The prize, created by Maria Klingner,
photographed by Adam Thomas.
This is last of five posts about the #artctrl project. If you’ve just landed here I recommend you read Part 1 first.
I started the project with partial inspiration from the novel Sophie’s World, in which increasingly strange things occur around Sophie in parallel to her discovery of the world of philosophy; and Kit Williams’s Masquerade book, which was a fantasy story encoded with puzzles pointing to the location of a physical prize. I wanted to create aspects of both in that audience members would progressively encounter more and more evidence of the conflict between Mr B and T-Bone, and the mythology of the Artifact in familiar local spaces – Civic CBD; You Are Here (YAH) festival events; their Twitter and Facebook feeds – which would draw them into assuming a role in the drama.
Some of the early responses during the first week of the story (especially on Facebook in reaction to the Benevolent Ministry of Art Quiz) were the complete opposite of what I had hoped: suspicion and frustration. The former response, I think, arose from a concern that the project was part of some sort of guerilla marketing campaign and that interacting/participating would equate to publically supporting an unknown commercial product. The common ARG is an intriguing product of entwined commercialisation and creativity, and most of the early big genre-defining ones were indeed advertisements for products like the Halo games or the AI film. Even though #artctrl was designed as an interactive artistic experience, in order to have the full experience possible the player would have had to attend multiple YAH events and thus, it could be seen crudely as an elaborate advertisement for the festival. This final post will explore a couple of specific examples of the varied audience interaction with the project.
The Benevolent Ministry of Art Quiz was one of the unexpected successes of the project. The interaction was designed to engage the audience with the game world and thus encourage them to take the final step of emailing the Ms X character. This was intended to provided us early on with a direct line of contact to players to enable delivery of personalised in-game content. The “puzzle” was to complete the quiz with a full 30 points. This was virtually impossible on the first attempt and we added the incongruous combo of a message at the end that “This test May Not be Retaken” (in keeping with the authoritarian character of the Ministry) with a link directly beneath it to retake the test. Clicking the link would restart the quiz and, once commenced, would indicate which questions had been answered “incorrectly”. Once the player got the full 30 points they were given Ms X’s email address and advised to send their score to her for further instructions.
Unfortunately, as far as we know very few people tried to retake the test; certainly there were very few who emailed Ms X. There’s a number of reasons why this may have happened. The especially annoying explanation is that people are so used to poor/inconsistent web design that seeing an instruction to not do something, directly followed by a mechanic that enables them to do this very thing could have been considered entirely normal (and in their defence the next screen is identical to the initial intro to quiz screen). We could have countered this with some design elements – perhaps big flashing red arrows – but instead I opted to drop progressively bigger hints to potential players via the social media platforms, which in most cases were ignored.
Nevertheless the quiz was popular in that it was frequently interacted with in the way this genre of web content is usually intended to be: people publicly reposting their scores and discussing the “personality rating” they had received. Responses occurred across a wide spectrum of disinterest through to amusement and confusion through to aggression. This is the gist of one of the annoymus comments left on the BMOA.net.au website (which I “sanitised” in the guise of Ms X):
Bahahahaahahaha this can’t be real, right? Security cleared? Screening? It’s a small town city’s art scene, not XXXing ASIO.
While not really engaging with the game’s world as originally intended, it was rewarding to receive such a colourful response!
Eventually it was the vocalisation of audience frustration that pushed me to provide full disclosure (what Nickamc called “ripping off the mask”) via an FAQ on the YAH blog. This arose from one of the most interesting dilemmas I was faced with: between giving a more general audience an easier way in to what was going on vs. continuing the mystery for a select audience. The select audience approach was much closer than my initial intentions for the project, but then I risked the opportunity of not reaching new audience members that might have fallen into the select audience category had they just been aware of the game (indeed, I think the winner does fall into this category) so I opted to give people the facts. This seemed to satisfy everyone and, despite my worries, it is possible this was worked out as the best way overall: we had several weeks of mystery that built a buzz and then a simple entry point any new player could access through to the end of the game.
I love this Facebook comment from John Lombard (on 26 February 2014), which was pretty damn close to what I was hoping for:
I think you basically need to just have fun and play pretend to enjoy it. Hey, we pretend all the time on stage, let’s make a leap of imagination (picture me making the Spongebob “imagination” gesture while you read that) and play with the idea that artists are fighting an epic battle for the soul of all existence right here in Canberra. Because it’s more interesting to pretend it’s real than to think it’s not.
It’s a pity more people didn’t get to interact with the project in the same spirit, but other people seem to have taken other, different – but still good – stuff away from the the project.
Even though we departed from a straight ARG format (if there is such a thing!) there was enough, I think, to provide a clear rabbit hole for players familiar with the ARG world and transmedia to play the game. Unfortunately I think there’s just not a sufficient awareness of this kind of work – particularly with Canberra’s small population – that the general public might have organically picked up on what was going on. We did attempt to promote to ARG-aware audiences via sources such as ARGNet and local online gamer communities, however timing may have been against us, in addition to the absence of other familiar ARG traits (and the common big budget!). I thought I had sufficiently planned for this problem via overlapping narrative sources (live performances and video, Twitter, Facebook and the Scribe’s blog) but my gut feeling is it sadly comes down to the amount of time that an individual is willing to gamble on an uncertain return.
One of the lessons learned is that future projects in my corner of the world would likely be more successful, at least in terms of participant numbers, if run as short one-off programmed events. That way the audience knows ahead of time the frames for experience – the existence of any commercial involvement, the time involved and upfront cost – before choosing to participate. The guerilla gig approach also hurt the production-side as the stage management became infinitely more difficult than the usual advertised gig. This said, a more clearly programmed approach would have eliminated some of the most interesting outcomes of this project. These occurred as a result of #artctrl existing in the margins of the YAH festival, which challenged the audience to make connections between seemingly disparate “genuine” programmed events and to think critically about whole-of-festival themes.
 The YAH program itself is a nice metaphor for this: we were included as an “introduction” and back page “advertisement” written by Mr B and The Scribe, respectively, but not mentioned in any of the programmed events.