The first week of my life as an official member of Neurocam passed uneventfully in spite of my mind racing with all the far-fetched possibilities this might entail. Having been informed that my ‘operational deployment’ would be ‘effective immediately’, I was ready for action. Recent events had convinced me that Neurocam had some money, substance, and organisation behind them that could not be easily dismissed. In a way Neurocam had already changed my life; it had forced me to consider an altogether different way of looking at my reality and the underlying logic defining everything within it.
This shift in my own perceptions brought to mind the fantastic and elaborate Crop Circle hoax that had occurred in the UK almost 30 years ago. Crop Circles are patterns created by the flattening of crops such as wheat, barley, corn and linseed. Various hypotheses have been offered to explain their formation, ranging from the naturalistic to the paranormal. People believed for years that UFOs created them, until in 1991 two men from Southampton announced that they had conceived the idea as a prank in 1976. Using four-foot planks attached to ropes, they were able to make 12 meter circles in 15 minutes.
I thought that Crop Circles had similarities to Neurocam in that they altered the perceptions of the public by creating mystery, intrigue and speculation. But was Neurocam a hoax? Crop Circles were always intended to make people believe specifically that UFOs had created them, which in retrospect seems like quite an obvious gag. Crop Circles were also very artistic, creating aesthetically beautiful patterns for air travelers to enjoy. If Neurocam was an elaborate hoax like this, what was it supposed to make people believe? So far it simply seemed strange and confusing, as I couldn’t contextualise it in any way.
One evening while looking at Circlemakers, the official Crop Circles website, I came across an interesting article by freelance journalist Jim Schnabel. Schnabel writes about Crop Circles
as being an anomaly that changes the way we see things:
Like the descent into an LSD trip, where the filters of ordinary perception are removed and every dew-drop, every phrase, floods the mind with its fulsome infinity, the journey into the heart of an anomaly can teach one the ultimate precariousness of perception. Nothing is what it seems to be—or rather, beyond a few shared basics, everything can be seen as something else.
Schnabel’s thoughts about the ‘journey into the heart of an anomaly’ related acutely to my experiences with Neurocam. The idea of nothing being what it seemed had certainly been central to my journey so far, but why? Why would someone go to all this trouble to teach myself (and possibly others) about the ‘ultimate precariousness of perception’? If this was indeed Neurocam’s ultimate objective, I found this baffling and more than a little patronising. If I had wanted to explore these issues in the context of my everyday life, I would have embarked on that particular journey already. I felt as if I was being forced into something and that Neurocam had deceived me into signing up for it.
A few days later I received my first real Neurocam assignment:
Neurocam Assignment NCI-4351/01
Critical Information Couriering – Phase 1 – Receipt.
The secure receipt of an object that contains an object of vital importance to Neurocam International’s continued operations in the Asia-Pacific Quadrant.
Below are the procedural details for this assignment. Any deviation from the operational protocol described will result in a requirement of disciplinary action against the operative.
1. At precisely 3pm on (date withheld for confidentiality reasons), proceed to the corner of Collins Street and Spencer Street where you will find a public phone box. If the phone box is occupied wait until it is vacant.
2. Approach the phone box and pretend that you are making a call. Discreetly reach under the right hand side of the outer shell and locate a small card that will be taped to the underside. This will be the access card for a locker located at Southern Cross Station. You will have until 3.30pm to locate this locker.
3. Making sure you are not being followed, approach the locker, insert the card and remove the contents. Leave the area immediately once the contents are in your possession and deposit them at a secure location of your choosing. You will then be contacted with further instructions.
(C) OPERATIONAL SECURITY
Operatives are strictly forbidden from revealing any details pertaining to this assignment. Any operative found doing so will suffer immediate expulsion from Neurocam.
Neurocam rejects accountability for any potentially detrimental consequences arising from the operative’s assignment.
Please be aware that the contents of the object are of utmost importance to our organisation and thus the most expedient possible completion of this assignment would be appreciated.
Head, Operations Division Asia-Pacific Quadrant
Far out! So Hastings wanted me to go to a phone box, surreptitiously collect a card hidden underneath the phone, use the card to access a locker at a train station and make off with whatever ‘object’ was in the locker. I must admit I was incredulous. Part of me was excited about the thought of actually going through with this, while another part of me was extremely cynical. My mind was racing as I considered some of the possibilities this bizarre new task brought to the fore. For one thing, I now had a strange sense of being involved in some kind of narrative revolving around Neurocam as an actual entity engaged in ‘operations’ within the ‘Asia-Pacific Quadrant’. Whether or not this story was real, I was now in a position to interact directly with this narrative if I chose to carry out my assignment.
Thinking about the idea of interacting directly with a narrative construct brought to mind some of the research I’d uncovered when looking into ARGs. Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, explores the relationship between games and stories, framing his ideas within ‘ludology’, a field of study focused primarily on games and game play within contemporary culture. He claims that:
Many games do have narrative aspirations. Minimally, they want to tap the emotional residue of previous narrative experiences. Often, they depend on our familiarity with the roles and goals of genre entertainment to orient us to the action, and in many cases, game designers want to create a series of narrative experiences for the player.
Until now, I had discounted the idea of Neurocam being an ARG due to its lack of connection with any kind of product, service, entertainment media or advertising strategy. What Jenkins was saying made me re-evaluate this position in light of recent events. If game designers are wanting to create a series of narrative experiences for the player and are using a combination of online and offline environments, then it was conceivable that Neurocam may be some new form of ARG which relied on a more subtle form of interaction with its participants. Certainly my own familiarity with film and television led to a particular interpretation of my latest assignment; an interpretation based around thrillers about secret agents, nefarious underground activities and paranoia. If my experience of this genre was steering me towards the action, I wondered what form the action would take. I had to remind myself that spy thrillers were works of fiction and I was just an ordinary person encountering some very weird shit. I hoped that these unusual events were in fact connected with some prototype for a new type of game. If this was the case it would give me a framework to better understand it. As Jenkins puts it, “Game designers don't simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces.” Hopefully I was entering a constructed world.
In the context of his discussion about the relationship of games and narrative, Jenkins quotes game designer Ernest Adams who makes a good point about the process of storytelling:
In its richest form, storytelling -- narrative -- means the reader's surrender to the author. The author takes the reader by the hand and leads him into the world of his imagination.
If I was part of an experience authored by someone else, to what extent was I prepared to surrender myself to someone else’s imagination? This idea was all well and good in the context of reading a good book on the sofa, but in this new context of ARGs, it seemed like a huge leap of faith. In a situation where the game was widely known as being produced by a reputable production company it was about as risky as watching TV, but in a situation where the authors of the experience were unknown, it could be seen as a foolish risk. At the same time, I agreed with Jenkins’ point that the best experiences of storytelling do involve suspending rational disbelief and giving oneself over completely to the imagination of the author. If I was to continue with this experience, I had to trust that Neurocam’s creators had good intentions in mind; that they were doing this for the benefit of an audience. Giving myself over to their plan required a significant degree of commitment, and usually we only commit to things when we have a clear understanding of exactly what they mean to us. In this case, the single most powerful motivating factor was still the mystery of it all, and I found it interesting that this related beautifully to one of the central narrative devices of the thriller genre.
Another concern I had about this assignment was Neurocam’s disclaimer in the ‘operational security’ section of the brief that read, “Neurocam rejects accountability for any potentially detrimental consequences arising from the operative’s assignment.” So they appeared to be covering their own arses in terms of public liability. So if I did this thing I was on my own. I wondered what would happen if I were run over by a tram and broke my leg while on the assignment. Clearly Neurocam wouldn’t be paying for my medical bills and loss of income, but then why should they? I was participating in whatever this was entirely of my own volition, if anything happened to me it was ultimately my own fault. I thought of other ARGs and recalled that none of them had disclaimers denouncing liability, but doubted that their insurance would cover any incidents arising from participants engaging in real-world activities. But what did Neurocam mean by ‘potentially detrimental consequences’? Were they trying to scare me? Was this a test?
Four days later I found myself lurking outside a phone box waiting for some junkie to finish yelling rabidly into the phone and give me a chance to get what I needed. As the long minutes wore on I became convinced that the junkie was in fact an actor working for Neurocam, trying to subvert my assignment. As he continued his abusive ranting I became anxious that my deadline was rapidly approaching.
My window of opportunity apparently closed at 3.30pm and I still had to walk to the train station and find the locker in less than twenty minutes. At 3.15pm the junkie in the phone box swore loudly, smashed the receiver against the wall of the booth and hurriedly shuffled off down the street. Darting for the booth I hastily made the pretence of making a phone call with one hand, while groping around under the unit for the card. After feeling around several solid lumps of what felt like old chewing gum, I located a thin orange card, much the size of a tram ticket. The card was attached using some sticky substance like blue-tack, and I was careful to remove it without doing any damage. It appeared to contain a code for locker number 255 at Southern Cross Station.
Sprinting across the road to the station I wished I had done some prior research into the location of the lockers. With less than ten minutes to go I located one bank of lockers and discovered that they were numbered 1–150. I frantically ran off in search of more lockers or somewhere to get some information. To make matters worse, some of the station was undergoing reconstruction so I was diverted through large plywood tunnels. Running madly all around the station dodging angry commuters I finally located another set of lockers at the far end. Thanks Neurocam. With three minutes to spare I found locker 255 and quickly inserted the code. A message on the LCD screen gave me the option of unlocking the door or extending the time. The urgency of the situation and some innate desire to successfully complete what I had begun inhibited any rational thought at this point. Hastily unlocking the door I reached in to grab whatever object was inside. The object turned out to be a very expensive-looking aluminium briefcase.
The briefcase had a combination lock and seemed to contain something weighing a couple of kilos inside. It didn’t rattle so the contents must have been well secured. For an extremely paranoid instant I thought of the possibility that this situation may not have anything to do with new types of ARGs and that I might be just be some poor shmo tricked into smuggling a briefcase full of cocaine out of a train station. I could just imagine trying to explain my Neurocam involvement to the drug squad. As I stood there staring dumbly at the briefcase in my hand I noticed someone watching me from a departure platform about twenty meters away. A tallish man in his mid-thirties wearing a well-cut dark suit was standing on the platform staring directly at me.
For some reason, possibly due to my paranoia about having in my possession an item containing potentially dubious contents, the man staring at me completely unnerved me. I hurried out of the station, frequently glancing behind me to see if I was being followed. At this point I must admit that I really was starting to feel like a character in a movie. Whatever this was, I had been subtly manipulated into a situation where I was now complicit in a real life scenario with real consequences. One again, I found myself having to blindly trust Neurocam’s intentions as I carried out exactly what they had asked of me.
Once back in the safety of my apartment, I studied the briefcase in more detail. It had three combination wheels, each numbering one to nine.
I googled combination locks and found a page which claimed that with the three wheel style locks there were actually only 999 possible combinations, one of which would be correct. I thought about how long it would take to wind the wheels around in 999 configurations and started to test it out. Progress would be tedious as it would require ticking off each combination on a bit of paper—this would take quite a while. Giving up on this plan, I inspected the casing and thought about levering it open. It was possible, but would undoubtedly damage the briefcase beyond repair. But what was I doing? Neurocam had not asked me to open it, they had simply asked me to retrieve it from the station, keep it safe and await further instructions. I was in two minds; if this was some kind of game where I was part of a narrative experience, was I supposed to disobey my instructions and open the case anyway? Were the contents a clue for the next part of my story? Was this a test to see whether or not I played by their rules? At a loss for how to proceed I put the briefcase back on the table and did some more research on ARGs.
One of the first ARGs to emerge on a massive scale was The Beast which was created by a team at Microsoft to promote Steven Spielberg’s film AI back in 2001. Human Rights and Internet Specialist Barry Joseph writes about his experiences while playing The Beast and reports some alarming findings:
Last week, waking in a dreamy haze, I refused to answer a 4 a.m. series of phone calls. Afterwards, unable to sleep, my thoughts revolved around the absurd possibility which entered both my mind and that of my fiance beside me: "Was that the game?" The game has become an entity in my life, an entity who sends me emails, who hacks web sites, who phones my loved ones. My best friend received a call at work, on his cell phone, as he was preparing to head home for the day. After addressing him by name, the computer voice warned: "They found out about Jeanine! Get out of the building... fast!” Perhaps "game" is misleading. Clearly, it must be considered a promotion, as it's designed to advertise the upcoming Spielberg film about artificial intelligence. But for a generation brought up on role playing games and computer adventures, the line between a game and a story has been blurred beyond recognition and, in the case of this one, its telling is beyond anything previously encountered.
I wasn’t entirely sure that I believed Joseph’s account as it could have been just hype, but apparently he had an experience where he knew that he was playing a game, but still found himself in a position where reality and fiction became confused. He attributed this largely to the method of storytelling the game used; the way it encroached upon his daily life and people around him. I considered the fact that this was one of the first ARGs of its kind and thought that back in 2001 it really would have been an entirely new experience for participants, one that had the ability to ride the line between fabrication and fact. But I kept coming back to the same thing. It was a game. If Joseph knew that he was playing a new type of game with some unpredictable elements, how could he possibly become confused about what was real?
I thought of a sinister proposition: Neurocam was doing exactly the same thing as The Beast, but not telling anyone that it was a game. The fact that The Beast was promoting AI had been withheld from the public until the game’s conclusion (a common device used in advertising these days), so why couldn’t a similar ARG withhold the very fact that it was actually a game? Perhaps the latest thing in ARGs was to make them more immersive by not defining or contextualising them in any way, and unleashing them on an unsuspecting public. My mind boggled at the ethical implications of this, but I was reminded that if production companies can get away with creating participatory experiences like Big Brother, then anything’s possible. But what if I didn’t want to play? I guess I was the only one forcing myself to do this.
Joseph also talks about the use of the Internet in these kinds of games and how it plays a key role in identity by stating "These communication tools not only enhance who we are, but they may also define who we are as well, shaping us into something new."
The experience I was having was facilitated largely through the Internet, and I suppose that it could have been said that my ‘story’ and my ‘role’ was being constructed via an anonymous series of email addresses. The key elements of my experience were possibly fabricated and written into a participatory narrative, which was slowly being fed to me in the form of emails from Charles Hastings, Head of the Operations Division at Neurocam International. But was this defining or shaping who I was? Certainly it had an impact on my life right now, but I wasn’t sure that a few emails were potent enough to change the way I saw things. In a sense the Internet does play an important role in identity in an interactive game context as it allows us the freedom to reinvent ourselves. I had already chosen an ‘operative alias’ and was able to interact with Neurocam in whatever way I chose. The fact that I had so far chosen to play by their rules and simply follow their instructions did not mean that I couldn’t adopt some new strategy where I began to fabricate elements of my own character. Maybe this was what Neurocam wanted, for me to play them at their own game.
So many online games these days were concerned with creating a space for interaction where participants were able to shape themselves into some kind of fantasy character, which could be seen as what Joseph dubs an ‘enhancement’. The Sims and Second Life both explore the theme of virtual worlds where one can create a character and interact in a virtual space with other players. Having indulged in Second Life I had observed a less-than intellectually stimulating experience where horny teenage guys who were trying to chat up girls mostly populated this wonderfully adaptable virtual world where we could do anything. The novelty of being able to grow a tail, fly or walk underwater without drowning wore off rather quickly after witnessing how other participants spent (or wasted) their time in the game. It seemed that giving too much control over to the masses to write their own scripts led to exposing the inevitable flaws (and lack of creativity) within the human condition. Taking on the idea of Neurocam being interactive in a broader sense where I may have had some power and control, I decided to send Mr Hastings an email asking him what Neurocam was. I wondered why I hadn’t thought to ask this before.
The next day I got a reply from Hastings:
Dear Operative (name withheld for security reasons)
Neurocam is a process of unveiling. Understanding is achieved through experience. Operatives are invited to participate in assignments designed to facilitate this process. Neurocam is not a marketing ploy, nor does it have any political or religious affiliations. Beyond this, the onus is on the operative to either achieve understanding or to pursue whatever investigative trajectories they deem appropriate. Be warned, however, that the latter invariably leads to mystification and frustration.
Somehow this was not the response I had hoped for. I had expected something playful and interactive, but Hastings was basically warning me off trying to find out too much about them. So it was a process of unveiling. Unveiling of what? This was bordering on mystical and had to be a joke. Apparently the experiences I would have while carrying out my assignments would teach me something about the true nature of Neurocam. What did this actually mean? I wanted to be entertained; to be part of some new game where I could make up my own rules, not be patronised by some unknown person hiding safely behind their computer. I had to concede that my immediate response to Hastings’ terse email was probably the result of my exposure to entertainment genres where rewards were immediate and readily accessible. Going back to Joseph’s experiences of The Beast, it seemed obvious that these new types of games expected far more input from their players than the previous crop of interactive virtual world porn. In my case, it was clear that Neurocam wanted me to play by their rules every step of the way.
One week later I received another email from Hastings about the briefcase that lay unopened on my coffee table:
Neurocam Assignment NCI-4351/02
Critical Information Couriering – Phase 2 – Delivery.
The secure delivery of a briefcase that contains an object of vital importance to Neurocam International’s continued operations in the Asia-Pacific Quadrant.
Below are the procedural details for this assignment. Any deviation from the operational protocol described will result in a requirement of disciplinary action against the operative.
1. You are required to contact operative (name withheld for security reasons) via the following e-mail address (email address withheld for security reasons).
2. Arrange a mutually convenient place and time for transfer of the briefcase you have in your possession. During your correspondence DO NOT reveal the exact nature of the briefcase. At all times refer to the briefcase as ‘a parcel’.
3. Upon delivery of the briefcase, you are required to obtain evidence of the transfer. This evidence must be provided in at least one of the following forms—photographic, audio-visual, audio, retinal scan, bio-metric authentication, fingerprint imprint or any alternate form of definitive evidence you are able to procure.
4. Submit a report of the transfer to the Operations Division (firstname.lastname@example.org) with transfer evidence attached.
(C) OPERATIONAL SECURITY
In the interest of assuring the safety of operative (name withheld for security reasons) it is essential that all operatives BCC all correspondence to Neurocam International’s Operations Division (email@example.com). If this does not occur, Neurocam rejects accountability for any potentially detrimental consequences arising from the operative’s encounter. In addition, although the final location of the meeting is entirely at the discretion of the operatives, Neurocam International strongly recommends that the exchange take place in a heavily populated area, so as to further ensure the safety of both operatives.
Neurocam International respects the potential difficulty of arranging a mutually convenient meeting time and so does not place a strict deadline upon this assignment. Please be aware, however, that the contents of the parcel are of utmost importance to our organisation and thus the most expedient possible completion of this assignment would be appreciated.
Head, Operations Division Asia-Pacific Quadrant
This was most interesting. I was about to meet another Neurocam operative and hand over the briefcase to them. I wondered if this person would be an unsuspecting participant like myself, or someone behind the curtain who knew everything and would be secretly observing or testing me. Would the exchange be covertly recorded and played on some website? The possibilities were vast, but I was excited. I felt like the game was being taken to yet another level.
Hastings asking me for evidence that the exchange had taken place intrigued me. This added what I thought was a very game-like element to the narrative. It was possible that my documentation of the exchange would end up on some central website along with material handed in from many other participants. I had noticed that most ARGs had central web hubs that were often updated in real time as participants completed various tasks. Neurocam’s main site was obviously not used for this purpose, but they could have had another site under a different name somewhere else on the net. I thought that this possibility would add another interesting layer to the game—a situation where the audience were divided into two camps—unsuspecting participants like myself and observers who could log on to the website and see everything as it unfolded. Perhaps this was to be my future unveiling—access to the bigger picture where I got to witness new rats in the maze.
I sent off an email to my Neurocam contact informing them that I had a ‘parcel for them and that
we had to arrange a time to meet. While I was waiting for a response I came across an interesting new ARG that everyone (online) was talking about called SFZero.
SFZero was the creation of Ian Kizu-Blair, Sam Lavigne and Sean Mahan of Playtime, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to producing free immersive art games that use new technologies in interesting ways. SFZero initially appeared to contain all of the hallmarks of a typical ARG, but was labeled as a ‘collaborative production game’. On closer inspection, SFZero had some rather subversive features that set it apart from other ARGs. Rather than superimposing an alternate game world narrative over the real world, it asked players to create their own tasks, which were then performed by other players in the real world. In an online review of the game, creative director Adam Simon of gaming start-up Socialbomb writes that “SFZero asks players to recontextualise the real world as a game world, where anything and everything may be pulled into play at will.”2After all of my research so far this seemed to be the best lead as to how Neurocam operated. If Neurocam was a type of game, then it was very similar to SFZero in that it seemed to bring in elements from the real world as a kind of blurring of the boundaries between reality and the game world.
I thought about the implications of a situation where players were able to treat the real world as a game world and impose their own rules. Surely this would result in chaos? Possibly not if the game’s designers had set up the parameters of engagement in such a way that participants adhered intelligently to central thematic elements. Looking at the game’s website, it was obvious that the tasks created by players attempted to focus on creativity, exploration, community, and performance. I found the results posted by the players a little disappointing however, with such entries as deporting non-native plants, tipping in a non-tipping industry, putting flags on the top of buildings, staging impromptu drive-in movies, fabricating urban legends and kidnapping other players for three days.
A term I had come across often in researching these types of games was ‘the magic circle’. This apparently referred to the establishing of boundaries between the game world and the real world in order to define the parameters of engagement. Simon Adam observes that:
SFZero takes the concept of a flexible magic circle one step further by placing control over its boundaries in the hands of each individual player. It properly describes itself as an “interface” - a different way to view and interact with the world - one controlled by the player, not by the architects of the game. This represents a profound shift from the traditional ARG framework, in which the game designers decide what real-world elements are part of the game, to one in which the players decide which real-world elements will be drawn inside.
If games like SFZero were now incorporating real world elements at the whim of the actual players, did this suggest a new precedent in which participants’ experiences could be altered by other people’s actions in a more fluid way? From the examples I had seen of SFZero’s ‘assignments’, real world interactions had been limited to largely mundane and innocuous material, but this did not mean that far more devious and complex tasks couldn’t be carried out. I thought of the kidnapping assignment and wondered if the recipients of this experience knew that they were being gamed by competing players. On reflection, it was entirely within the realms of possibility that my Neurocam experiences were the result of some enthusiastic SFZero-like gamer trying to score points for their creativity.
Later that day I received a reply from my ‘contact’, who was keen to make the exchange. We agreed to meet at Federation Square at 1pm the next day. This seemed to satisfy Neurocam’s criteria of a safe and well-populated area. As we both described our appearance and what we would be wearing, I thought to myself that this felt like going on a blind date.
The next day I felt more than a little conspicuous walking through the busy lunch crowds with a shiny silver briefcase about to meet a complete stranger. When I got to the arranged spot, there was nobody resembling an operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons) around. I waited self-consciously for several minutes until a bespectacled woman in her mid-forties wearing nondescript corporate attire came confidently striding through the crowd.
“Are you operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons)?” she asked.
“Yes, are you operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons)?” I returned feeling very foolish indeed.
She nodded and I handed her the briefcase mumbling, “This is for you...” She took the briefcase and gave it a cursory inspection. What had Neurocam told her to look for? Was she checking to see if I had attempted to force it open?
“Um, do you mind if I take a photo?” I asked, pulling out my phone.
“Sure,” she replied. She was expecting this.
I took a snap of operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons), a short woman in her mid- forties wearing a navy blue business suit, holding the briefcase. She looked like she had just stepped out of a corporate environment.
“Done?” She asked curtly, obviously anxious to leave.
“Yep. Um, thanks.” I stammered as she gave me a small nod and walked briskly off into the crowd.
As I walked back to the tram stop it occurred to me that I still had no idea what was inside the briefcase.