The experience of surfing the Internet could be improved if users were given more guidance and camaraderie, says Merci Victoria Grace, chief creative officer and cofounder of the startup GameLayers, based in San Francisco. Users surf alone, wandering through piles of data without enough chance to interact with it, or with each other.
To make surfing the Web a more social and lighthearted experience, Grace and the company’s other designers are grafting a massively multiplayer online game on top of ordinary Web browsing. Players rack up points as they visit sites, devise themed missions that lead other players through sets of websites, and leave notes for one another–all of it invisible to nonplayers. GameLayers calls its game PMOG, for “passively multiplayer online game,” because “we’re layering games on top of things that are already there,” says CEO and cofounder Justin Hall, known for his pioneering blog, Justin’s Links from the Underground, and for his work as a freelance journalist. “The model for the game is that people can opt to play at any moment,” he says. As in other massively multiplayer online games, PMOG brings each player into the experience of participating in a single vast game, taking place across the whole of the Internet, 24 hours a day. Players can gain tools and abilities as they progress, but there is no end to the game.
To get started, players download a toolbar. When they log in to PMOG, software tracks the sites that they visit, and gives them points for each unique URL they visit within a 24-hour period. Then they can create and take missions. For example, a PMOG player might visit the homepage for the forthcoming Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and find a pop-up from a fellow player inviting him to learn about the history of Batman. If the player elects to follow the mission, a series of pop-up windows would lead him through sites where he might, for example, view cover art from the Batman comic books, read trivia on the Batman TV series, and view information about the making of the new film. At each site, he’d find pop-up windows displaying notes written by the mission creator, perhaps giving additional background on the site, telling a story, or leaving clues to a puzzle.
Along the way, players can IM each other; leave gifts of links, points, and other game equipment; and even detonate little bombs that cause other players’ browser windows to temporarily (and harmlessly) shrink. “It’s like instant messaging meets [social bookmarking site] del.icio.us, meets Wikipedia,” says Joichi Ito, a board member of the Mozilla Foundation and a venture capitalist who has invested in GameLayers. “I think more and more people are receptive to bringing play into things that are more mundane. There’s this puritanical thing that we’re all getting over now.”
“This is a video game that’s designed to fit into your everyday life,” says Alice Robison, a researcher in the comparative media studies department at MIT. “It blurs the boundaries between playing a game and playing life.” Robison notes that the game is structured so that players gain tools and points based on how they behave online, rather than on a character they construct. “The score-keeping element forces you to be who you are.”