This is the first part of a two-part post on a collaborative netprov my students designed called CAsplit. In part one, I’ll be discussing the emergent narrative of the piece and framing it within the context of the class. In part two, I’ll be giving more of a post-mortem and talking about design challenges and where the piece was and wasn’t successful.
I’ve just wrapped up my class on Literary Games at UC Santa Cruz designed to examine the crossover game genres that sit in the interspace between literature and games. The class looked at hypertext fiction, (parser-based) interactive fiction, procedural & combinatory narratives, collaborative narratives, and recent Indie games that draw on literary traditions.
A couple of weeks ago for our collaborative narrative week, the class designed a netprov, a collaborative Twitter narrative to be played over a weekend. Netprovs are an interesting blend of improv theater and networked communication—in our case, Twitter. The design challenges are similar to those of designing LARPs, though the tradition of improv theater provides many clues for how to accomplish this task. Still, many interesting question arise: how closely do we want people to stick to a planned narrative? How much freedom should they have? How do we keep them within the bounds of the game without it feeling stifling? And since this is occurring on social media, if the scenario is based on real events, do we signal that this is fiction, and if so how (without breaking the magic circle)?This last question has interesting ethical implications, but more on those in part 2.
Where to start?
Days before, a Silicon Valley millionaire had made the press by unexpectedly gaining the requisite signatures for his proposal to split California into 6 states to appear on the ballot in the next election. The proposal has been criticized quite heavily as gerrymandering, and most analysts agree that it is unlikely to pass the multiple stages it would need to in order to be enacted, but it provided the perfect backdrop for a speculative fiction that engages lots of interesting political issues. As a current event, lots of people were already talking about it on social media anyway—it was probable, interesting, and open-ended. With a premise in mind, it was time to create a narrative. We chose #CAsplit, since it seemed to be the only hashtag around the split that wasn’t in use, and cross-posted tweets to #1California and other hashtags that were engaging the issue. Our cross-posts helped us gain interested players and amused commenters throughout the weekend.
To help guide the story, we created an overall three-act narrative outline that we didn’t reveal to the audience. The official @CAsplit account served as something of a gamemaster, but everyone in the class was instructed to help keep the narrative moving by making sure that certain things happened at certain points. We also had a healthy meta-game backchannel going, so that helped alleviate student questions, but did water down the “improv” experience to some degree.
As any good GM knows, things don’t always go according to plan. We decided ahead of time that we wouldn’t railroad the narrative. The outline we created was designed to serve as a skeleton, not a prison—there to fill in gaps that arose or to help during dramatic lulls, and we ended up deviating from it substantially.
Before the event officially started, students began tweeting about the real proposed California split. It was all over the California news, so information was already flying around Twitter, and it was easy to engage existing conversations. Augmenting tweets with links to news articles and analyst blogs gave the setup a rich and realistic feel. Participants started tweeting their political unrest, and setting up their characters.
Dawn of the First Day
On the morning of the first day, characters became aware that protests were happening in reaction to the proposed split. They began tweeting pictures of the protest flyers, and adding media wherever possible to connect their fictional happenings with real-world events.
By the afternoon, the fictional split was pushed through California legislature, and the real narrative actually began. Several figures in the electronic literary and netprov communities chimed in to participate, and raised great questions…
…which the class wasn’t always prepared to give immediate answers for.
But other prominent participants were.
As with theater, a few actors in a scene can make or break a performance, and this applies to improv performances too. We were fortunate to be joined by an impressive list of incredibly talented writers and game designers, who all added fantastic contributions to the narrative.
By the end of the first day, the protests had escalated with riot police appearing on the scene, water prices were projected to skyrocket in response to California’s current drought and complicated water politics, many stores were running low on water supplies, and a group of guerilla water activists had appeared, creating a menacing presence. It was promising to be an interesting weekend.
Dawn of the Second Day
At the start of the second day, the tensions between protestors and riot police were increasing. Cops were becoming more violent towards protestors, and arrests increasing, which led to riots. Looting of stores began, and the day saw an increasing military threat as the civil unrest spread. Cell towers went down, and drones and F-15s warned San Francisco of the possible threats to come. Increased traffic shut down a lot of key areas as motorists tried to avoid riots and blocked streets.
The guerilla water group tweeted vague threats about “taking back” the water supply, which played into California’s real-life complicated water politics. Temporary water outages were attributed to emergency rations. By nightfall, damage to power grids was a concern, and overworked grids meant many parts of were in danger of losing water.
Overnight, we also saw the emergence of a mysterious account that seemed to have inside information into possible corruption within the California State Government.
Dawn of the Third Day
By the third day, the Department of Homeland Security had joined the fight against civil unrest by setting up security checkpoints throughout the state to restrict the movement of “water refugees” and reassure people that all was okay.
Meanwhile, government officials reported that water outages were due to “water terrorists” sabotaging lines, an excuse which was met with mixed belief and added to the fear of government takeover. Military presence around the state escalated, and explosions from the riots led to increased fear.
Information was slowly being leaked about the possibility of government involvement, and a few corrupt senators standing to gain a lot by pushing the bill through, which hit just as the California Congress went into an emergency session to discuss overturning the bill.
As the afternoon gave way to the evening, proof of government involvement in privatized water sales emerged, and we saw massive explosions over Folsom.
California legislators were pressured to overturn the split and asked the federal government to call off the air strikes. News reports conflicted as state legislators called for help and federal government assured help and support.
Eventually power and water started returning to key areas to help put out the fires in Folsom. The narrative ended with an address from the president that water would return shortly, and that these measures should always be put in front of the people.
A full transcript of the narrative is available on the CAsplit website.
In part 2, I’ll be addressing various design challenges for the piece, and talking about what worked and what didn’t.