GDC Online - Moving past 90-9-1 with Vanished

The 90-9-1 principle, alternatively known as the 1% rule, is a (supposed) truism that of internet behavior. It states that, for a given collaboratively-generated content repository (say, Wikipedia, or even the internet at large), user participation can be visualized by a pyramid diagram. At the top, are the content generators, making up only a tiny fraction of the user base (1%). Below that you have the relatively more common contributors (9%), users who participate in the system by making modifications to existing content, but are significantly less involved than the dedicated content generators. Making up the bottom of the pyramid are the so-called "lurkers" (the overwhelming 90%), users who consume the content from the system without making any contribution themselves.

The extent to which the 90-9-1 rule is empirically verifiable is not completely clear, though it does seem to be relatively consistent with Wikipedia usage statistics, and, to get to the topic at hand, player-participation in large scale ARGs, such as Jane McGongial's Evoke (this requires changing the terminology a bit - to enthusiastic, active, and casual players - but the basic idea is the same). Well, two researchers out of MIT's Education Arcade, Caitlin Feeley and Scot Osterweil, today presented an ARG-inspired educational game that aims to break this rule down and get more players involved.

The game, titled Vanished, ran for just under seven weeks earlier this year, and was a joint effort with the Smithsonian aimed at getting 10-14 year old kids engaged in learning about science within the context of a large-scale, collaborative mystery-solving effort. I won't get into the details of the game story here (check out the website if you're interested), but instead want to focus on a few of the more important talking points Feeley and Osterweil focused on in their talk that, they argue, made their take on the ARG a highly successful one. I should note here, by the way, that Vanished did overcome the 90-9-1 spectre to a degree; they cite an enthusiastic-active-casual distribution of roughly 6-19-80, which may not seem like a radical improvement, but is still a substantial improvement over what has seemed to be an unavoidable rule of voluntary collaborative systems. But moving on, let me briefly touch on the three take home lessons that stood out to me during the talk:

  • Be epic: Apparently some ARGs have tried to to make gameplay focus on activities of immediate relevance to their player base (e.g. "save the community center" instead of "save the world"), but Vanished threw this out the window. Kids will always be more excited about missions on an epic scale, and there should be no reason to shy away from tat.
  • Require distributed intelligence: Some ARGs can suffer because a small number of players with special skills or resources can take control of the gameplay and solve the mystery. To avoid this, the designers of vanished went out of their way to make many in-game were impossible without the collaboration of many players. Case in point: a coded puzzle in which 99 unique pieces were each sent to a different player. Without each recipient participating, no one could solve the puzzle.
  • Let players break the world: This one requires a whole lot of flexibility on the part of the game designers, but is a principle they pushed heavily during the presentation. If players are pushing the game in a direction it wasn't originally meant to go, this should not be a cause for alarm or reason to get players "back on track", but instead an opportunity to tune adapt the game so it provides the experience players are looking for. For instance, the game involved an "AI" NPC that was intended to have a minor, peripheral rule. As the game went on, however, it became clear that this character ("Lovelace") was highly popular among players, so instead of pushing gameplay back towards its originally planned trajectory, the designers spent the time to further develop this character and her role in the game narrative. In the end she became one of the cornerstones of the game's story.

Reflecting on these ARG design lessons, I still found myself questioning what (if anything) really set Vanished apart from previous ARG-like efforts. Briefly speaking with Feeley after the presentation, I posed exactly this question to her, and her response was that the key strength of Vanished is that it connected players very directly with the game's overarching goal. If I've interpreted her correctly, this would seem to imply that Vanished gained effectiveness by virtue of the limits on its scope. That is to say, the fact there was a single, self-contained mystery to be solved kept players focused on the actual progress they were making on the overall, collaborative goal. Compare this to larger scale games (like Evoke) which may exist on a larger time-scale and have more self-contained missions, but in which it's more difficult for any individual player to see how he or she is directly contributing collaborative effort.

So is this the key to good ARG design? That remains to be seen, but I'll definitely be looking forward to future projects coming from Feeley, Osterweil, and the rest of MIT's Education Arcade to see if they can further capitalize on the success they've achieved here.

GDC Online - Moving past 90-9-1 with Vanished by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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