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It's neither a surprise nor a disappointment to her, McGonigal claims, that many of the biggest video and computer games still focus on shooting people and blowing things up, since those activities stimulate our brains in a very basic way. But as the boys who grew up playing these games age, she thinks they're getting bored with explosions. ARGs, she says, can be both more meaningful and more deeply pleasurable. "It's not just adrenaline, it's not just entertainment," she says. "We're tapping into core psychological aspects of what it means to be human."
McGonigal expects a lot from mankind, and from gamers. But she's talking about the generation that learned to assassinate Hare Krishna monks from the game Grand Theft Auto whether they'll live up to her expectations remains to be seen.
In early March, McGonigal stood up before a packed hall at the Moscone Center, slides at the ready. She was about to make several different kinds of history. She was the first woman invited to give a keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference, the massive industry event that has been around for 20 years. Hers would also be the first keynote talk to focus on alternate reality games.
Most videogamers know about ARGs by now, even if they haven't played them, but McGonigal still starts her talks with basic definitions and descriptions. These games may have huge potential, but they're far from commanding the current marketplace. The more traditional multiplayer game World of Warcraft boasts 8.5 million players, leaving an ARG like I Love Bees which had, at most, 1 million people briefly check it out in the dust.
So McGonigal, the ARG evangelist, began proselytizing. "The central problem I want to consider is, can a computer game teach collective intelligence?" she said to the crowd. "I believe absolutely yes, and it's the single most important thing we can teach as we prepare for the future."
She turned to the I Love Bees gamers as her shining example, her star students. At the game's outset, the players stumbled on a set of 210 GPS coordinates, paired with time codes. There were no further instructions other than a date something would happen on Aug. 24th. Fascinated, thousands of players started theorizing about how to interpret the numbers. Maybe the numbers should be used to look up Bible passages, which would reveal a written message? Or could they be transposed onto a star map? The players organized into groups to pursue different leads, and finally, the most literal-minded group won out. That group had sent scouts to the listed locations in almost all 50 states, and had them report back with descriptions and pictures. When they realized that all the locations had pay phones, they knew what to do on Aug. 24th show up at the phones at the listed times, and wait for a call.
McGonigal doesn't seem to get tired of explaining the promise of ARGs in the last two months, she gave six talks on the subject. But she must be looking forward to the day when she can skip the half-hour of her talk that shows that she's not crazy, and get straight to what she wants to do next: Make sure a game designer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032.
McGonigal has been thinking about the deeper meaning of ARGs since Sept. 11, 2001. The very first ARG, a game called The Beast that promoted the movie A.I., had recently ended. On that day, when gamers turned on the news and saw smoke bellowing from the Twin Towers, they flocked to the forum where they had spent so much time during the game. "One of the strongest responses they had was, we can probably do a better job solving this than the authorities, because we have been trained as this collective detective," McGonigal says. "I actually thought this was great."
After an intense debate, the players decided it wasn't appropriate to "game 9/11," and opted for more traditional ways to help. But the impulse to apply their skills came up again and again. They talked about getting involved in the hunt for the Beltway sniper in 2002, and also proposed an investigation into government waste in federal spending.
None of those projects got off the ground. Straight reality, it turns out, is less dependably fun than games. There are no puppetmasters to dole out clues, keeping players interested and on track. Players aren't guaranteed a stunning conclusion. Players might not have access to the information they need. Still, the gamers' urge to use their collective power remains. McGonigal gets e-mails all the time, she says, with former players basically begging her: "Help us use our brains!"
That's her intention. Right now she's looking for scientists who are amenable to an unusual collaboration with a game designer. She has high hopes for artificial intelligence laboratories she can imagine designing a game where players need to interact with an artificial intelligence program, and would teach it language skills or common-knowledge facts in the process. Or the players could be taught how to look for patterns in real scientific data on nearly any topic, from mammograms to sunspots to genetic sequences. Their success in the game couldn't be dependent on real scientific breakthroughs, McGonigal points out, because they might never happen.