The Darkest Puzzle: A History
Note: This is the first in several posts dealing with the issues of ARGs as an artful medium. The series was inspired by the reactions to The Darkest Puzzle, an ARG examining 9/11 using early ARG history as a narrative starting point, and it will be used it as a frequent example. This post looks at the original Darkest Puzzle post made to Cloudmakers, an ARG community, just after 9/11 and what it has come to represent. While it’s not absolutely necessary to understand the history in order to look at the deeper issues, I do think that it is informative, especially considering the backgrounds of the more vocal critics.
In the spring and summer of 2001, 7000 people worked together as “Cloudmakers” to unravel the mysteries of “The AI Web Game” (now known as “The Beast”). It was a remarkable experience for those of us that were a part of it and many felt a sense of power at what a community of people can do. In fact, I owe my career to that very idea. In June, a message was posted to the Cloudmakers list mourning the upcoming end of the game and pointing out that we were a smart and talented bunch and that we could probably create something on our own. A group was formed and the first game I worked on, Lockjaw, was the result.
The Beast ended in July 2001, but the experience was so special and so magical that many stuck around. Conversation ranged from reminiscing about The Beast to similar games & geekery, such as Majestic. And then 9/11 happened.
Like many online communities, Cloudmakers galvanized in new way. The posts about games gave way to concerned calls to make sure the New Yorkers were alright and questions about what others had heard and all of the general disbelief and overwhelming shock that we all felt. And then someone posted The Darkest Puzzle:
I think a bit of SPEC and puzzlepiecing would be good to do. But we MUST show some dignity, respect, decorum, and compassion. No wild SPECcing that might cause more hysteria than we all feel.
We have the means, resource, and experience to put a picture togetherfrom a vast wealth of knowledge and personal intuition. We may not have all the clues, and we may not find the absolute answer, but the Cloudmaker may develope a better idea of what’s happening.
The Darkest Puzzle, Cloudmakers Yahoo! Group, September 11, 2001
Two or three others also wondered if, as a group, Cloudmakers may be able to find some answers. Most others, however, recognized that was beyond our scope and the group moderators reminded us all that we had come together over a game with puzzles and clues designed to be solved and played, and not something as nebulous as 9/11 with forensic evidence and the like that we would never see. For the most part, that put an end to it.
It resurfaces on occasion when academics and others decide to make it bigger than it was as an attempt to show that gamers want to solve real world problems through collective intelligence and what not. But as I felt then (and still do), with perhaps one exception, those posts were driven less by the idea that Cloudmakers could or should “solve 9/11″ and more from a personal need to do something… anything.
This was not unique to Cloudmakers or to gamers. Another online community (non-gaming) I was involved in at the time had several members who lost family in the attacks. This provided that group with some very specific goals such as shuttling a young family from the middle of the country back “home” to the east coast because there were no flights and they could not drive. And it wasn’t just people online, I remember groups in my Orlando neighborhood struggling to find the best ways that they could help. In fact, most of the people that I talk to about 9/11 remember, after the shock, the profound sense of community and nationalism that they felt just after the attacks. We, as a nation, were a family. We were hurting. And we all wanted to help.
Which is why, whenever The Darkest Puzzle posts are mentioned as this exceptional example of something, it’s a bit cringe-worthy for those of us who were there. It’s not the fact that the posts were made. That’s understandable. It’s the way the story has been embellished over time to imply that Cloudmakers, or a significant subset, believed they could use their skills to “solve” 9/11. It moves the story from a general desire to come together as a community in a helpful manner, as most of the nation was doing (and as Cloudmakers had been so proud of doing in the months prior), towards one where we cast ourselves as potential heroes with delusions of grandeur and a paranoid mistrust in the government’s ability to handle the situation.
In the case of The Beast, the lines became so blurry that when terrorists took down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a forum dedicated to solving the game’s puzzles began to buzz withplans to “solve” 9/11 as well. According to McGonigal’s paper, one typical post argued that “this sort of thing is sorta our MO. Picking things apart and figuring them out.” Eventually, the founders of the group felt obliged to intervene, pointing out the difference between “clues hidden that were gauged for us” and the clues left in the wake of the attacks.
At least the would-be terror sleuths knew that 9/11 really wasn’t a game: Because ARGs are frequently launched unannounced, with tempting trails left waiting for players to stumble into their mysteries, fans spend a lot of time combing the Internet for contests that might not exist, sometimes insisting they’ve uncovered a game even as their hapless discoveries insist they haven’t. It’s a fine line between clue, coincidence, and synchronicity—something the rest of us learned in the aftermath of the same attacks, as a rap album cover, a folded $20 bill, and some font wingdings seemed to offer unanticipated echoes of the atrocities. The difference—one difference—is that the Beast player deliberately seeks a state of paranoia, of searching for hidden patterns left by a shadowy cabal, while the rest of us had that state of mind thrust upon us.
Games People Play, Reason.com, August 29, 2005.
To be cast as these delusional beings in academic papers, popular press, and on websites such as Reason is an insult that has left some Cloudmakers defensive over the entire situation. Just reading through those paragraphs, which are fairly typical of most discussing this, you can see the judgements and innacuracies. The “buzz” was a handful of posts out of several hundred that were made in the days after the attack. The “eventual” interveneing by the founders first happened within 10 minutes by a single mod (a united post from the group of mods was made the next day). We deliberately seek a state of paranoia? Really? At least they decided we could tell 9/11 wasn’t a game and, perhaps, were better equipped than a lot of Americans who weren’t so sure – what with looking at old wingdings and the like.
Considering how it’s so often handled, it’s no surprise that whenever the situation comes up it’s met with grumbling, jokes, and eye-rolling by Cloudmakers. This is not a source of pride. It’s a source of embarrassment that, through all the remarkable things we did, we may be remembered for something that we were absolutely not… 9/11 conspiracy theorists out to “solve” the mystery. So, this past month, as an ARG launched using those Darkest Puzzle posts as the basis of a story, it’s understandable that the harshest reactions come from those who were involved with Cloudmakers and, in particular, those who were the most involved.
The Darkest Puzzle Series
- The Darkest Puzzle: A History
- The Darkest Puzzle: The ARG (coming soon!)
- ARGs as a medium for Artful Expression (coming soon!)