Discover Manoa!: Second Life RPG & the problem with ARGs


Discover Manoa


Oder Skall of the Second Life Herald posted about this latest ‘experience’ in the online virtual world Second Life. The press release about the experience sounds quite enticing:

Centric Seeks Help to Explain Second Life Incident
LOS ANGELES, CA. The Centric island region in Second Life is the location of one of the strangest incidents on record in this emerging virtual space. It has been taken over by the “Manoa Project,” which seems to reflect an abandoned future colonization effort on a distant planet.

“We drop in one day and find we’re standing on an alien world,” said Jason Stoddard, Centric’s Managing Partner, Strategy.

The world, known as Manoa, seems to have been partially developed for colonization before “cost overruns” caused Winfinity, the developer, to shutter the project. Prominent signs indicate that Winfinity is offering a L$100,000 bonus for the best independent information explaining why the project failed. For more information

Centric’s Director of International Strategies, Ken Brady, believes that the incident may reflect something more than a dedicated band of griefers. “There’s information in Chinese, Japanese, and English, and there’s logic behind it. They explain why we can fly and change our POV, for example.”

Jason Stoddard said: “It’s a foreboding, dangerous place. Everything’s scattered around like they were in a hurry to get out. And I don’t blame them.” However, Jason admitted that he’d like to know what happened to Manoa as well. “We’re inviting all interested parties into the world to help unravel the mystery—or at least create a plausible explanation for what happened here.”

I like the way they’ve integrated the ingame experience into the press release. The task for players is to decipher clues on the pages and source code of the website: Discover Manoa!, go to the location in Second Life and bascially figure out why the project was ditched.

The company, Centric, looks interesting too:

Centric, the Agency of Change, is a “new new” media agency working on leading-edge interactive marketing in social media, virtual worlds, and other emerging opportunities. Founded in 1994, Centric’s clients include Memorex, Freestyle Watch Company, Imation, LA Gear, Princess Cruises, Canon U.S.A., Mandalay Bay, Veeco, Hewlett Packard, VeriSign, Nestle and Acura. Centric maintains offices in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, and Second Life.

As Onder Skall mentions, the experience is not a strict ARG but for some reason the ARG community forums (Unfiction) work on it. Indeed, many transmedia experiences that are not ARGs are posted about at the top ARG announcement site Alternate Reality Gaming Network and the Unfiction forums. I think this contributes to the confusion about what ARGs are but on the other hand also shows the interest in transmedia experiences in general. The point of this flurry of activity around the forms shows how experiences that use multiple mediums and employ an ‘alternate reality aesthetic’ (pretending to be real) is a popular form of entertainment. ARGs are not the only format doing this but for some reason everyone seems to build up ARGs as the only one, the only important one. I don’t subscribe to this view because I see such a wonderful range of transmedia formats emerging everywhere. Sure, ARGs are a format that should be studied and emulated because they are an excellent model for transmedia implementation, player collaboration, narrative and play elements and branded entertainment…but they also are not a so-called ideal form (some people have even called them THE future format).

ARGs have major accessibility issues. Of the millions of people who ‘experience’ an ARG only tens of thousands actually play them, the rest read the texts created by players. Now, as I have stated many times before, this is a very interesting model of audience tiering and shows a preference for player-created narratives above producer-created ones (indeed, the desire for a linear narrative above a fragmented one)…but the large numbers often claimed (see my stats here) are not indicative of the people who actually play these forms. They are hardcore games that only a (relatively) small amount of players can actually play directly (due to skill, time and access obstacles). I don’t see how a form with such accessibility issues is the ultimate form. And, on top of this, there are so many wonderful transmedia experiences out there that do not employ the ‘alternate reality aesthetic’, do not require intense work loads and so on. In short, ARGs share the stages (stages) with many transmedia forms but these get lost in the media buzz and inappropriate labelling by those who entered transmedia entertainment through ARGs. The future of entertainment is about choice and complexity not about one format ruling them all.

N.B. If you’re confused about my use of ‘transmedia’ instead of ‘cross-media’ I should explain my employment of the terms. I use ‘cross-media entertainment’ to describe all the possible ways entertainment can be expressed and experienced in the age of cross-media production. ‘Transmedia’ refers to a format in which a single story or game (what I call an EventRealm) is distributed over a number of media platforms. Let me know if you want me to elaborate.

Anyway, over to you. Check out Discover Manoa! I will as soon as I get back from my multi-country tour. Enjoy!

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