Wednesday, April 29, 2009 by Dave Blum

In case you somehow missed it, I want to urge you to go out to your nearest newstand and pick up a copy of this month’s Wired Magazine.  It’s called “The Mystery Issue” and includes article after article about puzzles, magic, clues, codes–you name it.  I read the magazine from cover to cover and found it all extremely stimulating and thought-provoking.

One piece I particularly enjoyed, on page 42, is titled, “Smart Mobs, Smarter Puzzles”, by Clive Thompson.  The author describes a recent, and very modern phenomenon:  strangers gathering online to collaboratively solve mysteries.  Thompson describes the case of Jonathan Blow, who last August created a “clever, moody puzzler for the Xbox”, called Braid.  Within days, fans of the game had spontaneously assembled an online “walkthrough”:  a step-by-step instruction sheet for solving the puzzles of Braid.   Needless to say, this irritated Blow quite a bit — as the game’s creator, he wanted people to try to solve the puzzles themselves.  Following a walkthrough, he felt, spoils peoples’ sense of accomplishment.

Whether you agree or not with the idea of “walkthroughs” (personally, I think it’s cheating!), the process for their creation is certainly fascinating.  Here you have a group of strangers, attacking a problem en masse, collaboratively, for NO financial remuneration.  The “Smart Mob” simply saw the need and went at it, for the challenge of it, and simply to help each other out.

Interestingly, the marketing world is onto the Smart Mob phenomenon,  leveraging it through the creation of “ARGs”:  Alternate Reality Games.  Thompson describes an ARG promoting the videogame Halo 3:  simultaneously, a faux group called the Society of Ancients was handing out clue-embedded flyers in cities around the US.  Later hints involved “ringtones that people needed to play into computer mics, an altered version of a Lord Byron poem and coded messages left at scores of retail  stores nationwide.”  The author concludes: “The joy of playing an ARG isn’t doing it yourself. It’s in becoming a neuron in a much bigger intelligence…ARGs could not have existed before the Internet.”

What does this all mean for corporate team building companies like mine, and the future of business team building games in general?  I’m not sure, exactly.  I certainly want to check out the mechanisms people are using for cracking these ARGs: things like wikis and instant messaging and social communities.  Perhaps there’s an online, corporate scavenger hunt game in my future!

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