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Reality Is Broken

This has to be one of the most interesting and clever marketing campaigns even conceived. I’m not a Halo player, but I’m extremely impressed by this ARG.

Before Halo 2 was released, it’s most loyal followers randomly received large jars of honey from ilovebees.com. They were obviously confused, but realized that the URL had been changed to ilovebees.com at the end of the Halo 2 tv commercial. It turns out that they had been invited to participate in an ARG that ties the Halo storyline to the present day.

The story goes like this: A rouge Artificial Intelligence named Melissa came back in time 500 years and arrived on earth, manifesting itself in the server space of ilovebees.com. Melissa’s presence inside the server caused ilovebees.com to begin acting strangely. Strange messages began popping up and the site appeared to have been hacked. The sites creator, Dana, attempted to delete Melissa and damaged it’s memory on the process. Keep in mind that all of this was contrived by Halo’s marketing team.

So, to the outside user, all of this was very mysterious. When Halo players curiously visited ilovebees.com they arrived on a site that looked like it had been hacked, loaded with cryptic messages. According to her blog posts, Dana fled to China leaving visitors to fix the hacked site. The Halo players slowly learned about Melissa as they decoded the information. They also found GPS coordinates of pay phones and specific times when the phones would ring. Halo players had to answer Halo-related questions when they answered the phones. When a large series of phones were answered, a piece of Melissa’s missing memory was restored and the mystery was slowly unraveled. Thus, only the most dedicated Halo players were motivated enough to commit to this bizarre ARG.

The coolest thing is the conclusion. When the entire mystery was unraveled, Melissa was able to return to the future. But, in the process, it told a race of aliens (the Covenant) about the location of the Earth. The Covenant is the enemy in the Halo franchise, and ilovebees.com now has a countdown to the day when the Covenant will arrive on Earth, starting the war that Halo is based on. So, Halo players who participated in this ARG can say that they are responsible to starting the entire Halo story.

Like I said, I don’t play Halo, but this was an absolutely brilliant marketing campaign. I’m seriously impressed.

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I like this book a lot. It’s entertaining, insightful and funny. It has certainly changed my opinion about gaming and gamers, and has inspired me to go a few rounds of slaying zombies on my iPhone for a midday pick-me-up. But, I’m still looking for answers to my questions.

As I said in my last post, it’s “all positive so far.” I’m about 200 pages in and this still holds true. There has been a lot of information about the positive effects of gaming on individuals (McGonigal used gaming to overcome a concussion), and a bit about the positive effects on society. There have been plenty of examples of games designed to improve peoples feelings towards strangers, personal jogging times and building self esteem and optimism. All of these examples make individuals happier, which I would assume has a net effect on society. But my overarching questions remains: are there any negative consequences to society as a whole?

The hours spent gaming, something like 3 billion collective hours a day, are staggering. These hours are supposedly the most productive for these gamers. With so much energy, effort and time going into gaming, it seems (so far) that the only outcome is personal satisfaction. All the teamwork and problem solving is being spent in a virtual environment that, when all is said and done, doesn’t really make a difference to the global problems we face.

It’s been said again and again that reality is broken and is not nearly as interesting as virtual environments and gaming. Reality is unsatisfying, difficult and boring. Could this be partly because we’ve used a massive amount of human effort to accomplish virtual tasks instead of real tasks? I can’t help but think that if a fraction of the energy spent in gaming over that last 30 years was used to tackle a real world issue that might be contributing to the dullness of reality, like the growing income gap in America, that we might have a solution to these issues. Is this “wasted” effort actually contributing to the demise of American society? Is gaming a vicious cycle?

The term “escapism” comes to mind. What are people escaping from? Reality? Yes, reality is hard. It takes hard work to tackle huge issus in society, and each generation is faced with new and unique challenges. We need all the help we can get to solve our cultural dilemmas. If we can use gaming to help solve these issues, then it all seems to have been worthwhile. If not, then it truly is a massive waste of human time and energy which, in my opinion, is the most precious commodity in the universe.

As Colbert said while interviewing McGonigal, “does it work?”

I like this book. It’s lighter than our other readings, and it’s highly informative. It’s also very interesting; the subject of gaming’s current and historical impact on society is something I knew nothing about, and the positive psychological effects gaming has on individuals is profound. But, it’s all positive so far. For example, the section on the game Guitar Hero concludes with statistics about people being motivated to pick up a real instrument after their gaming experiences. Then she mentions that there is no available data about weather or not these individuals follow through with their new found musical interests. Do any of them become talented musicians? Of course it may be too early to tell (musical talent takes years to develop), but I can’t help but wonder: what is she not telling us about the negative impact of gaming? Without the “dark side” of this subject, this will end up being a one-sided argument.

Most interesting to me, perhaps, is the psychological impact of gaming on our state of mind. Once again, everything presented is positive. Gaming improves our self esteem, makes us more optimistic, gives us a  sense of accomplishment and community, etc. But, considering the fact that life is propelled forward by physical interaction with the opposite sex (unless you’re a sponge), and video games don’t require any physical interaction with others, is it possible that gaming leads to a decline in “real-world” personal human relations? Can gaming hurt social skills and lead to millions of “40-year-old virgins?” What are the impacts on natural selection? I’m not sure where my foundational bias lies in asking these questions, but I hope McGonigal touches on these subjects (considering the fact that her plan involves revolutionizing the world [that we all live in] with gaming).

This leads me to my last question: is her plan realistic at all? After only reading the first 4 chapters, this whole concept seems a bit lofty. Her reality fixes, like “emotional activation” and “more satisfying work,” sound great in theory, but how in the hell are they possible? Yes, gaming instantly creates satisfaction. But do these satisfactions realistically translate into real word scenarios? And if so, are giving up anything important in the process? Everyone craves more satisfying work. It’s one of the drivers of our ambitions. But to suggest that revolutionizing the world with gaming can lead to more satisfying work is a tough sell, especially if she doesn’t address some of the negative aspects of gaming. I’m very much looking forward to the details of her grandiose vision.