Passively Multiplayer Online Games

One of the highlights of GDC was the debut of the alpha version of Justin Hall’s latest creation, “Passively Multiplayer Online Games,” available at the clever domain site Justin was apparently one of the first people on the internet ever, so it’s not entirely surpising he managed to acquire that domain name. Nevertheless, PMOG is quite entertaining.

The concept is, as Justin explains “to add an element of score-keeping, gentle competition, cooperation, self-reflection, through scorekeeping and game dynamics added to web browsing.” is outlined in print form on their news blog, but the basic gist is that it’s a game that lets you level up just by surfing the web, participating in web quests designed by other players, and adding your own quests.

For those of you unfamiliar with Justin’s presence on the web, he was one of the original bloggers, there’s a nice nostalgic (if you can call it that) description of his effect on blog readers here. One of the interesting reasons he came up with the idea for passively multiplayer was that he was spending years (11, he notes) hand-updating his blog, uploading photos, showing wi-fi locations, etc. On his MySpace page, he managed to add in bots and plugins that did that work for him, allowing him to experiment with automated updating services, which gave him the idea for PMOG.

Justin put a team of people together to help him build the site, including Alice Taylor, who hopes that part of the appeal of PMOG is that it helps people open their eyes to what the web really holds; to expand their grasp to sites and ideas they might not have otherwise experienced with the web. After playing the game for just about a week, I have to add that indeed it does do that for me. In small ways, the aggregated information regarding the types of sites I visit (reference, especially) has shown me that I tend to use the web mostly as a source of information. However, I often visit social sites and DIY sites when looking for help with building my own site, for example.

From a literacy perspective, what PMOG does is invite learners into the Discourse (Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 17 (1989): 5-17.) of what Lankshear and Knobel refer to as “Mindset 2,” the realm of looking at the world of web use as more than a series of points and clicks. PMOG is in many ways an introduction to the texts we use as artefacts within the realm of Web 2.0. But its treatment of what counts as text is fluid, and the focus isn’t just on disseminating content. Players of PMOG are expected to use collective intelligence, transmedia navigation, participatory culture, collaborative problem-solving, affiliations and affinity spaces, appropriation, play, performance, etc. In other words, playing PMOG is an on-the-ground instantiation of what it means to enact new media literacies.

For more on this, take a glance at the white paper we wrote for the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative. The gist is that these “skills and competencies,” as Henry Jenkins calls them, are an attempt to recognize that part of the changing landscape of literacy and media involves a shift from thinking about texts and media messages as holding and containing the power to alone make and disseminate meaning. Part of our New Media Literacies Project here at MIT involves showing first-hand how participatory media works so that schools can integrate those activities into their media education curriculums. PMOG is another framework for examining and incorporating some of those new media literacy activites and competencies we’ve been arguing for. Plus, getting access to the designers and developers, watching the game get restructured through player feedback and testing, and learning how the game is reiterated based on its everyday use–all of those things are valuable for getting a truly embodied understanding of this new way of thinking about literacy and media. For more on this, see my piece in the new journal of the Harvard Interactive Media Group, to appear later this spring.

PMOG is a sidebar plugin for Firefox at the moment, so if you don’t use Firefox (shame on you!) or if you can’t stand the sidebar taking up precious screen real estate, then this might not be fun for you. Similarly, if you’re spending a lot of time complaining that it’s buggy or doesn’t have everything you want right now, give it some time and I’m sure it’ll get better as it moves out of alpha and into beta and beyond.

One note: the backchannel chatting is perhaps one of the most fun things right now. Be sure to get on and start contributing. The concept is terrific and I can’t wait to see a fully smooth, operational game up and running soon. If you want to friend me there, just do a search for “alist,” my login name.

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