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Virtual art heist, vivid impressions

Digital platform called Olive is just part of a fictional caper played out in the reality of a Florida city. Images: Mixed-reality art theft

For Margot Knight, the cops chasing her last Friday night were no laughing matter, even though she knew they weren't real.

For three days beginning Thursday, Knight was the central figure in a fictional art heist scenario that played out partly in the real world, and partly in a virtual world.

The project was part alternate-reality game (ARG), because it played out both in the real world and in the digital world, and part The Game, the 1997 Michael Douglas film, because it was a fluid, developing fictional experience with one person at its center.

Much of the game played out on the streets, restaurants, buildings and parking garages of Orlando, Fla. But significant scenes also played out in Olive, a customizable, standalone virtual-world platform from San Mateo, Calif.-based Forterra Systems that can be used for simulating medical, military, corporate and educational situations.

Undertaking the role of heroine in a good-guys versus bad-guys art theft scenario while keying off unexpected developments fueled by a team of actors took Knight's emotions on a roller coaster ride.

"It is a little reminiscent of The Game," Knight said, "because there's a sense of real jeopardy about it. It puts you on high alert. There's no question that all my synapses were firing in the virtual world and in real reality."

The one-person ARG was designed by Jeff Wirth, director of the interactive performance lab at the University of Central Florida's school of film and digital media. According to Wirth, it was built around the fiction of a retired art thief who has made her fortune stealing from illicit collections--like those of Nazis--and selling the paintings to museums. She (Knight's character) is a sort of Robin Hood of the art thieves' world, Wirth said, who has worked with a crew she has mentored and to whom she plans on handing over her so-called business.

But she is pulled back into her previous life when her nemesis frames her in the theft of a valuable painting and she realizes the only way to clear her name is to find the work and return it before she is caught. And she must rely on the help of her crew in order to succeed.

Knight was chosen for the central role from the local community based on her interest and suitability to the experience. But unlike those playing the crew members, Knight is not an actress.

Wirth designed the game to be played out in several Orlando locations, but also in a faux Orlando fashioned in Forterra's Olive.

"We'd done a couple of these (games entirely in the real world) and they've been very successful, and each time we look for a new challenge," Wirth said. "Now we wanted to do it so the story took place in the real world and the virtual world. So sometimes she's experiencing locations they go to in the physical world, and then later (they're) going to the same places in the virtual world, or vice versa."

Essentially, Wirth explained, the idea behind the project is to explore the potential applications of interactive performance in digital media settings.

To proceed with the project, Knight received a series of text messages directing her to various locations. But if the message was preceded by "VW," it meant that she was to go to the virtual-world version of the intended spot.

Over the course of the three days, Knight and her crew played out the scenario piece by piece, sometimes meeting up in places like an Orlando restaurant to role-play a scene, and other times going into Olive to do the same, only digitally.

For instance, on Friday night, Knight and the crew members had a real dinner, deciding over their meal that they needed to go to a gallery where the painting she needed to retrieve was hanging. But the gallery was a virtual version of a real Orlando gallery. So later that evening, Knight logged in and met up with the crew members, and the group proceeded to play out, on the fly, the larger storyline.

For Knight, the experience of extending the game in the virtual space wasn't that much different than doing it in the real world.

"There's no question that all my synapses were firing in the virtual world and in real reality."
--Margot Knight, alternate-reality game heroine

"Because I had a headphone and I could talk to people, it was as if I was there," she said. "The only sense that wasn't working was my sense of touch, that feeling of knowing you're in a live place. But other than that, I could see, I could hear, and I liked that."

The good thing about using the virtual world, she added, was that it gave the crew, designers and other performers--such as those playing the roles of Knight's character's nemesis and a couple of police detectives--the ability to carry out actions that might have been risky in the real world, like breaking into a gallery on a public street and stealing a painting.

"You can take more risks in the virtual world," Knight said.

To Jane McGonigal, one of the best-known designers of ARGs, Wirth's project shows that virtual worlds can be used to advance storylines and that they have more than just a social purpose.

"It's always good to discover new things to do in virtual worlds, since a lot of people don't know what to do (there) when they show up," McGonigal said. "It's great to experiment with storytelling and games (and bringing) Web 2.0 (methods) of creating content into these spaces."

In the end, Knight and her team were able to outwit Knight's nemesis, but not before they had to take a supposedly forged painting off the wall of the art gallery in Orlando's city hall--the real one--and replace the artwork with one they had "stolen" the night before.

Of course, city hall security was in on the game, and turned the other way as the crew broke in through a rear entrance.

To Wirth, incorporating the virtual world into his game was a good way to experiment with nuances of daily life that are different in a digital space, yet remain remarkably similar.

He pointed to the fact that at one moment during the Friday night virtual-world element of the game, Knight and her crew had broken into the virtual-world gallery and were surprised to discover two police detectives walking down the street past the gallery.

In a flash, the group realized they had to hide, and they did so, ducking behind tables in the virtual gallery.

"It was really interesting that the detectives who were walking by the gallery in the virtual world that night actually made her get nervous and want to hide," Wirth said. "She didn't know they were coming by, and when she heard their voices outside (the gallery) she said she needed to hide, which is interesting given that it was a virtual world. (But) there was still an emotional response that happened."