Month: November 2018

The Fathom Society ARG

THE FATHOM SOCIETY was an alternate reality game (ARG) that I ran in secret as the final project of my Experimental Game Design class. No one else in class, including the professor, knew who was running the game. I worked as the game’s solo designer, completing all of the design and writing for it, as well as executing it in secret.

My goal for The Fathom Society was to invite players to examine all the places in their daily lives where they could experience wonder. Throughout the game, players were encouraged to see the world a little differently, whether it was by viewing odd instruments in a local museum as extraterrestrial oddities, or by searching for “impossibilities” to document for one test. While I do not believe in the pseudoscience that formed the basis of The Fathom Society’s story, I believe that there is value in looking for inconsistencies and mysteries in one’s life, or “Little Cold Spots” and “holes in reality” as the game called them. An ARG, which blurs the line between reality and fiction, seemed like the perfect medium for exploration of these themes. When designing lore materials for the game, I worked hard to incorporate real world elements (Tom Shanks’ Cold Spot research study, and the spiritualist Adam Apollo’s pseudoscientific web database), while flavoring them with enough game connections that players could never be certain of their reality.

My primary influence when designing The Fathom Society was a similar (though far longer) ARG called “The Jejune Institute,” which my Experimental Game Design class studied prior to this project. The structure of The Fathom Society was modeled closely on The Jejune Institute, as both incorporate secret societies, pseudoscience, enigmatic characters, and figures that blur the line between real and fictional (Adam Apollo in The Fathom Society, and Eva in The Jejune Institute).

I hope that the players of The Fathom Society had as much fun playing it as I had running it, because it was a complete blast to write.



In the middle of Experimental Game Design class on a dreary November afternoon, a Bluetooth speaker hidden behind the projector interrupted a playtest with a cryptic message:

Are you listening?

Hello, friends.

You have been selected. Whether for your technological acumen, or your creative brilliance, or your belief in a higher power, you are all here together because you ought to be. In a world without magic, there can be no coincidences. If you believe in nothing, believe in yourself.

If you think you can fathom the truth, stay tuned. You will be notified shortly about next steps.

Keep this speaker safe. Keep it charged. Keep it on during class.

Let’s break the world together.

Thus began the Fathom Society alternate-reality game, my secret final project for the class. No one else in the class, including the professor, would know who designed the ARG until its end.

Within minutes, every student in class (and the professor) received an email from an anonymous address. The email contained a PDF of enciphered text entitled “YLUQ MDQRS SORS,” as well as the following image:


Students quickly decoded the ciphered PDF, which contained the following message:


Hello, friends. I am glad that you have made it here.

My name is Miriam.

I represent the Fathom Society, an underground network of scholars and spiritualists dedicated to shattering the chains that bind humankind to one reality and one way of being. We are the ones who see the light shining from under the door. We are the ones looking for a key that fits in the lock. We are the ones who shatter mirrors to reach the other side.

Allow me to explain. This is your world:

YOUR SECOND TEST: Print out this map, one for everyone. Scribble on it. Rename it. Sketch a new kingdom over that flat and fragile sheet. Draw yourself on it. Walk around. Or burn the map, but only your own. You must do at least one of these things to understand.

That, then, is our goal; to release unto mankind an ultimate creative power. To make us once again the masters of our reality, just as we were when we dreamed demons and heroes into creation.

All of you are candidates for initiation. If you wish to, you may step down from this revelation at any time. Be wary, though: those who doff the seeker’s mantel might never don it again.

If you do desire to peer beyond, meet me at (fifty six – thirty five) x (forty one – twenty nine). Come as a group. Bring the speaker.

A thousand futures await.

When students drew lines across the map from the number 56 to the number thirty-five, and from the number forty-one to the number twenty-nine, they almost immediately received another email from “Miriam:”

When you find the meeting point, send me the name of the Sentinel there.

When students travelled to the point where the lines intersected, they found a sculpture entitled “Pharah,” and when this name was emailed to Miriam, the students received an email detailing the next test:

Hello, friends.

Congratulations on making it here. Many would have despaired at simple ciphers; many more would have dismissed the holes in the world outright. But here you are, as I knew you would be. You, too, seek the Little Cold Spots.

Then, with deduction and belief quantified, let us begin YOUR THIRD TEST.

I need you each to find something impossible. Find it, document it in whatever way is fitting to its form, and send that documentation to me. You have three days to complete this test.

Only the worthiest shall proceed. I look forward to your discoveries with the greatest of anticipation.

The Universe is alive.

In addition, the email contained a PDF copy of a web page discussing the debunked scientific theory of luminiferous aether. Research into this article and its author (a spiritualist named Adam Apollo) revealed a deep, interconnected database of pseudoscience and mysticism.

Over the next two days, students emailed Miriam a wide array of “impossibilities,” from attempts to replicate urban legends to videos supposedly demonstrating alchemical transmutations. At their next class after completing this task, the speaker delivered another message:

Very good, my friends. You have discovered wonders already. Each of your impossibilities is a hole, a logical fallacy, a Little Cold Spot where another universe of possibilities touches our own.

For your next test, visit your library and search the science section for unity, mentality, and then emotionality. Once again, that is unity, mentality, and then emotionality. Apollo’s sacred knowledge will guide your way.

At about this time, a user named “Miriam” appeared in the class Discord server and began dropping cryptic hints about the puzzles ahead.

Intrepid students soon located Adam Apollo’s aforementioned website, and the “Sacred Knowledge Database” there. In the numerology section of the website, they discovered numbers that supposedly corresponded to unity, mentality, and emotionality: 1, 7, and 6. At catalog number 176 in the science section of the campus library, they discovered a folder containing a paper copy of Apollo’s luminiferous aether article, a magnifying glass on a chain taped into a pentagram, and a flash drive:

The flash drive contained links to two “SCP Foundation” articles about anomalous musical instruments (SCP- 926 and SCP- 2458), as well as a PDF containing the following text:

Consider me impressed, my friends. That last puzzle was a tricky one.

I have left you a box in a locker in your Ryder Hall. The box contains the deepest secrets of the Fathom Society. You have nearly earned them. You have met Tom Shanks, the scientist, and Adam Apollo, the believer. You have broken ciphers and sought real truth. However, one final test remains before you may open the box.

It has recently come to our attention that a local museum is currently displaying several extraterrestrial and extradimensional instruments, erroneously labeled as Earth artifacts. These relics include a rare Bulbous Clarinet, a Gurunsian end-blown flute from a parallel universe, and a priceless ophicleide from Aldebaran. This presents a marvelous opportunity for you to view miracles yourself.

I especially urge you to closely examine:

  • The trumpets of horn and bone

And then:

  • The slide trumpet and the union pipes
  • The twisted cornet and the silvershells
  • The ophicleide

The fractures widen, my friends.

Students journeyed to the nearby Museum of Fine art, where they found the listed instrument in an exhibit. When the reference numbers for these instruments were pieced together, they created the following string of numbers:

22 17 23 5

In locker 22 (combination 17-23-5) in Ryder Hall on campus, students discovered a small metal box and the instructions:

Open only during class. Have the speaker ready.

The next day, during class, the students cracked open the box to reveal print-outs of the impossibilities they submitted, a collection of items from their final projects that had been surreptitiously spirited away, and a collection of game pieces, tarot cards, and small crystals. The speaker played the following message:

You have done well, my friends. You have done so very well. You have witnessed the cracks in the world, and you have come out stronger. You have believed me, and you have questioned me, and both of those things are good.

But now, my friends, I have a confession to make.

I am not real. I am only a voice on the radio waves. Adam Apollo is not real. Neither is Tom Shanks. Perhaps we were real once, but we are gone now, my friends. We have fallen away through the cracks in the world. Through the Little Cold Spots.

There is no Fathom Society.

Or, at least, there wasn’t until now.

Look in the box, friends. Look at the things you have made. Fragments of wonder and truth and new realities. Each of your games and each of your stories is a Cold Spot in miniature, a place where another world touches our own. These scraps of paper are hammers, my friends, and you are the masons, chipping away at this old dusty world, fracturing it, and rebuilding it better.

You, my dear, dear friends, are the founding members of the Fathom Society.

Go break the world for me.

And so the Fathom Society was born.

Artwork 3: Overwatch Intervention

For my intervention piece, I chose to play as a pacifist in Overwatch. I was inspired by the World of Warcraft group we spoke about in class that healed both sides of a PvP fight, acting as a neutral party in a game that typically pits people against one another and encourages you to take a side. Overwatch is similar – players are grouped into teams of six and fight each other to win capture points or push payloads. I had seen individual players act as pacifists before with varying success, and occasionally everyone would catch on and act friendly, but I was interested to see what would happen if an entire team refused to fight.

I gathered a group of friends to team up with. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and busy schedules, I could only gather four friends at a time, so we had to ask the randomly assigned sixth player to help our cause and act as a pacifist. One person actually left the game before it started since they were not interested in not fighting. We played three games, each time using a predetermined formula. For the first round or point of each game, we would go to the capture point and only use our emotes or voice lines to communicate with the other team. We acted as nonviolently as possible, and did not shoot at the other team. A few people from the other team caught on in the beginning, and acted friendly and nonviolently towards us, but for the most part players on the other team just killed us. We then typed in the match chat and told the other team our intentions, and again waited to see what they would do. A few more players acted nonviolently, but most still shot at us.

I can conclude from this intervention that the few games of Overwatch I’ve seen in which every player acts as a pacifist are rare. Just because a team acts friendly doesn’t mean that everyone will respond in the same way. Many of the players just want to play the game as intended. Those rare moments of pacifism usually happen organically, and everyone must agree, either through chat or through nonviolent actions, to not shoot. I think this intervention showed just how compelling the rules of Overwatch are, and the competitive nature of the players who are unwilling to subvert the expectations of the game. In the future I would be interested to see if playing as a pacifist in other competitive games would be more or less successful than this attempt.

The documentation of this intervention can be seen below in three videos.

Indie Game Show and Tell: Stories Untold

Stories Untold is an indie game created by No Code that features four short horror experiences. I focused on The House Abandon, in which the player plays a text-based adventure game about an abandoned house on an old PC. It is essential that the player can see and hear their immediate surroundings, as the game eventually restarts and actions the player takes in the game begin to happen within the house the player is in. The horror of the game comes from the duality of the player character – is the player character the one sitting in front of the computer screen? Or is the player character the one being controlled in the text adventure? The text adventure player character encounters the player character sitting in front of the computer, and the uncertainty of who the player is actually controlling gives the player a strong sense of unease.

I chose to present this game in class because it plays with perspective in an interesting way. We often think of the player character as an extension of ourselves, our way of interacting with the game world, our lens through which we view the game. But when a character in a game like The House Abandon has to play a game themselves, who really is the player character? Who is the player really controlling? The House Abandon asks this question, and forces the player to confront their expectations about perspective in games.

Appropriation Project – Score

My score was inspired by the disjointed and wandering progression of Yoko Ono’s scores in her book Grapefruit, the similarly disjointed and wandering of my own mind. The score is supposed to emulate the way my ADD causes my mind to regularly repeat, fail, and stall as I try to complete both simple and complex tasks. Yoko Ono’s scores reminded me of that process because of its often abrupt changes in direction and tone, as well as its occasional repetition and abstract directions.

Another component that inspired me was how Ono’s scores didn’t always have conclusions, and when they did, they were  either abstract or ambiguous. Those vague endings related to the cyclical concept I wanted to put into my score, so I decided to end my score in such a way that the ending was open-ended and also ambiguous enough that the score could just be read over and over (almost) seamlessly.

I was also in part inspired by Jeanann Verlee’s poem “Good Girl”, specifically the portion that reads:

Every morning I sit at the kitchen table over a tall glass of water swallowing pills. […] (So I remember the laundry.) (So I remember to call.) (So I remember the name of each pill.) (So I remember the name of each sickness.)

It is a very good representation of the uses of medication and by extension a representation of the simple things that can be lost or forgotten through illness.

Sit down

Take out a piece of paper

Look up at the ceiling

Take out another piece of paper

Stare at the paper

Stand up and walk back and forth

Think about the paper


Throw away both papers

Sit down

Think about crying

Take out another piece of paper

Throw away the paper

Sit down


Show and Tell #1: Appropriation

I brought in memes for my appropriation show and tell – specifically Twitter memes that mix text describing relatable scenarios or cultural narratives with seemingly unrelated videos as examples or reactions.

I really enjoy these memes because of the endless possibilities of humor and weirdness that it opens up. This meme/reaction video in particular has been used in SO many tweets, it’s incredibly versatile.

I also love this one because it speaks to the usage of cultural narratives with this phenomena and also ascribing funny context-less videos with a Bible story which is one of the most universal mythos in our society.

This one is also Very Choice because both the text and video are varying levels of absurd/bizarre but it is also very relatable?? Lots of these memes mix absurdism and hyperbole with relatable, everyday things (the first thing that comes to mind when I think about that version in particular is those tweets with a video of explosions or someone being electrocuted that are captioned “that first sip of McDonalds Sprite”.)

This one is somewhat derivative of this kind of meme because the video has been edited to serve the purpose of the tweet but still uses a video ripped from it’s context (and therefore still gives off the same feeling as the others). It’s also an example of the “relatable scenario” component of the meme.

Honestly this meme trend and weird or hyperbolic videos as relatable content in general are (in my opinion) so much more relatable than earlier memes that are essentially “That feeling when you go to school (pic of grumpy cat)”. A lot of Millennial/Generation Z humor and culture is centered around hyperbole, absurdism, and appropriating media content – so it’s not surprising that it’s so popular online.

Intervention: Letting my opponents choose my weapons in CSGO

For my intervention, I planned on doing something related to my card games that I play so much. However, at the tournament I was at, I ended up playing nearly the entire tournament. So, I decided to take it to CSGO, and let my opponents choose my weapons. I hopped onto a smurf account of mine (an account deliberately ranked lower than the player’s actual skill level) to test this.

It ended up providing very interesting results, with some matches resulting in a plethora of weapons, some in one or two, and some ended in me getting kicked by my team. The results can be seen here.

I decided to do this because I wanted to see how many people would blatantly abuse the system to gain an advantage. Of course, the easiest way to do this would be to tell me to buy nothing or buy a small taser. In two games I was asked to buy a taser, one where I was kicked by my own team for it. Most games, the opposing team just had me use a pistol or something so as to not abuse the system entirely, which I saw as interesting as it showed that players wanted an advantage, but not an auto-win of sorts.

This project speaks on how the strides players will go to to win and how much they actually care about winning versus how much they value their pride. For example, in the first game, they valued their pride far more, refusing to tell me a gun to use for an entire half until I racked up nearly 25 kills in a single half. Then, in a dire situation, they complied. So in a pinch, the win often matters more. Most players valued their pride to some degree, just having me use a pistol or something, but some didn’t care about it at all, giving me a taser that essentially turned me into a useless asset.

I took inspiration from this from Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” work. Although not necessarily an intervention, since it was on a planned stage at an event, there are some parallels. Yoko left it up to the “players” whether to abuse the system or not for personal gain, having the option to deliberately reveal private areas of Ono’s body. This would test to see who would abuse the system, and who would just have a little fun with it. Like Ono’s, the players had the opportunity to completely abuse the system for personal gain. In both scenarios, most people didn’t, having at least some sort of pride to hold on to.


Show & Tell: “Genderwrecked”

For my Indie Game Show & Tell, I’d like to present a visual novel called Genderwrecked, by Ryan Rose Aceae, because I think it’s a fantastic example of what indie games can do that bigger games currently can’t.

Genderwrecked is a small experience. It’s arguably not even a game: the player sometimes chooses dialogue options, but all the options eventually end in the same place. There’s no strategy. No real decisions. No fancy graphics (it’s all cartoons and ascii art).

Despite all this, though, Genderwrecked feels ridiculously real. Over the course of the game, the player speaks with eight or so vaguely monstrous characters, while on a quest to discover the meaning of gender. And every one of these characters, whether they’re a robot dad or a pretentious tree or a pile of gay worms, feels like a real person. Furthermore, many of the odd creatures in Genderwrecked remind me viscerally of genderqueer people I personally know. It’s unusual to play a game and not only grow to like the characters, but grow to realize that the characters are actually just the people you see every day.

In succeeding so utterly at creating recognizable genderqueer characters, Genderwrecked illuminates a flaw in the commercial game industry: any game designed for profit must inherently cater to the largest audience possible, which leaves some people left behind. Indie games, often made to deliver a specific message rather than make a specific sum (Genderwrecked retails for the flippant price of $6.66), can better tell the stories of more marginalized groups. In addition, with smaller teams, indie studios can focus on a single person’s story and perspective more easily than a huge development firm.

In summary, I really believe that everyone should play this game. Gender is a frickin’ confusing thing, and a frickin’ important thing, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better meditation on it than Genderwrecked.

Get it here:

Intervention: Library Nap

It’s no surprise that college students are often sleep deprived because of their courseloads. I’ve been under a lot of stress recently and certainly experienced this myself, which is why I wanted to do something related to sleeping, specifically in a studying setting like the library. People fall asleep there often, so I did something that would draw more attention and seem more deliberate; therefore, I tried to recruit multiple people, and had them use pillows and blankets, set up near the entrance where most people would see.

Some of the project was vaguely inspired by the homelessness-related tactical media projects that were presented to us in class, namely the works of Wodiczko and Rakowitz. Though the underlying message differs from mine, it inspired the thought of playing with where people and certain daily activities belong, primarily sleeping. Usually, a single homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk doesn’t attract much attention and blends in; I wanted to put sleeping people in a context where they would be noticed.

Groups of people doing unusual things is fascinating to me, especially the happenings by Kaprow. While mine was less absurd, I was still inspired by his works and the public disruptions he and other Fluxus artists led.

While I wanted it to stand out, I was also wondering how much this intervention would blend in. I wanted to see at what point it does become unusual. I couldn’t get many people for mine, but someone was already sleeping when we arrived, which helped set the scene and almost made it feel more acceptable. The most common reaction would be someone staring as they walked past, or pairs of people staring, whispering something about it to each other, and moving on. The best part, however, happened at the end, when someone who works at the library approached. They stood by for a bit, looking concerned, before kneeling next to one of the participants, watching him, and then approaching me. They first asked if it was “protesting something,” which fascinated me, since in a way, we were, and it was interesting that someone would guess that just from people taking a nap on the floor. I felt like we were going to be asked to leave and we had already been there long enough, so I told them we would be leaving soon.

If I were to do this again, I would experiment with larger groups of people, inviting bystanders over, and/or putting up a sign that acknowledged the people sleeping to make it seem even more deliberate. Interventions generally have a social statement, and I would want to make one about college burnout more clear with other iterations.

Appropriation: Beauty Guru LARP


  • 4-5 players: One running the game (GM), the rest playing
  • Materials: 5 random cosmetic products, which the GM keeps secret until each one is necessary
  • Concept/Goal: Play as a social media beauty influencer and try to advertise a sponsored product the best, using trends and insecurities to win over the “audience” (the GM), who decides whose sell was the best.
  • For prompts, players can use any of the following social media types/personas, but it is not required to stick to one
    • Tutorial; review; prank; vlog; storytime; skit; etc
    • Doesn’t necessarily have to be a “video” format
  • Rules
    • For each round, the GM picks one thing from a list of “insecurities” or can make up their own. They can elaborate on it as much as they want, and make it anywhere between realistic and absurd. These are trends in the hypothetical beauty audience that the players should take advantage of. (List below)
    • The GM then reveals a product from the bag. This is what the players must sell.
      • The insecurity and product DO NOT need to be related; in fact, it is more interesting if they are not.
    • Players can go in any order and can argue and play off of each other, but whoever is speaking MUST be holding the product
    • Players can go for
    • It is up to the GM’s discretion how they judge the players, and who wins. For the rest of the game, the winner of a round holds onto the product as their “point”
  • Insecurities
    • Pore size
    • Acne
    • Skintone
    • Facial hair
    • Hairstyles
    • Hair hygiene
    • Body size

Artist Statement

I’ve always had a lot of opinions about makeup and the culture around it, and those opinions are frequently shifting. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the popularity of influencers and beauty gurus on social media and how they market products to consumers in a more subtle way than traditional advertising. These people portray themselves as friends of their audiences, leading to strong parasocial relationship that can then be exploited; they’re called “influencers” for a reason. I respect their careers, but as a frequent consumer of their content it’s important to remain critical and mindful.

In this piece, I’m appropriating both the physical makeup objects as well as the culture and behaviors of online makeup communities. The interactions between players in the game simulate and parody the more long-term interactions of social media influencers, done over comments and replies and my personal favorite, the “response” video. Influencers are known for their dramatics and the constant feuds and callouts; recently, many have been called out for racist behavior, resulting in video after video of bad apologies and people getting angry. It’s escalated to the point of some social media personalities creating entire Youtube documentary series about a particular issue, fanning the flames as well as perpetuating the drama for entertainment. Not only are they marketing products to us, they’re also marketing that this kind of behavior is okay, and that this is the correct way to deal with it. They make reality television more personal just as they do with marketing.

I was inspired quite a bit by the themes of consumerism in the Dada and Fluxus movements, and thought a lot about how they tried to separate art and artists from their associations as precious, valuable things and people (moreso than others), to no avail. It reminds me of the celebrity reputations of social media stars and how, even if they don’t want to, they must often sell their popularity for a living. I was also inspired by the readymades of the Dada era, especially those of Duchamp, and how they take an object and, by turning it into an art object, render it useless in the original regard. In my game, the makeup products become objects, and it is up to the players to decide what its use is, whether it’s true to reality or absolutely absurd. The point of the game isn’t the makeup, it’s what the players do with it, and how it makes them interact with each other. The original idea for using makeup objects as pieces also came from Takako Saito’s Fluxus chess pieces.

Originally, the game had players take turns, speaking one at a time. However, once playtested, the players began talking over each other and directly responding and arguing with one another. I found this tied into the themes even better and was also more entertaining, so I changed the rules to encourage it.

Appropriation Example: Disneyland Paris and Nars Man Ray

I showed two things: the Disneyland Paris version of Space Mountain, and the Nars x Man Ray makeup collaboration.

Instead of a Tomorrowland in Disneyland Paris, they had a Discoveryland, which was themed after a steampunk future and based on the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne. Space Mountain specifically was themed around Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. In the queue, guests go through the meeting place of the Baltimore Gun Club and can see their plans for the gun that will launch them into space. The story on the ride is that the guests are aboard the vehicle to be launched. I chose this because it was a very obvious example of direct appropriation, and it ties into my interests in theme park history. Disney is known for its frequent appropriation of other intellectual properties, especially without proper compensation.

The Nars x Man Ray collection was a makeup line from the brand Nars, with artwork and packaging using Man Ray’s works. I chose it because of its use of a Dada artist, tying into our discussions in class. However, the makeup itself doesn’t do much with the Dada inspiration and instead just uses it as an overlay and a tool for selling products, which contrasts with the actual ideas of many Dada artists.