January 3, 2012

January 3, 2012

Pastimes of Auld Lang Syne, Day 1: The “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” MMORPG

The open of a new year is a good time to look forward at all you hope to accomplish during the next 365 days. Unfortunately, since the world is ending this year, there’s not a lot to look forward to. So I’ve decided to look back instead, writing about various phenomena I pursued as a youth. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. This is sorta like that.

It was a different world in 2001. We as a nation had no consciousness of the Kardashians, or Twitter, or 3D movies. Our entertainment was limited to two channels, talkies were just coming to fruition, and a young fella named Steven Spielberg was preparing to release a film called “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

While there were probably commercials, interviews, and Entertainment Tonight segments created to promote the film, the marketing people also decided to create an online game, later nicknamed the Beast. Clues were hidden in movie trailers and posters. Elaborate websites were involved, with entire plotlines and dozens of characters tangentially related to the film yet not part of it.

The gist of the game: in 2142, a man named Evan Chan died while on his AI-enhanced boat. All is not how it seems, of course, and players who investigated the death uncovered a world of conspiracy, weather control, anti-robot sentiment, pro-robot sentiment, education, and architecture. Many of us joined a Yahoo! Group (remember those) called the Cloudmakers. We pored over the internet, called phone numbers (and were called back!), and even rallied in person as part of the game. The blurring of reality and game was what put the experience over the top. Since the game creators (nicknamed the Puppetmasters) were just a step or two ahead of the Cloudmakers, questions and issues raised by the players would later show up in the game. The 1% were actually engaged with the 99%. (Did I just solve the Occupy movement?)

A guy named Adrian Hon wrote a guide to the game here. Sort of a narrative “this is what happened” type of deal. I printed it out, ten cents a page, at my local library. I still read it sometimes; it so perfectly encapsulates the Beast. The film itself turned out to be a letdown after its hoopla. MMORPG stands for “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” and the twelve weeks of the Beast were certainly all of those things.

1 Fish in a Sea of Diet Coke:

These are still made, they're actually known as ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) rather than MMORPGs (that's claimed more by games like World of Warcraft, where you're either only competing against other players, or against predefined computer code, rather than human puppetmasters).