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At SXSWi, Jane McGonigal talks about 'The Lost Ring'

One of the world's leading designers of alternate-reality games tells CNET about how her new Olympics-themed project came to be and what players can learn from it.

'The Lost Ring' is a new alternate-reality game that is tied to the Olympic Games and which tasks players with discovering a 2,000-year-old sport lost to history.
The Lost Ring

AUSTIN, Texas--To players of alternate reality games (ARGs) like I Love Bees, Tombstone Hold 'em, A World without Oil and others, Jane McGonigal is a household name.

If the people at the International Olympics Committee, McDonald's, and worldwide brand experience firm AKQA have anything to say about it, the list of people who know McGonigal and her work will soon expand geometrically.

Jane McGonigal giving the keynote address on Tuesday at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That's because she's the lead designer on The Lost Ring, a new ARG that launched earlier this month that is tied to this summer's Beijing Olympics and which McDonald's, AKQA and the IOC are partnering on with McGonigal.

The game is built around the fictional concept that more than 2,000 years ago an Olympic sport was lost to history and that now, five Olympic-caliber athletes have turned up in corn fields around the world, amnesiac but sure they've been tasked with some great mission.

Players of The Lost Ring, then, are similarly tasked with helping these five people figure out their identities, and in the process, rediscovering this lost Olympic sport.

On Tuesday, McGonigal was the keynote speaker at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here and talked at length about the philosophies she uses to guide her game design approach, as well as to talk a little bit about her new project.

Afterward, she sat down with CNET for an interview about The Lost Ring, in which she talked about how she hopes the game will change the perspective of people around the world and how she expects this game to be by far the largest game of its kind in history.

Because the game is still in its infancy, however, she didn't want to talk much about the process of its creation or about working with corporate partners like the IOC and McDonald's. Instead, she preferred to focus on how the game is innovative and what players can expect to learn from it.

Q: Talk about how The Lost Ring came about.

Jane McGonigal: I should say, we're not talking a lot about the process, because we want to keep the focus on the game itself, we don't want to get meta on process yet. I definitely want people to be thinking about the experience, and to have the experience before we get deconstructive.

Where the idea for the game come from?

McGonigal: AKQA has developed ARGs in past, on smaller scale. They really believed that this was the new genre to invest in, and to take seriously as a creative form. So they decided to talk to the different partner organizations to see who else might get this idea. McDonald's and the IOC said, 'We don't understand it, but we love it. It sounds risky but if anything is going to be the next big art form, this is it.' That all happened before I got involved. They decided to make the biggest most global ARG ever. It made sense for these gigantic global organizations, this idea to bring the world together through play...and with collective intelligence. And the Olympics brings the world together, but through sports.

For me, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is the greatest opportunity ever,' because I knew working with those two organizations meant it would be huge, and that they were committed to making it truly global. That this would be the chance to make ARGs what they want to be. We talk about making them global, but so far, they're not really. But you have the Olympics everywhere, and McDonald's is everywhere. I just knew this would be the one that would just blow up the scale and possibility of ARGs. And obviously, with the Olympics theme, you couldn't ask for a richer, more historical theme to design for.

When did it begin?

McGonigal: I started working on it last June, right at end of World Without Oil. I was very happy that AKQA, McDonald's, and the IOC approached me on the heels of World Without Oil because it meant they wanted to make a project for good.

How much control did you have?

McGonigal: It was an intense collaboration process. They didn't have design ideas, but every time we had an idea, we were like, 'Is this cool?' And, 'Is this exciting?' But to some extent, one of my colleagues at AKQA said there's only one person who knows where this is all going. I have a lot of this stored in my brain exclusively. And I think McDonald's and the IOC feel like they're going on a ride. We can't wait to find out what happens.

You've told me that you think this game will be orders of magnitude bigger than any previous ARG. How so?

McGonigal: We're taking everything we've seen work in ARGs and amplifying it so more people can have the experience. We've seen ARGs in five cities, but now it's going to be on five continents. We've seen puzzles in other languages, but this whole game is in eight languages. Every piece of content will be translated into eight languages. And localization has been a huge part of the development process, and it's very challenging, but so rewarding. The first week of game, a whole faction of players from Argentina who have never been participants in ARG forums (became very active) on Unfiction....And people wrote in and said, 'This is amazing, this game is showing us how small our world really is.'

This seems like a pretty good example of collective intelligence at work.

McGonigal: We talk about collective intelligence, but you need a diversity of participants to really make it work. It's not just intellectual diversity, but also gender diversity and age diversity. One of the things this game can do is show what the truly geographically collective intelligence really looks like. I don't know that we've really seen one. The Wikipedia articles, maybe. In this game, everyone's writing the same article, to use that metaphor. So we just sit around thinking about how lucky we feel to be doing this.

How many people are involved?

McGonigal: Last weekend, after one week, we had 1,000 players. That's not a lot. We want millions of players. So we're putting the trailers online, and we're hoping tens of thousands of people watch those and that it grows from there. By Beijing, we hope there will be millions. That has to happen.

But it's a slow ramp up?

McGonigal: Yeah, one of the things I learned about I Love Bees is how important it is to respect the ARG community and give them the opportunity to play with something first, and kind of get things organized, and set up for when someone who's never played before shows up. So we sent out The Lost Ring rabbit holes--a box of clues to the game--to about 50 all-star players to get them going. It's not we were advertising on TV. So by time other players show up, they won't get lost. We're thinking about how to make this huge narrative experience not be overwhelming.

So the game is for people at any level?

McGonigal: Yes. I'm so excited about the historian podcasts. If someone did nothing but listen to the historian podcasts, which blend history with our alternate reality, if they did nothing but listen and then take the quiz, take the poll, if that were all that you did, you would have such a great experience of the summer Olympics. Your head would be full. You'd be like, I know the secret reality. I definitely hope that when people put the Olympics on the TV, they'll feel they're not vicariously experiencing it, but feel, 'I'm in it, it's not something I'm experiencing remotely, I'm having my own true, real Olympics experience.'

What can people learn from the game?

McGonigal: They're going to learn about their own strengths. We're going to help them learn what they're good at and then give them missions that are totally customizable to their personal strengths. That's the part of the game I'm most proud of, that innovation. In the ARG world, you don't always know what you're supposed to do. You spend a lot of time waiting and waiting. So we wanted it to be so that for everybody, every time you come to one of the game sites, you know exactly what you're supposed to do, and that we need you because this is what you said you were good at. But that part hasn't started yet.

How can this game impact someone in China or India?

McGonigal: The answer to how any ordinary person will experience this game lies in the Lost Sport podcast. It will be the first alternate reality podcast. It appears that this ancient sport has been lost for 2,000 years, and if people can figure out how to play it, this new sport will be something anyone in any country can play. And the experience of playing it is going to be a very big part of the mainstream experience.

See more stories in CNET's coverage of SXSWi (click here).