CAsplit: Netprov as Game Design (part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I gave a recap of the CAsplit narrative. In this post, I’m going to talk a little more about its design.  

Improv arts are usually not as “improvised” as we would like to think. While much of the interesting content is composed on the fly, it must be done against a stable backdrop, leaving much content relying heavily on well-known stock features. Blues improv, for example, depends on a series of predictable chord progressions in an established key. Improv theater depends on stock characters that serve as a shorthand for audiences to recognize. Improv narratives often riff on established forms, filling in small details along the way.

With improv narrative games, such as RPGs, successful storytelling depends on a preplanned narrative, with challenges set up for the player. Since a netprov isn’t necessarily something like a combat oriented game, in which a dungeon master sets up road blocks for the players to overcome (though it could be!), we took some design cues from RPGs while leaving others for now.

Pushing Boundaries

One interesting part of the CAsplit project is that while there aren’t challenges per se, the pleasurable experience comes from imposing the rules of the narrative onto ones own contributions. For example, in a world that resembles our own and a story focused on politics, someone tweeting about aliens landing would seem out of place unless someone else could work it into the rules of the narrative world. The core ludic experience comes from trying to fit one’s contribution into the narrative world, or helping others do the same.

We did occasionally have players trying to push the boundaries on the narrative, or to carry it too far in a direction that we weren’t able to take it. This is okay and even preferred! Often players test boundaries in systems simply to see where those boundaries are and what forms they take. Players want to know what they can and can’t do, and gentle nudges in particular directions are fine as long as they don’t feel oppressive. 

Since the narrative takes place on social media, where information is sometimes inaccurate and untrustworthy, it’s easy enough to diegetically discount really outrageous tweets, or to backtrack on information that turned out to be inaccurate. Discrediting trolls and spoil sports is fine, but discounting someone’s earnest ideas should be done with caution. Though our scenario ended up departing drastically from the students’ planned plot, people with deep political and military knowledge offered incredible contributions that made the entire narrative more rich and realistic.

Defined Roles:

At the start of the narrative, students were eager to participate. They contributed lots of images, made flyers for fake protests, and tweeted as if protests were happening across campuses. UCSC is a particularly political campus, so many of the students had experienced these kinds of protests first hand. They were comfortable playing these characters.  As the narrative started escalating into more speculative realms, however, many students expressed their discomfort with playing roles that were well outside of their real lives, especially since many of them had began by playing a version of themselves.

I didn’t assign “roles” to the students. During our post-game debrief we all agreed that assigned roles would have helped. Some chose to play fictional characters on their own, but many played characters that were very close to a version of themselves. In any narrative, certain characters are designed to move the plot forward, some are designed to contrast other characters, some fill plot holes, and so on. We were lucky enough to have people join the game who understood this and filled those roles themselves, but had they not, the story might have been much less cohesive. Many of the people who joined were comfortable playing fictional roles, such as the conspiracy theorist character who, while not directly associated with the class or “in” on the planned narrative, seemed to exist solely to fill in plot holes.

Many participants from outside of the class really made the piece feel real and gave it a gritty depth that many of the students weren’t necessarily prepared for. Netprov greats Mark Marino and Rob Wittig contributed, as well as well-known names among eLit and games  Aaron Reed, Kathi Inman Berens, Jacob Garbe, and Deirdra Kiai. Ray Brady stood out as making incredible contributions to the piece by playing a character listening in on military frequencies and warning protestors of possible military actions against them. The details in his posts, and his exchanges with another participant with extensive political knowledge who goes by @sleepylemur, absolutely made the narrative. Even former Deputy Treasurer of California Mark Paul tweeted to the game with helpful relevant historical facts.


Best Laid Plans

When we started the piece, we gave it an outline of where we thought it might go, and the piece deviated from this outline substantially. That’s okay! The guerilla group, for example, was originally planned by students to take out water lines as an act of political pressure because we needed a convenient way to shut off water. But with escalating military actions ongoing against the protestors, water became a means of leverage and government control. The guerilla group was no longer necessary for plot reasons, but we had already started their storyline. So instead, they were insinuated to be a part of a thinly veiled government coverup—the “water terrorists” that the government needed as scapegoats to shut off water.

The lesson here is that an outline should be a skeleton, not a cage. Build on it and use it to direct the narrative and give the players a chance to be creative, not to constrain players into doing exactly what you planned. If things change, go with it! It’s easier and more fun for everyone if a skilled facilitator adapts to players than asks players to contort around arbitrary narrative constraints.

On a broad level, our narrative planned for protests and a potentially negative response to those protests by the government; we did not plan for a militant power struggle between state and federal governments—but that’s way more interesting! 

We also didn’t flesh out enough the day-to-day happenings for people who weren’t caught up in the political power struggle. Heather Logas asked a great question that I then turned to students and asked them to address. 

 It was a great thought exercise for all involved.   

Speculative fiction or hoax?  

Many people saw the tweets to #CAsplit and believed that there was in fact a series of violent protests going on in the bay area. Others saw our tweets and responded with incredulousness, confusion, and concern.   Before we started the piece, I discussed the ethical implications of running netprovs that straddle the line between hoax and game. Works such as Mark Marino and Rob Wittig’s @occupyMLA have been very successful at drawing attention to political issues by treating plausible fictional events as real. Even while it subtly clued readers into its own artifice, many readers of @occupyMLA felt misused, and we discussed as a class if we wanted to take this approach.   The students decided that we wanted everyone to feel included and able to participate, so the students created the CAsplit website explaining the project toward which we could point people as they became interested in the project. This way, we could tell people it was fiction without breaking the fictional wall. I personally tried to be especially vigilant about making sure people were not “taken” by the fiction for more than a tweet, and most were agreeable after they felt “in” on the game.

Was it a success?

The students created a narrative that was engaging, adaptive, and collaborative. There was appropriate and interesting foreshadowing, and they handled the story moving in unexpected directions well.

There were plot holes. Participants and onlookers considered the action to be either scarily plausible or completely ridiculous depending on their politics and depth of knowledge of the legislative process. Parts were in fact quite implausible, and for some that was what made it fun. For others, that made it difficult to participate.

Still, the game was also well-received by many players and onlookers, and I’d be interested in what we could do with more lead-time, a longer play-time, and more real-world time to devote to it.