That the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences censored student-produced scholarly and artistic work, apparently in order to preserve the reputations of its invited speakers and host universities, is an alarming incident worthy of further inquiry and censure by Canada's scholarly and artistic communities. The organizers of Congress, a week-long event that annually hosts several thousand academics attending the meetings of some 70 scholarly societies, have provided little in the way of public explanation for their decision to forbid students from running Bonfire of the Humanities, an alternate reality game (ARG) developed for the occasion of Congress that combined social media with live performance to create the illusion of a stylized cadre of reactionaries opposed to public funding of research in the arts and social sciences.
ARGs typically combine aspects of online and live-action role-playing games with mobile games, flash mobs, and improvised street performances. They use the real world as a platform, appropriating existing media infrastructures, both analog and digital, to lure willing players into the game through phone calls, faxes, newspapers, postcards, emails, and live events that hint at the shape of another universe within our own, but without fully rendering its contours. The Bonfire of the Humanities was produced for Congress 2012 in part by two of my former graduate students, who used a website (since removed) and social media to summon into existence the fictional Torch Institute, a self-styled mash-up of the Tea Party and Anonymous determined to take down liberal arts academics. Claiming to speak on behalf of oppressed taxpayers, the game masters used the Torch Institute account to tweet hyperbolic rants aimed at neo-con bugbears from socialist academics to over-funded arts programs, railing at Congress as "a taxpayer funded keg party for the Marxist elite" (TorchInstitute 2012a). Much of the Torch Institute's ironic vitriol was reserved for author Margaret Atwood, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote address as part of the Congress 2012 Big Thinking lecture series (Figure 1).
The game was fleshed out with over two dozen YouTube videos, in which local theatre students posing as Torch conspirators delivered monologues outlining their gripes against society, and simulated various acts of vandalism against the University of Waterloo's Dana Porter Library (Figure 2). Speaking in artfully strobe-lit close-ups, several faux conspirators also threatened to disrupt Atwood's keynote through measures ranging from tossing eggs to planting bombs under her podium, performances that no doubt contributed to the University administration's last-minute decision to shut the game down the day before Congress officially convened. In reality, those who followed the online clues to the library in time for the game's conclusion would have encountered not a book burning, but a celebratory barbecue.
The real victims are the students whose creative work was suppressed, and who voiced their disappointment and dissent both online and in a moving live musical pageant at a scheduled session of the Canadian Game Studies Association. Scholars working in the digital humanities, game studies, and theatre studies who develop novel formats for disseminating knowledge were also implicitly marginalized by the decision to exclude an alternate reality game from the proceedings of Congress. But as the only real victim of the virtual Torch Institute, I'm perhaps uniquely positioned to consider whether the actions of Congress were warranted and proportionate. I was the only academic bystander to be drawn in unwillingly to the unfinished game's fictional universe, where I was libeled and roundly mocked by the ethereal neo-cons of the Torch Institute. When Luke Lebrun, one of the primary authors, needed a mock Facebook account from which to warrant the game's alternate (if all too prescient) universe of rampant anti-intellectual neo-cons, he based it on a skewed but admittedly recognizable image of yours truly, the professor with whom he'd first explored alternate reality games as a graduate student. That I openly disdain Facebook made me doubly ripe for the pickings of the imaginary Torch Institute, which advocates "[s]teal[ing] your Marxist professor's identity" and "prides itself on academic identity theft," according to its web manifesto and Twitter feed (TorchInstitute 2012c). Some of the students invited to friend my digital double were taken in by the gambit, and even responded to "my" posts; others immediately spotted the spoof, cannily discerning Lebrun's distinctive comic signature, and even voicing concern to me over the potential damage to my reputation at the hands of such a social media maven. But as I'd heard rumours about the ARG-in-progress, and suspected the impersonation to be part of the fiction, I accepted imitation as a dubious compliment and let the game continue, keeping one eye on my virtual doppelgänger, and trusting Luke to limit any "real" fallout.
To be clear, this was no rape of the innocent by digital voodoo: Lebrun is no Mr. Bungle (Dibbell 1993). It was instead a ludic negotiation of subjective boundaries and power relations between a professor and his former student, conducted through digital media and the social networks they enable. Even before its launch, then, the game had worried the border between reality and fiction, lightly bruising the pride of at least one academic. It caused ripples of laughter and chatter through our lab's small circle about the power of social media to disrupt institutionalized hierarchies within the academy, and to demonstrate the obsolescence of received understandings of academic reputation, even as it undermined authenticity of character as a measure of political trustworthiness. In short, the game had announced its politics of uncertainty as one suitable to an era of distributed social capital and performative self-fashioning. Unfortunately, I was the only player to experience Bonfire first-hand before Congress officials suddenly and without apparent motivation reversed their previous decision, and pressured Neil Randall (Director of the University of Waterloo's high-profile Games Institute, and the one who had originally hired Lebrun to create the game) to shut it down. In other words, they ended the game by actualizing its greatest fears, becoming the real-world incarnation of the arts-baiting Torch Institute. In fact, the administration so closely followed the script of the Torch Institute's in-game neo-con arts baiters that at least one of their followers wondered whether the game had actually been censored, or whether it was simply a "[c]lassic TINAG fakeout"—that is, a ploy commonly used to raise the stakes of an ARG's reality effect by insisting that This Is Not A Game (MacDougall 2012). The student game masters and performers abandoned their plans to run the game to completion, but continued to send tweets from the Torch Institute account that ironically baited Marxists and other intellectuals, while taking more indignant swipes at the University of Waterloo in particular (Figure 3).
James Skidmore, co-convenor of Congress 2012, graciously agreed to explain the University's decision at a session of the Canadian Game Studies Association originally planned for the game's concluding scene and a critical discussion of ARGs, but which was used instead for an ad hoc debate over Bonfire's censorship (Figure 4). Skidmore alluded to the administration's concerns over how the game and, by extension, Congress itself would be received by the mainstream media, especially given the focus on the Games Institute, which only days earlier had received the University of Waterloo's largest SSHRC grant to date. Although Bonfire and its participants had been cleared in advance by both University security and the RCMP, Skidmore stated repeatedly that he and his co-organizers nevertheless "weren't certain" about the game. While Skidmore didn't specify which particular aspects of the game gave them pause, he intimated their general apprehension that delegates to Congress might feel "uncertain" about the inauthenticity of the fictional Torch Institute and its hilariously disproportionate threats of terrorist acts against the liberal arts and its practitioners, whom it characterized bathetically as "eggheads,""potheads," and a threat to freedom itself. Skidmore's stated defense seems particularly ironic, given that the official theme of Congress 2012 was "Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World." He and the other organizers failed to recognize that Bonfire presented a particularly apposite vehicle for exploring that theme. Greg Costikyan (2013, 15) has argued that the constitutive role of uncertainty is precisely what distinguishes games from other forms of cultural interaction. He anatomizes the various sources of uncertainty (performative uncertainty, player unpredictability, randomness, analytic complexity, and so on) that operate within different game genres, both analog and digital, making them an ideal cultural form for "managing and ameliorating" the uncertainties of the real world "in a fictive and nonthreatening way" (Costikyan 2013, 2). Judging by the actions of the Congress organizers, however, the goal of scholarship is not to dwell in uncertainty and explore the questions it raises, but to eliminate it outright.
In the most charitable reading, the organizers were genuinely concerned about the possibility of street-level politics breaching the sanctity of Congress, during which a local casserole was organized off-campus in support of the 2012 Quebec student strikes and protests. More likely, they were acting on their own uncertainty as to how the mainstream media would respond to Bonfire. Journalists invariably use the descent of Congress on small-town Canada as an occasion to foreground academic talks with playful or recondite titles (especially those addressing gender, sexuality, or popular culture), celebrating the esotericism of scholarly hobby-horses even as they implicitly question the value of such scholarship to "taxpayers." That the Torch Institute parodied anti-intellectual punditry through the social-media build-up to the game proper raised the stakes of its reception from the very start, while Bonfire's apparent triviality further marked it as a candidate for negative publicity. It probably didn't help that renowned guest speakers like Atwood would be in attendance, along with Canada's Governor General David Johnston, whose keynote address the Torch Institute hilariously endorsed following the game's cancellation (TorchInstitute 2012b). On this view, what Congress organizers seemed to fear was not that Bonfire would result in any real terror attacks, nor that any delegates would mistake the Torch Institute caricature for real, but rather the possibility that introducing too much play into the proceedings would make the important work of scholarship seem less real to outside observers.
Then again, to frame the organizers as the protectors of scholarly sincerity against trivial games contradicts the welcome message of Feridun Hamdullahpur, President of the University of Waterloo and co-host of Congress, whose life-sized, pseudo-holographic figure presided over the conference registration area delivering a looping discourse in which he rightly described research into digital games as significant, if not quite our only hope. It also ignores the awkward fact that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) was at the time threatening to censure both host universities, Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier, for allowing the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a private think-tank chaired by Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion, to interfere in the governance of its academic programs (CAUT Warns of Censure 2012). In that context, the virtual presence on campus of the Torch Institute, which ironically advised supplanting funding for liberal arts education with free market ideals, no doubt touched a nerve, as court jesters often do. One only hopes that the CAUT would be equally concerned about the school's meddling in an artistic and scholarly production sanctioned and overseen by tenured faculty members.
Whatever the actual motivation for the censorship, its implications are far from trivial, and extend beyond shopworn debates over the cultural status of digital games. It's unconscionable for university faculty and administrators to voluntarily emulate the kind of political interference exercised by the Department of Canadian Heritage in revoking federal funding for Toronto's Summerworks theatre and music festival, which cuts the artistic community have decried. Nor are Waterloo and Laurier the only universities to harbor fears and doubts over the appropriateness of digital games on campus. Faculty on my own campus have asked library staff to remove from their holdings certain games suspected to have violent content, seemingly on the basis of their titles and trailers alone, lest they traumatize students from war-torn countries who are perceived (against all logic) as unable to distinguish real violence from its simulation. Putting aside the paternalistic assumption that international students need special protections, the justification provided for censorship is, like that of the Congress organizers, based on the questionable premise that games present a danger to those who might not be able to distinguish them from reality. And why not, when those who build and study games are, after all, saying exactly the same thing?
While a total simulation completely believable in every detail and easily mistaken for reality may be the elusive goal chased by many game designers, it's not typically a feature of alternate reality games. Like locative, pervasive, and live-action role-playing games, ARGs rely less on the creation of fully realized, immersive worlds for their appeal than on the promise of rewarding interactions with other gamers. Their complex puzzles and challenges involve close and particular knowledge of widely distributed localities: one clue might be revealed at a certain day and time in one city, while another clue appears in another country, so that players succeed only by working together in large, distributed group minds that bridge geographical distance through digital networks. Far from duping players into accepting false premises, ARGs generally depend upon their knowing collaboration.
And yet, because pervasive or alternate reality games trouble the border between the actual and the virtual, between reality and play, game scholars and designers have repeatedly voiced alarm over the social effects of their uncertain ontological status. Due to their potential to spill over into the lives of unwitting non-players who get caught in the middle of the action, ARGs have attracted a degree of ethical scrutiny usually reserved for the Olympic Games or games of chance. Niemi, Sawano, and Waern (2005, 137) note that players of pervasive games often use the human non-players they encounter "as a game asset," with potentially serious consequences for personal privacy in public spaces. Citing instances in which players have imposed themselves on non-players, Mary Flanagan likewise observes that many locative games ignore questions of consent and access, never considering who is permitted to drift through public spaces, or acknowledging that "the homeless, the prostitutes, and domestic workers possess the streets in a way which speaks to economic and social disempowerment" (2008, 7; emphasis in original). In the most comprehensive study of the genre to date, Montola, Stenros, and Waern state that "unaware participation" in which non-players encounter players in public space "is perhaps the most problematic area of pervasive game ethics" (2009, loc. 4796), and provide several examples of ARGs and live-action role-playing games (LARPs) in which either ill-defined rules or unpredictable circumstances led players to intrude upon the ordinary lives of bystanders. For instance, in one Swedish LARP, players violated the privacy of a homeless person whom they mistook for an actor (2009, locs. 4687-4703); in another game set in Israel, actors staged a violent assassination in a crowded urban area, to the shock of onlookers (2009, locs. 4710-4716). Such incidents certainly raise serious questions about the ethics of games that overlap with highly charged social contexts in unmarked and unpredictable ways.
By contrast, Bonfire was clearly circumscribed, being confined to the University of Waterloo during Congress, itself a pageant with well-understood rules and rituals set within the heterotopic space of the university campus, and populated largely by academics, staff, and students performing their various roles. While these bystanders may not have known the rules of Bonfire in advance, they were already playing the familiar game of the academic conference. Moreover, Bonfire included many of the checks against unethical play recommended by game scholars. Its creators informed and were cleared by the police well in advance, and did not compel anyone attending Congress to participate, myself excepted. The gamemasters relied instead on Bonfire's social media presence to lure potential participants down the rabbit hole and into its alternate reality. And the game's advance social media blitz offered multiple points of entry to the game world, or "repeated levels of invitations" (Montola et al. 2009, loc. 4860). Even the RCMP had concluded that the plot of Bonfire, however juvenile in their estimate, was unlikely to be mistaken for actually unfolding events, and posed no threat to the campus or its visitors. It therefore seems doubtful that Congress organizers actually feared Bonfire would be mistaken as "too real," however closely their explanation echoed the cautionary rhetoric of game scholars. More likely, they felt that the game introduced too much playfulness into the otherwise serious business of scholarship, and that far from misrecognizing the Torch Institute as actually existing, conference delegates would instead recognize it all too clearly as a parody of real corporate think tanks like CIGI. In other words, I am suggesting that the game's censorship was motivated less by ethical concerns over its "uncertain" ontological status than by the desire to shield the hosts from further scrutiny over the ethics of their corporate partnerships.
Although we'll probably never know with any certainty what motivated Congress officials to run scared from this particular game, the larger point is that ethical prescriptions over game design can always be invoked for unethical purposes, such as to ensure no one plays ARGs that dramatize corporate involvement in academic programs. If ethical prescriptions remain an acceptable form of criticism within game studies, I suspect that's because any claim for the real-world consequences of games—however detrimental or capitulatory to moral panics over the allegedly deleterious social effects of games—still represents a victory for a field of research often trivialized by those working in more conventional areas of study. Well-intentioned meditations over ethical quandaries pose as a sober second thought to the excesses of gaming even as they attribute real social power to games and, by extension, game scholars. They also ascribe a special knowledge and status to gamers that reinforce their distinction from other social actors, ultimately reigning in the signifying space of pervasive games to an expert realm with boundaries visible only to elite gamers. Like the organizers of Congress, more than one game scholar has suggested that some bystanders simply lack the competence to recognize the boundaries of the game world, let alone gain admission to it. For instance, Montola et al. argue that in pervasive games, "ludic and ordinary activities become blurred, and social negotiation becomes impossible, or at least fraudulent, as some participants are not as well equipped to participate" (2009, loc. 4653). These authors allow that playing with unwitting bystanders can enhance pervasive games by leveraging coincidences and unplanned events to produce socially emergent, "real gameplay experience[s]" that feel "authentic, realistic, and surprising" (2009, loc. 705), and even call tentatively for more "boundary-breaking" games that aim at "improving the social system" by disrupting public space (2009, loc. 4962). Yet, they stop short of considering such moments of emergent gameplay as truly political encounters, instead treating the game's politics as a "message" predetermined by the designer. They even propose the prescription that players must agree to this political message in advance, entirely foreclosing the possibility of including "unaware participants" in an ethical manner (2009, loc. 4969).
These authors are sensitive, in other words, to the diffusion beyond the game's boundaries of what Jane McGonigal calls a "power play," in which game designers, or "puppet masters," allegedly control the actions of knowing participants. McGonigal has famously argued that the voluntary commitment from thousands of alternate-reality gamers to collective problem-solving could be reoriented to the goal of "fixing reality" by improving quality of life, preventing suffering, and stoking our appetite for engagement with the world around us (McGonigal 2011, 10). McGonigal's faith in the reconstitutive power of games relies upon an a priori consensus in identifying social problems, along with a liberal faith in the ability of players to recognize, validate, and adopt the right answer when it appears. She, too, aims to eliminate uncertainties, stating that games "must be carefully designed so that the only way to be rewarded is to participate in good faith" (McGonigal 2011, 245), thereby foreclosing on hacks, mods, and exploits, activities that many game scholars associate with dissent, resistance, and social progress. Such ethical injunctions ultimately prevent closer examination of the dynamics of in-game collaboration, as well as the mechanisms and relations through which specific signifiers, discourses, or narratives achieve hegemony within pervasive game communities. McGonigal ultimately frames ARGs as a means of creating consensus without confrontation either within the game community or beyond it, a position shared by a surprising number of scholars. To take just one example, Jason Farman's otherwise valuable study of mobile interfaces goes so far as to argue that players of pervasive locative games should "conceal their engagement with [public] space as gamers," effectively closeting their gameplay outright so as not to disturb non-players accidentally (2012, 89). The magic circle grows ever more occult.
But what if we began instead with the presumption that all individuals are equally capable of recognizing a game when they see it and playing along? Jacques Rancière has argued that spectators are never passive observers at risk from the activity of performers; he refuses outright the distinction between "those who act and those who only live" (2010, 158). For Rancière, radical democracy means moving beyond this "allegory of inequality" to accept the equivalence of actor and spectator, of teacher and student, of worker and intellectual. This presupposition of equality calls into question Brechtian alienation, along with Debord's critique of the spectacle and the entire Situationist legacy, to which pervasive games are so often tied. There are no innocent, which is to say ignorant, bystanders bedazzled by the spectacle of performance, and unable to grasp "the reality . . . behind the image"; rather, every spectator actively "observes, . . . . selects, compares, interprets" (2009a, 13). Challenging "the idea of the theatre as a specifically communitarian place," Rancière suggests it is rather the
shared power of the equality of intelligence [that] links individuals. . . . What our performances—be they teaching or playing, speaking, writing, making art or looking at it—verify is not our participation in a power embodied in the community. It is the capacity of anonymous people, the capacity that makes everyone equal to everyone else. This capacity is exercised through irreducible distances; it is exercised by an unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations (2009a, 17).
That's why the real performance never takes place in a theatre. For Rancière, it's precisely the pervasive reach of the game that guarantees its radical equality, "this power of associating and dissociating" that belongs to us all. And because ARGs can use anyone or anything as an affordance, they insist upon "the equality of all subject matter," achieving a degree of realism that, as Rancière observes of Flaubert's novels, "destroys all of the hierarchies of representation" (2006, 14).
Against calls to disguise the play of pervasive gamers and shield it from bystanders, an ethics of recognition demands that players don't disguise their activity, but rather allow their unconventional utterances, gestures, gaze, gait, proxemics, and paths to signal to non-players the existence of other networks and other worlds in which they aren't yet recognized as participating subjects. Such invitations to associate prepare the ground for a "polemic scene," or a political encounter in Rancière's sense, which has nothing to do with statecraft. Rather, politics begins for Rancière whenever those who are not granted equal status in society ("this part of those who have no part") insist upon being seen and heard as equals (2004, 9). Politics involves a disruption, a "reconfiguring [of] the distribution of the sensible that defines the common of a community, by introducing into it subjects and new objects, in rendering visible those who were not" (2009b, 25). Under an ethics of recognition, to deliberately misrecognize bystanders as non-player characters in the game is not only an egalitarian act, but the political act proper.
After all, games that take place in the real world using real, embodied actors as avatars competing to "win" real space cannot but attract the notice of non-players. Students working at the Carleton Hyperlab have designed several locative games for mobile devices that structure embodied play in the real world. In field tests, we've witnessed players exploring the tension between players and bystanders by interacting unprompted with random passers-by, performing for them, blatantly avoiding them, and otherwise imaginatively drawing them into the game world. This isn't too difficult, as it's usually clear to anyone nearby that some kind of game is afoot. Players happening upon paths crowded with bystanders playfully imagine them to be fellow radicals or potential zombie threats, integrating them into the game as NPCs, and arousing their curiosity about the associations at play around them. In other words, they presume that bystanders are not "innocent" at all, but equally willing and capable of playing along.
Such playful violations of the walls of privacy that define the liberal subject can foreground the issues of access raised by Flanagan and others, and lead to an expanded notion of public space more appropriate to this era of mobile identities and distributed subjectivities. Luke LeBrun's (2010) own design for a locative game built for the StoryTrek platform, Tom is Watching You, operationalizes anxieties over privacy and surveillance at the level of the story. In this homage to Blast Theory's pioneering game Uncle Roy All Around You (Flintham et al. 2003), you're stalked through an Ottawa neighbourhood by a fictional voyeur who utters salacious comments about your every move. Although you begin the game as the object of Tom's gaze, the more you navigate crowds of (actual) non-players who are unaware of the game space, thrilling at your public secret while trying not to give the game away, the harder it becomes not to identify with the illicit perspective of Tom the NPC voyeur. In this case, the surreptitious inclusion of non-players in the game, if only through your social gaze, is very much a desired effect that troubles the boundary between play and transgression. As in all pervasive games, your uncertainty over whether bystanders are aware of being imaginatively incorporated into your private world, over who associates with and dissociates from the game, allegorizes the political sphere as a place of equals fractured by non-egalitarian distributions of the sensible.
Admittedly, not all pervasive games are necessarily political in Rancière's sense. As Daniel Sutko and Adriana de Souza e Silva write, gamified locative apps like Four Square, Loopt and Citysense are thought to encourage the emergence of collective awareness by allowing for chance encounters between strangers. But since these apps only locate others already using the same app, they filter out potential encounters and extend pre-existing practices of social non-recognition, preventing any greater spatial awareness or cooperative behaviour (2010, 817-18). The same could be said of the location-based SMS murder-mystery game designed by Josh Coe and Monchu Chen, in which you meet friends of friends by "killing off" strangers in the game. Still, I would argue that even these filtered social games allow the staging of political encounters, foregrounding social anxieties over who is and who isn't an authentic citizen or subject, and acting as an allegory of the process of recognition by which collective subjectivities are formed. Similarly, ARGs script the conditions for interactions and mutual recognitions of equivalence between players and non-players, bridging the uncanny valley between real and virtual communities, between our encounters with digitally mediated networks and our sense of embodied collective belonging.
Games are most ethical when they force us to recognize and engage others. That pervasive games often create uncertainties about social roles and responsibilities is no reason to shut them down or delimit their participation in advance. As Mia Consalvo has argued from an active spectatorship framework, "we can also explore how games are spilling over into our daily lives in pleasurable and troublesome ways, with real consequences" (2005, 11). We can celebrate those moments when players force non-players to swallow the red pill, violating world boundaries and transgressing social rules, if not game rules. Instead of fearing how the mainstream media might frame our scholarly work, we can engage actively and playfully with new media, and try our hardest to make a public scene.
Maybe academic conferences don't need the mechanism of unruly ARGs to force political encounters and debate. But if the censoring of Bonfire of the Humanities revealed anything, it was that some academic forums remain carefully circumscribed by customary notions of propriety insulated from the discursive channels in which the majority of scholarly discussion occurs today. As innovative research venues like THATCamps, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and the Critical Hit games collaboratory at Concordia University show, conventional conferences are sorely in need of a mediated redistribution of the sensible if we're to fully engage with new methods of scholarly investigation and dissemination. Such redistributions are already happening at most conferences through Twitter backchannels, a dynamic that Bonfire captured and exploited perfectly. The organizers of Congress 2012 correctly assessed the political potential of Bonfire to give voice to "those who have no part" in the proceedings, including graduate and undergraduate students, artist-practitioners, and those who are just as comfortable with blogs, tweets, MMOs, and ARGs as they are with more conventional avenues of scholarly publishing. By censoring the game under vague threats of institutional sanction, they averted any political scenes, at least for the moment. We can safely continue to disseminate research on the lecture model through timed sessions of twenty-minute papers delivered to prepaid members without fear of disruption by the playful, engaging, and uncertain quantities of new scholarly and artistic media.
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___________. 2012b. "Amen! @GGDavidJohnston acknowledges knowledge is currently hoarded and monetized #Congress2012." Accessed May 26. http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz11/archives/bonfire/index.php
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