Larry Hosken: New: Fear and Loathing in Alternate Reality

Warning: this blog rant contains a mild spoiler for act two of the Games of Nonchalance a.k.a. "The Elsewhere Public Works Agency". It won't spoil any "puzzle": what makes the situation so dreadful is that, once your in the game, you know what you have to do; It's obvious that you're supposed to do this unethical thing. But if you want to go through the experience with no idea of what to expect, then you should play that game before you read this.

Also, this blog post even less coherent than the drivel I usually spew.

First, a rambling intro for folks who don't know what I mean by ARG, LARP, and only have the vaguest idea of how a role-playing game might differ from these...

There is a power in an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), but maybe it's pointing the wrong way. So in these Alternate Reality Games, the world is the "game board". You play a character in the game; that character is probably basically you.

The layers of abstraction between you and the game are very thin. Chess is very abstract; in theory it's a desparate battle between two kingdoms, but it doesn't feel like one. A "tabletop" role-playing game is less abstract. You say "My elf knight steps forward to battle the goblin horde." You're playing a character; the character is not you. The character probably has a place in the game world. If the game is a swords-and-sandals barbarian axefest, the rules make it easy to create a barbarian; they nudge you away from creating that noir detective. As in a chess game, you might move a miniature figure around on a map to represent your movement. It's still pretty abstract.

In a Live Action Role-playing Game (LARP), you walk around in some area, carrying out some of your character's actions. Your actions represent your character's actions. Things are still abstract; you're not really a wizard, you can't summon lightning, so maybe you just throw pieces of candy while yelling "Lightning Bolt!".

In an ARG... your actions are your character's actions. The line between you and your character is so thin... Most people play the "character" of themselves.

Why is this on my mind?

So I played through those Games of Nonchalance. And at one point in this game—last chance to stop before the spoiler—you need to open up somebody else's mail. You pick up a sealed envelope containing a personal message from one character in the game to another. To make progress in the game, you need to read that personal message and get some information.

Reading somebody else's personal mail is wrong, of course. Oh, if it's on a postcard, maybe it's not so bad, there's no expectation of privacy. But at around the time you open up a sealed envelope to read somebody's mail, you know that you're heading into evil territory.

And this game makes you do that... well, it doesn't make you. You can stop, stop making progress. You can quit the game. You have that choice.

The thing is—it's that physicality, that physical breaking of the seal. That makes it awful. Nerving myself up to do that, that was dreadful.

I read plenty of fictional characters' private stuff without worrying about it.

I read epsitalor... epistolarr... I read those novels-in-the-form-of-letters things. I feel no qualm. But those are pretty abstract; the letters have been rendered in type; they are bound up in a book.

In the McGuffin game, I read those journal entries. No qualm. Would I read your private journal without your permission? No. Would I read a fictional character's journal? Handwritten? Well... it was photocopied. Someone else had taken the physical action of opening that journal, copying those pages out. It helps that he was a fictional character. And... maybe it helped that I only knew him through the journal; until I started reading it, he was basically an abstraction with no more personality than a rook on a chessboard.

But... in the Games of Nonchalance, I held an envelope. No abstraction to shield me, just a physical envelope to open.

In the end, I opened it.

I reminded myself: the envelope's sender, the recipient, they weren't real. They were fictional characters. Unfortunately, the Games of Nonchalance develop their characters. There's so much story, so much backstory. I felt like I knew something about one of them; I was pretty darned sure she would not appreciate me reading mail to her from her mother. It's all very well to say "it's just a character in a game." If you know something about them, you don't want to be mean to them. Being mean to real people isn't fun.

I mean, don't get me wrong. I've shot my share of Space Invaders. I had a fun time doing it, too. But I'm not a stone-cold murderer. If that game had started by giving me a sympathetic biography of each invader, and then told me that my mission was to shoot them... That would not have been a fun game.

Violating a character's privacy... Not fun.

Of course, I worry more about privacy than most people do. I work at a large internet company; the company has a lot of private user data. I've trained people in how to work with that data in a secure way, to avoid exposing private user data. I.e., I have spent hours, days of my life thinking about my responsibility to not violate people's privacy.

I don't think that the designers of the Games of Nonchalance thought about the ethics of opening up a fictional character's mail. They're artists. I think at least one of the designer likes combinations of mail and art. Later stages of the game are in the form of an otherworldly stamp collectors' club that does stuff with mail art.

I think they got that envelope into my hands beause they thought it was kinda neat.

I reminded myself that, in the ARG, I wasn't exactly me. I was kinda playing a character. In the Games of Nonchalance, I'm this guy named "Judge". He's a lot like me, though. He basically is me. After all, it's not like I knew ahead of time "oh we're playing a space opera game, so my character should be a Space Ranger with a Mysterious Past". You just start playing the game. It's not clear what traits "Judge" needs to make sense in the game world.

So I was holding this sealed envelope. I was nerving myself up to open it. I told myself, "They're fictional characters," but still couldn't bring myself to open the envelope. I told myself "You're playing a character. The character's like you, but he's an asshole who's willing to open up somebody's mail."

And then I could open the dreaded envelope. And it felt awful and horrid. And I read through the personal letter inside, found the password I needed to continue in the game.

Back when I was in middle school, I played table-top role-playing games. One day, one of my fellow players said "I'm tired of playing good characters all the time. Let's play chaotic evil characters." I tepidly argued against it; but he really wanted to try it. And so we formed a trio of evil folks. It wasn't much fun. He thought it was going to be fun because he figured we'd all go terrorize a bunch of villagers and feel powerful. And we did a little of that. But he forgot that evil folks shouldn't trust each other. And soon my evil wizard made a series of sneaky maneuvers—and enslaved the rest of the party. Then folks were pretty happy to go back to playing good characters.

I can shoot abstract Space Invaders and enjoy doing it. I can play a character who's not like me, doing horrible things. But if you take away too many of those layers of abstraction, if it feels too much like me doing these terrible things, it's not fun. All that power of reality, turned towards making you feel like you've done something awful.

(Acts 1 and 3 were fun, though.)

Tags: puzzle hunts letters
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