Hyperrhiz 11: Gallery

The Portal | The Sandbox

Peter McDonald and Patrick Jagoda

An Alternate Reality Game Archive as Electronic Literary Narrative

The Project was a Chicago-based alternate reality game (ARG) and netprov experiment that threaded together transmedia storytelling, online puzzles, performative role-playing, responsive media environments, and a series of live-action games. From April 1-25, 2013, players joined the experience both online and at numerous physical locations in Chicago. The production of this game was made possible through support from the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry and the Mellon Foundation. The collaborative creation of the game brought together Patrick Jagoda (University of Chicago), Sha Xin Wei (Arizona State University), the Montreal-based Topological Media Lab, and both graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Chicago. The design team sought to document as much of the gameplay as possible — a challenge in ARGs and netprov works that are ephemeral and include live elements.

Over the course of The Project's three and a half weeks, players had the option of exploring one of three tracks organized around unique conspiracy groups. Each group fetishized a different element of the eponymous "project" — sound (Sonos), objects (Ortgeist), and movement (Ilinx). Each of these groups also offered a divergent perspective on the central science-fiction mystery of the game that involved a strange portal that opened into another world. The improvisational play of the game spread along several pathways of separate, though occasionally converging, events. The three parallel conspiracy groups would undertake daily adaptations and adjustments, organizing events that would influence the others, as well as the core narrative and ludic structure of the ARG. Moreover, interactions among designers, actors, and players led to an ongoing reinvention of the game as it unfolded. For example, messages that players sent to designer-controlled characters inspired several deviations from the original narrative script. The multilinear experience of The Project came, in both intended and unexpected ways, to serve as an allegory of the game design and production process itself. The game explored the possibilities and limits of play in an early twenty-first century media ecology that blurs the distinction between work and play. The Project sought to produce a collectively imagined augmented reality through sited experiences and emergent networks of play. Through networked improvisation, the designers simultaneously embraced and complicated what Manuel Castells describes as the fundamental unit of our postindustrial economy and its network enterprise: the ephemeral "project" (Castells, 8).

The Portal | The Sandbox is a collaboratively and improvisationally constructed electronic literature work that repurposes media assets — text, photographs, audio, puzzles, videos, and social media — collected during The Project ARG and uses them to create a new narrative. This project was undertaken, in part, as an exploration of the challenges that ARGs and netprov works introduce to archiving live and ephemeral play. Many previous ARGs have received minimal documentation. In the early twenty-first century, when this genre emerged, there was little consensus about the parameters of the form. It was not yet certain that the genre could attract players or that either designers or critics would be interested in these games after their completion. Early ARGs were designed primarily as one-time, experimental advertisements for other products (e.g., The Beast as an advertisement for Steven Spielberg's 2001 film A.I.). As such, the idea of recreating or documenting these experiences was not a priority for designers. Even those games that have left behind extensive records tend to be difficult to navigate given their significant scale, large player collectives, and emergent events. Without serving as a traditional archive that aspires to be searchable and transparent, this electronic literary work nonetheless documents and allegorizes the participatory process of the earlier ARG.

Though The Portal | The Sandbox incorporates the database of media assets from The Project, it interprets them through a multilinear narrative form that draws from genres that include the fable, postmodern fiction, and electronic literature. The interplay between database and narrative in this work extends the symbiotic relationship between these concepts that N. Katherine Hayles posits — in distinction to Lev Manovich's characterization of these terms as "natural enemies." As Hayles observes, "Because database can construct relational juxtapositions but is helpless to interpret or explain them, it needs narrative to make its results meaningful. Narrative, for its part, needs database in the computationally intensive culture of the new millennium to enhance its cultural authority and test the generality of its insights" (Hayles, 176). Building on this complementary relationship, the present work oscillates between the narrative and the database in order to both channel and elaborate on the ARG form of The Project.

The Portal | The Sandbox experiments with what it might mean to develop an improvisational and responsive process of playing with an ARG archive. This work includes a largely linear story that offers a constellation of portals that branch out to textual, audio, visual, social, and ludic media that expand the story world and connect this piece to the networked improvisation that preceded it. Portals between coexisting worlds were already a major trope of The Project. They served as a metaphor for play itself and marked an irresolvable surface that could promote paranoid interpretation. We found this metaphor to be a promising way to transition between the original ARG and the hyperlinked work that would both document the game and use it as a basis for a new round of storytelling. Portals in The Portal | The Sandbox serve as a formal structure from which elaborations of and deviations from the original story proliferate into new worlds.

The co-creators of this piece — writers, media theorists, visual artists, and web designers — assembled a database of ARG fragments. Mirroring the collective nature of ARG design and gameplay, this group collaborated, through numerous iterations and playful manipulations, on the documentation, composition, and transformation of these materials into a narrative archive. Both the initial ARG and archiving process yielded four key lessons about documenting an ARG. First, the live, ephemeral, and frequently improvised nature of an ARG required intentional documentation throughout the process. Second, to enable initial media collection, we faced the challenge of breaking the fourth wall through the constant presence of cameras at live events. Our solution was to designate a group of actors as the "Documentarians." This collective of documentary filmmakers had allegedly discovered the game trail a few days prior to the remaining players and claimed to be recording the strange events with the intention of creating a short film. Third, we learned that the sheer quantity and diversity of transmedia materials that make up an ARG make documentation and archiving difficult. After twenty-five days of play, we had hundreds of hours of footage. The game components included online discussion boards and site-specific mini-games, as well as optional ambient experiences that offered a deeper experience of the core narrative. Moreover, some assets and conversations were accessible to players but not designers. Finally, we decided that a linear summary of The Project or a straightforward database of assets would fail to capture the uncertain and improvisational qualities that animate an ARG. Thus, we created a new narrative that would be accessible to readers who had not participated in the original game. This narrative gave the designers a chance to reflect on the challenges of archiving an ARG.

VIEW The Portal | The Sandbox


Creative Direction: Peter McDonald and Patrick Jagoda

Writing: Patrick Jagoda

Web Design: Peter McDonald and Kalil Smith-Nuevelle

Media Production: Philip Ehrenberg and Ashlyn Sparrow

Archiving and Editing: Bea Malsky and Ellen Kladky

Works Cited

Castells, Manuel. "An Introduction to the Information Age." City. 2.7 (1997): 6-16.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

McDonald, Peter; Jagoda, Patrick; Sparrow, Ashlyn; Ehrenberg, Philip; Klady, Ellen; Malsky, Ellen; Smith-Nuevelle, Kalil. The Portal | The Sandbox (http://projectoftheproject.com/). 2014-2015.