This is MMOG

serious games, collective action and amplified individuals

Friday, February 19th, 2010

One of the first things I did after I left my corporate job to start my own company, was I spent 6 weeks playing a game. I know, you’re thinking that sounds a bit like post-cubicle depression, right? But this was no plunge into escapism, no existential Crysis, no losing myself on some shard in the seductive World of Warcraft. Instead, it was immersion into a massively multiplayer game about envisioning the future. Or perhaps, it was a global collaborative scenario planning exercise with strong game-like qualities. Either way, I became the character ‘ubik2019’ and entered the world of Superstruct along with several thousand other people around the globe. Our goal was nothing less than to work together to save humanity.


Superstruct was created by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) as part of their annual Ten Year Forecast project. The design was led by Jane McGonigal aka @avantgame, well known for her cutting edge work in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). From the FAQ:

“Superstruct is the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game. By playing the game, you’ll help us chronicle the world of 2019 – and imagine how we might solve the problems we’ll face. Because this is about more than just envisioning the future. It’s about making the future, inventing new ways to organize the human race and augment our collective human potential.”

Superthreats and superpowers

The game revolved around the confluence of five major “superthreats” – pandemic disease, food system collapse, energy crisis, technological outlaws, and global refugee diasporas – which together threatened the very survival of the human race. Players worked to create stories, strategies and solutions to these threats, and earned achievement badges for demonstrating a range of collaborative skills. Not coincidentally, the skills required to succeed in Superstruct were drawn from earlier work at IFTF which identified a number of new competencies and collaborative abilities for a connected world. These ranged from skills like High Ping Quotient and Open Authorship, to Emergensight, “the ability to prepare for and deal with surprising results arising from coordination and collaboration at extreme scales”. These are the foundational skills of what IFTF calls Amplified Individuals, people who excel at navigating a fast changing, interconnected world through augmented social, collaborative and improvisational behaviors. For further reading, see the full Superstruct skills list and IFTF’s map of the Future of Work.

Generation ARG

There are a couple of intertwined ideas here that you should take note of. The first is the concept of large-scale distributed collective action, where hundreds or thousands of strangers come together online and cooperate to solve complex, multifaceted problems. In the same way that Gen Y employees brought new communication practices like IM, blogs and wikis into the workplace, the next generation of workers will have expectations and expertise in global cooperation honed in ARGs and MMOGs, along with public social performance practices learned from Facebook, Twitter et al. And like their predecessors, they will probably experience frustration with less collaborative, less open colleagues and managers, and they will face pushback from IT departments struggling to maintain control over tools and enforce secure network boundaries.

Serious games

The second idea is the use of game mechanisms – missions, achievements, badges, leveling and such – as a way to make activities more engaging, satisfying and impactful. Game mechanisms are increasingly being put to work as a way to tap into the focus, goal orientation, commitment and flow that gamers experience in play, but aimed at contributions with real world impact. The field of ‘serious games’ is making significant progress, led by researchers such as Byron Reeves at Stanford, Liz Lawley at RIT, and Ian Bogost at Georgia Tech.

‘A crash course in changing the world’


If you want to get firsthand experience with a global collective action game, join us March 3 – May 12, 2010 for EVOKE, an alternate reality game designed to help empower young people around the world, and especially in Africa, to come up with creative solutions to our most pressing problems: hunger, poverty, disease, war and oppression, water access, education, climate change. EVOKE is a project for the World Bank Institute, the learning and knowledge arm of the World Bank. As creative director McGonigal says, “We consider it a crash course in changing the world.” I hope to see you there.

Postscript: In April 2009, Superstruct was honored as the “Most Important Futures Work of 2008” by the Association of Professional Futurists. So it wasn’t just a game after all. Or was it?

the massively multiplayer magazine

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This idea is a quick brainstorming sketch that brings together several threads in the spirit of combinatorial innovation. I’d love to have your feedback in the comments.

The future of magazines in a connected world

I love magazines, and I’ll bet you do too. Magazines are perhaps the most vibrant and culturally relevant form of print media, and their diversity mirrors the staggering range of human interests and obsessions. In the connected world, they have the potential to evolve into an incredibly interesting and engaging networked medium. In recent months we have seen two inspiring future design concepts: the lushTime/Sports Illustrated video, and the poeticMag+ conceptcreated by design firm@BERGLondonand publisherBonnier. With high performance, connected e-reader and tablet platforms finally coming to market, it’s clear we are going to see some very exciting developments in this space. However, we should remember that the fundamental nature of connected media is very different from that of print media, and we should be careful about bringing a print-oriented mindset to a new networked medium. The features of electronic magazines should not simply be incremental extensions of the printed version, even if the physical artifacts are roughly similar in size, shape and appearance. With that in mind, I’d like to engage you in a thought experiment about what could happen when we collide digital magazines together with the global social Internet. One possibility we might imagine ismassively multiplayer magazines.


Massively multiplayer what?

You’re probably familiar with massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. The massively multiplayer magazine re-imagines the traditional periodical in the context of an online social game environment involving thousands of people. In this scenario, the magazine becomes a gateway into a universe of intertwined stories, knowledge, people and play, with experience design and game mechanics drawn from MMOGs, ARGs and social games. Readers become players who have profiles, scores, achievements and abilities. Players self-assemble into clans, guilds and communities. Game elements encompass traditional magazine fare such as stories, images, features and advertisements, alongside new aspects including collaborative quests, mini-games, social streams, location awareness, augmented reality and physical hyperlinks. Gameplay involves completing missions, defeating bosses, unlocking hidden features, and participating in experiences that add richness, engagement and dimensionality to the magazine’s thematic center.

Magazines are like printed Usenet

Magazines are like printed Usenet

Magazines are like printed Usenet

You may be thinking this is a pretty strange idea, because magazines and online games seem like completely different media with little apparent synergy.  But consider: A well-stocked newsstand’s magazine rack is a glossy reflection of a world of enthusiast niches, each one incredibly narrow and deep. From heavy metal music to needlepoint; from luxury island living to body modification culture, magazines are the proto-Usenet of publishing. Furthermore, every special interest grouping you can imagine has already established itself in some form of online presence, be it a mailing list, web forum, or social network. The inherently social, topical milieu of magazines and their enthusiast communities has much in common with the ecosystem of social, story-oriented worlds and deeply invested players of many online games. It’s not hard to imagine that online gamers and magazine readers would each be attracted to a medium that combined the best of both genres. In fact, there is ample precedent for communities passionately following and participating in stories and games across multiple media. Think of Pokemon, Survivor, and the Star Wars Universe as examples of huge cultural phenomena with stories that span books, television, games, the web and more. For more on that, you might enjoy going down the deep rabbit hole of transmedia storytelling. But let’s continue.

Possible user stories

Clearly, this new kind of magazine/game would be primarily a digital medium. Mobile tablet computers like the just-announced Apple iPad would be excellent platforms to build optimized experiences around. Moreover, a massively multiplayer magazine would also play out across websites, social forums and physical locations, in much the same way that many alternate reality games have done. With the addition of ‘clickable’ links via QR codes and similar physical links, even readers of printed magazines could be drawn into the game through their mobile phones.

So what would a massively multiplayer magazine be like? Here are a few possible user stories that begin to explore the concept; you should definitely add your own ideas in the comments:

* Each story is a context that you “check into”, much like a Foursquare location. This might show up in your Twitter stream as “I’m reading <article> with 5 other people“, with a shortened link directly to the article. As you check in and comment about the article in your social stream, you accumulate points in your profile for each new reader that clicks through your link. If you are leafing through a paper copy of the magazine, you might find a QR code printed on the page, and scan it with your smartphone to “check in” and connect to the social stream about the article.

* Stories are customized based on your location. When you are physically in Paris, stories and games with a Parisian context are revealed. Reading those stories in their intended locations around the city earns you a special achievement badge for Paris. Meeting local players face to face grows your social circle and adds to your in-game reputation.

* A rock music magazine works with bands and concert promoters to place printed QR codes on posters at live shows, and readers earn badges by going to the show and scanning the codes.

* A pop culture fan magazine creates a series of 12 monthly challenges, each building on the previous one and taking players progressively deeper into a complex storyline. The challenges can only be worked out through large-scale cooperation by fans; the resolution leads to a hidden plot device in the upcoming season of a hit reality TV series.

* An advertiser sponsors a global treasure hunt, with rabbit holes, missions and puzzles embedded in the digital and print versions of a travel magazine. The prize is significant and the story engaging enough to attract tens of thousands of players and drive millions of social media mentions and impressions over the entire duration. For inspiration, take a look at the ARG calledPerplex City, which offered a $200,000 prize for finding a game artifact called the Receda Cube.

* Collaboratively generated story/soundtrack pairings are recommended by your friends and other readers of the same stories. “One of your friends recommended the Cowboy Junkies channel on Pandora, to accompany this story on musician Townes Van Zandt.” Alternatively, writers and photographers offer their own musical pairings to convey mood and contextual cues for their work, similar to sound design for cinema.

* A media literacy foundation challenges teams to create an entirely new magazine, organized around crowdsourced recommendations and contributions for the best stories, photographs, video, audio and even advertisements. The contributors earn achievements and reputation scores based on readers’ ratings and social metrics. The winning team receives a grant funding the creation of their next 6 issues, and featured placement on a popular media blog.

These are only a few examples of the possibilities of a new kind of massively multiplayer media. There are many open questions here, obviously. Would publishers find this concept attractive? Would readers make the leap to become players in a worldwide game? How hard would they be to develop [see note 2 below], and at what cost? It’s no sure thing, but I am inclined to believe that the well-established cultural familiarity and affection for magazines, combined with the addictive and viral nature of online games like Farmville and Foursquare, and built on the mobile, social, contextual platform of the connected world, would make an incredible creative genre and a very interesting business opportunity.

What do you think? Leave comments, send me email, or tweet some feedback to @genebecker. Thanks for reading, and YMMV as always.

[1] Photo credit: mannobhai

[2] It’s worth noting that designing media to be massively multiplayer will require new skills, tools and workflows, well beyond those employed in today’s magazine publishing ecosystem; our hypothetical project will surely need to address the authoring process. If you are interested, Ben Hammersley makes this point well in a series of eloquent posts that are worth your time.