Bristol in the UK.

The third panelist was Constance Fleuriot, who “meandered into this field via fine art and human-computer interaction.” Fleuriot works in the Digital Cultures Research Centre’s Pervasive Media Studio, where “we’re looking at how different companies and artists are creating street games and pervasive games and experiences, and looking at the language that’s developing around this, so we can feed it back to a wider audience.”

Fleuriot is engaged in a two-year research project, one product of which will be a “pervasive cookbook” that should serve as a handbook for practitioners creating pervasive games and experiences. “We want to give an idea of the sort of questions you need to ask when developing a project,” she said. “We’re basing our work on projects that actually exist.”

The panel mostly addressed best practices in creating pervasive experiences — not that there’s an existing body of thought on this. But Dena drew the panelists out on the techniques they use to approach the design of pervasive games and other experiences, with some pretty information and at times entertaining responses.

More than one panelist called out the need to remind players that the laws of physics still apply during pervasive games, and that people need to be aware not to walk in front of a bus while playing.

Grian described how she approached the creation of 2.8 Hours Later: “This is a giant zombie street game we’ve been running in different cities in the UK. We wanted to start with the idea of creating this dystopian, apocalyptic feeling for people in their own cities. People get the zombie theme, it has an appeal to a wider audience. What people love is seeing their own cities transformed. We have about 500 people playing at one time, we do it for three nights and it’s a sellout, we actually sell tickets. We transform the buildings that people see during the day into a movie genre they understand, so that people are running through experiencing, smelling, touching, feeling themselves almost as a character in a movie, and because of the genre they understand the rules of that world.”

Grian noted that they give players a “crash course in how to improvise and role-play in public. We make sure players understand the rules of behavior. We do that as efficiently as we can, at the beginning. They sign a disclaimer form. It’s a tricky area, people do get injured. We’ve also got actors that are chasing people through the streets of the city at night. It’s non-contact, but people get extremely excited.”

“We’ve transformed your city, but the laws of physics still apply,” Grian noted. “But as we’ve learned, if you trust people to enter into the world you’ve created for them, they absolutely know what to do.”

Hull described his experience creating the Jejune Institute (which has an awesome Yelp page): “The Jejune Institute was a fictional cult people heard about from various sources. The most popular was word of mouth, sometimes a sticker or a sign or a flyer, all leading toward this location, an induction center for the cult. The idea behind it was that interactive narrative-based experiences are event-based, but are actually built into the architecture of the city around you.”

“The induction center was a private office, you were greeted by a receptionist. You would tell them you’re there for induction and they’d hand you a key on a keychain and some instructions that led you down a hall. There you’d enter a room, this was a highly curated pseudo-scientific realm, there was a video presentation, oscilloscopes, crystals, crazy lights. And instructions not to open the drawer and take out the form, and to please not stamp the form with the ink stamp.” Which, of course, everyone did.

“Basically, there was this cryptic map that led you through this urban exploration. Throughout Chinatown we had a number of installations, some are still standing. Eventually, they led you back to the building, you’d get another key, to a lockbox, where you’d find instructions to listen to a pirate radio station. And all of this is just the initiation into the game, which had a series of episodic levels. What we did is to slowly build up trust, letting them further into the universe of the game. The deeper they come into our universe, the more we’d reach into theirs.” The final event of the game was “a huge party steeped in narrative, which took the form of a social reengineering seminar.”

“The great thing about the game,” Hull said, “was that it was surrounding you all the time, all you have to do is be curious enough to reach out and grasp for it.” Hull said the Jejune Institute experience saw a wide range of player types, and it was important to design to accommodate different levels of engagement.

“Event-based stuff is thrilling,” Hull said. “It’s time-based, so you’ve got to prepare. We all get a little rush from that impending happening. Our experiences have a wide range of elements, performance, automated phone calls, surprises, and other installations.”

On the issue of “replayability,” Grian said, “We’re working in an area where it’s never the same twice. Working in theatre, you know what’s supposed to happen every night. When you’re using the real world, things change a lot. You’re making somehting that first into a particular city. There’s an awful lot of work you have to do with finding buildings, shopping malls, churches, streets — we have to get all the permissions to create the specific show that works in that specific environment. As far as trying to make it replayable, we’re pioneering trying to make this thing work. You’ve got this massive live event, so much work goes into it. You’re not just working in one medium, you’re thinking pretty much 360 every minute, all with the sense of what’s happening to your audience, for several hours, across a real city.”

Hull talked about logistical demands as well, but noted, “There’s also something culturally about your player base to keep in mind. In previous games and ARGs there’s been a lot of hivemind problem-solving. We tried to create a culture where there were not a lot of spoilers happening, but players would mentor each other in ways that facilitated their initiation into the experience. Once one person had been through it, anyone could return to the beginning and catch up with the other players.”

According to Grian, “Part of it is letting people gradually feel comfortable doing completely different things. They know about imagination and good story and good character, those things are completely universal and historical. But getting people to try a completely different form of entertainment, you need to work on that for years. You can’t just throw it out there, it’s not an established medium.”

Asked what sorts of things are not being addressed, or what types of projects the panelists would like to see, Fleuriot responded, “I don’t play these games because I can’t run fast enough. Where’s the equivalent of street games or pervasive games for people who don’t want to run around in the dark streets making lots of noise?”

Hull noted that at electronic gaming conferences like GDC, there’s a lot of talk about scalability and being able to accommodate large numbers of players. “One of the main reasons we don’t have the depth of real-world engagement I’d like to see, we’re definitely trying to provide for people to have an experience, but we don’t as a company deliver impressions. We don’t care about impressions, we want to deliver an experience that has such a depth of engagement that our participants get tattoos of the logos on their bodies. We want to create a transformative experience in a very literal way. I don’t think you can do that through social networks or mobile technologies. The promise of those to bring us together has really been a failure. It’s not happening because we’re transfixed be the little glowing monitor, which is just a means to an end — which is actual engagement and real-life community-building. That’s what I think is needed.”

One issue the makers of pervasive games face is dealing with real-world spaces. Fleuriot says, “You have to know what the space is like at all times of day, and days of the week. What times is it full of commuters? What times is it full of students playing football?”

“It’s not like any other kind of production,” Grian added. “There’s no point in feeling you should do something in a traditional way. You have to use whatever’s there and make something from nothing, beautiful losers. That’s what it’s about. That’s not something that’s easy to monetize. It’s about meaning rather than action — again, not easy to monetize. Action the games industry understands. Meaning is too ephemeral to pin down. That’s what we do, we create meaning. You can create meaning from absolutely nothing, using whatever’s available to you.”

Hull put in that “as artists, we’re really inspired by the spaces themselves. You want to be on the ground and scout out those spaces, see what opportunities arise. Once you’re in the space, there are a bunch of different methodologies you can choose from: scripting, maps, logistics of mind, street art and the post-graffiti movement, theme-park design, a lot more technological and curatorial methods.”

On role-playing, he said, “Our role-playing games are a little different, because we do try to blur the lines between fiction and reality. You’re never quite sure if you’re playing a role or if this is yourself. It can be very liberating for people.”

An audience member asked, “How do you take the broader universe of a story and the available tools, and get to the heart of the story and what would be meaningful?” Grian answered, “It really is those simplest things, just interaction, being able to touch the world of the story and interact with it, having the right kind of actors who can improvise, the right kind of writing that’s just there at that moment. A lot of it is about improvisation. You have to be able to improvise as a creator and as someone running these things.”

Hull said, “It’s a great process and we’ve learned a lot from each step along the way. It’s a really personal thing as well. There’s a range of responses to each of the things you put out there. The best is when you create an eperience for a player when they’re asking, Could that really have happened? We’re like Situationists 2.0, we just have better tools now.”