Towards an ethics of alternate reality games

Towards an ethics of alternate reality games

Hugh Davies, La Trobe University: h.davies@latrobe.edu.au

Peer-reviewed by: Geoffrey Rockwell, University of Alberta; John Simpson, University of Alberta.

Accepting Editor: Kent Aardse, University of Waterloo.


Abstract / Résumé

This chapter examines the ethical concerns surrounding Alternate Reality Games and related experiences that blur distinctions between reality and fiction.

Beginning with a discussion of key aspects of moral philosophy and the practical application of ethics in real world contexts, this chapter then offers a sequence of risk management strategies offered for the design, development and delivery phases of an ARG. These strategies are proposed as a set of guiding principles based on anecdotes of previous games and related experiences, and should not be thought of as legal guidelines or policy, but as suggestions for best-practice design techniques. The main argument offered is that creators of ARGs must initiate an open and frank discussion regarding the ethics of their creations, and should repeatedly revisit these concerns throughout the game development and delivery processes. Drawing on historical examples of immersive experiences, this paper aims to provide some launch points through which to initiate and steer that discussion. Although this chapter focuses on potential and actual problematic ethical issues associated with ARGs, it must also be emphasised that only a small percentage of ARGs have caused distress or harm. The purpose of this paper is to make that percentage even smaller through open discourse and responsible design.

Ce chapitre examine les préoccupations éthiques entourant les jeux en réalité alternée et leurs expériences connexes qui brouillent la distinction entre réalité et fiction.

En commençant par une discussion des principaux aspects de la philosophie morale et de l'application pratique de l'éthique dans des contextes de monde réel, ce chapitre offre une séquence de stratégies de gestion de risque offertes pour les phases de conception, d'élaboration et de livraison d'un jeu en réalité alternée. Ces stratégies sont proposées comme une série de principes directeurs fondés sur des anecdotes de jeux et d'expériences connexes antérieures, et ne devraient pas être considérées comme des directives ou des politiques légales, mais plutôt comme des suggestions de techniques de conception de meilleures pratiques. Le principal argument offert est que les créateurs des jeux en réalité alternée doivent amorcer une discussion ouverte et franche en ce qui concerne l'éthique de leurs créations, et doivent constamment revisiter ces préoccupations tout au long des processus d'élaboration et de livraison du jeu. Faisant appel à des exemples historiques d'expériences immersives, cet article vise à fournir quelques points de lancement par lesquels amorcer et diriger cette discussion. Bien que cet article se concentre sur les questions d'éthique problématiques potentielles et réelles associées aux jeux en réalité alternée, il convient de souligner que seul un faible pourcentage des jeux en réalité alternée entraîne de l'angoisse ou des dommages. Le but de cet article est de réduire encore plus ce pourcentage par une conversation ouverte et une conception responsable.

Keywords / Mots clés

Design; Ethics; Game Design



Introduction

Emerging as a distinct entertainment form in the early 2000's, ARG's – Alternate Reality Games – are interactive transmedia narratives renowned for wilfully blurring the lines between the real world and fictional world of a game. While predominantly delivered online, game elements are also spread across everyday media including telephone calls, texts, email, letters, packages, posters, clothing, even food and drinks. Central to their appeal is their interweaving of reality and fiction across virtual and physical worlds, often bringing about intense player involvement in a game's complex illusions of reality. They are designed to be highly immersive experiences.

Cautionary anecdotes against immersion underpin storytelling throughout history. Homer's Odyssey, Plato's Republic, Cervantes' Don Quixote and Orson Welles' War of the Worlds have each triggered anxieties about immersion. These concerns continue to stalk the imagination to this day. By interweaving into the daily lives of players, and through their deliberately potent intermingling of actual and fictional elements, ARGs take fears of immersion to dramatic new heights. According to ARG designer and writer David Szulborski (2005) one of the main goals of an ARG is to disguise the fact that it is a game at all. Over the first decade of the new millennium, there was something of a giddy celebration of the immersive potential of these games. Many designers adopted a carte blanche approach to crafting elaborately disguised fictions that overlapped with known reality while overlooking the ethical and legal questions that surfaced.

This paper aims to address some of the ethical and interrelated health and safety issues that have arisen from ARGs and associated experiences - such as pervasive games and interactive theatre - but in a manner that retains their transgressive appeal. Crucially, this paper recognises that games can be highly immersive, edgy, controversial and life changing. Games have transcended perceptions as being purely entertainment products to be acknowledged as emotional experiences able to inflame passion, convey discomfort, offer insight and create meaning. As cultural products, games should be afforded the same scope of impact and affect as cinema, literature, theatre and fine art. Indeed, I argue that game developers have a crucial responsibility to create worlds that warrant the investment of time and/or money of an audience or playership. But they must balance a duty of care to their participants too.

In order to achieve such a balance, this paper recommends that creators of ARGs initiate open and frank discussions regarding the ethics of their creations, and that these concerns are repeatedly revisited throughout the game development and delivery processes. In the excitement and momentum of creating a game, discussions of ethics may seem an unwieldy distraction to the task at hand. Therefore, in order to initiate such a discourse, what follows is series of anecdotes offered as launch points through which to instigate and steer that discussion. Although this paper focuses on potential and actual issues associated with ARGs, it must also be emphasised that only a small percentage of ARGs have caused distress or harm. The purpose of this paper is to make that percentage even smaller through open and responsible discourse and design.

If games are to be regarded in the same artistic canon as cinema, theatre and others forms, do they require an ethics of participation? Should there also be an ethics of cinema? ARGs, I argue, are immersively unlike prior media forms. Previous media formats have an inbuilt frame, and with it, a moment of audience recognition of passing into a fictional realm: like the opening of a book, entering a cinema, or the pressing of a play button on a device. In this twinkling instant, participants understand the transition from reality into a story world; their participation in a fictional experience that is framed by the media platform itself. In contrast, ARGs not only exist on multiple media platforms, as well as in the real world, but they actively endeavor to both conceal and transcend any frame. As a result, questions around designing participation in these games from an ethical perspective come to be.

Ethics

In recent years, there has been growing scholarship concerning the ethics of games and play, largely in relation to videogames (Consalvo 2007; Murphy and Zagal 2011; Sicart 2009), but also with attention to ARGs and pervasive games (Montola et al. 2006; Phillips 2012). While videogames and ARGs are relatively new fields of study, the sphere of ethics has evolved over centuries to produce highly developed and diverse schools of thought—so much so that challenges exist in attempting to reconcile the varied traditions into any single framework applicable to games and play. Yet the standard and productive starting point for all ethics is the question of the 'right' action: that is to say, within a particular set of circumstances, what might be considered the correct course of action, and on what grounds. Applied ethics moves beyond the philosophical and into the practical by considering how one ought to act, and often invokes the fictional notion of the "everyman" in order to speculate: what would a similar person do under the same set of circumstances? In an examination of the ethical frameworks of videogames, Murphy and Zagal have observed that videogames provoke an opportunity for ethical reflection on the part of the player by providing a series of ethical choices and that can be safely tested and even transcended within virtual realms. ARGs differ dramatically from videogames in this manner. Although ARGs work to deliberately obscure the line separating real-world and game worlds, they unquestionably take the everyday world as their playing board, and inturn, real world ethical norms must be applied. Recognising this doubled space within ARGs, it has been argued that these experiences require a dual ethics of participation, such that: "players need to be aware of both the game-world and ordinary life" (Montola et al. 2009). While this task of arriving at such a duel ethics of participation may seem overwhelming, in practice, even children often play highly involved games in street settings, pausing regularly to let cars pass safely by, only to resume the game afterwards with the magic circle intact. This example suggests that the practical application of safety and ethics in games that use the real-world as play board can occur.

Importantly, the intention here is not to provide a distinct or complete ethical framework for ARGs design and participation. Rather this document aims to provoke and arouse broader conversations and considerations of ethics in designing immersive and interactive experiences towards producing practical outcomes. Based on my own experiences as a game designer and researcher, I believe such conversations should encompass the factors of data collection, surveillance, the dissolving of boundaries between fiction and reality, the illusion of choice, causing discomfort, safety, and risk management. I also argue that these considerations become the responsibilities and obligations of not only designers, but of players too.

Immersion

Immersing your audience in hyper-real situations, whether through theatric illusion or virtual reality, can evoke intense reactions. So how does a designer balance the aesthetic potential of these experiences with the ethical issues they raise? To ameliorate the (actual or perceived) risks of players becoming helplessly engulfed in fiction, several strategies exist to ensure ethical and engaging participant involvement. Before outlining these, it is important to appreciate that not all participants engage the same way. Some players interact on a casual basis, while others want to experience, in real time, every twist and turn in a game's mechanic and narrative. The next section begins by disentangling the various layers of immersion and then explores how two preliminary strategies: moderation and performance of belief typically occur in ARGs in order to enable ethical participant involvement.

Layers of engagement

ARGs are notoriously pyramid-structured in terms of participant engagement. Typically, a game will attract a small but very dedicated group of highly involved players; there will usually be a larger crowd of casual players; and a group of players that is larger again who intermittently interact on the games outer edge. Matt Adams of the UK arts group Blast Theory notes that one of the ethical challenges of differing levels of engagement is that you have "professional players," players very literate in immersive entertainment, and then less-practised players who are less confident and able to judge the appropriateness of behaviour (Blast Theory 2013). Transmediaologist Christy Dena has studied these differing levels of involvement and applies the term "tiering" to describe them (2008). Crucially, Dena notes the importance of providing content that is specific and appropriate to each of these differing levels of engagement. In this way, players can interact according to their game literacy, platform preferences, and desired depth of involvement.

One way in which tiered participation is facilitated is through online forum spaces. Here, the varying depths of a game can be examined and assessed by its community of players. Such forums are typically divided into clear sections addressing subjects of game play, narrative arc, and meta-discussion. At their best, these spaces include introductory material to make new participants feel welcome, bring them up-to-speed, as well as to provide guidelines and terms of use. The game play and story areas allow for a games in-world content to be explored, while a meta discussion area permits fertile deliberations of a game's design, real-world implications and even ethics. These discussion spaces are very often moderated.

Moderation

Moderation involves the screening of player commentary in order to filter out contributions that might be considered extreme or offensive. Moderation is traditionally undertaken by a webmaster, although within ARGs, players within the community will often take on the responsibility of moderating their own community, allowing for open but regulated community discourse. Ideally, moderation should be undertaken lightly in order to encourage robust participant interaction while removing any offensive material (sexist, racist, ableist remarks or other content that might offend or deter players). The moderation of discussion forums also ensures that in-game discourse is steered in productive directions. Player discussion is recommended both during the game delivery as well as after a game's conclusion. As a designer, having immersed a group of players in your game, you then need to return them to the "real world." The proven way to achieve this is a "frothing space" (Blast Theory 2013), an area where players can debrief.

An excellent example of a debrief space in action was in 2001, when, after finishing what is often considered the first alternate reality game, The beast, a large but close-knit group of players, still enchanted with the immersive experience they had participated in, struggled with the inertia of returning back to their daily lives. Players continued to meet online and reminisce, speaking hopefully of the prospect of new and similar games. Two months after the game's conclusion, on the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, comments appeared in the forum suggesting the possibility of the players using their diversity of skills to uncover the perpetrators, to "solve the puzzle of who the terrorists are" (McGonigal 2003a). Self-appointed moderators of that space were able to dissuade participation in this enterprise, citing the real world dangers and the potential of complicating any professional investigations by federal authorities. While these few comments did not evidence any deep confusion about what was reality and what was game, they did perhaps overestimate their player agency as well as underestimate the potentially dangerous implications of their proposal.

Performance of belief

The overwhelming majority of ARG players recognise at all times the gameness of the experiences they are participating in, and yet they often speak, behave and perform as though the fiction of a game were real. The performance of belief describes this mode of play whereby participants knowingly behave "as if" a game's illusion were real in order to playfully participate in the fictional world. In explaining the concept, game designer and scholar Jane McGonigal recalls historian Thomas Gunning's interpretation of audience reactions to the Lumière brothers' film, The arrival of a train at La Ciotat Station (1896). In this infamous incident, early film spectators purportedly fled from the theatre at seeing the filmic image of an encroaching train. Gunning suggests that in a playful meta-act both derisive of and complicit with the film's immersive intention, the audience mock-fled, ironically performing belief in the impressive but obvious illusion. McGonigal asserts that participants of ARGs enact a similar self-aware feigning of belief, playfully performing 'as if' the game's illusion were real. Crucially, this performance enables players to navigate the liminal space between everyday reality and a game's alternate reality, thereby avoiding the dangers of uncontrolled immersion, while enjoying the play-space of the fiction. Of course, the performance of belief relies on a player's awareness of a game's gameness. However, because of their intertwining of reality and fiction, ARGs sometimes deceive non-players into mistaking their fictional content as reality. This brings forth the question: how are non-participants impacted by the verisimilar realism of ARGs?

Deception

While the terms "deception," "sham" and "hoax" have been used to describe ARGs, game designers are not enamored by these remarks. To their creators, ARGS are elaborate passion projects constructed with canny design and artful interaction; they are not tricks devised to defraud people. Nonetheless, the illusory nature of ARGs often sees them mistaken for real-world phenomena, sometimes with dire consequences.

In 2008, students at an Australian University created an ARG about the industrial modification of food. The game's narrative involved a cover-up by the Australian Government in collusion with the local cattle industry. In engineering the game, students crafted convincing support material including websites, memos and other documents displaying Australian government letterheads.

One overzealous student shared the project with friends back home in Korea, where simultaneously, demonstrations where taking place against imported beef products over fears of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Mistaking the fiction of the game for reality, one protestor arrested in Korea cited the ARG material as evidence of foreign government corruption surrounding the issue of food exports. The Korean police, also now persuaded, passed the information on to Korean government officials who in-turn contacted the Australian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, who contacted the Australian university whose students had produced the game. Fortunately, the game was quickly ceased and its ontological status as a game was internationally clarified. What could have been a major international trade incident was successfully averted, but it offers a valuable lesson. The best way to circumvent similar confusion (and indeed any legal backlash) is to avoid using brands, logos, or other insignia of actual people, countries or corporations. There is a crucial and legal difference between casually referring to known people, places and products, and falsifying documents, logos and brands. Incidents of confusion caused by misleading game content has led an increasing number of ARG designers to be openly transparent about the gameness of their creations.

Transparency

The difficulty with open transparency is that many designers fear that it robs a game of its immersive and artistic potential. In a game of mystery and intrigue for example, you don't want to give away too much information, but this enigmatic charm must be balanced with responsibility to a playership. Consequently, ARGs have various levels of ludic transparency, ranging from games that fully disclose their gameness, to highly secretive adventures whereby the nature and limits of the game are continually obscured. Standard practice across all these phenomena is to include some kind of meta-communicative "wink" that cannily signifies the game's fiction to players. Jane McGonigal has suggested that to announce a game's fiction does not necessarily reduce player enjoyment. On the contrary, she explains, "as long as the audience can play along, wink back…and pretend to believe," a player's awareness of the fiction does not lessen its impact but confirms the player's intelligence in recognising the game for what it is (McGonigal 2003b, 13).

Certainly, games that disguise their gameness often heighten the perceived edginess of play, but they also elevate issues of consent and informed choice regarding participant engagement. An example is the 2007 Swedish pervasive game Sanningen om Marika, that also focused on the disappearance of an in-game character. The game designers created a fictional TV series about the character and a website where participants could get involved in tracking her down. While nobody ever claimed the TV series or the website were real, due to the serious subject matter airing on national television, many people believed the disappearance was real and the project received significant criticism for this ambiguity (Waern and Denward 2009).

In 2011, I worked on an ARG called BlueBird AR for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The game began with a fictional character going missing. As the national broadcaster, the ABC did not want to risk any of its brand integrity as a provider of factual news content, ABC therefore required the game to openly disclose the fiction of the missing person, as well as the game, from the outset. Practically, this meant that all in-game characters' websites, blogs and Twitter accounts contained clear statements to the effect of – "KYLE VANDERCAMP is a fictional character in 'Bluebird AR', an alternate reality drama by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation" (Notgardian 2010). However, this open transparency did not prevent a large community of players from participating in the experience for the six weeks of its duration.

Layers of consent

Games have been described as a series of interesting decisions (Meier 2012), and the first decision any player must make is whether or not to play. As a broad rule of engagement, would-be players should have a practical awareness of any experience they are taking part in, and be afforded recognizable escape routes should they want to exit. ARGs and related phenomena tend to complicate these affordances by obscuring their status as fiction and games. A case in point is Neurocam, an ambiguous experience that is neither defined nor contextualized in any clear way. From its outset, Neurocam operates under extreme secrecy; participants do not know what kind of activity they are engaging with, and only through clandestine negotiation between participant and designer are the activities decided. Discussion of Neurocam between current, former or future players is strictly prohibited. While psychologically engaging, this approach stimulates a range of questions. Does the player take responsibility for their role as author? Where does authorship reside? What is the unannounced power relationship between creator and participant? Apparently responding to such concerns, Neurocam's website states:

While Project Neurocam makes every attempt to operate within a socially responsible framework, it is unable to accommodate accountability for the actions of every participating individual. (ARGNet 2004)

Within an experience like Neurocam where a dichotomy exists between control and openness, the participant/player does well to police and take responsibility for their own immersion, to gauge their own level of involvement and to negotiate personal exits. While game designer should be attentive to the well-being of players, players must also exercise their own ethical and safety limits.

What are the limits?

How far should ARG designers go to ensure the safety of body and mind of their players? What are the responsible limits of immersion? To what extent do these responsibilities lay with the player themselves? Consider the implications surrounding the Batman franchise in the context of the Why so serious? ARG.

In the lead up to the 2009 Batman feature film The dark knight, several thousand people received a series of clues that led them to bakeries across the US. Providing a password: the name "Robin banks," the bakeries would give them a box. Inside the box they found a cake. Upon it, a phone number was written in gaudy purple and yellow icing, along with the demand: "Call me now." When they called, the cake rang. A bag inside the cake contained a phone and instructions from the Joker. Players choosing to participate were now his accomplices in robbing banks.

In The art of immersion, Frank Rose notes that promotional campaigns like The dark knight, Why so serious? ARG sit at the intersection of "lure and blur." Their intermingling of fiction and everyday life fulfils "a thirst for authenticity coupled with a love of artifice" (Rose 2011), thus appealing to fans willing to participate in a fiction as though it were real. It was in that immersive mindset that, when in 2012, a man with hair dyed the same eerie red as the Joker tossed a gas canister across the theatre of a Batman premiere screening and fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the audience, several survivors - many of whom were also dressed in costumes from the Batman franchise - reported they thought it was part of the entertainment. In response to the shootings, there were murmurs regarding the ethics of immersion, the responsibility of designers and the implications of fictions bleeding into reality. The cinema chain in which the shootings took place banned the wearing of costumes at screenings. Were the creators of the ARG, the cinema, the costumed fans or the creators of the Batman franchise in any way responsible for these appalling acts? We can safely assume not. Designers of fictions cannot predict the way each individual will respond to their creations, but more importantly, one cannot design any entertainment product to accommodate for psychotic behaviour. All players must take responsibility for their participation not just in games, but in society too.

Causing offence

As a medium, ARGs have excelled at crossing thresholds. They provoke new ideas, discussions and modes of play. Sometimes these provocations cause upset, distress and offence. For this reason, it is important that players assess whether to engage in a fiction on its own terms. Equally, game designers must assess how their creations engage with both players and the real world.

In 2011, I created a game called The darkest puzzle that took up the earlier mentioned notion of a group of ARG players attempting to address a real world tragedy of 9/11 through play. As a game designer, I believe that the ethics of using ARGs to solve real world problems need to be interrogated, and my game aimed to provoke a discussion on that subject. Although I set my game around the contested history of 9/11, I was not apprehensive about blurring reality. One decade later, it seemed that every conceivable delusion, plot, conspiracy theory and tangent had been fully elaborated in blogs posts, forum discussions, books, and films. No stone had been left unturned. Rather than adding to the cacophony of conspiracy theories, I simply wove my fictional narrative around the existing historical content. My greatest concern was for the survivors of the event and how they might be offended by my game. I didn't seek to draw a wide audience, but wanted to engage players and designers in the ARG community, where I believe the ethical discussion to be most relevant. I therefore promoted the game in these contexts. Of course, some people in the ARG community had been impacted by terrorist events, and therefore felt offended by my game.

The game received some encouraging press, and drew criticism too. Mostly issues of poor taste which, as the game's creator, I tend to agree with. The distasteful gamification of tragedy was central to my game's statement. The most discouraging feedback I received was that games were not an appropriate medium to discuss the terror attacks, which didn't simply denigrate my game but all games that strive beyond purposes of entertainment. When tackling subjects that may be upsetting to the broader community, the designer does well to consider: Why am I making this game? What am I hoping to achieve? Who will benefit? And at what cost?

Surveillance

While highly elaborate and controlled, ARGs are also intended as open systems, engineered to be responsive and adaptive to player involvement. In this way, ARGs empower players to become part of the construction of the game's narrative. To respond to player actions and ideas, ARGs require a degree of player observation and surveillance, which in-turn raises issues around personal privacy, identifying details and data collection. In arguably the first sustained exploration of ethics in real space games, researchers within the Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming discuss surveillance in relation to their work on the Crossmedia game Epidemic menace 2:

The players were constantly under video surveillance while they were playing. They were directly observed by the other players, by the tech team, the designer, and via the webcams by evaluators, other players, game designers, anyone on the internet and all of their actions on the devices were being logged. In addition to this there was at least one cameraman present in all the games documenting the experience. (Montola et al. 2006)

In post-game feedback sessions, players expressed surprise at the level of surveillance, as they did not feel that they had been properly informed about it in advance (normally, any work that affects privacy of an individual should be cleared with that person in advance and through the use of release forms). Yet, players also conveyed that so long as the surveillance stayed within the games boundaries, they did not strongly object to it. The problems of privacy that digital technologies bring extend far beyond ARG's. These are complex and evolving contemporary debates. These issues feature in discussions by Blast Theory and IPerg that I acknowledge at the end of this paper.

Game testing

Running trials with test users is a standard way to uncover design issues in a game before it is released to the broader public. Trials can provide valuable feedback information explaining why, in digital gaming and theatre production, proofing with test audiences are common practices. Within ARGs and transmedia campaigns, it can seem impossible to test the set-ups, twists, turns and reveals that these elaborate experiences often involve. This should not prevent tests from taking place.

Game testing makes for ethically sound games, but it also allows them to become more involving, entertaining, and effective. Recently, I took part in one of seven trial performances of a theatre piece that employed gaming conventions to stimulate agency and activity within its audience. In effect, audience members were tacitly invited to hijack the work mid-way through its performance. Although in my experience the work was confrontational, challenging and full of energy, it was also clearly a test run. There were missing props; actors were visibly reading from amended scripts, and it all took place in a location different to its intended performance space. Even though it was a rough version of the final production, it allowed the creators access to audience feedback that would not only greatly hone the work, but also give ample possibility for matters of an ethical dimension to emerge, with legality or safety to be identified and ironed out before paying audience members had arrived.

Legal advice

Often, through the course of testing, or in the general development process of a game, questions of a legal nature come to the surface. Even when such questions do not noticeably come to light, prior discussions with persons of the legal profession can prove very fruitful in determining your legal obligations. The experience and training of legal professionals brings a strong understanding of what can and might go wrong, and how potential complications can be mitigated before a game commences. Duty of care, for example, is a legal obligation that requires adherence to a standard of reasonable responsibility for acts that could foreseeably harm others. It is usually the first element established to proceed with an action in negligence and requires a creator to consider: the foreseeability of harm or injury; the possible magnitude of potential harm or injury; the importance or social value of the activity engaged in; the feasibility, relative safety and usefulness of alternatives. Even if identified in advance, these considerations can often seem an annoying diversion from the most important activity of creating a uniquely engaging experience, but their importance should not be overlooked.

As an example, take the 2002 treasure hunt/puzzle challenge The game: Shelby Logan's run, that – at one point- had players following a string of clues into an abandoned mining complex. Participants were provided exact instructions with clear directions, but irrespective of this, one player fell down a mineshaft shattering his vertebrae to become paraplegic. In the lawsuit that followed, the court contemplated as to whether the injury was a result of player misadventure or creator negligence. Decisive testimony was given by a mine expert who, although clearing the mine as safe beforehand, had also counseled the game creators against sending players anywhere near mines. "People die in these things all the time" he had purportedly stated prior to the accident (Martin 2008). As a result of this testimony, the game was denounced as a "reckless, juvenile pursuit" and its team of creator's ultimately settled the legal action for 10.6 million dollars. A lesson to draw from this awful incident is to seek and take seriously the advice of legal and other professionals, and to always excerpt a strong duty of care over the physical well being of your players.

Further reading

The central argument of this paper is that any ARG design process should include a discourse around the ethics of these experiences; an open conversation that allows for issues to be uncovered, teased out and openly explored. Such discussions already occur in a variety of forums and some of the information that has emerged in those contexts informs this paper. I am especially indebted to the work of individuals and groups below, whose work I urge the reader to seek out for more detailed investigations of ethics in immersivly challenging games:

UK Arts groups Blast Theory holds annual workshops that bring together artists and researchers in the field of interactive performance to explore ethical challenges and identify key issues. Blast Theory has been a pioneer in creating innovative performance works involving sensitive interaction and audience participation. Previously, this has included inviting people to be kidnapped (Kidnap 1998) to shoot members of Blast Theory (Gunmen kill three 1991), and almost rob a bank (A machine to see with 2010). Common ethical themes arise around these experiences with regards to respect for participants, their autonomy and their capacity to engage with challenging material.

The Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming (IPerG) was a European Union funded project from 2004 to 2008. The project's web site documents the main findings through publications, deliverables and other dissemination materials. IPerG's article on the ethics of pervasive games deals with topics including surveillance and data collection, use of public space and non-participant roles in pervasive games.

Transmedia designer and writer Andrea Phillips has extensive experience in playing, moderating and creating transmedia games. She has discussed the ethical quandaries of experiences that blur reality and fiction in a variety of forums and has authored an instructive manual on transmedia design that devotes a paper to the ethics of these experiences.

The PhD dissertation of game designer and scholar Jane McGonigal is an exciting and informative read. Situated in the field of performance studies, it gives a detailed outline of the potential of these fictional games to real world settings and provides critical information regarding the ethics of what she terms "ubiquitious games."

For a robust introduction to the history and diversity of various schools of ethics, I urge the reader to consult James Rachels and Stuart Rachels' The right thing to do: Basic readings in moral philosophy. Useful descriptions of ethical frameworks are also found in the websites of many universities. I found practical information in Trinity University's "Ethical theories compared" which informed my own view presented here.

Ruthanna Gordon's book Alternate reality games for behavioral and social science research discusses the application of ARGs as a research tools and therefore explores the research ethics of these experiences. Within that context, the book also deliberates some of the ethics of ARG's development and play including discussions of privacy and data collection, game boundary blurring and informed consent.

I encourage any and all designers to take-up these considerations, and to actively reflect on the aspects discussed here during the production and delivery of their own games. For while existing and emerging immersive experiences offer exciting creative potential for players and designers, they also prompt questions about how we safeguard audiences' physical and mental well-being while playing on the edge of reality.

Ludography


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