Archive for the 'ARG' Category

Complicated, Engaging and Interactive

Those three words are often conflated in Internet ideas and products. But they are really three separate things. And I think we have to keep our heads straight about them if we’re going to make content that really works for audience.

The big bugaboo word for the Internet is “interactive.” Everybody in the content provider sector wants “interactive” — if only because they’ve heard the word. Well, okay, and also because the Internet is a very interactive environment. You press buttons, you make choices. You do interact with it.

But we interact with our Television, too. We change channels. We change the volume. We also interact with our DVRs — we set up season passes and choose what content to record and so on.

But you know what we don’t interact with? The content. When we watch a show, we’re sitting there watching a show. We not moving around widgets or pressing buttons. If the show is engaging enough we’re just sitting there watching it. (Mind you, if it’s engaging enough, we’re actually interacting with it on some level — thematically, emotionally or whatever. But we’re not physically manipulating anything to get to the fun.)

I’m not being facile about this. This is a vital distinction. Because for all the bells and whistles New Media can provide, there’s a really vital question here:

“What do people actually want?”

James Surowiecki’s “Financial Page” has an interesting piece in The New Yorker magazine this week. He talks about how designers of new technology often put in lots of bells and whistles into gadgets because they can. And marketing and sales departments love having lots of bells and whistles on gizmos because it gives them more to sell. And consumers love buying products with lots of bells and whistles because it makes them feel like they are getting more.

“But,” Surowiecki writes:

…once we actually have a product, our patience with all those features runs out very quickly. Elke den Ouden found, for instance, that Americans who returned a product that was too complicated for them had spent, on average, just twenty minutes with it before giving up.

The fact that buyers want bells and whistles but users want something clear and simple creates a peculiar problem for companies. A product that doesn’t have enough features may fail to catch our eye in the store. (A cell phone that doesn’t offer a Bluetooth connection, for instance, may be dismissed as underpowered, even though relatively few Americans use Bluetooth headsets.) But a product with too many features is likely to annoy consumers and generate bad word of mouth, as BMW’s original iDrive system did.

Okay. New Media. We can make choose your own path video content. We can make really elaborate Alternate Reality Games. We can make websites so thick in content you’ll never finish sorting through it all.

But at the end of the day, what do people want?

I offer this: Many of the models above are going to be just too complicated. People want engagement, but they don’t want complicated. The fact that our technology allows us to make things complicated doesn’t mean that people want things that are complicated. For that to have happened we would have needed a shift in the way most human beings want to engage with stories — and I don’t think that’s happened. Most people will want a person, or many people working together, to have built something they can sit down and read or watch or whatever.

Cable came along and gave us 500 channels. Too complicated! The DVR exists to save us from that complication.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are really cool. And there will always be an audience for them. And I’ll say again, they are really cool. Here’s a sample webpage from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, an ARG that’s part of their concept album built in collaboration with 42 Entertainment.

avott_index.jpg

If you click on the sample webpage you’ll got to anotherversionofthetruth.com. You’ll see a pretty image of an Americana landscape. If, however, you hold down your control button and slide the cursor over the image, you’ll start “peeling back” the colorful, life-affirming image and find a bleak landscape revealed underneath. Once you wipe away all of it, you’ll discover the image is now a link. If you click on it, you are then linked to chat board where members of a future resistance movement to an authoritarian United States government.

Click on more pages, and you’ll end up on a mailing list where people from the resistance movement email back. Scour web-pages for clues and you’ll find new links to lead you deeper into one web page, email, phone number, audio file after another…

Here’s a wiki page detailing the Another Version of the Truth page, here’s the Forum where characters from the bad future discuss many issues, and here’s a Forum at unFiction.com where many of the players/audience gather to sort out clues and find the next web page or phone number as part of their journey into the world Nine Inch Nails and 42 Entertainment have created.

To move deeper into the “narrative artifacts” that the ARG makers have produced, it is assumed that the players will work together to find and solve puzzles. A certain number of hatch-marks found by one person on a web-page will in turn be revealed to be a fax number by three people working to solve the puzzle together on a chat forum. It’s very interactive, very social, very Internet and very cool.

And when I tell people about these amazing creations and show them the web pages they’re always blown away by the concepts and the specifics. But then I always ask, “Now, in a week’s time will you have pursued any deeper the mysteries of these web pages?” And they look at the cool web pages on their screen and always say, “No.”

(This example was driven home to me one night over dinner. I was having dinner with the development executive of a video-content driven web-site and we were talking about the word “complicated.” And he said, “Do you know about the Nine Inch Nails ARG?”

And I said, “Yeah, I think I know where you’re going with this…”

And he cut me off and said, “It’s really cool, right?”

And I said, “Yes, and…”

And he cut me off again and said, “And when I show it to people, they all think it’s cool…”

“Dude,” I said. “I think you’re stealing my talking point…”

But he drove on, saying exactly what I said, even reaching the point where, after he shows people the cool pages he asks, “And will you be involved in this a week from now?” And everyone says, “No.”)

I think ARGs are great puzzles. But I’m not sure if the emotional and thematic content of storytelling is best served by puzzles. (And that’s a whole ‘nother issue — the tension between game and story.)

I will say that while ARGs (and especially 42 Entertainment) have a well-deserved fan base, I’m not sure if it will ever spread to be a dominant form. The ARG form is engaging and interactive… But it’s also very complicated. For thousands of years audience members have been content to sit around a fire and let someone tell them a story, or watch TV or read a book or whatever.

I have never considered these activities “passive.” They’re utilizing portions of us — emotion, thematic content, moral arguments – that don’t makes us very busy, but are engaging all the same. And I don’t think human beings have changed very much, though our technology has.

So, when thinking about online narrative content, ask, “Yes, we can have a lot of bells and whistles. But as a guy or gal hopping onto the internet to engage those part of me that loves a good story, how much complication do I really need, how much interactivity do I really need, and with or without a lot of complication or interaction, how engaging can I be?”

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