Kairos 17.3

Podcast Transcript

[uptempo electronic music theme playing, ends at 0:13]


Narrator: Hi! This is Eric, one of the members of the Battle Lines team.

Almost any good game needs some sort of conflict to keep it interesting: Mario versus Bowser, red checkers versus black checkers, the blue guy versus the red guy, on and on and on. And as we worked on creating our game, we had our own conflicts to keep things interesting. Not conflicts between the game’s creators, fortunately, but conflicts inherent to the process of making an alternate reality game: Choices about which aspects of Battle Lines to privilege over others, how to balance our focus and meld the various goals we wanted the game to accomplish. So what follows is our attempt to set up some of those conflicts. Not just as a juicy behind-the-scenes exposé on the creation of Battle Lines, but in the hope that documenting our own struggles can help others anticipate and feel up to the challenges that come with building an ARG. We’ll try and work through four of these specific conflicts, taking one at a time, though of course they overlapped during our actual process. I’ll be talking specifically about some of these challenges in terms of the audio level of Battle Lines, a level where students had to use Apple’s GarageBand software to find secret code words and messages hidden in an audio file. And I should note that these are just brief introductions to some of these issues; you’ll see them pop up many other places in this article.


Eric: So, first up—

Menacing Male Announcer: [interrupting] Round one—fight!

Eric: No, definitely—definitely not. Nothing that dramatic. First up, the tension between educational gameplay and enjoyable gameplay. Here’s Kendall, another member of our Battle Lines team:

Kendall: Battle Lines has a certain educational goal. So it was very difficult in the design of the game to keep in mind the tension between designing something fun and designing something that teaches. And I think that really all games teach you certain things, right? They teach you how to play the game. So we tried to design Battle Lines in a way where you could play the game and learn the skills of rhetoric—that those would be one and the same action. When you think of an educator designing a game, it’s not ever very fun. So we didn’t want to be educators designing games; we wanted to first become game designers. I think that when people get to go out in the real world and, it’s not just locations, but even the people that you find there are now part of the game. That is just—it’s so exciting. It’s very pleasurable. And so it’s a good way to have students feel like this trip was worth it, this class was worth it. And you want to do a good job and be a good player because it’s so much fun.

Eric: So we wanted to make a game that would—obviously—be educational, that would help students in rhetoric courses develop rhetorical skills, digital literacies, but we wanted also to make a game that would be enjoyable. One of the reasons we called ourselves the Immersive Environments group is because we wanted to create something that students would be able to immerse themselves in, and enjoyability seemed like an important prerequisite for that. So, for instance, in the audio level, we used clips from a commencement speech William James Battle, UT president, delivered in 1917. And we wanted students to engage with the rhetorical content of this speech, to note some of the things that William James Battle—

William James Battle: [crackling audio recording] Shall Texas have a university?

Eric: —there he is now—had to say about the purpose of a university in a democracy. But we also wanted the level to be enjoyable. We wanted the audio file to have a certain aura to it; we wanted it to feel like part of a game and not just a dry exercise in listening to a 42-minute speech by a former UT president. In order to make this happen, we embedded the clips of the Battle speech in an audio file that also had some ambient clips of music from Austin legend Janis Joplin,

Janis Joplin: [singing in clip from her song Me and Bobby McGee] Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Nothin’, that’s all the Bobby left me [fades out]

Eric: that had various background noises to create a sort of ominous ambience [low rumbling tone fades in and out under narration]. What we found after the fact was that students did figure out the puzzle relatively quickly. They found the clues, the key words, buried under pieces of static in the original recording [static fizzles momentarily]. But they did not really engage at all with the actual content of the speech. They learned the digital lesson of how to manipulate files in GarageBand, but they didn’t necessarily take anything away from the message that the clips from the Battle speech were attempting to convey. This gets at another issue that falls on the educational side of the tension between creating an enjoyable game and creating an educational game.


Menacing Male Announcer: Round two.

Eric: And that was attempting to construct a game that taught rhetorical goals as well as digital goals. So this is a place where students began to pick up on very quickly the technological skills and digital literacies they needed to beat the audio level, but they did not generally engage with the rhetorical content or context of the game in order to do that.

On the enjoyability side, another issue we faced was figuring out how to balance the narrative structure of the game, the overall story that was holding it together, with forming individual puzzles.

Menacing Male Announcer: Round three.


Eric: There are a lot of satisfying games out there that depend largely on narrative structure. Take a tabletop role-playing game where there’s a lot of energy devoted to world creation, character development, and things of that nature. Then there are games that work really well by basically being structured around individual levels or individual puzzles. Take a successful gaming franchise like Mario [sound effect: Mario getting a coin]. Certainly there’s a barebones narrative structure there: defeating enemies [sound effect: Mario killing an enemy], saving princesses, things like that. But it’s pretty easy to play through the game without really interrogating the details of the story, like why in the world Mario’s a plumber. And if you don’t pay close attention it’s pretty easy to ignore the name of the princess you’re trying to save the whole time [sound effect: Mario shrinking]. In any case, we wanted both narrative and satisfactory puzzles in our game, and it wasn’t strictly an either/or choice. But following up on narrative elements we set out in earlier stages of the game required a lot of organization and forethought. In the opening of the game, we’d established not only Amanda, but a potential love interest and one of her family members, and the Friends of Texas, all these potential loose ends and red herrings and characters you could come to care about as the story progressed. But with a constrained schedule, we couldn’t put off coming up with the individual levels and puzzles that students would have to solve for the sake of developing a rich, thorough, and holistic narrative. For instance, for the audio level, students found the audio file they had to deconstruct in GarageBand on a wiki that Amanda had created. But there was no reference back to other characters from earlier levels—just a sense of growing conflict between Amanda and the Friends of Texas. We could have gone a more narrative route, integrating more of the earlier characters into the story, having additional email exchanges or conversations go on. Or we could have spent more time on puzzle formation: kept the narrative minimal and put more time into increasing the complexity of the audio clue students had to work with.

In any case, the three tensions we’ve discussed so far—balancing the game’s pedagogy with its enjoyability [sound effect: Mario getting a coin], its rhetorical qualities with its digital aspects [sound effect: Mario getting a coin], and its narrative with the independence of its individual puzzles [sound effect: Mario getting a coin]—were all linked with a final issue.

Menacing Male Announcer: Round—

Eric: [interrupting] Nope! My turn this time. [pauses] We good? Okay then! Round four! [sound effect: Mario getting an extra life] Linearity versus freeplay. Here’s Cate, another one of our Battle Lines team members:


Cate: The thing that’s most fascinating to me are all of the false clues. It’s a mine of ideas for future ARG puzzles and solutions.

Eric: [interjecting] Yeah!

Cate: And I think it builds their analysis skills. I mean, they were literally analyzing the Twitter icon—

Eric: [concurring] Yeah.

Cate: —of one of their own classmates, not realizing that it was one of their own classmates.

Eric: [responding] Exactly, right?

Eric: [narrating] And here’s Kendall again:

Kendall: I am so excited that they looked at all the stuff that we predicted they might not look at. In fact, I remember sitting in the office talking about whether students would be bothered by this little floating tag on Gmail that just says the word “cookies.” And students latched on to that and it’s—I just love it. And we were all like, Well, we don’t have time to fix it. But that kind of stuff is fascinating and if we could have been, you know, more reflexive and involved about it, I would love to give them more to play with that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, right, rather than less.

It is hilarious because it shows us how—how little we can predict what our students are going to do and be able to find. We can Google stuff, but we’ll always—they’ll Google something different and they’ll Google it a different way, or they’ll put the pieces together differently than we did, which is the cool thing about this kind of game.

Eric: Board games have, well, borders. You can only move your queen in certain directions in a game of chess. You can only move so many spaces in Monopoly after you roll the die, and if you’re playing Clue, you shouldn’t actually murder anyone [dramatic orchestral hit]. It was a lot harder to define these boundaries in Battle Lines just because the game interacted with the real world: Both the physical real world, where anyone potential place or person on campus could become a part of the gaming environment if students read it that way, and any piece of HTML code could become a clue or a hint, a direction or a misdirection, once again depending on how players chose to read the game’s limits. Because we had certain time limits on gameplay, we had to make decisions about how much room to give students in wandering off the track and following red herrings, even if they weren’t red herrings that we had intentionally planted. The freeplay that resulted from going off the rails often seemed responsible for some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments in the game for the student-players. At a certain point, though, because of time constraints or not wanting students to accidentally violate university policies, we had to reel them back in. So we did things like construct a Twitter feed to allow Amanda to drop hints to student-players as needed, and when we got to the end of the game and students weren’t necessarily satisfied with the ending, well, we improvised. We added a bit more narrative, we made peace with the fact that the digital goals seemed to have outstripped the rhetorical goals of the game, and we followed William Battle’s advice to—

William James Battle: [crackling audio recording] Note the following facts.

Eric: —marking them down for ARG creators slash rhetoricians who might come after us, hoping that they—maybe you—will go into the game-creation process a little less clueless than they might otherwise.

[retro video-game music over electronic beat fades in till end]