Alternate Reality Games Need a Generation Iteration

April 6, 2007

SWIFIT is now located at www.swifit.net. Please head there. Thank you.

Although I was moderately acquainted, it was not until today I formally met alternate reality games. Having read through the history and general philosophies behind the existing and past ARGs, I am rather disappointed. Not one ARG I have read about, in my opinion, adequately fulfills ARG Basic Design Principles.
Incredibly important, is the principle of a platformless narrative. While most previous ARGs used multiple media to advance the plot, every one utilizes a central medium (the Beast – WWW, ilovebees – GPS/Pay Phones, Perplex City – Puzzle Cards). Platform independent in most industries would refer to a near equal inclusion of all available media, not bias toward one and mild inclusion of others.
The “this is not a game” (TINAG) aesthetic has been moderately, although not sufficiently, implemented. TINAG specifies that the game not acknowledge it was a game and that all contact channels (phone numbers, emails, web sites) be real in the sense that they worked. Instead of AI, players would interact with human actors. The Beast included subtle and overt messages, however, informing players that it was a game, ignoring that the story took place in the year 2142.
What if the TINAG principle was taken to the nth degree? Majestic’s tagline was “It plays you.” What if a you became a player in a game and didn’t initially know? What if the game actually chose when to include you? Imagine coming home after work and finding a note taped to your front door from an anonymous person asking you to check your email, or receiving snail mail notifying you of your new P.O. Box that you didn’t ask for, with the key inside. What if you found yourself staring at a highway-side billboard, certain the message was meant for you, because it was?
The TINAG aesthetic should blur the lines between day to day life and the game to the point of being eerie. Up until now, ARGs have relied on the player to honor or ignore the line between reality and game. Sending someone text messages isn’t engaging. It’s no different that the joke of the day SMS services advertised at 4:00am.
That level of immersion is no more believable that when we pretended to be certain Ninja Turtles as kids. The idea is to interact with the player in such a way that isn’t so obviously automated. Appeal to the player in a personally specific, targeted, and physical manor such that they believe it couldn’t be a game.
I am interested in conducting a study into total immersion, and the viability in large markets. I am curious in investigating the scalibility of pinpointed universes(systems).

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4 Responses to “Alternate Reality Games Need a Generation Iteration”

  1. phaedra Says:

    This is actually an old, old debate in the ARG community. It turns out that people actually don’t *like* playing games where the line between fiction and reality isn’t clear, when that aesthetic is tried. Browse around the META forum on Unfiction and you’ll find plenty of discussions about why it doesn’t actually work. It seems like every month someone new appears on UF and says, “I think there should be a game that’s so real that you can’t tell it from real life!”

    This is due to a common misunderstanding of the TINAG aesthetic among newcomers. It doesn’t refer to realism. It refers to the game’s internal consistency. The man who coined it — one of the Beast’s designers, Elan Lee — recently explained that he did a bad job of describing it by saying “this is not a game.” What he meant was, “we will never make you feel stupid for playing with us/trusting us.” I suggest watching the video of the ARGFest keynote or reading the transcript at wiki.argfestocon.com for an in-depth discussion about it.

    He also discusses how clients that come to his company often think it would be so cool to do a game that was so real people couldn’t tell where it left off and real life began, and explains a number of reasons why that’s actually a Bad Idea.

    Finally, while you’re right that few ARGs are truly platformless, your characterization of two of the games, at least, is incorrect. I Love Bees delivered as much story over the internet as it did over payphones, and the puzzle cards in Perplex City do nothing to advance the plot — most of that is over the internet as well. The game is equally distributed over multiple media.

    Furthermore, you leave out games like Last Call Poker, in which the narrative was equally spread over the internet, phone calls, and live events in cemeteries.

    The problem with trying to do a large-scale ARG that’s truly platformless is the same problem that exists when you have a game that’s constantly updating, instead of having regular update times: you lose all but the most hard-core players very quickly because they don’t know where to look, and they can’t keep up. In addition, it makes the barrier to entry for newcomers almost insurmountably high. It may work for small grassroots games, but it doesn’t for large-scale games. Plus, when your player base shrinks that far, you have to make other sacrifices to compensate for the reduction: much easier puzzles, less complex narrative, less real-world elements (because you’re no longer guaranteed to have players in every city), etc.

    Anyway, it’s not as if these questions don’t come up often — as I noted above, the META forum on Unfiction contains numerous discussions on them that you may find interesting. Hope that helps.


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  4. SWIFIT Says:

    I appreciate the insight, phaedra. As such, I will continue to dig deeper.
    Much of your comment speaks to one of my personal frustrations with this fledgling genre, which is the lack of consistency and clarity. If the original coiner of the TINAG concept says its first definition is incorrect, and especially since there seems to be widespread confusion around it, why is it still around and present in so much ARG literature? I think the lack of at least a general, clear framework hurts the continued development and innovation of ARGs. It also makes it far more difficult to jump in and hit the ground running when you are immediately told much of everything you’ve read about ARGs isn’t totally correct.
    My intention of truly platformless campaigns has no bearing on frequency of updates. I agree that constant updates would both alienate most players and put a tremendous amount of stress on the development team. A little surprise, however, goes a long way.
    Based on the responses I have received, current and recent ARG systems are largely regarded as working well because the judges have been within the community. I posit that these same ‘working’ systems actually alienate millions of potential players because of the predictability and light real-world integration. It seems that the ARG community as a whole has become very comfortable in how things are done and I think pushing that envelope can pay dividends.


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