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THATCamp CHNM 2012 ARG Postmortem

Reflections on the CHNM THATCamp Alternate Reality Game experiment "Q's Quest" run by Anastasia Salter and Amanda Visconti

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  1. At this year's THATCamp, Amanda Visconti and I decided to create a simple alternate reality game to explore the notion of THATCamp as a digital humanities community, and particularly the way that community is viewed as unified by outsiders even as it holds a lot of diversity within it. Given the occasional reference to CHNM as the THATCamp "mothership", we decided to build on an alien concept embracing the idea that the center attracted the attention of aliens trying to make up their minds about humanity.

    Our major character, "Agent Q(ueue)", is inspired by Q from Star Trek. He's slightly less hostile to humanity than his predecessor, but he's similarly here tasked with the goal of sitting in judgement of the worthiness of this so-called digital human to continue. Amanda Visconti designed the avatar. 
  2. The primary mechanisms of the ARG were intended to be very simple, in part because THATCamp is always such an intense and busy weekend that a particularly substantial game would likely be too ambitious for the time constraints and available energy. Even with the minimalist approach taken to the ARG puzzles, we still were told that many potential players had noted the game's presence in the space and even considered playing but never found time.
  3. One of our goals was to infiltrate various hashtags, though ultimately we were more successful in creating tension with THATCamp's own resident alien "Alien Weed Man", whose identity is already a much speculated upon piece within the DH community.
  4. The first stage of the alternate reality game, and ultimately the most intensive as far as physical engagement with the environment, was the release of four initial message with queries intended to reflect some of the community's own continual reflexive discourse of identity. These questions were intended to be particularly accessible to newcomers.
  5. The aliens awaiting the transmission thus function as the ultimate outsiders, representative on the abstract level of observers within and outside of the community whose gaze is often attracted to the digital humanities as a subject of curiosity or even suspicion.
  6. The use of coded messages is not arbitrary: it's part of the alien's understanding of the DH community that code is valued, and thus he's assumed that speaking to them through "code" is important for acceptance. (He doesn't want to be all yak and no hack.) 
  7. The game's first messages were coded in a simple substitution of characters for iconography influenced by a range of symbols from within science fiction, the humanities, and other abstract elements. The key for deciphering the characters was hidden letter by letter throughout the spaces for registration, hallways, eating areas and session rooms of the camp--often near power outlets, on desks, or otherwise in active areas. However, the code was also intended to be decipherable without necessarily relying upon this scavenger hunt for the alphabet.
  8. Several people deciphered the code, including Alien Weed Man. However, most players kept their findings to themselves rather than sharing the messages or found letters and code on Twitter, thus limiting visibility of the game and the questions to those not actively seeking. 
  9. This ultimately caused the biggest challenge for the game's intended timeframe, as due to unexpected conflicts both Amanda and I found we would not be able to remain through Sunday. Thus, the final stage was released but without our direct attendance to mediate transmissions
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