TUMO – CENTRE FOR CREATIVE TECHNOLOGIES
YEREVAN CITY, ARMENIA
ARGARMENIA were a series of real-time gaming environments designed both within real and virtual environments that both challenged players’ ability to problem solve, and develop their imaginations whilst learning how to manipulate narrative structures. Players learn to collaborate and construct an imaginative space that ultimately expanded the participants’ shared understanding of reality in how meaning is constructed out of history and the bodies that inhabit this temporal space of existence.
Reality takes shape around us often without our ability to control it or feel as though we take part in it. It is also a mysterious phenomenon that is easily bent, manipulated, shattered or even tenuously constructed to form the illusion of truth. Reality appears as both a fiction and real at the same time; paradoxically this is how we interact with reality and interface with the everyday.
Participants involved in these excursions into Alternate Reality Gaming learnt that there is more to the mask of reality than one’s eye sees. Story Writing, Augmented Reality Software (Wikitude), Ancient History, Digital Technology, Ideology, Memorial Architecture, Marketing, Documentation, Physical and Mental Challenges, Community Participation, Exhibition and Interactive Design were just some of the abilities that players acquired throughout their quests where they will leart how Art can ultimately set one free.
In Profile: Chris Howlett, ARGARMENIA by Christy Dena
RealTime Arts Magazine, Australia
How did you come up with the concept (both the subject matter and form), was it in response to a commission?
The Alternate Reality Game (ARG) project called ARGARMENIA evolved out of my past Performance Art pieces and Machinima video works which both share common interests in Situational Art, cross-collaborative approaches, relational aesthetics and video gaming which are all attached to individuals or groups outside of my own experience and control. This part of my practice is about expanding my own ideas on authorship, subjectivity, the role of the artist and where they are located within the work of Art using a post-studio model. Early in 2013 I was invited to submit a proposal to Tumo – centre for creative technologies which is located in the city of Yerevan within Armenia by a professor at Griffith University who has close ties to the centre. The three month long proposal was designed with a series of digital, writing and performance workshops to function alongside the final construction and playing of an ARG, screening of the gameplay and a final exhibition.
Often when I play video games, I get bored because my body is too inert; they intensify my experience of reality but my actual location during the gameplay is not part of the equation – the immersiveness of the virtual space keeps getting in the way of the lounge room or the computer room. I find that ARG’s are a great alternative to video gaming since they are played in real time and in real space and combine interactivity with real-world objects, role playing, problem solving and co-operative group strategy all of which is accessed across a wide range of electronic devices.
Some of the important reasons behind the work were for the players and game designers to develop their sense of morality and imagination in lateral and obscure ways in order to develop complexity to their reasoning and the ways in which they interface with history and its culture(s); some of the questions I wanted them to think about in designing the narratives were: How do we determine good from bad? Right from wrong? Equality from inequality? Are these ideas innate in all of human nature or are they learnt behaviour? Who determines these qualities?
These types of questions were integral to the way in which the game’s information architecture was to be developed and streamlined. In all, there was only meant to be one large ARG designed with the help of 20-30 participants; in the end there were three ARG’s that were completed. The first was a Murder-Mystery, the second a Drama-Quest and the third an Action-Adventure all of which were designed to be replayable and expanded upon by another group in the future. It was agreed that each ARG would take a day to play so that each group could be involved with playing each other’s ARG.
The first Murder Mystery ARG was developed by the Red Team and starts with a daughter looking for her father across the city. After exhausting all the official channels without success, she blindly asks the common people to help her find her father. After searching for him with the help of a mime and an accordion player the players come across an abandoned house which has a time machine in disrepair with a warning from the future looping across a tv screen – various objects, paraphernalia and clues to his whereabouts are hidden and placed within the rooms of the old house.
The second Drama Quest ARG was developed by the Orange Team which involves a bookseller inviting the public to a book sale in the park with a second bookseller passing on clues to them on their way. The players mark themselves with a key design on their arm in order to receive clues and passwords to advance the story. A mime also appears on the way to guide them along. In the end they are locked in a room and confronted by the two original booksellers who offer two arguments; the first, if you want to lose the game take wealth or the second, lose the game and take knowledge – there was no possible way to win the game. (In the apartment room there was a desk that had 40,000 dram in ten dram coins piled up and on the other half a pile of books from philosophy, physics and fiction.)
The third Action Adventure ARG was developed by the Blue Team where a woman is looking for her scientist father who left behind a diary with a wide variety of entries from fragments of musical notes and drawings which contain secret messages. The clues take them on a subterranean adventure through the metro systems of Yerevan to uncover the secret locations of QR codes placed either under or over famous Monuments didactics in Yerevan City. On the way they meet two twins who play a game of lies and riddles with them. Unbeknownst to the players the whole story was fabricated by both the woman and the twins in order to test them in order to induct them into a secret society called ARGOS. The ending concluded on stage in an old theatre.
I’m interested to hear how the pedagogical aspects influenced the design and nature of the ARG. You had people learning to create an ARG by creating and experiencing the ARG. What was that process like? What are some of the things you learned about this sort of approach?
Since I had never taught, designed, played or constructed an ARG before, I wanted it to be quite flexible in the initial parameter set ups and could change quickly if needed. This was soon apparent when most of the work and design load was going to be decided along gender lines rather than any rule I tried to implement. I don’t usually teach students between the ages of 14-19. Generally they are a lot older, so it was a surprise to me that the majority of the girls wanted to write the stories and all the boys wanted to do was use the computers. We divided the class up into writers and designers, one room was filled with computers and the other room we were able to take over was the game’s room, which looked like a plasma screen bunker without any windows with thick soundproofing walls which gradually gave an aura of secrecy to the project. In all we had three groups of students ranging from ten to twenty for each workshop divided into three teams using the colours of the Armenian flag which are Red, Orange and Blue. The game’s room became headquarters for all the information design layout, mapping, logistics, and narrative arguments that eventually all had to be linked in to the designers in the computer room who were using a piece of augmented reality software called Wikitude, and any other Adobe software needed to visually create video or still image work.
Both of these processes needed some type of formal design to support them so there were four main mapping tools designed to help with narration, story development, information architecture and translating the augmented reality ideas across to the designers in the computer room. They were simply designed in Photoshop and Illustrator and either printed out onto A4 pages, while the information architecture diagrams where printed out onto large vinyl sheets pinned to the wall in the games room so each group when they came in could see how one each other was progressing and how their ideas were aesthetically formed onto the architecture.
I also tried to subtly influence their story lines by designing three different pieces of information architecture models where their endings and main body of the boxes differed by providing multiple endings arising out of different points in the design. Opportunities created out of multiple story breaks could lead onto a variety of possible choices made by the player in a particular part of the plot. All in all they were designed to be quite complex so that each group could edit and pare them pack to something which was manageable.
The students who go to Tumo are coming there straight from school to supplement their own education with free digital programs diverse as photography, film classes and Google Glass workshops. There are two types of projects which are run at Tumo, the first are referred to as classes which are more formal and technical in their design which are run over a number of weeks and the second are labelled workshops which only run for about two weeks. What I was trying to do was somewhere in between the two. At times it felt like I was in a high school playground with out-of-control teenagers running and playing and then at other times communicating high technical processes along with philosophical and conceptual ideas. Our main backup answer to any question which the students had about the purpose of the project was that we were making Art. Once they understood that it was not design, theatre or a video game they were making, and that they had to use a different part of their brain to complete certain obstacles, it made our lives easier.
Language translating also greatly influenced the pedagogical aspects to the overall design of the ARG. At Tumo they have translators called “coaches” in the rooms with you translating in Russian or Armenian and back to English as you are teaching. However, they are also more than translators because they are also teaching the kids with your directions since it is impossible to be with everyone at any given time, especially when you are trying to demonstrate a technical design process such as using Premiere Pro. Therefore, during the week I moved between two rooms each day, four days a week with each class for two hours and then on Saturday with all the groups coming for two hours each.
A lot of the time, I was trying to catch up since there was the gap between the creative side to how plots and narration was progressing in class which I did not always want to shut down since I had to wait for the right moment. The translating of information created the breaks between this process while students waited for me to catch up and then my advice to them and then it started all over again. At times I felt like a ghost in the class. Sometimes there was great clarity and at other times points of view just got lost in translation.
Looking back on it now I would have only concentrated on the writing component solely for the first two months then in the last month worked on completing all of the digital design. We also used actors across all three stories who role played for us and were clued into the overall informational design of each ARG. Sometimes they were actually part of the script and other times used as embedded players within the groups. I would have also used liked to have used them right from the start to develop the story, but it was not possible at the time and we were unsure of what form the ARG’s would take.
You have spoken elsewhere about how play is where you first started to make sense of reality. Could you go into detail about this process? I’m aware of my own processes, and how games can expose the schemas that govern our experiences and actions. How is it for you?
I think like most artists, we have to play with culture in order to understand it or take control of it – to have our say – to feel less manipulated by it. Playing enables us to use a wide variety of movements and interactions with our bodies and minds to ultimately create a manifold of interactions and possibilities that would not have been possible without this process. For me it also uncovers cultural patterns of behaviour that help us to understand behavioural conditioning and why we behave or adhere to certain accepted conventions. In turn I try and use Art to disrupt these accepted ways of behaving so as to represent new forms of behaviour that problematizes my own ideas on dominate pop culture. I want to believe that playing functions much like a mask does in that we agree upon a certain role or accepted set of rules as a way to towards moral truth. It’s close to what Žižek believes when he says that “there is more truth in a mask than in what is hidden beneath it” (I think that was in Enjoy Your Symptom). The reality of both online space and real space reinforces this idea associated to identity and how it operates in an illusionary space or even a gaming space, much like being young and making up a game from nothing.
Your work juxtaposes different artforms, time periods, and realities (at least), what is it about this approach to art that interest you do you think?
Conflating all of these complexities within a frame such as Art or an ARG gives me an opportunity to describe collectively a set of problems whether they’re cultural or mathematical, then to create a collaborative model to deal with them interactively and lastly play them out to see how they function in real space and in real-time. Putting theory into practice can’t always happen in a studio or class room, it has to happen in public space where different forms of pressure and constraints are either self-imposed or directly affected by institutional power, or at least in my case – the symbolic signs that represent these forces.
We were not granted permission to shoot video or take photographs in the Metro system in Yerevan since they are militarily strategic sites and are still technically fighting over disputed territory between themselves and Azerbaijan. But when it came time to play the ARG and players were taking photographs and shooting video in the stations, and the attendants looked worried, concerns disappeared once they understood that it was teenagers playing a game. They disregarded their initial objection to the activities around them.
Sometimes I like to think idealistically, especially when something like this happens and you can see how easily a rule can be bent or distorted to your own ends, but I also have to acknowledge that the reverse can happen, where decades of fighting against prejudice and racism can be wound back over night (please see the PNG solution).