Over the summer I did a feature for shots on the relationship between psychology and advertising. It was a really interesting – and surprising – piece to do. I started out with the… Read More
Shots chats to Six To Start co-founder Adrian Hon about their latest projects for Channel 4 and Muse
“Every time I go to talk to the guys at Channel 4 we have the same argument. What is it? Is it a game? Is it an adventure? Is it a drama? Is it a thriller?” Adrian Hon is having a tough time describing his new project, Smokescreen, an online educational project for Channel 4. “In truth it’s all these things.”The project’s aim is to educate da yoof about the pitfalls of slack online security. It’s a 13 episode miniseries about a gang of friends who hang out on a social networking site called White Smoke. Every episode is slightly different, depending on the issue explored – some are interactive stories, some have more of a game element, some incorporate other sites like GoogleEarth and Facebook. The subject matter lends itself perfectly to this kind of media, meaning that Smokescreen ha a show-rather-than-tell approach to educating young web users.Given the educational nature of Smokescreen, Six to Start had a certain strict parameters they had to stick to. “It’s sponsored by Channel 4 education so if it does nothing else it must educate people about online security. So it must be realistic – not like a spy movie with lots of hacking and so on. If you make up a single bit of it, people will still play but they’ll think that everything else in your game is totally made up. It doesn’t mean you have to be completely straight faced though.”Above all Hon did not want to start patronising web savvy teenagers. Six To Start went through two years of research, talking with high school kids. The reactions (internet? Is that paedos? Yeah we know about paedos. Bovvered?) gave them plenty to think about. The average 15 year old already knows about identity theft, the dangers of irresponsible posting online, stalking and the like – they don’t need that lecture. Instead Smokescreen allows them to experience how easily these things could happen to them.Hon is a veteran of the early days of the Alternate Reality Game – that is the days when anyone in the advertising industry would respond to the word ARG with a kindly “have you hurt yourself?”. While studying for his PhD, Hon and law student brother Dan stumbled upon The Beast – an ARG that piggy backed Spielberg’s 2001 movie A.I.This rabbit hole eventually led Hon to work as director and ‘puppet master’ at puzzle company MindCandy where the ARGs catered mainly for hard core puzzlers and niche gamers. Hon’s company Six to Start, which he co-founded with brother Dan, has been going since September 2007 and has been steadily taken their combined passion for alternative storytelling to the mainstream. High profile projects include We Tell Stories for Penguin Books, whereby six authors used new media – eg Google Maps, Twitter – to tell stories.What he does now, he argues, isn’t strictly ARG (a cross media game that imbeds puzzles in online media such as forums, websites and email as well as jumping into the real world via fake newspaper ads, postcards and events) in the traditional sense. Every brief is different, and the classic ARG format isn’t necessarily appropriate in every case. Smokescreen, for example, is single player while traditional ARGs tend to be sprawling multiplayer experiences. Thankfully, the youth audience doesn’t seem to be as hung up on definitions as us oldies in the industry. “They don’t make that distinction because they don’t really care. I think it’s really important for people to start expanding their definitions or stop worrying about what these things mean, forget about what it’s called and start thinking about what you can do.”Unfortunately, while potential clients were just coming round to the idea, the recession has made them warier of more experimental work. “Because the economy’s slowing down there’s less money about. That’s just the way it is, but it means you can’t take as many risks,” explains Hon.Not everyone is shying away though. During the run up to the launch of their new album United Eurasia, supergroup Muse tapped the know how of Six To Start to create a weeklong international treasure hunt. Hon’s brother Dan had been in talks with Muse’s management, and lead singer Matt Bellamy suggested the idea of conspiracy theory and geopolitics.There were some unexpected side effects though – Bellamy’s penchant for the odd conspiracy theory seems to have rubbed off on his fans. “The players often didn’t know what the hell they were meant to be doing. They were all really paranoid because they were all conspiracy theorists. So we’d be telling them to do one thing and they’d say ‘well should we be following their orders?’. It was really amusing, but we had a contingency worked out.”For an ARG it was pretty successful, tapping into the loyal Muse fan base – 50,000 people signed up to play and hundreds of thousands visited the site. But compare that with the couple of million hits a reasonably successful YouTube videos can achieve and it doesn’t seem much. It’s all a question of hit rate versus engagement. And there’s something quite exciting about the inventiveness, immersiveness and integrated nature of alternate reality games and related projects – which is why it has become more accepted by the mainstream. 42entertainment’s Dark Knight ARG Why So Serious? picked up one of three grand prix at the Cyber Lions.From the outside, it seems like things are developing fast, but Hon has been involved with ARGs from the inside and it still feels like the medium is still finding its feet. “If you’re involved it feels like it’s taken for ever. Every time I look at stuff I’m painfully aware of what we need to do to develop ARG so that they become as big a cultural force as books or TV or video games,” he muses.Smokescreen will launch in September.
“Every time I go to talk to the guys at Channel 4 we have the same argument. What is it? Is it a game? Is it an adventure? Is it a drama? Is it a thriller?” Adrian Hon is having a tough time describing his new project, Smokescreen, an online educational project for Channel 4. “In truth it’s all these things.”