The Planet That Plays Together Stays Together

Berkeley designer Jane McGonigal unveils the world's most ambitious alternate reality game.

In recent weeks, avid computer gamers in Iowa, Texas, New Zealand, and Brazil have congregated in empty parking lots and grassy fields, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to form “human labyrinths” in which their bodies make up the walls. In each locale, one player then donned a blindfold and tried to run through the labyrinth’s twisting path, guided by memory and the soft humming of the other players. According to a newly invented mythology, this task is an ancient, lost Olympic sport that is in some way crucial for the survival of our species and our planet.

They were out there, humming or blindfolded, because game designer Jane McGonigal thought up a clever story from her West Berkeley apartment. She and the San Francisco marketing company AKQA are working for the International Olympic Committee and McDonald’s, two deep-pocketed entities that are sponsoring the world’s largest, longest, and most ambitious alternate reality game (ARG) as a six-month promotion of the summer Olympic games. It’s a truly international effort designed to put a techie new spin on an Olympic ideal: The planet that plays together, stays together.

In a typical ARG, clues to a mystery are scattered across the web in YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and blogs. This game, called The Lost Ring, began at the end of February, when six game characters woke up in labyrinths around the world with amnesia and mysterious tattoos, and asked the game-playing community for help. Players communicate with the game’s characters via e-mail, and they work together on forums and wikis to solve puzzles and to piece together the story. They’re also dispatched into the “real world” on missions; The Lost Ring has required gamers to pick up clues from Seoul to Johannesburg.

And now the labyrinth running training sessions have begun. This Sunday afternoon, Bay Area gamers will congregate at Sutro Heights Park to try their luck at blindfolded labyrinth running; interested parties are encouraged to do a little reading (start with the wiki: and come along.

“The goal is to create global collaboration and bring the spirit of the games to people around the world,” McGonigal wrote in an e-mail in the game’s first days back in March, when she was too busy for phone calls. “So it is the first ARG that will be run in multiple languages simultaneously.” The six main characters speak and blog in their native tongues — English, German, Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Japanese — and rely on players to translate their blog posts and videos to make the content accessible to the general mob.

Counting on enough international participants to do all that heavy translation work was a big risk. While McGonigal says the gamers are on schedule and on track, there are still many important pieces of game lore, chapters of a mysterious text called the Codex, still awaiting translation into Mandarin and Japanese.

“In order to attempt something at this scale, one thing we had to do is plan a much longer timeline,” McGonigal said last week. “We knew there would be such a steep learning curve in some countries. We’re still working on bringing a Chinese audience in to the game.” That’s partially a cultural thing, because Chinese gamers have never seen an ARG before, and partially a censorship thing. The player-created wiki page, which provides helpful updates and a broad game overview, isn’t accessible behind “the Great Firewall of China,” and the Chinese government’s blockade of YouTube for a week in March was also problematic. Videos of Tibetan protesters weren’t getting through to Chinese home computers, but neither were the game characters’ video blogs.

In Latin America, it’s a different story. Players in both Brazil and Argentina experienced their first ARGs in the past year, so they were ready for the challenge when a character named Diego woke up in Buenos Aires and started blogging. “Those players are like, ‘Whoo! Bring it on!'” McGonigal said. According to McGonigal, 21 percent of the total games players are from Latin America, almost matching Americans (25 percent of players) in enthusiasm.

Yet American players might not know it. Weaned on American hegemony in all things entertainment, they don’t always do their due diligence, checking the foreign language blogs to see if new revelations have emerged there exclusively (hint: they have).

“Players in other countries are working a little harder, because they don’t assume that all of the content is going to be in their own language,” McGonigal said. As for the lagging Americans: “They’ll catch up eventually,” she said. “And then you get the good realization of, ‘Wow, it’s not all about us, and we have to work as hard as anybody else.'”

McGonigal, an unabashed do-gooder, loves sneaking these kinds of teaching moments into engrossing entertainment. She’s been working on ARGs since 2004, always delighting in the collective intelligence that the games create, and always making sure the players realize how much they can do when they work together. The Lost Ring game takes that lesson farther, geographically speaking, than ever before. It may be an important step toward another of McGonigal’s long-standing goals: To see a game designer win a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the people of the world closer together.

But all that can be digested later; for now, there’s a game to play and labyrinths to run. “We’re just going to play till August,” McGonigal said, “with as much of the world as we can.”

Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
55.7 ° F
59 °
52 °
67 %
0 %
61 °
63 °
68 °
74 °
69 °