This GIF image is one of a series of diagrams I used in meetings with ITVS (Independent Television Service) to explain how the WORLD WITHOUT OIL online game would work. These “middle-state” meetings took place in August through October of 2006. At that time, I had submitted a proposal to do WORLD WITHOUT OIL for ITVS, and they liked the core idea very much, and had been assured by consultant Jane McGonigal that its game principles were sound. But nothing like WWO had ever been done before, so we met and I laid out the game workings for critique. The “Game Engine” diagram is a visual aid to understanding WWO’s most vital dynamic: how people get attracted to the game, how they play, and how their play both deepens their engagement and attracts more people.
(Background on WORLD WITHOUT OIL: it was a landmark game, the first alternate reality game (ARG) about a serious issue. WWO pretended an oil shock had begun and invited everyone to file “eyewitness reports” about it at the citizen crisis nerve center, worldwithoutoil.org. People played by imagining what their lives would be like with less oil, expressed in emails, voicemails, videos and so on. Each day’s player stories laid the foundation for the next day’s play. In 32 days the game amassed over 1,500 stories, creating a remarkably diverse, perceptive and affecting “pre-enactment” of our next oil crisis. You can read more here.)
You begin “Game Engine” in the upper right corner, where people discover WWO online and enter the flow by the green dot. They see stories freshly created by other citizens, written as though the crisis is real. The site encourages visitors to respond in kind (the paths flowing counterclockwise from the green dot). It invites them to create their own stories that build on the ones they’ve just seen, using whatever communication method they’re comfortable with.
Their creations are added to the site (lower left corner) and the gamemasters curate it and learn from it (upper left corner). When, for example, players described how the oil shortage was devastating tourism, the gamemasters adopted and amplified that theme. This update enriches and freshens the oil crisis narrative which attracts more viewers and the game engine enters another cycle (upper right corner again). Thus every morning WWO players woke up to find new developments in the crisis and a new opportunity to help elucidate or solve the problem.
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As a game designer, I struggle to communicate my game ideas to others. My games in particular defy easy 2D visualization, because they operate with a heavy narrative dimension, and both games and narratives are best understood as flows, not flat images. With WWO, I was also striving to create a new kind of game that “complexifies itself” via crowdsourcing – another difficult dynamic to convey.
"Game Engine" is not a diagram I would create for myself. It shows relationships and processes that I feel I know intuitively, plus for simplicity’s sake it assumes all players follow a similar path. In actuality I feel my highest challenge as game designer is to appreciate players as a cloud of skills, motivations, play rhythms etc. and to construct a game that accommodates as much of that cloud as it can.
The astute observer may look at “Game Engine” and wonder: where’s the game? The diagram might seem to describe interactive not-games such as YouTube and LiveJournal. This resemblance is intentional: at that time, those communities were the leading edge of social media. Video and blogger communities do not “go in a direction,” however; they have no overarching narrative and no curation toward a goal. By introducing these elements, I made WWO something that you played.
As “Game Engine” indicates, WWO didn’t seem like a game. This was quite intentional. First, I wanted to make sure WWO was inviting to non-gamers. Second, I wanted players to focus on the story, not game mechanics. Third, alternate reality games are famous for using “TINAG” (“This Is Not A Game”) as a device to heighten immersion in their stories – by believing its own fiction, the game helps players get inside the fiction too. I wanted WWO to excel in this regard.
The astute observer may also look at “Game Engine” and ask: how come it says nothing about oil? Truth is, WORLD WITHOUT OIL was not actually about oil or the lack thereof. As a public media non-profit, ITVS strives to broadcast stories from people who don’t usually get the chance to be heard. True to this mission, WWO focused on getting people to share their stories, especially individuals and communities that media typically overlooks (see the box at the center of the diagram). Oil dependency plays an essential role as a narrative driver of that sharing, but as “Game Engine” reveals by absence, oil is not the game’s heart.
If you’ve read this far, you may want to know the end of the diagram’s story – i.e., did the game engine work? Yes, remarkably well. One reviewer noted:
As a concerned citizen I am glad to see the "game for good" aspect of World Without Oil get a lot of airtime. As a student of game design, I see something far more fascinating going on: World Without Oil appears to be one of the most efficient content propagating narratives ever executed in an Alternate Reality Game context. MARK HEGGEN – RE:TEXT
"An efficient content propagating narrative" is exactly what we set out to make.
Thank you, MediaCommons, for the impetus to relive some of WWO’s formative moments and the opportunity to preserve a key moment of its middle-state history.