Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

I came to Evoke in large part because I enjoy seeing interesting ideas. The intersection between game design and other disciplines of social analysis and manipulation is fascinating. That includes the use of social networking software and social psychology to make more addictive games (for example, Farmville), the use of games to enhance marketing and customer participation (Foursquare), or using games to persuade people to spend more effort on otherwise unappealing or frustrating tasks (The ESP Game, Evoke). I also wanted the experience of participating in an Alternate Reality Game (This Reality Game?) like Evoke. I'd missed the chance to play Superstruct and World Without Oil, and I regretted the missed opportunity.

Evoke was an interesting experiment, and it produced some amazing results, but it seems to me that there were many major problems with the game design:

World Issues: Alternate Reality Games are a form of collaborative story-telling. As such, there needs to be some basic agreement between the puppet masters (PMs, those running an ARG) and the players about what story the players are telling. Were the players telling the story of themselves working as undercover Evoke Agents in 2010? Themselves as Evoke Agents in 2020? (Post-2020, when knowledge of the existence of Evoke is public?) Are they imagining themselves as new recruits or as established members of Alchemy's team? Not all of those questions have to be answered, nor do players have to consider themselves strictly bound by answers given by the PMs for the game to work. World Without Oil produced some really compelling narrative because players started on the same foundation (you are at this time, in these circ***tances), and the players and PMs were synchronized to some degree.

Storytelling Issues: In ARGs, player participation involves narrative, but how that narrative unfolds depends on the game. In some games, player choices may influence the PMs later actions as they lay out the story. In others, players discover hidden elements of a story that the PMs have laid out in advance. There's a lot about the world of Evoke that wasn't laid out in the comic chapters, but it seems to me that players were given little opportunity to create and/or discover that. PM-run characters (including Alchemy) did show up around the site to praise insightful questions or responses and award bonus points, but I didn't see much in the way of non-player characters and players interacting in a way that furthered the story. (Of course, maybe that was something I just missed.) I can see why Alchemy wouldn't want to weigh in for fear of shutting down discussions with basically Word of God, but if Alchemy's around, why not Eureka and Quinn and Ember (and Cipher?). (The 2010 versions of those characters?) Why no game events in the real world that involved PM participation?

An ongoing theme in this criticism: There seemed to be a conceptual distance in the game between "the world of Evoke" and "our world". But the fundamental idea of this game is that the World of Evoke is our world.

Synergy Between Mechanics and Narrative: There are a few ways that the mechanics (point system, achievements, badges, awarding of Evokations) work with the story. For one thing, what's done with the grant money awarded is part of the narrative. The choice of categories for the Power Points is also significant to the story, it tells us something about the values of Evoke (and Alchemy specifically). But points didn't seem to do much to allow players to influence the story or discover more about the story. Some Agents presented the network with challenges which PMs awarded with points (and PMs asked some Agents to create challenges?). Some of that counts. But I think more could have been done with that. How about calling on those with a lot of points in a particular category to design or lead challenges related to that category specifically? Maybe players with Vision get to influence the future course of the story, those with Spark get to challenge other players, those with Courage get the power to ret-con details to make the story better, those with Knowledge Share can nominate featured evidence, and so on and so forth.

Not Collaborative Enough: Players are encouraged to form teams to work on Evokations, and some collaboration on other projects was done on and off-site. However, it seems that the missions were all designed to be completed (or not) individually. A typical ARG pattern is to have group challenges that may be solved by an individual or a group. Players may race to be first, but ultimately the mechanics are collaborative. Some games deviate from that, but it seems odd to deviate from that in a game where the objective ("save the world") seems inherently collaborative.

Balance and Pacing Issues: The quantity of points assigned to the different missions seemed kind of arbitrary. Given that the original idea was (apparently) to have PMs review evidence and check off mission completion manually, it seems that the designers themselves underestimated the scale and complexity of the game in practice. If the objective was to ramp up from "learn/teach/imagine on the internet" to "get out in the real world and do stuff", the ramp was quite bumpy.

(To give some credit here: Accepting McGonigal's thesis that "motivating people to save the world" is a game design problem, it's not an easy game design problem. Probably not realistic to expect the first round of Evoke players to be establishing community gardens, achieving energy independence for their towns, and overthrowing dictatorial regimes.)

Writing: The writing is not very good. I already complained that it rips off Heroes too much, and that Heroes is not well-written in the first place, but that bears repeating. If the idea was to leave a bunch of stories untold to encourage the audience to tell those stories, it doesn't seem to pull that off as well as some other ARGs with a similar structure.

The writing isn't just bad in a dramatic or literary sense, it's also weak in a rhetorical sense. My favorite Evoke parody got away with far too many "yes they actually said that" unchanged panels in their satirical alterations.

(One thing the story does well is leaving interesting unanswered questions (which makes the comparison to Heroes even stronger): How did Quinn pull himself up by his bootstraps after the Mugabe regime seized his family's wealth? (And about his family history, there's probably more than one side to that story.) Why is Eureka such a stickler for secrecy, and what's her beef with Citizen X? Why is Alchemy convinced the Evoke Network will fall apart without him, and why doesn't he do anything to fix that? (And why all the rationalizations for why he should be above the law?) Who is Alpha? What's on Citizen X's Dark Site? How did Cipher originally become obsessed with Evoke? What's the origin of Citizen X? (Links to particularly good examples of player storytelling on this topic are also welcomed.))

Boldness of Execution < Boldness of Concept:
I think in terms of getting players to do stuff right now to change the world for the better, the missions could have been more ambitious. McGonigal talks about how the experience of "an Epic Win" is based on acing a task that seems, at first glance, impossible. Were there any missions that weren't completed fully, as described, by some players? If not, could harder missions be put in, prompting someone to accomplish something even more impressive that wouldn't have been accomplished otherwise? That is the objective here, right?

Money Where Your Mouth Is: The Evokations! Travel to a conference in DC, or a mentorship, or seed funding of $1000 (not sure about that last, the FAQ mentions this but official rules don't). Not to say that's bad, but it certainly could be a lot more impressive. The World Bank is not exactly a cash-poor organization. How much would it cost for a self-sustaining grant to found a new NGO? Or, failing that, at least enough to support someone for a year or two?

So, suggestions for future seasons:
  • Make it clear what story players are telling (at least the "when and what circ***tances").
  • Provide more opportunities for players to create and/or discover parts of the story. More interaction between NPCs (PMs) and players.
  • Make it clearer that what players do in the real world is the story. Facilitate that better, reward that more.
  • Connect the mechanics to the story better. "Get a high score" doesn't seem to be an objective that works great for ARGs. Have different sorts of achievements/points affect how players interact with the story.
  • Include collaborative objectives, where players win together or not at all.
  • Work on the difficulty curve.
  • Better, more surprising, more original writing. If it must borrow heavily, borrow from something better.
  • Show a bit more self-awareness about the arguments / opinions included in story content, especially if the sponsor is a big organization.
  • Challenge people a bit more. No, more than that.
  • Big challenges, big rewards.
Note that I am not a game designer. I'm really looking forward to whatever after-action report McGonigal files on this one. I want to know what the designers were thinking, which things turned out as expected, what went better or worse. She'll no doubt be able to take a better critical look than mine as well.

Views: 18

Comment by Patricio Buenrostro-Gilhuys on May 17, 2010 at 5:31am
Great analysis!!! "The World Bank is not exactly a cash-poor organization." It´s a bank!!! and it´s The World Bank!!! http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTABOUTUS/ORGANIZATION/EX...

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