Community-wide alternate reality game launches Sept. 12

RIT teams with Democrat and Chronicle to create Picture The Impossible

Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

RIT’s Lab for Social Computing and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle are partnering to create Picture The Impossible, a first-of-its-kind community challenge, developing involvement and engagement through an alternate reality game format. Register for the game, which begins on Sept. 12 and runs for seven weeks, at

The project plays to the partners’ unique strengths, combining the nation’s top newspaper in integrated print and digital audience reach with the students and faculty of the nation’s first academic program for the study of social computing. The project’s technical development was funded by Bing, Microsoft’s evolutionary live search technology.

“We are looking to see if these tools of engagement will work as a channel to meet our fundamental First Amendment obligations for audiences we currently don’t reach frequently,” says Traci Bauer, managing editor content and digital platforms at the Democrat and Chronicle.

“The Alternate Reality Game format allows our community to solve real-world problems by overlaying game systems and game content on top of everyday reality—effectively to improve players real quality of life,” adds Elizabeth Lawley, the lab’s director.

Picture The Impossible is a mix of weekly challenges developed by a team comprised of staffers from the Democrat and Chronicle and students from RIT. The games will appear in the newspaper and on its Web site, Each week’s game will focus on a different theme related to the history and culture of Rochester—including imaging, social equality, food, music, arts and crafts and “Rochester firsts.”

The game begins with the announcement of a party that’s going to be held on Oct. 31, to which the players are not invited—yet. When they “RSVP” for the party, they will be prompted to register for the game and to join one of the three factions competing to control our community.

“The underlying theme involves a fictional ‘secret society’ known as The Gears, which has included most major Rochester historical figures (George Eastman, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass) in its membership over the years. The Gears hold an annual Halloween costume gala but the organization, which has diminished in power and membership, is locked in a three-way struggle for control,” explains Lawley.

Each faction will be associated with one of three local not-for-profits—Foodlink, Unity Health and Wilson Commencement Park. Earning points in the game is a result of individual accomplishment and by collaborating with teammates to help that faction’s charity receive a larger donation at the end of each week.

While the game is open to players of all ages and demographics, the primary audience is young professionals (ages 25-49) who are typically college educated and Internet-savvy. “Using extensive research and, more importantly, listening to young professionals, we’re delivering what they’ve asked for most: Opportunities to network and to make a positive difference in our community,” according to Jim Fogler, vice president of marketing for the Democrat and Chronicle.

Drawing on technology provided by Microsoft’s Bing, participants will use online, interactive and personal skills to search the community for answers to the weekly puzzlers.

“We love it! It’s great to have a chance to show what Bing Maps can do in the context of a game, especially one that gets the local community and its newspaper in the mix,” says Betsy Aoki, program manager for Bing at Microsoft Corp. “If you don’t live in Rochester, find a friend on the ground there to help with local clues, and take up the challenge.”

Generous donations from Microsoft, SCVNGR, WXXI Public Broadcasting (providing weekly updates and game clues across its broadcast services), Kodak (providing all the game’s prizes), and the Marie C. and Joseph P. Wilson Foundation made the technical implementation of this game possible. Also supporting the project with their intellectual capital are alternate reality game experts Elan Lee, Jane McGonigal and Kevin Slavin.