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MIT Technology Review

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  • Jane McGonigal

    Age:
    28

    The pay phone rings. This much you know: in the 26th century, a young girl’s personality was uploaded into an artificial intelligence called Melissa aboard a military starship, which was then thrown back through time to your own year, 2004. Now the starship’s crew is dead; Melissa survives, damaged and stranded on the Internet server of a beekeeper in California’s Napa Valley. From that beekeepers website, ILoveBees.com, you gleaned this phone’s GPS coördinates. You cup the receiver to your ear as Melissa speaks…

    If this seems familiar, you were probably among the 600,000 active players of I Love Bees in 2004. To date, it remains the most widely played “alternate-reality game.” Jane McGonigal, who recently completed her PhD in performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was tapped to become one of the game’s four “puppet masters” after she began working with 42 Entertainment, a company in Emeryville, CA, that creates entertainment-based marketing campaigns and original content.

    Microsoft had hired the company to promote Halo 2, the video game it was about to introduce, by creating a massively multi player alternate-reality game. McGonigal designed the real-world “missions” that took advantage of and shaped the way the players organized themselves. Creating and engaging this worldwide community helped make I Love Bees so successful. McGonigal argues that alternate-reality games use network technologies–e-mail, websites, Internet chat rooms, text messages, and phone calls–to construct new types of communities whose “collective intelligence” lets them solve problems no member could solve alone. In 2005, she and the I Love Bees team won the Game Developers Choice Awards’ Innovation Award and the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences’ Webby Award.

    McGonigal has continued working with 42 Entertainment. In 2005 she developed Tombstone Hold ‘Em, part of a 2005 promotion for Activision’s game Gun; crowds congregated in historic cemeteries to play poker using tombstones instead of cards. Such novel uses of public spaces are another way she engages players. Her own work as a game designer is fed by watching players interpret the missions she designs: “They always think of far more interesting things than anything I could imagine.”

    –Mark Williams