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World Without Oil (ARG)

Research Report by Lindsay Brandon Hunter
(created 9/11/08; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Alternative Interfaces | Collective Reading

Original Object for Study description

Summary: World Without Oil was an alternate reality game developed by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal, ITVS (Independent Television Service) Interactive and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Originally played between April 30 and June 1, 2007, World Without Oil was conceived as both an ARG and a “serious game,” in the sense of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 2002 Serious Games Initiative. The game’s tag line–”Play it before you live it”–emphasized the what-if nature of the game: players were encouraged to explore what would change in their own realities in the event of a massive oil shortage. Game makers provided rough parameters for the in-game reality (the price of oil, fuel availability) as well as character content (blogs, videos), but the game was aggressively user-driven. The gamers’ task was to imagine the consequences of a massive oil crisis, communicate about their experience and explore creative strategies for dealing with the attendant difficulties.

Description: After game designer Jane McGonigal dropped hints about her next project far in advance of its start date, ARG players at Unfiction.com discovered the site www.worldwithoutoil.org. The website showed the text of a chat between eight “team members,” as well as descriptions of each of them. Players learned the eight characters’ (known as “Eight To Save Our Country,” or 8TSOC) backstory: they had met while stranded in a Denver airport during a blizzard, and struck up a friendship. While at the airport they also encountered a character named Nico, who gave them reason to believe a serious oil shortage would strike the U.S. on April 30th (the game’s start date).

Given access to the characters’ screen names, players soon found their livejournals, blogs, and AIM handles, and began to make contact. Players who communicated with the characters often found themselves pointed toward real-world, out-of-game articles and websites about energy shortages, survivalism, and oil dependence. When the game officially started, on April 30th, the worldwithoutoil.org site went live in earnest, with links to character and player blogs, fictional in-game news stories, player-submitted videos and images, and an oil price counter. It became apparent that the game world would run on an accelerated timeline: one real-world day would equal a week of in-game time.

Much of the game’s content was player-produced; the website featured links to videos, stories, diary entries and images submitted by players who were countenancing, however virtually, the disruption of an energy crisis. Players were also encouraged to come up with their own game missions, and the best ideas were awarded points in the form of carbon offsets. Adopted player missions included activities like “ped parties” (social events planned to occur within walkable/bikeable distances from homes), guerilla gardening, local food meals and finding commuting solutions for friends.

According to its own published FAQ, by the game’s end it had more than 1900 players.

Research Context: Like most ARGs, World Without Oil forges a somewhat de-centralized network of participation, leveraging social networking sites, blogs, chat applications and image and video sharing services in order to connect its geographically diverse players. Perhaps unlike classic ARGs, however, World Without Oil began with a conspicuously open-ended objective. Its goal was playful; rather than the solution to a mystery or the accomplishment of a defined task, the object of WWO was to exercise imaginative power. In contrast to some ARGs’ harnessing of collective intelligence in order to solve puzzles with pre-defined answers, players of WWO generated what the game makers called (in the game’s own FAQ) “the wisdom of crowds”: a large collection of musings and ideas from which effective solutions could rise. In WWO, the game was not to find what was hidden, but to imagine the virtual.

Without a concrete goal, and presented with an issue that had no absolute solution, players were free to imagine the proportions of an unmanageable crisis–and free to offer and practice micro-solutions. The game was undertaken in a spirit of optimism, and while players were encouraged not to discount the sobering enormity of the problem it supposed, attention was focused (via character rhetoric and mission content, for example) on the creation of small strategies. Game designer Jane McGonigal has written and spoken repeatedly in support of the idea that games and the power of play can be harnessed to address serious problems, and that perspective was clearly in evidence in WWO. While many games that take on serious subject matter do so in order to heighten awareness of a threat or an injustice, WWO asked its players to investigate practical changes that might be effective during a debilitating oil crisis. It is perhaps for this intersection–of serious game subject matter and ARG-like strategy–that the game is most notable.

Technical Analysis: The technologies used by World Without Oil were largely the same as those leveraged by more traditional ARGs–blogging services, Twitter, photosharing services, etc. Players communicated with each other and with game characters through multiple channels. The game’s homepage–www.worldwithoutoil.org–served a more central hub than is available in many ARGs; that is, a single site that linked to almost all game content.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic: World Without Oil is notable for its divergence from traditional ARG structure and style. Though ARG-like in its convergence of real-world and game-world realities, the game’s “serious game” credentials and lack of conventional puzzle-solving activity mark it as distinct from other ARGs. ARGs in general are player-directed to the extent that, though the general structure of the game is outlined by gamemasters, play itself is performed and made actual by the gamers themselves, and is subject to their own logic or desires; in WWO, there was perhaps even less guidance or expectation on the part of gamemasters, and more latitude given to gamers to construct their own experience(s). Designer Ken Eklund described it this way: “In World Without Oil, the players pretty much wrote the story collaboratively. As a result, in WWO there is no abstraction, no external reward, no comfort zone of ‘Oh good, I found what the gamemasters wanted me to find.’ There is only the person directly inside the ‘what if?’ reality, and the journey is inward.”(1) Put another way, ARG experience often centers on finding or uncovering points in an already-sketched (though mutable) plot, though the path through the plot-points are undecided. WWO more closely resembled an improvisation: players were asked to invest in a set of hypothetical circumstances and act accordingly, urged to create their own plots rather than asked to uncover those intended by the gamemasters.

ARGs conventionally ask for this sort of investiture in the game world, one that recalls Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief (TINAG, an acronym for “this is not a game,” is a common watchword within the genre). However, in WWO this engagement with the game’s premise required and empowered players to direct the game itself, rather than to do the more traditional work of uncovering a mysterious narrative. While ARG players are always both producers and consumers of game content and game experience, WWO displayed an innovative emphasis on players as cooperative producers and co-designers. Most ARGs can be said to offer authorship to players primarily in terms of execution and performance, and only secondarily in terms of design. In WWO, however, gamers were the ones doing the informing, reporting to gamemasters from a fictional present they themselves devised, inventing and giving account of the particulars of life inside an oil crisis.

Finally, in WWO, player action was part of a consideration of a pressing environmental, political and social issue. “Acting accordingly,” then, provided an opportunity for changes to everyday practice more pointed than those prompted by conventional ARGs. Part of ARGs’ appeal is their use of objects and practices that exist both in-game and out-of-game–for example, an actual poster for an upcoming movie contains a secret message or a puzzle clue for game players even as it fulfills its function as a piece of “real world” advertising. In World Without Oil, the practices and objects splitting the in-game/out-of-game boundary were not only related to an issue of tremendous import, but involved the minutiae of everyday lives–highlighting, certainly, the problematics of oil dependence, but also allowing the game access to the intimate area of quotidian praxis.

(1) “The Future of Alternate Reality Games.” WWO Lives. July 19, 2007. August 28, 2008

Resources for Further Study:

World Without Oil

WWO lives: Ken Eklund’s ongoing WWO blog

Jane McGonigal at GDC: “Reality is Broken” (and how games can fix it)

  Lindsay Brandon Hunter, 09.11.08

3 Responses to World Without Oil (ARG)

  1. Ken Eklund says:

    Thanks for this insightful and cogent summary of WORLD WITHOUT OIL and its difference from previous games and ARGs.

    Small error, however, in the two or three places where you spell out the URL for the game. WORLD WITHOUT OIL is at worldwithoutoil.org, not worldwithoutoil.com. The game is archived there for those who want to see how the oil crisis played out week by week – back in the good ol’ days (2007).

  2. Mandy says:

    Did this game focus on crude oil mostly? Or other types of oil that damage the environment such as palm oil?

    Palm oil is killing off the orangutan population and destroying valuable forests yet the demand for it is rising.

  3. Lindsay Brandon Hunter says:

    sorry it took forever to acknowledge your comment, Ken. if someone at transliteracies hasn’t already changed the URL, i’ll do it promptly. cheers, and thanks for the nice words.