We Are Not The Agency
Iteration 1: The website WeAreNotTheAgency.com was one of two websites that were related to the 2008 release of a home-spun Alternate Reality Game called, Operation: Sleeper Cell, that supported fundraising activities for Cancer Research UK.
Iteration 2: Around 2010 the domain registration for the site expired and a new owner turned the site into an online marketing firm. Below is the opening statement on the home page.
Iteration 3: Jump ahead to 2016 and once again the domain's registration expired. The newest owners of theWeAreNotTheAgency.com were so intrigues with the original ARG (Alternate Reality Game), they decided to search for as much information about the creators and reviews from 2008 that mentioned the game or the creator Julliette Culver and her team of contributors. Too bad the game is still not available, but the fund raiser has long ended, and only dribs and drabs of information remain from a number of sources. It's all rather mysterious since there were no archived pages from 2008.
Editor's Note: Here is one perfect example of the power of SEO to assist in recovery of money stolen in scams. The story remains ongoing, but starts with con man George Binakis defrauding elderly victims by posing as a contractor with a severe heart ailment who would renovate their luxury apartments. George worked his con so well that after he walked away with one woman's $65,000, she was convinced that he had suffered a heart attack. The SEO recourse being used to recover the money involved ranking individual web pages for the names and businesses of George Binakis. Within a few weeks they had multiple results on page 1 in searches for Binakis names. Here's how we know it's working: The victim received a panicky call from George who was super paranoid, kept asking if the call was being recorded, kept promising to do the right thing, will explain everything, really was ill, I'll pay, but you need to take down those sites, blah blah. We think this shows the effectiveness of the project if it goes no further, but of courses we expect to see the return of all stolen funds plus interest on an unsecured loan. As I said, this is an unfolding drama and we'll report it as it happens.
Update 2021: Another victim has come forward and is suing George in NYC civil court for the $160,000 he was scammed out of. From this case we learn that George's lawyer brother Patrick is defending him in that suit. Former Queens Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Pred, and son in law of the victimes, actually spoke directly with Patrick, who then lied to him about his involvement with George, saying he has very little contact with him. Pretty hard to have no contact with your brother when you're his lawyer and defending him against a fraud claim.
Operation: Sleeper Cell – The Future of Fundraising
September 24th, 2008
Just under a year ago, I announced Let’s Change the Game, a competition to fund development of an ARG that would raise money for Cancer Research UK. In February, the winning team, Law 37, began work on Operation: Sleeper Cell.
Over the next eight months, over twenty volunteers in Law 37 built an original game, story, backend, graphics and live events, all in their spare time. They were all unpaid, and they did it all in their own time. The level of dedication they’ve shown to Operation: Sleeper Cell is simply breathtaking, and today, they finally launched.
Operation: Sleeper Cell really is something new – it’s the world’s first massively multiplayer game designed to raise money for charity. As the press release (PDF) puts it:
Operation: Sleeper Cell will see teams of players from around the world working together to solve ‘puzzle cells’ in a grid. By donating money to the game, they can unlock extra cells for all players, and also advance the story, which takes place over websites, blogs, Twitter and even in real life.
ARGs, and online games in general, are in danger of becoming soulless, only interested in making money. Even ’serious games’ shy away from asking too much of their players, in fear of scaring them away. Operation: Sleeper Cell sets out a bold challenge – by playing this game and donating, you can help cure cancer.
I have no idea how much money it might raise. I have no idea how many players it will attract. But I am glad that Law 37 has created Operation: Sleeper Cell, since it shows that games – this game - can aspire to help everyone in the world, not merely through awareness or education, but through cold, hard cash. It breaks down an old stereotype of gamers as antisocial kids, and builds up a new one, of responsible, creative, and caring mothers, fathers, teachers, writers, artists and programmers.
Kevin Waudby, Head of Innovation from Cancer Research UK, says:
Operation: Sleeper Cell breaks new ground for Cancer Research UK. It creates a cutting edge way of raising money and provides an opportunity to tell people about our work and key health messages. We are delighted that the Law37 team have created this game in aid of Cancer Research UK. We hope it will not only reach new audiences, but also entice our existing supporters to get involved, have fun and raise vital funds for our work.
Fundraising needs a new way of engaing younger and online audiences. Websites like Justgiving, that allow people to donate to charities online, are a good start, but only that – a start. We need a way of creating and nurturing strong communities that can help do good, and raise money for good causes. We have all seen the power of Obama’s online fundraising in the US; we should be ashamed that nothing comparable exists for charities in the UK, or around the world.
Operation: Sleeper Cell is a brave start, and the game will provide valuable lessons for charities and organisations everywhere over the next ten weeks. I am immensely proud to have helped Law 37 develop this game, even if only in a small way.
So, please check out Operation: Sleeper Cell. Join up, try a few missions, set up a team – and if you’re having fun, donate some money and unlock more missions! There’s also a brilliant and thoroughly British story to follow, one of biscuit-eating and tea-drinking spies at The Agency coming together to active their sleeper cells and defeat the forces of ‘E.V.I.L.’ once and for all!
The Ed Techie
A New Way Of Giving?
My colleague, Juliette Culver, is involved in an interesting project called Operation Sleeper Cell. It's an online multi-user game, with challenges, puzzles, etc. Juliette describes it thus:
It’s free to play and there are puzzles, creative challenges, a story to follow, events in real life, and lots of top secret stuff that I’d love to tell you about but can’t. The game lasts ten weeks and there are new missions each week. If you enjoy things like treasure hunts, you should enjoy this I hope!
Nothing particularly new there (although it looks a good example of its genre). The really interesting part is that they've developed it for Cancer Research. You can donate directly, if you feel you're getting good value from the game, or buy cells in the grid to advertise.
This strikes me as a good example of several behaviours combining beneficially. It takes the open source motivation to be involved in an interesting project to get free developers, adds in the 'pay what you like' freakonomics model from Radiohead and others, mixes up the addictive elements of gaming and sprinkles with people's tendency to want to give to charity.
Who knows if it'll work, but it could be a real model of fundraising for the future. Of course, if they did a 'be a virtual educational technologist' one, then they'd be on to a real winner.
play think learn
playful thoughts on games and learn
Monthly Archive: September 2008
Operation: sleeper cell
nicola 24 September 2008
Operation: sleeper cell launched this week and is a large-scale ARG, designed by volunteers, aiming to raise money for Cancer Research. Brilliant. There’s a detailed description over on ARGnet.
It’s all about ARGs
nicola 10 September 2008
I had another good day yesterday at ALT-C 2008, and was very pleased to finally meet Juliette Culver, Alex Moseley and Daniel Livingstone – all doing excellent work in games and education.The talk here has been very much centered on the potential of ARGs in teaching and learning and it’s great to talk to other people without having to explain the concepts from first principles. Looks like ARGs might be the next big thing?Alex did an fantastic talk on the educational lessons that can be learned from ARGs, which struck a lot of chords with some of our recent ARGOSI findings. In his sample
of ARG players he found that the three reasons that people took part were: a) to solve puzzles, b) to uncover the story, and c) to be part of a community. He also presented seven key features of ARGs for education:
- Problem solving at varying levels (graded challenge)
- Progress and rewards (leaderboard, grand prize)
- Narrative devices (characters, plot, story)
- Influence on outcomes
- Regular delivery of new problems/events
- Potential for large, active community
- Based on simple, existing technologies/media
An aside from 2020
I use to love playing alternate reality games (ARG), you know those interactive networked narratives that use the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions. However, after these past four years under the Trump administration and in particular this past year while living in New York City, I feel like I have been in the midst of a real time ARG with some really messed up players controlling everything. I won't even get into the dystopian state our country has been in under 4 years of Trump, just the Covid pandemic that hit in 2020, the resulting lockdowns, the incompetence of the government handling it on the federal level, the elections, OMG, and although the Democrats "won" the election the undermining of the integrity of the election by Trump, it's just overwhelming. I don't need to use a social media apps like Twitter or YouTube to experience enter and solve a fictional ARG. I'm living a real one, just like so many other people. Meanwhile I continue working from home between helping my kids with remote learning and trying to figure out what we will do regarding the upcoming holidays.
Today I am doing some research for my brother in law who is a pediatric dentist in Brooklyn and wants to update his website with the hope of capturing more patients via internet search. I googled seo marketing NYC to see what SEO firms show up on the first page. I will also take a peek at page two in the search. I want to find SEO firms that cater to small and medium size businesses. One that specializes in dentists would be great, but that might be expecting too much. By the end of the day I have whittled my list down to a half dozen firms. I will continue my research tomorrow. In the meantime I found one SEO company, SEO ZEN NYC, that actually highlights dentistry seo services. They are a local SEO company with a social media specialist as one of the principals. I will mark this one with a couple of stars so my brother in law can check them out first.
Time to put on my regular work hat and get back to editing photographs I took of an interior design / architectural project last week. It's a relief to have to focus on just my work and not keep checking the news websites to see what new drama is being played out.
Digital Games and Learning
Monday, 17 November 2008
My thoughts on ARG (alternate reality gaming)
Lately, I've been doing a bit of thinking about Alternate Reality games. I was introduced to them last year but in the last few months I've heard about them at a conference (see previous entry for thoughts on ECGBL), watched two very different ones unfold, and been along to the Sandpit during the London Games festival. I've also been lucky enough to have had conversations about them with Justin Pickard and Juliette Culver, who have been involved with Superstruct and Operation Sleeper Cell respectively.
Now Superstruct is similar to World Without Oil (and both are projects that Jane McGonigal has been helped create and run) in that it involves imagining yourself in an alternate reality crises - in this case it is 2019 and the combination of five different superthreats mean the end of the world as we know it by 2042. Players are encouraged to write their own stories about their experiences in this possible future, and to discuss possible superstruct solutions with each other in order to extend the human races survival horizon. Operation Sleeper Cell is a bit different, as it is a spy-themed game that requires players to solve a series of puzzles with the ultimate aim of helping to raise money for Cancer Research UK (click here to donate money or sponsor a player). Meanwhile, the Sandpit describes itself as "pervasive gaming night" since you actually need to show up and play in the same physical location as other people, while the games themselves ranged from competitive storytelling in the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to chasing "Mr. Smith" around the streets of Soho….
So what about the ARGs I've been paying a bit more attention too? Well while the games I outlined earlier are all rather different but they all contain an element of blurring the line between reality and fiction. In Superstruct's case, by using the internet as a platform, player's create their own narratives to fit in with the scenario of the game. Now while I am capable of stringing sentences together, I haven't attempted any form of creative writing since I was in school so I'm not sure this appeals to me that much. I know it's about envisaging my own future but I'm not very good at that either, despite repeated attempts from my supervisor to get me to do so. I find it difficult to picture where I'll be in 10 years time, let alone to imagine the skills and knowledge I may have acquired by then, so it's no surprise that I've avoided completing my SEHI profile. Instead, I've been checking the updates, having a look at some of the discussions people have been having and thinking that it would actually feel a lot like work and less like fun for me to take part in Superstruct on a more active basis. And I guess I can't help thinking about whether any of these debates and ideas will make a serious difference in the real world.
I've been a bit rubbish with Operation Sleeper Cell as well. I've signed up and had a look round, even solved a couple of puzzles but I haven't really got going with it. I guess I prefer the way the game is puzzle based, but when I don't know how to solve one I tend to give up. It's not clear where I can go for help even though there are forums you can look at and ask questions on (whereas I guess I want a "hint" type button that I can go for right there and then). I suspect it would be a bit more fun to play the game in a group with some friends, and that would also help with the trickier puzzles too. What I'm less keen on are the missions where you have to reconstruct a bond theme/dress as a spy/make a cake and take photos to send to the Agency. I'm guessing this is where we get the blurring of reality and fiction? Maybe I'm just not all that creative, but again this seems like an awful lot of (not always relevant) work for someone who's favourite video game genre is the point and click adventure!...
I guess ARGs are still a developing medium and perhaps it's not always the correct term to apply, but there are some interesting issues emerging from these forms of gaming. In terms of education, it is clear there are ethical issues that need to be considered if you were going to try and adopt this sort of approach. I think it's also fair to say that this form of gaming does not necassarily appeal to everyone's tastes, so while it may be engaging and active, and get people to collaborate (or at least play together), some thought needs to be put into who would get the most of learning in this way. It would seem, as with digital games, there is a lot of potential here but a fair amount of work still needs to be done before the educational applications are clear. Despite being interested in them though, I don't think that ARGs are going to be the main focus on my PhD so the next post will see a return to a focus on video games and what I've been playing.
Game Pitch: Operation Sleeper Cell
Friday 10 October 2008
Last week, we belatedly announced the release of Operation: Sleeper Cell, a home-spun Alternate Reality Game supporting fundraising activities for Cancer Research UK. This week, we welcome one of the team who made it, Juliette Culver, who's stood under the grill and has answered our tough questions. Keep reading for all kinds of insights into how to build your own (alternate reality) game for just £1000.
Explain your game to my mum in 140 words.
Operation: Sleeper Cell is a game about biscuits, tea (stirred not shaken) and loveliness. It's an online game to raise money for Cancer Research UK and is free to play. You are trained as a special agent by a secret organisation known as The Agency that works to spread loveliness throughout the world. During the course of the game you work together with other agents to accomplish missions, solve puzzles, raise money for Cancer Research UK and eventually uncover enough intelligence to save the word from The Agency's arch-enemies E.V.I.L. You can also follow the inner goings-on at The Agency and might even find things spilling over into real life...
How do players control the game?
The game centres around 'the grid'. Some cells on the grid are 'sleeper cells' that give you missions to complete. As you do so, you go up in rank in The Agency and get access to more difficult missions as well as secret intelligence uncovered by the sleeper cells. But before players can access a mission, each cell needs to be unlocked with a donation. Sponsoring a cell in this way, gives the sponsoring team a head start over other players on the mission behind that cell. It's also possible to sponsor other cells on the grid with an image and link.
What is your background?
Last year, there was a competition called Let's Change Game to design a game to help the work of Cancer Research UK. Our team, Law 37 won that competition and Operation: Sleeper Cell is the result. Everyone working on the game has been volunteering their spare time, so our backgrounds are really varied. Although we're new to making games such as this one, we've all been keen games players of some shape or form and in particular have a strong contigent of former Perplex City players.
Name your competitors.
Not long after Operation: Sleeper Cell launched, The Red Cross announced a game called Traces of Hope. Also kicking off around now is SuperStruct, a game about inventing solutions to future global problems. Both those games are very different from ours though - Operation: Sleeper Cell is far more light-hearted. Another big difference is that we're also trying to raise money for a charity as part of our game.
How many players do you have now and what's your target in 12 months?
We've got about 200 active players since we launched at the end of September. We'd like to have a lot more by the time the game finishes at the end of November as well as hopefully have raised lots of money for Cancer Research UK! As well as providing some fun and raising money, we also hope that what we're doing will make people in the gaming world think about new ways that games can reach out and do good.
What's your biggest challenge?
Trying to fit making the game into our spare time! Everybody on the team has worked amazingly hard to make this game happen and it's incredible what they've achieved in the time. As well as that we've got team members as far apart as Edinburgh and Paris. This has meant that chances to meet and work on the game together in real life have been few and far between and we've had to make the most of what time we've had.
What's the weirdest development experience you've had thus far?
That would probably be revealing too many secrets as to what is to come in the game!
What's your distribution/publishing plan?
You can go an play it now. Just go to www.operationsleepercell.com and sign up.
Are indie-developed games the latest killer app?
It's been great having the creative freedom that we've had in developing the game. We were given a budget of £1000 to make the game, and that's forced us to be quite imaginative but at the same time has enabled us to do lots of things that we wouldn't be able to without that sum of money. On the other hand, making the game with a household-name charity like Cancer Research UK behind us has also really helpful.
Are you the next big thing?
It'd be great if it games for social causes such as charities and education did really take off. Games often have a reputation that leaves something to be desired - as timewasters or scapegoats. It'd be really great if we could turn that around and show that games can be a force for good in the world.