Future Games

She wants to harness the power of the communal cerebellum her games create and put it to work solving real-world problems

"It's got graffiti, that's good," she comments to her husband and partner-in-crime, Kiyash Monsef. They debate how to frame the photographs of the gas station, and decide they'll shoot the scene through the fence. "Then we don't have to break in, which is always a plus," McGonigal says, smiling brightly.

McGonigal doesn't look the type for breaking and entering. She's a pert and petite 29-year-old with a mass of curly brown hair and a wholesome look. Her cunning nature and exhibitionist streak aren't obvious; those aspects of her personality come out when a game is afoot. In urban settings that are more predictable all the time, McGonigal delights in creating unconventional public spectacles. She and a friend brought flashmobs to San Francisco in 2003, calling people to a certain downtown crosswalk, for example, to twirl giddily in the street for 10 minutes before dispersing.

She and Monsef are in Berkeley scouting locations for McGonigal's next game, which, if all goes according to plan, will soon suck players through a rabbit hole and into a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The game, called World Without Oil, launches April 30, when an imaginary oil crisis will shake the alternate reality version of the planet. Players who suspend disbelief will help characters cope with the consequences, whatever they may be — shortages, riots, wars, or surprising technological adjustments. McGonigal and Monsef are spending much of this final month creating convincing evidence of events that will unfold, filming vignettes and taking photographs to tell pieces of the story.

Players took over Yerba Buena Gardens to play one of McGonigal's games.
James Sanders
Players took over Yerba Buena Gardens to play one of McGonigal's games.
In the assassination game Cruel 2 Be Kind, a team attacks with a compliment.
James Sanders
In the assassination game Cruel 2 Be Kind, a team attacks with a compliment.

World Without Oil is McGonigal's bold step forward; it's a game designed for the public good, rather than for pure entertainment or subtle marketing. The tagline declares its intentions to be a public service announcement about the world's dangerous dependence on oil: "Play it — before you live it." McGonigal isn't a fanatic on the subject of oil addiction, although, like many people, she thinks an oil crisis is a looming possibility. Letting gamers role-play the scenario now, she says, could result in something like a citizen's manual on how to respond to the crisis.

San Jose game designer Ken Eklund dreamed up the original concept. He had previously created games for corporate training and middle school science classes; this will be his first ARG. It's also the first such experiment sponsored by the Independent Television Service, a little-known wing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that's based in San Francisco. Eklund says the head honchos didn't know what to make of his proposal: "They said, essentially, "this is too far out there for us,'" he remembers. Luckily, they had hired McGonigal to evaluate game proposals, and "she saved it from being tossed," he says. Now they're working together on the game's execution.

It's off to a fine start. The game hasn't officially launched yet, but players already noticed the names of 10 characters on the main Web site (www.worldwithoutoil.org), and discovered that the characters have blogs and photos on sites like LiveJournal and Flickr. Some players even chatted with characters by instant message, although they didn't learn much — the characters just dropped cryptic warnings, and sent links to Web pages about peak oil. One day a character mentioned an article in the Himalayan Times about an oil supply interruption that has thrown Kathmandu into confusion; another day brought a link to an Atlantic Monthly article on the possibility that Iran will stop exporting oil within a decade. The enthusiastic gamers have already created a wiki to keep track of the information.

Their gusto comes as a relief to the puppetmasters. "There's always some concern with gamers that if you're too explicit about the fact that there is some serious angle to it, that they'll say, 'Eh, it's not fun anymore,'" McGonigal says. But the players haven't implied that the game tastes too much like medicine; instead, they're using it as food for thought. "Is it just me, or is this game making anyone else want to get ready for oil to disappear?" wrote one player on a central message board. "Maybe that's the point of the game, but it makes me want to go out and spend large amounts of money on emergency supplies."

McGonigal and Monsef finish prowling around the abandoned gas station's perimeter and hop back in the car. In the background, the stereo plays macabre, minor-key jazz — it's the soundtrack from one of their favorite computer games. McGonigal explains that this is a minor scouting expedition compared to others they've done. For I Love Bees, Monsef flew all over the country locating pay phones that accept incoming calls.

Big games, which use film and audio snippets to tell a story, typically cost a couple million dollars, McGonigal says. World Without Oil, which isn't marketing any consumer product, is a much leaner affair; its budget is about $100,000. They can make it happen at that price because they're expecting the players to do a lot of the work. The game will ask players to document how their own lives are changed by an oil crisis using blogs, photos, films, and whatever else they can think up. "No one person or small group can hope to capture the complex, rippling effects of an oil shock," Eklund says, "but the collective imagination can."

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