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On Being an Alternate Reality Newb (or: “So what are they doing all day?”): Lauren Whalen

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Our daily development blog series for The Source continues with the perspective of Lauren Whalen, the Communications Manager for the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Lauren writes about her introduction to Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

I’ve been part of Ci3/Game Changer for a little over a month, and this was the first question I had about The Source. Everyone’s been friendly and welcoming, answering my hundreds of questions about alternate reality games.

When I started here, I knew exactly nothing.

Gradually, thanks to the extraordinarily patient staff and design fellows, I learned about ARGs. First, I grasped on the things I could comprehend based on my previous experience. Summer program for kids: okay, I got that, having worked at a summer camp for three years. A learning experience that would help them in school and in life: yes, I could get on board with that. But what constituted “alternate reality”? Weren’t those games exclusively online? And in that case, what would we do with 140 teenagers three days a week?

When I’m not working at U of C, I moonlight as a theater critic. I’ve been a performer in one way or another since age four. Many people told me that majoring in theater was nothing more than a sure path to unemployment. Yet theater is what helped me understand The Source.

After I saw the first webisode at program orientation, I was drawn in to the story of Adia. My teenage years are a thing of the past, but I remember the uncertainty very well. It’s such an odd time in life: you don’t know exactly who you are, and it seems like all adults rush to give you a label. Like every teen, Adia’s searching for identity, for answers – and in her case, that search comes in the form of a game bequeathed by her long-lost father.

As The Source unfolds, I see 140 high school students drawn into this story as well. They pick up on the tiniest of details. They grill guest instructors who are characters in the game. They do research without being asked, wanting to know everything about Adia, her family, and her history. Adia is a fictional character portrayed by a gifted young actress, but to these teenagers, she is real.

 The best plays I’ve seen have a certain pull. The characters are nuanced, the plot compelling, the overall production at once an escape from day-to-day life and a world all its own. Basically, the strongest theater is a form of alternate reality.

My initial question was answered: The Source participants do a lot. They map out neighborhoods and figure out ways to economically distribute resources. They calculate the spread of diseases, plan prevention centers, and make pitches for funding. They crack codes, use police procedure to evaluate evidence, and explore the various sides to a story. It’s a fictional world, but the skills they hone are real.

And they engage. They care. These teens want to help a girl they’ve never met, only seen on a computer screen. For five weeks, her world is theirs. The Source is their reality.

Of course, I don’t believe the characters and action on stage are part of my world, just as The Source participants know (and have been reminded) that Adia is not part of theirs. But the story isn’t fake, either. It’s simply a different world. And just as the best plays pull me into their world, so does The Source for these teens. For an ARG newbie-slash-theater geek, it’s simply amazing to watch.