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Meet the new generation of puzzle-makers bringing mystery to your door

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Enlarge / Luckily in 2020, there may be an at-home puzzle for everyone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke into a museum.

Well, we didn’t break in, exactly. We had keys, so it was more like, you know, a little light trespassing. The keys came from some guy in a hooded cloak standing around outside, but they worked, and the cops never showed up. So, long story short: there’s an artifact sitting in our living room currently, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

The artifact, alas, exists only digitally (for now, at least). And both the keys and the museum were made entirely of paper. My husband and I both wore cozy pajama pants for the break-in slightly unauthorized entry, which took place on our coffee table while I sipped a glass of red wine.

If all this sounds terribly confusing, know that we were playing a game made by the Curious Correspondence Club, a subscription box filled with mysteries instead of with snacks. It was one of a litany of at-home mystery boxes we’ve played through in the past two years, a stack of adventures each positioned somewhere between an escape room, a puzzle, and an alternate reality game. So it’s not unusual that our home remains full of ancient, furled maps and long-lost artifacts pointing the way to solve mysteries of the ages… none of which existed till, roughly speaking, last Thursday.

The birth of a genre

Escape room games have been available at your local board game (or big box) retailer for a few years now, but they’ve got a new cousin in town via a nascent field that sprang almost out of nowhere in the past three years. These experiences are not board games, nor are they tabletop games in the roleplay sense. Some are monthly or quarterly subscriptions; others are bespoke, painstaking designs. Some rely heavily on Internet interaction; others are entirely hand-crafted physical goods.

The entire genre is so new that no two fans or creators seem to agree on what to call it. Enthusiasts have tried “mystery boxes,” “puzzle boxes,” and “at-home escape room,” but no single name seems to have stuck.

“To me, I think the encompassing genre is ‘tabletop puzzle game,'” designer Rita Orlov tells Ars. “Sometimes those are more narrative. Sometimes they’re really just puzzles. Or sometimes it’s a narrative experience and not even really very puzzling. It seems like there are so many subgenres, even in this kind of very niche genre.”

Orlov personally calls her games narrative playable adventures. The Tale of Ord, which she launched in 2018 to near-universal acclaim, is arguably the growing field’s first blockbuster hit. In the two years since, Orlov herself has become as close to a legend as the growing mystery-puzzle-adventure-narrative scene has, earning respect from players and fellow creators alike. (Every single person I talked to for this story suggested, unprompted, that I should speak with Orlov, too.)

PostCurious, Orlov’s company, only ever made 500 copies of Tale of Ord; used editions have become a hot commodity among collectors. The game unfolds over the course of four separate packages and culminates in something of a final exam puzzle that requires you to put together everything you’ve learned over the first three installments in order to solve and unlock a literal, surprisingly sturdy, wooden box. Its popularity has made Tale of Ord a yardstick against which new experiences are often measured, particularly “found object” style games. But only two years later, the competition has indeed heated up.

20 years in the making…

Many of these new experiences weave their fictions tightly into the history and reality in which most of us live. Solutions to puzzles and hints for where to go next will lie in real historical cues or simply within answers you can find on Google. In short, these new concepts are drawing on a decades-old tradition in digital gaming: the ARG, or alternate reality game.

EA tried launching a paid ARG, Majestic, back in 2001. The game was at the time a new concept, blending real-world phone calls, emails, and Internet scavenger hunts with an X-Files-inspired conspiracy theme. As a commercial venture, it was a fairly spectacular flop. As an idea, however, it kicked off something of a trend.

Microsoft commissioned its own ARG, I Love Bees, a few years later as a marketing tool for Halo 2. According to 42 Entertainment, who developed the game, I Love Bees ultimately drew more than three million players into its “fractured narrative.” Video games, too, were also starting to play with the idea, such as French developer Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam and Evidence: The Last Ritual. Mr. Robot famously partnered with Mozilla for an ARG that clumsily bled into your Web browser in recent years.

That humble thread—”what if…?”—weaving the real and the unreal is now a core part of a countless number of experiences. Some, like Tale of Ord, send you artifacts and ask you to unravel their mystery. Then there are experiences like Club Drosselmeyer, which draw heavily from interactive theater to create an interactive ambience. (More about that in a bit.)

Yacine Merzouk and Michelle Rundbaken between them are the minds behind the Society of Curiosities, which sells a series of loosely linked experiences in a monthly subscription box format, as well as a handful of online-only one-off games. Weaving their created reality into, well, real reality takes some doing, they explained, but the sense of discovery is worth the work.

“When you play, you have to question: is this real? Is this not real?” Rundbaken said. She drew a line to familiar tales that plant breadcrumbs from reality to fabulous findings: “We’re right there watching Indiana Jones and National Treasure and The Goonies, and that’s the feeling we want our players to have—an adventure.”

A sense of immersion is key to making that feeling of discovery really work, Merzouk said, which admittedly “can be a challenge” to create for players who are in their own homes. Society of Curiosities works to allow players to “feel like you’re part of the adventure in a way that doesn’t require you to create a whole new world in your own mind,” he added. “You’re in your own world, discovering things along with your ‘team’ on the ground. Which I think has been fun for our players.”

One of their stories, for example, takes players to an absolutely fictional coffee and tea shop that, frankly, looks delightful. (I expressed repeated frustration to my husband, when we played the game, that I could not in fact visit it.) But making a fake café show up just enough on the real Internet almost didn’t work.

“We had a moment of panic for the Moonbeam Society,” Merzouk admitted. “We were about to launch the game, and it was not ranking on Google yet. There were too many related keywords online, and it’s kind of out of your hands. If you want to build something immersive, and people can search the actual Web, you have to do this [SEO] dance with Google and make sure you get found.”

The trick is to smudge the lines between the game’s reality and the rest of reality just enough, but not too far. “I wanted to make something that was blurring the lines between fantasy and reality,” Orlov said, describing The Tale of Ord, as well as her upcoming game, The Emerald Flame. “I try to keep the game elements kind of obvious, because I had played a couple things before where I didn’t really know where the edge was, and it ended up being really frustrating.”

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Twitch’s Trump ban sustained after leaving office

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Enlarge / Photo illustration of the Twitch logo on a smartphone.

On Wednesday, an automated alert about Twitch account bans included a somewhat surprising account name: “@DonaldTrump.” The surprise came because Twitch had already “indefinitely suspended” the former president’s official Twitch channel on January 7 in the wake of his January 6 speech inciting a seditious riot at the US Capitol.

Following this Wednesday alert, Twitch confirmed to Ars Technica that this was no accident: Trump’s account is indeed outright banned. Twitch continues to call the ban an “indefinite suspension,” but it has not offered any timeline for its return or steps that its account holders (either Trump himself or any representatives) may take to reverse the decision. Wednesday’s news lines up with a Tuesday claim by DW News reporter Dana Regev, who had hinted at Twitch waiting until after President Joe Biden’s inauguration to make a firmer ruling on the previous ban.

The service took the rare step of outlining the exact reason for the ban, a courtesy generally not reserved to those affected. This lack of clarity emerged in particular when Twitch offered no explanation for banning Guy “DrDisrespect” Beahm in the wake of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

In Trump’s case, Twitch cited “the ongoing risk of further incitement of violence” as a primary reason for the ban. The statement, as issued to Ars Technica by a Twitch representative, continued:

The President’s statements continue to be interpreted as calls to action, and we are taking this action to remove the potential for harm to our community and the general public.

Twitch has clear rules that prohibit hateful conduct, harassment, or incitement of violence on our service, and we consider off-service events when making enforcement decisions. However, the events of the past weeks have highlighted a gap with respect to rhetoric that encourages violence, regardless of whether or not it was directly streamed on Twitch. We will be updating our policies as a result of our consideration of this situation.

Twitch has recently enacted sweeping new rules to allow moderators to take context into account when deciding whether content qualifies as “hateful” speech. In December, the company’s official channel cited specific gamer slang terms as examples of this context-sensitive approach, but the resulting video became widely cited as being an official ban on certain words and a hint of jargon whack-a-mole as opposed to an example of sweeping moderation changes to come.

Today’s statement strongly hints that Twitch’s rule-changing stance is far from over and that the company is clearly looking to enforce the rules, based on statements made outside of Twitch video streams.

Feels bad, man

The @DonaldTrump account, launched in October 2019, was used to either livestream or rebroadcast official Trump speeches and affiliated events as opposed to hosting the service’s usual gaming-related video streams—all while hosting a chat channel for the account’s followers. Twitch has long faced issues with chat toxicity, particularly with many streamers continuing to embrace the “Pepe frog” meme without denouncing white supremacists’ embrace of the icon (a fact that led its original creator to sue those who co-opted the image without his consent).

Trump’s Twitch account had been in hot water previously due to its rebroadcasts of rule-breaking speeches. His channel’s last temporary ban, enacted on June 29, happened because it had aired his notorious statements about Mexico “sending… rapists” to the United States.

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PC fan port of early Sonic games lets you zoom the camera way, way back

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A group of coders has decompiled the source code for Sonic the Hedgehog and its 1992 sequel from their well-regarded 2013 smartphone ports. That means these heavily enhanced versions of the early ’90s Genesis games—developed by Christian Whitehead using the same revamped Retro/Star Engine that powers Sonic Mania—can now be easily recompiled for play on new platforms including the PlayStation Vita, the Nintendo Switch, and Windows/Mac computers.

That’s an interesting-enough hacking/coding achievement on its own. But with a little tinkering, the PC versions also let players scale the game window to any arbitrary resolution, expanding the visible playfield without scaling up the games’ core pixel graphics. As you can see in the pictures and videos included in this article, this tweak effectively zooms out the standard in-game camera to show huge chunks of a stage at once, giving players an exciting new perspective on these classic titles.

But how?

Scaled up to 4096×2160, you can see a lot more of Sonic 2 at once. Be sure to extend to full screen for maximum impact.

Filling your PC screen with a playable Sonic map isn’t exactly as simple as dragging the corner of the gameplay window. First, you have to take a legally obtained copy of one of the 2013 Sonic games (which are still available on Google Play and the iOS App Store) and extract the “RSDK” file to your computer (this handy video tutorial can be of assistance there). From there, you can run the precompiled Windows release and edit the settings file to extend the playfield horizontally with relative ease (you can also edit the pixel scale if you want to effectively zoom the game’s camera back in on a large monitor).

Unfortunately, the game’s vertical height remains hardcoded at 240 pixels in this build, which means the game looks like a long, thin strip when extended across the width of a modern PC monitor. To extend the playfield vertically, you have to dive into the decompiled source code, change “SCREEN_YSIZE” in the retroengine.hpp, then recompile a fresh new executable (there are some tricky dependencies involved in getting this to work; much thanks to @CodeNameGamma for her assistance in my attempts).

The thousand-foot view

Once you get things working, however, the effect of this “zoomed out” view is immediately striking. The standard 32×48 pixel Sonic sprite becomes a tiny, Where’s Waldo-esque speck on a 2560×1440 monitor (or even tinier if you have a 4K or widescreen display). The new viewpoint lets players see well past the cramped, 320×224 screen area they may be used to on the Genesis, allowing them to take in the scale and design of these massive levels all at once. Hidden paths and secrets that once flew by in a blur become immediately apparent when you can take the ultrahigh-level view of a stage at a glance.

These 2013 mobile ports were originally designed to run at “full screen” resolution on a variety of different smartphones, so the engine handles all this rescaling pretty smoothly on its own. Enemies, moving platforms, and animated background elements all generally work, even if Sonic is thousands of pixels away on the opposite corner of the screen. The in-game physics still work as expected and everything is rendered with pixel-perfect authenticity at 60 frames per second, too (assuming your machine can handle all those pixels at these expanded resolutions).

Still, there are some odd gameplay and visual artifacts when you try to scale a game originally designed for ’90s standard-definition TVs to modern computer resolutions. This is most apparent at the end of many levels, where Sonic can get stuck on a newly obstructive invisible wall and the game hits an infinite loop waiting for him to run off screen. On flat levels, the background tiles and even the level architecture itself can sometimes repeat in a vertical pattern, too. And the AI for Dr. Robotnik’s boss battle also tends to freak out a little bit thanks to the new, much larger playfield.

These issues may get ironed out as hackers continue to tinker with the source code and build new versions of these freshly decompiled games. In the meantime, though, we’ll never look at classic Sonic the same way again.

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Capitol rioters were “predisposed” to conflict; Trump et al. fanned flames

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Enlarge / Trump supporters near the US Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The rioters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s a dark moment in American history that will not be soon forgotten. On January 6, thousands of supporters of soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump gathered for a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, to protest the certification of the 2020 election results by Congress. Speaker after speaker pumped up the angry crowd by repeating false claims of widespread election fraud, culminating with an address by Trump himself, in which he called on his followers to “fight like hell” and march on the US Capitol. The result: frenzied rioters overran Capitol Police, smashing windows and triumphantly posing for selfies as they roamed through the evacuated building. By the time the National Guard regained control, five people were dead, including a Capitol Police officer.

As people struggled to process the horror in the immediate aftermath, Michael Bang Petersen, a Danish political scientist at Aarhus University, weighed in on Twitter with some counter-intuitive commentary. While the predominant theme among many pundits centered on the role of Trump and his enablers spreading lies about widespread voter fraud and then whipping the crowd into frenzy during that morning’s rally, Petersen suggested that perhaps they had it backward. “Did protestors storm Congress because they followed Trump and believed his misinformation about the US election? No,” he tweeted. “They followed Trump and believed in misinformation because they wanted to storm Congress.”

Petersen’s background is in evolutionary psychology, and his research focuses on how the adaptive challenges of human evolutionary history shape the way modern citizens think about mass politics. Back in October, Petersen published a review paper in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, making the case for his thesis that “mass mobilization”—like we saw with the Trumpian insurrectionists storming the nation’s Capitol—is not the direct result of manipulation by misinformation/wild conspiracy theories spread by a dominant leader. Rather, the paper said, those factors are vital tools for coordinating individuals who are already predisposed for conflict.

This perspective “does not necessarily imply that people do not believe in propaganda,” Petersen wrote in his paper. “But it suggests that such belief can be an effect rather than a cause of the deep need for action.” He describes a tipping point dynamic, in which a group that has coalesced around, say, Trumpism, suddenly becomes sufficiently coordinated to push it over the critical threshold into mass mobilization. In other words, a phase transition occurs, and a loose group of like-minded individuals becomes a violent mob.

On the one hand, Petersen wrote, this means that “groups and societies can be stable even if they contain large minority segments of individuals who share disruptive, violent, or prejudiced views.” On the other hand, “this stability can be quickly undermined if suddenly coordination is achieved.”

Petersen’s counter-intuitive insight does not let Trump and his enablers off the hook for inciting the mob by peddling disinformation; without those elements, there would be no sudden coordination. “I think that Donald Trump is a master of human psychology,” Petersen told Ars, pointing to Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging as evidence: that the world is dangerous place and only he could fix it and protect America from those who wish to destroy us.

Trump was offering himself as the avatar of a strong, dominant demagogue, in keeping with Petersen’s research. As he wrote in his paper, “If followers search for the optimal leader to solve conflict-related problems of coordination, they will seek out candidates who are willing to violate normative expectations by engaging in obvious lying, and who displays a personality oriented toward conflict, even if such personalities under other circumstances would be considered unappealing.”

“I think Trump knows what he does in terms of all of the psychological buttons that he is pushing,” said Petersen. “Maybe it’s not deliberate, but he has very deep intuitions about what works, and in that sense I would find it extraordinary if he didn’t know what was going on.” We sat down with Petersen to learn more about the psychological processes underlying this kind of mass mobilization.

Ars Technica: You argue that from an evolutionary standpoint, human beings should be resistant to easy manipulation. But people do believe quite a lot of silly things, and many eagerly embrace conspiracy theories.

Michael Petersen: Evolutionary psychology [holds] that the reason why we have the brain structures that we have is that they have been adapted over human evolutionary history. From that perspective, there should be limits to the degree to which we can be manipulated by others, because ultimately, we would have been at a fitness disadvantage if some person could just come and say, “Hey, do you know the Earth is flat,” or whatever, and then we said, “Oh, really?” We know that one of the ways that we humans engage in social conflict is by sharing rumors, telling stories, pretending that we are more formidable than we are. So we should have a number of psychological defenses that makes us more resistant to manipulation.

But nonetheless, we humans believe in a range of very weird things that we do not have evidence for. So how can it be? We’ve found that when you prime people with inter-group conflict, they reach out for the stronger, more dominant individual as the leader. It wasn’t actually fear that was driving this; it was inter-group conflicts among people feeling anger. Basically, inter-group conflict is this arms race of coordination; the better coordinated group eventually wins. The dominant leader is one way to create that [coordination], but another way is through these fringe beliefs. In the same way that you can form groups around religious beliefs to signal your group membership, you can use QAnon and other conspiracy beliefs with little basis in reality.

Ars Technica: You’re talking about tribalism, which is a double-edged sword. I think you’re saying that, evolutionarily speaking, tribes are good for survival, but this can be bad when it comes to a point where there are inter-tribal conflicts. 

Michael Petersen: Exactly. There’s always conflict in politics. But the tipping point where things go wrong is when the different tribes or the different groups lose a sense of shared fate, that in the end we are in this together. We have differences of opinions, but because our fate is tied together, we need to figure out [how to work together]. What happens at that point is that you go from just conflict, to zero-sum conflict, where whatever is a benefit to them is a cost to me. Then we are in very dangerous territory.

A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.
Enlarge / A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Ars Technica: How does all this help explain the outbreak of violence on January 6? 

Michael Petersen: Violence is a dangerous prospect. So you really need to make sure that this is the time to do it, and therefore, if you are violently disposed, then you are waiting for the right moment. A lot of the psychological machinery is operating [subconsciously]. We have people in the US who have high degrees of frustrations directed against the system, so to speak. We have been documenting that for a number of years: a construct that we call the need for chaos, which is basically this Joker syndrome where you just want to watch the world burn. There’s a substantial minority in the US who agree with very radical statements, such as “I think society should be burned to the ground. We cannot fix the problems with our social institutions. We need to tear them down and start over.” That comes with tensions that have been building up over decades, in my view. One of the factors is increasing inequality, which is not just a problem in the US, but across most western societies.

These individuals are alone with their frustrations. What Trump does is help forge a collective identity. On the day itself, presumably, people don’t know that this is the time to go when they meet up. But you have these small coordination processes—Trump’s speech, the tension’s slowly building. People go from the mindset where they say, “Well, I think something should be done,” to “I think we should do something,” to “I think these people also want to do something,” to what psychologists call common knowledge: “OK, now is the time. We as a collective entity want to do something and it’s now that we want to do it.”

Ars Technica: Much attention has been focused on the role of social media in the spread of misinformation, and in helping violent groups better coordinate. Removing Trump and various violent right-wing groups and individuals has resulted in a staggering 73 percent decrease in the amount of misinformation circulating on social media platforms, which is encouraging. But is this a long-term solution?

Michael Petersen: What happens on social media is basically a megaphone for what happens in the offline world. It is a reflection of what happens in the offline world. So long-term, we cannot steer society back on track without actually doing real reforms. On the other hand, social media does play a huge role. It acts as a coordination device. Just as radio was very important to the genocide in Rwanda, social media has been very important in stirring up sentiments in the US.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what we call online political hostility. Again, it’s not the platforms themselves, it’s not that we change psychologically when we go from the offline to the online world. It’s not that nice people go crazy when they log onto Facebook and Twitter. The people who are offensive and difficult to argue with on Facebook, they are just as difficult to argue with in real life. The difference is that the audiences that you have online are much bigger, so the impact of those few antisocial individuals is larger in the online world than in the offline world. If one person is offensive in a conversation over the dinner table, then it’s just the people around the table that hear that. But if the person is offensive on Twitter, then there’s a large network of people who are exposed to that.

I’m increasingly thinking that in order to get online discussions back on track, it’s about shielding the relatively calm majority from this antisocial minority who are aggressive and using hostile tactics. One of the problems is the business model of Twitter and Facebook is really contingent on stirring up sentiments because that is what generates traffic. So there are some complications there as well; their incentive is not to keep things calm.

A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.
Enlarge / A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ars Technica: If Trump’s rhetoric serves as a means of focusing pre-existing rage and discontent, how can we unfocus it?

Michael Petersen: That is very, very difficult. When you have forged a group, then it is very difficult to undo it again. In a sense what the US is facing is a mass process of de-radicalization, which we haven’t seen to the same extent in a modern democracy. Some of my colleagues are working with de-radicalization, and that’s not a trivial process. They are just focusing on single individuals like Islamic terrorists and so on. But this is at a much larger level.

Some lessons can be learned from the 1960s and 1970s in Europe. There was also a lot of social upheaval and violent confrontations in the street. That eventually—which is a likely scenario for the US—[evolved] into several small terrorist cells like Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, Black September in Jordan, and so on. What took away from the mass protest was some kind of reconciliation with these groups. I think that’s potentially the most difficult part of the whole process. There are individuals who are clinging to beliefs that a lot of Americans would view as highly offensive, who have been supporting a violent attack on American democracy. But I think it’s necessary to listen to the frustrations underlying the madness, and see where some reconciliation take place—while at the same time standing firm on democratic principles.

Ars Technica: Is it enough for Trump to finally admit there was no election fraud, or would his most radical acolytes just assume that he’s been taken over by pod people, or he’s being forced to say it?

Michael Petersen: I do think that if he came out saying there was no fraud, the election was won fair and square by Biden, we should not go to the streets, and so on—that is part of breaking coordination at a mass level. So I think that could make open confrontations less likely. But the most likely scenario is Europe in the 1970s with, for example, Rote Armee Fraktion. I think the situation is extremely troublesome at least for the next five years in the US.

My sense is that what is happening in the US and other western societies is not a difference in kind, from ethnic conflict of the worst kind, but difference in degree. It’s the same kind of psychologic mechanisms that are operating, and therefore potentially some of the ways in which they have facilitated reconciliation can also be used in the US. In a way it is up to each individual to say, “Well I have two different identities. I have an identity as a son or as a daughter or as a friend or as a neighbor, and then I have my tribal identity,” as a Democrat, as a Republican, as a Trump supporter, or whatnot. It’s up to each of us to say, “Well, OK, I can try to put the tribal identities that I have to the side.”

I think you collectively need to say, “Well, we are not two tribes. We are one people with a shared faith who have all sorts of cross cutting links to each other.” It’s not easy, but I think that is crucial in the long run. It’s a very, very difficult time for the US. You should know that there’s a lot of people hoping that you will pull through because it’s a great country. In the struggle that you are facing, you have the support of a good deal of the world.

DOI: Current Opinions in Psychology, 2020. 10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.02.003  (About DOIs).

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