Reality Ends Here

Reality is an underground game experience created for incoming freshmen at the School of Cinematic Arts. The game came out of the School’s Future Committee and was designed to get students working across multidisciplinary boundaries from day one of their undergraduate experience, forming proactive and reflective media making skills as well as strong social bonds.

The basic game structure is quite simple, and consists of a card-based creative prompting system and a website where student work is showcased. The experience as it unveils to the students is anything but simple, however. As students enter orientation they begin to see clues and strange symbols that prompt them to look under the surface of the school. A sense develops that there is a secret society of media makers — the Reality Committee — watching their every move. Soon, they are initiated into the game, and encouraged to “carry their cards with them at all times” so as to be ready for creative action. Players use the cards to develop prompts and then challenge themselves and others to respond to those prompts with media projects. The projects are then uploaded to the site for peer exposure and critique.

But that is only the beginning of Reality. What happens next is what really sets the game apart. At the end of each week, the Reality Committee contacts worthy players and sends them to a mysterious meeting. Students may find themselves at the home of a famous cinematographer, on set of a television show, at a breakfast meeting with an agent, or brainstorming with a screenwriter. Where this meeting is, what it is, and who it is, is always different, but underlying each of these reward experience is invaluable mentorship.

What students learn from Reality is entirely up to them, but all of them have told us it changed their lives. The game has been played for the past four years at the School of Cinematic Arts and has become a new tradition among students.

The need for the Reality game was conceived of by the SCA Future Committee, which recognized that the school needed to move to a more integrated, DIY approach in order to prepare students for new and emerging industries. The committee brought on then PhD candidate Jeff Watson to design the game and I worked alongside him and MFA candidate, Simon Wiscombe, to create the underlying card mechanics and the connection to the School’s storied history. As a team, we led the first season of play — 15 weeks in the students’ first semester — from start to finish. Over subsequent years, I have played an advisory role in each year’s re-design and game mastering, making sure that the experience runs true to the intended spirit of play and to the learning goals, as well as remaining fresh and surprising to each new class.

The incoming freshmen classes of the School of Cinematic Arts are generally around 200 students, from each of the now six divisions. (There were five divisions when the game began, with Media, Arts & Practice added in 2014.) Since the game is voluntary and “secret” not all of the students play. However, a majority do find and play the game, producing over 100 media projects in teams ranging from 2-50. For the first two years of the game, we ran a network analysis showing the impact that the game had on social connections between players. This study, which was published at DiGRA 2013, showed a strong correlation between students that engaged with the game and increased interaction across divisional boundaries, the main goal of the project. The game has been written about by publications including Wired Magazine and ARGNet and was honored with the IndieCade “Impact” award in 2012.

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