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1001 Wonderlands: Alternate Reality Gamesby Brandie B. Minchew
In 2001, certain clues in the trailer for the Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence: A.I. and in the film's advertisement billboards lead perceptive movie-goers to discover a series of secret messages and clues. The clues -- a phone number coded in notches in certain letters; a credit on posters and in trailers to "Jeanine Salla, sentient machine therapist"; and a number of promotional posters that had a simple encoded message: "Evan Chan was murdered." "Jeanine is the key." -- led the way to a virtual peephole into a dystopian future where a brutal murder sparked the beginnings of a social revolution. Intricate networks of hundreds of websites contained pieces of the story, unfolding somewhere in that future, waiting to be unlocked.
Thousands of players following the story named themselves "The Cloudmakers" and joined forces to solve the murder of Evan Chan. Through interaction with the story's characters, puzzle- and problem-solving, and participation in live rallies and events held in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, the players ultimately influenced the outcome of the future A.I. revolution and the end of the game. "The Beast", created by Sean Stewart, Elan Lee, and Jordan Weisman who later founded 42 Entertainment, marked the emergence of a new genre of entertainment: the Alternate Reality Game.
What is an Alternate Reality Game?
An alternate reality game or ARG is an interactive, immersive story that may be delivered through a variety of media such as video, e-mail, paper ("snail") mail, blogs, websites, message boards, sound files, books, or other forms of media. Although the structure of individual games can vary, alternate reality games seek to "immerse" players in a fictional world that appears solid and tangible, with characters that players can communicate with and help, or hinder. The ultimate goal of an alternate reality game is to create an illusion for the players that the game is not a game but real and constantly in play.
Unlike video games or tabletop games, ARGs do not have a single, unified interface through which the players interact with the game. Instead, ARGs are played using quotidian objects such as cell phones or the internet or even the postal service.
Neither are ARGs role-playing games. Players do not create fictional characters to interact with the game world. Rather, the players play "themselves" as they interact with the fictional characters created by the Puppetmasters (PMs) who write and control the game as it progresses. Characters may interact directly with the players through phone calls, emails, blog entries, video, or other methods.
ARGs are non-linear, written so that the story can be freely altered according to players' actions within the game. Sean Stacey, the owner unFiction, a website dedicated to alternate reality games, refers to ARGs as "chaotic fiction". In his article, "Undefining ARG", Stacey defines chaotic fiction as "a fictional construct that begins with a set of rules, uses those rules to run its scenario through an organic 'computer' comprised of audience and author, and ends with a finite body of work that was not predetermined."
Alternate Reality Games and The Internet
The Internet acts as a vehicle for most alternate reality games, allowing for a wide distribution of content and a free, quick means of communication for the players and the Puppetmasters. The number of easily accessible utilities available on the Internet for the creation, distribution, and sharing of story content make the Internet invaluable to gameplay.
ARGs are not meant to be played alone, and the Internet allows for the high level of collaboration these games require. Puzzles and problem solving are popular components of ARGs, requiring players to form a community or "hive mind" working together to advance the story. Often, players encounter situations where they must create their own content for the game in order to move the story to its next phase. In fact, the diverse talents of a player group and the instant communication facilitated by the Internet require Puppetmasters to keep plots and storylines flexible. Players often invent creative solutions or take actions that the PMs didn't plan for and that alter the story as a consequence.
ARGs With a Purpose
While many alternate reality games have been designed to market a product, ARGs are now also being used as a tool for social change, or an extension of other creative works.
For example, in April of 2007, PBS launched "World Without Oil", a game that asked players to imagine life during an oil shortage. Players created fictional content, talking about what changes they had to make in their life to get by as energy prices soared and society's infrastructure cracked economically. Through blogs, voicemail, email, video, podcasts and message boards, players first imagined and then described their oil-dependent world collapsing around them.
Jane McGonigal, participation architect of "World Without Oil", described the game as being "at its heart an experiment in negative thinking about the oil dependency issue." (Jane McGonigal, Think Negative! Play Negative?) The concept behind "World Without Oil" asks not only the game's central "what if" question but also whether the collective intelligence that gathers in ARGs can have applications in real-world problem-solving.
In early 2007, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails launched the Year Zero alternate reality game as part of an extension of the latest NIN album, Year Zero. The initial website, http://www.iamtryingtobelieve.com launched players into a nightmarish dystopian future in which free speech has been ripped away and U.S. government controls have clamped down on citizens.
Television shows have also attempted to extend viewer experience outside the t.v. screen. ABC created "The Lost Experience" ARG as a filler between seasons of the t.v. show, "Lost". "Heroes" also incorporated a cross-media content extension known as "Heroes 360".
How do you play ARGs?
Game architecture and methods of play varies from game to game, but most games share a few common characteristics. Puppetmasters invent creative ways to "launch" their games. They might mail parcels of game material to people who have played their games in the past and whose contact information they have stored. They might place a subtle link in a forum frequented by people they would like to cultivate as players, or send out a mass email with a hidden message. Commercially backed games may hide launch clues in movie trailers, posters, or company merchandise. The ARG world borrows from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to give a name to this initial clue, the doorway to the wonderland, calling this the "rabbit hole."
"The Beast" used promotional materials to alert people to its game launch. The launch of "ilovebees" included not only a hint in the Halo 2 trailer shown in theatres but also mailed jars of honey containing vinyl letters spelling "ilovebees" to people who maintain websites dedicated to Alternate Reality Gaming. "Chasing the Wish", an independent ARG written by Dave Szulborski, launched with an encoded puzzle on a fan site for the t.v. show, "Push, Nevada." "Metacortechs," a Matrix-themed ARG, launched with innocuous links on forums discussing the upcoming movie, "Matrix: Revolutions." In 2006, Sean Stewart, along with Jordan Weisman and artist Cathy Briggs, produced Cathy's Book, a book that incorporated story content outside the pages, including phone numbers, voicemail boxes, and message boards.
Once a game is launched, and players skip excitedly down the rabbit hole, they may find themselves faced with a series of tasks or puzzles as well as the introduction to the story and the tone of the game. Websites may have hidden clues in their source code. Images and media files may have hidden information encoded in them, a technique called steganography. Players may find a request for their e-mail addresses for a corporate (in-game) mailing list. Or the rabbit hole may simply bring players to the first part of the story, with hints at the mystery they will be asked to solve or goals they will be asked to accomplish.
In some ways, playing an ARG can be compared to reading a novel or watching a film, except that instead of passively watching the story unfold, players are asked to search and explore the world in which the story is taking place. Players may help characters decide what actions to take within the story. Some ARGs incorporate live, real-world events where players may interact with characters (live actors hired to play the parts) and where clues are usually given out leading to another part of the story.
One popular ARG, Perplex City, used collectible card packets as game pieces. Each card had puzzles to solve, and the cards could be collected into sets. Clues on the cards led players to parts of the Perplex City story on websites, in e-mail addresses, blogs, and even phone numbers. The game's first season also incorporated a prize of approximately $100,000 for the return of the "Cube", the game's mystery artifact.
To collaborate and share vital information, most players congregate on a message board or in a chat room, places to gather that are "out of game." Out of Game has come to mean any gathering place where players may discuss the game without encountering game elements and without breaking the hallowed ARG priciple of TINAG.
TINAG, meaning This Is Not A Game, is a term unique to the ARG community. "This is not a game" was one of the taglines for "The Beast". TINAG later became a broad way of describing the the immersive experience of an ARG. It is nearly impossible to play a game without realizing it's a game, and TINAG as a viable game element is hotly debated in the ARG community. However, TINAG can be generally described as the "willing suspension of disbelief" that players are asked to assume when stepping into the game world. Players must have a place to congregate that is Out of Game in order to place a virtual boundary around the "reality" of the game.
A large part of the fun and magic of playing ARGs is the community that forms around the games as players hash through the puzzles and decision strategies set out by the Puppetmasters. Players share with one another the frustrations and triumphs of the game and the experience of the story unfolding around them, just as they share the information and clues needed for solves. ARGs create the feeling of a secret, shared world, and the player-created story many times becomes inextricable from the game.
For example, in "ilovebees", a player by the name of Weephun betrayed one of the characters in the game to another character, resulting in the "death" of the former. Not only was this player-action unforseen by the Puppetmasters, it caused some of the game material to be rewritten, and the name Weephun became inseparable from that particular game among both players and creators.
The players of "Metacortechs" who called themselves the MetaUrchins, compiled a book describing the player experience through the game, called The Project Mu Archives, which is a skillful recreation of what is essentially a personal, unique, non-linear experience.
That is perhaps the greatest appeal of Alternate Reality Games. While puzzle-solving and unlocking the story and its mysteries gives players great satisfaction, the most compelling aspect of ARGs is the sense of being a part of an experience that is immediate and unrepeatable. Video games can be played and replayed; board games can always be purchased and played over again. ARGs, by their very nature, can only be played once, and the experience created through playing the game is always unique and unrepeatable.
Where Do I Start?
A Few Current Games
Visit the unFiction Forums to find more current games.
Brandie B. Minchew lives and writes in Houston, Texas, surrounded by cats who she swears sometimes eat her homework. No one believes her.
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