June 12, 2006

The Story We Create Ourselves In 1.1

Ever heard of alternate reality gaming? No? Good. We'll talk more about that in a second. First, go check out a website I recently stumbled across for an indie band on the rise named Poor Richard. No, really. I mean it. Take a few minutes to explore their site, and then come back. Go.

Okay...what did you think? When I first saw it last week, I found the site intriguing, by which I mean I found the band intriguing. In fact, I was in the middle of googling for links to songs or videos when I noticed that on the official Poor Richard site all the tour dates were marked "Canceled." "That's wierd," I thought. I clicked on the "About the Band" tab to learn more. There, I read something that gave me goosebumps:

The music provided the spark for a career that launched the band to national prominence. The powder-keg was a right-wing religious group determined to keep the band silenced. Two more albums followed (INDEPENDENCE and PURSUIT), each receiving better reviews and sales than the last. Unfortunately, with a home grown fatwa on their heads, riot police followed as well. The incidents of violence were well-covered in the press. But it was the suicide of one band member and the murder of another that finally tore the band apart.

Now I was really intrigued. Why hadn't I heard anything about this? I went back to Google and did a little more research. That's when I stumbled on a wiki with this on the title page:

Welcome to the EDOC Laundry wiki, an Alternate Reality Game encyclopedia
"Game?" I thought, "This is a game?" Suddenly, it all came into focus. None of it was real. There was no Poor Richard, no right-wing religious group, no murder, no suicide. But because I came across the site without any connection to the game context, I believed it all. A well-crafted fabrication became, for an hour or so, a part of my reality. The experience was like suddenly realizing that your life (or some part of it) is actually fiction, part of a comedy or a murder mystery or something. It was like a little ontological earthquake.

I'm not sure where my first touchpoint with alternate reality gaming (ARG) was. I vaguely recall reading a Wired article on the Edoc Laundry game last December, although it obviously didn't register to me then. Since my Poor Richard experience, I've done a little research on ARG, and I'm finding the whole concept fascinating. (If you'd like to learn more, the Wikipedia entry on ARG is a great ground-level entry to the topic, and Jane McGonigal's website Avant Game is full of great resources. If you want to baptize yourself in it, download Jane's paper, "'This Is Not a Game': Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play.")

Here's what I can't stop thinking about: Narrative theology seeks to descibe theological reality through "the story," a story that forms us, but at the same time a story that we form. As communities of faith, we not only receive and transmit the story of God, but also create the story, adding our own chapter to the work we inherited. As an individual, I insert my pre-formed identity into the narrative, becoming a character in the story, and then allow the story to "write" me, even as I make my own contribution to the storyline. Isn't this a lot like alternate reality gaming? The parallels are fascinating to me.

What if we starting seeing the Christian life as collective play? What if we did theology as if it were a massively-multiplayer game?

bk_keywords:alternate reality games, narrative theology.

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At 8:29 AM, Blogger Jan said...

I think you are busy stumbling onto something big here.

What if we starting seeing the Christian life as collective play? What if we did theology as if it were a massively-multiplayer game?

Viewed from outside - history is full of examples of how religion has caused the human drama to go in directions that it would not otherwise have taken.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Jane said...

Hi there! What a fascinating description of your encounter with EDOC Laundry. I'm actually finishing my disseration this month, which deals largely with ARGs, and my final chapter deals with the gnostic properties of ARGs. Many players have said to me in interviews that ARGs feel like a kind of religious community to them, and they mean it in a positive way. would be interested to keep in touch with you about this aspect!

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Hi Jane! Thanks for visiting. I've been following Best Sentence for a while now and slowly digesting Avant Game. My experience with EDOC Laundry has left me fascinated!

I'll email you so we can stay in contact.

Jan, thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes ideas that seem monumental to me seem "mole-hill-mental" to the people I share them with.

The more I study the concept, the more intrigued I become by the connections between massively-multiplayer ARG's and the project of theology, particularly when pursued from a narrative perspective. I'm already building a reading list for when I complete my current project...

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous cwspain said...

I think this is something big to us because we are just beginning to rediscover it as we move beyond the limitations of modernity. The separation of the physical and spiritual is not, of course, limited to modernity, but is found in all western systems that inherit from Greek classical philosophy. It may be present in other non-western world views, but I'm speaking of how we got where we are.

Along with the split between the physical and the spiritual comes a split between story and reality. Myth becomes something to be dismissed rather than a valuable tool for communicating something nearly impossible to communicate in logical discourse. I wrote some about this in my thoughts on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Stories are not just commentaries on reality. They are part of it. In drama, story and reality interact. I am keenly aware of this in liturgy. I am changed by the drama that is enacted in the Traditional worship of the church, what Protestant churches steep in modernity dismiss as "empty ritual". Meanwhile I sit through the service at an evangelical Protestant church as we go down the list, making sure we do all the things we're supposed to do on Sunday morning, thinking that the pot is calling the kettle black.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

In drama, story and reality interact...

Karl, I wonder if The Game exists at the intersectin of The Story and The Real?

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Phaedra said...

As one of those players Jane mentioned, while the religious comparison was the first one that occured to me, one of the pioneers of the genre, Sean Stewart, has also likened the whole thing to science.

My favorite quotes:

"We just accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment."

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous cwspain said...

I wonder if The Game exists at the intersectin of The Story and The Real?

Actually, I think that's where life exists. Which may not be that different than what you're suggesting. Just as the person is a holistic being, comprised of physical and spiritual, life is also holistic, comprised of reality (I need to find a better word) and story. In either case, ignoring one component in favor of the other is unhealthy. I suspect that the Game has to do with this balance. I would prefer to say interaction rather than intersection, though, because (to use a geometric analogy) I would consider them to be cospatial, much like my understanding of the physical and the spiritual.


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