Joined: 11 Aug 2004
An essay for my media communications class
It's been years since I've been on these forums, and alas, I haven't much time to browse and reply, but I wanted to share this paper I had to write for my Intro to Media Communications class. It was written with the uninitiated in mind. I'm sure I will be corrected on some mistakes that have gone unnoticed by the lay-folk. Feedback is welcome and encouraged.
Alternate Reality Games and the Mass Media
Since the dawn of civilization, storytellers have sought ways to engage their audience in an immersive experience. They incite emotion and imagery through the tools of their craft: playwrights tell their stories on stage and screen, novelists and poets do so through words and description, and musicians do so through tone and lyric. The author provokes ideas and concepts through their choice of words, but is obstructed by the literacy of their audience, their own fluency, and the variability of individual perception. Music, cinema, and video games further bridge the gap, but ultimately static media lack the true interactivity of real life; the medium cannot react to the audience’s experience. For some audiences and storytellers, this may be enough. For others, they may crave another, deeper, more pervasive environment for telling or experiencing a story.
Entertainment is not the only reason one may seek to immerse their audience. Organizations also seek media immersion for academic, political, medical, and business reasons. Today video and lecture are the most widely used channels to imbue knowledge, and hands-on experience provides practical knowledge. Technological advances have brought virtual reality into the repertoire of training tools, creating a simulated environment in which to teach. However, they require great technical expertise to create and implement, and none of these approaches can demonstrate the far-reaching results of the trainees’ actions.
However, a new form of storytelling has entered the limelight, and recent examples have proven their applications in both truly interactive entertainment and immersive training. It is responsive and encourages communication, cooperation, and knowledge sharing. It is called alternate reality gaming, and it may provide the ultimate immersion experience.
Alternate reality games (ARGs) are pervasive, participatory transmedia events in which a narrative is told through multiple mediums, over the course of weeks or months. The players interact with the narrative through correspondence with fictional characters, hidden clues, puzzles, and real world objectives. Challenges may require the cooperation of hundreds or thousands of individuals, using online and real world resources, including cryptology and scavenger hunts. The object of these games is not necessarily for any individual to “win,” but rather for the community to move the story forward by engaging the challenges presented to them.
ARGs can utilize mainstream print, broadcast, and communication media, depending on budget. They typically make an effort to appear authentic, usually making no open claim that they are, in fact, fiction; instead they behave as if the events are reality. This philosophy is perpetuated by the fact that most games are not replayable; once a puzzle is solved or objective completed, it’s no longer accessible, but the puzzles, story, and other sundry details are typically archived in user-populated wikis and discussed on forums, allowing new players to join at any time. ARGs are created and executed by puppetmasters, (or PMs) who work from behind a metaphoric curtain of secrecy, and have very little contact with their audience except through the narrative. The players’ actions may have a direct effect on the narrative; PMs tend to change the story midstream to accommodate the community. The initial clues, or rabbit holes, may be hidden in mainstream media, but the popularity of the event is usually viral in nature. ARGs are often used to promote or support existing media, such as movies or television shows.
ARGs are usually created with a wide range of player skill and interest in mind. Christy Dena of the University of Sydney, Australia, describes the level of user exposure, involvement, and exploration as tiers. The tiers of ARGs provide the end user with multiple ways within a medium with which to interact with a unified narrative, and convergence of media to tell multiple narratives for a common source. These tiers define the level of user preference and commitment, (such as those “hardcore” players interested in the puzzles, the narrative, and the real-world aspects, and casual players interested in an overview of events) and the depth and aesthetic of the game and gameworld. (Dena, 2008) Typically, producers of ARGs will create an experience for multiple tiers, attracting both committed and transient players interested in overlapping styles of play.
ARGs are a form of convergent media, spreading their narratives over several channels. According to author Henry Jenkins, convergence is the ‘flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences.’ (Jenkins, 2006) In other words, the same information (a news story, for example) is distributed via multiple channels (print, radio, television, internet, and cell phones, with some companies controlling several venues) and consumers will find and use the channels that best suit their needs and preferences. He also speaks of transmedia storytelling, in which a common narrative is told over multiple media, each contributing to it in unique ways. There’s been much academic and commercial attention to both convergence and transmedia in recent years, but the concept of transmedia is by no means a new one. Anyone who has watched The Wizard of Oz, listened to the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, viewed a nativity play, or played a Spider-Man video game has experienced transmedia. Most often narratives are directly adapted to another medium, providing a unique presentation that may differ from the consumers’, but contributing little to the world on which the story is based.
In contrast, the Star Wars universe based on George Lucas’s original narratives is expanded by authors, filmmakers, and artists of varying degrees of professionalism and on multiple fronts. Their works in turn enrich the overall world within the fiction, providing more than just a rehash of the original; a once-static medium becomes a participatory one, living and growing. However, this was never Lucas’s intent when he created Star Wars. Jenkins attributes the success of The Matrix franchise to its natively transmedia approach. The experience was created with convergence in mind, spanning the silver screen, graphic novels, video games, and animation, each introducing another facet of the ever-expanding Matrix universe. However, the participation with the Star Wars and Matrix narratives belong to media creators alone, not the consumer.
Interactive transmedia experiences, particularly video games, continue their source’s narrative, granting the user the illusion that they can influence the story’s world. However, such activities have limited number of options for the end-user, which have a finite number of possible outcomes. Even in the most interactive video games, the player must abandon their ego and embody the in-game protagonist, creating a disruption between the player and the story. They are Peter Parker, balancing Peter Parker’s personal strife with the responsibility of being Spider-Man. This sort of personification should imply a greater amount of free will that technology simply cannot accommodate. This sort of experience is best expressed through a different style of play, role-playing games for example. Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons allow the exploration of a different self, customized to the player’s preference. Video games and role-playing are, by and large, entertaining and immersive, but a rift still exists between the audience and narrative.
ARGs bridge that gap, allowing the player to be a protagonist without sacrificing their unique perspective, behavior, or lifestyle. The only offering that need be made is the temporary voluntary suspension of disbelief that allows them to pretend that the events of the game are actually happening. Jane McGonigal notes that such pervasive activities are considered “make-belief” games, stating “players willfully ‘forget’ or deny [that] their own performance [is pretend] and thereby enable themselves to believe for real.” (McGonigal, 2003) Dave Szulborski notes that “the goal [of an ARG] is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player.” (Szulborski, 2005) Using ARGs as a transmediation tool, in turn, draws the audience closer to the original work by convincing them that they have a stake in the events of the world in which the property is based. ReGenesis was a television show that had a direct connection to its “extended reality game.” The weekly events in the show were seemingly the result of the players’ actions. The players would then be drawn to watch the next episode to find out what impact they had in that world. Transversely, the players used the shows to scavenge for clues with which to solve the puzzles in the next installment of the game. In this case, the carefully planned story gave the illusion of being sincerely participatory, and the line between media was blurred to envelope the players in the greater world of the show.
The intensity of the immersion of ARGs is also the result of the PMs ability to make widespread changes in the narrative based on immediate feedback by the audience. Szulborski describes this as interactive authoring, in which the player creates content for the game as they are playing, particularly though their interactions with the game elements themselves. Correspondence with in-game characters can turn the players into characters within the narrative. He notes that “ARG creators are able to watch the players virtually in real time, as they experience the game, and react to what the players are doing and feeling, immediately if necessary.” (Szulborski, 2005) This is a feat that few, if any, other medium can duplicate.
Television and movies are not the only media to be given the ARG treatment. In 2006, authors Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman (both designers for The Beast) wrote Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233, a young adult novel that emulated a young woman’s journal. The original hardcover book came with an envelope containing artifacts which reinforced the fiction of the narrative, including a torn picture and a menu. The book and articles within become a remnant from within the story, creating a tangible bridge between the reader and characters. The paperback edition includes the enclosed relics in color photos. Like other ARGs, readers can call the numbers and check out the sites to gain more of the story. The authors have published two other print sequels, continuing the story. Personal Effects: Dark Art by J.C. Hutchins follows the same format with a horror fiction backdrop. While currently not a game, the theatrical play “In Real Life” sets a precedent with Facebook and Twitter pages for the characters, and an onstage web camera, putting the performance on the Internet. (Spates, 2009) Other media sources, such as musicians including Nine Inch Nails, have explored the format and it is likely other storytellers will continue to push the limits of where their story ends and where the reality begins.
ARGs are not necessarily only for entertainment purposes. Many are created to bolster interest in a forthcoming media event or product. Movie, television, and video game creators have a vested interest in creating advertising that permeates the collective consciousness. Many do this through viral marketing, introducing advertisements that, at first glance appear authentic. Typical viral marketing makes no attempts to explain it as anything but authentic, whereas most ARGs hint or imply that they are fictional narratives through their game-like components and fantastic settings, bearing a paradoxical sincerity in their verisimilitude. However, like other forms of viral marketing, ARGs gain most of their participatory audience through word-of-mouth.
In 2001, Forty-Two Entertainment, DreamWorks, and Microsoft produced the first mainstream ARG, known as The Beast, as a promotion for the feature film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The rabbit hole was a name within the credits on the movie poster, and those astute enough to look for it began their adventure in a futuristic murder mystery within the world of the film. However, most of the player base discovered it from the zealous description from family or friends. The game was played by thousands worldwide, and with the news coverage it garnered after its four-month duration, it exposed millions to the film. While the film was not a commercial success, the ARG no doubt attracted potential viewers.
Many other companies have used this model to attract audiences or appease existing consumers while new content is created. I Love Bees (2004) promoted the Xbox video game Halo 2, immersing the players into the greater mythology of the franchise in the months leading to the game’s release. Towards the end of season two of the ABC drama Lost, the producers aired commercials for Oceanic Airlines, a fictional company from within the show, to attract viewers to their website, and thus expose them to The LOST Experience (2006). While the show had finished for the season, the fans’ desire for new content was satisfied through the game. The game had no direct effect on the events of the show, but it allowed some fans of the show to learn the answers to several of the show’s numerous mysteries, further ensuring brand loyalty.
There is a contingent of organizations that seek to use ARGs to bring to the public eye concerns of global importance. The British Red Cross, for example, launched a game called Traces of Hope to illustrate the effects of war-time conflict on its civilians. These companies hope that through the experiences of the game, they can garner support for their causes. This format is particularly effective because they are real concerns, some very close to home. It is so close to reality that the term “alternate” only loosely applies.
However, much of the success of these campaigns, particularly those created for commercial purposes, depends on the transparency of their intent. The LOST Experience, for example, suffered a significant flaw: at least one puzzle was plastered with references to Sprite, one of the campaign’s sponsored products. This garish display interrupted the suspension of disbelief, and façade broke wide open. Some players were able to overlook this, continuing to play the game, while others were turned off by it.
Still, other corporations and organizations use the format to promote their products through competition. In 2002, BMW produced :k:, a game that shared many elements of an ARG, and at its culmination awarded one player with a brand new car. Other similar projects have been launched to varying degrees of success. For many, the competitive angle negates the cooperative nature of ARGs, and thus should not be sorted in the same category.
Another growing trend in alternate reality games is their use as educational tools. In the spring of 2007, World Without Oil presented a scenario very much in the public consciousness: a global shortage of oil. The puppetmasters challenged the players to overcome the difficulties brought about when gas and other associated resources were scarce. They investigated the in-game reasons for the shortage and sought solutions, while creating their own content that fit into parameters of this fictional simulation. WWO is unique, in that it was designed to be played on-demand, the collective data from the periodic updates was bundled with lesson plans and is made available to teachers to present to their students. McGonigal, a lead designer of WWO, discusses one of the benefits of ARGs and other digital games. “When playing the same game, players' attention and intelligence are focused together on solving the problems posed by the game, which are often visual-spatial, psychological, and strategic.” (McGonigal, 2007) Games of all varieties, from board games to ARGs, tap into the individual and collective talents of their players so they can overcome the challenges therein. The entertainment value of games entices players to develop and exercise their abilities, so they can not only apply them for future play, but also utilize them in their day-to-day endeavors.
The benefit of using an ARG as a training method is that the actions of the player have a practical, logical, and perceivable effect on the gameworld that, if properly managed and implemented, corresponds with real-life phenomena. The player can then see the results as if they really happened and in response make corrections to their course of action. Perhaps the most popular example of this is buying fictional shares from real companies on the stock market as part of a classroom lesson. The students treat the shares as actual artifacts that are affected by real changes in the stock market, garnering knowledge over several days or weeks from the simulation. Discussion in the classroom about the affair helps the individual student benefit from the collected intelligence of their fellow students. This process is called collective intelligence.
Collective intelligence refers to the convergence of communities to culminate their individual knowledge. The term was coined by Pierre Levy, a French philosopher in 1994. Collective intelligence is another concept with which familiarity is in the current practice than academic study. Wikipedia is a now-commonplace fixture of the Internet. The content of the site is primarily user-created and community regulated. The number of entries and size of the online compendium grows with each passing second as the individual users share their knowledge of a myriad of topics with their peers. However, the wide-open system has no authoritative method of verification, and consequently, the chance of coming across unreliable information, as well as the questionable authority of its contributors, is high enough to make it useless as an academic tool.
Still, the use of closed wikis and other such user-driven resources as a means of creating collective intelligences has proven immensely valuable in academia, business, science, and politics. Activities such as ARGs exercise the players’ ability to share, collate, and revise their aggregate knowledge from detail-rich environments. In the aforementioned World Without Oil, players were able to devise solutions to the challenges presented to them and post them online using video, audio, and text. Other users would then offer revisions, make corrections, and access and utilize the information so they themselves could survive the fictional oil shortages. Similar compendiums of information exist to chronicle complex events, share discoveries, and objectively formulate their relevance across a web of cross-referenced articles.
Collective intelligence is only one application of using communities as a resource. Crowdsourcing is another essential part of ARGs that has real-world applications. In crowdsourcing, an open call to the public is issued to perform a task or series of tasks. Depending on the parameters, people can either work independently, submitting numerous candidates, or organize into teams to decide who is best qualified to work on specific jobs and as a group create their best candidate. In I Love Bees, a list of coordinates appeared with corresponding times and code words. At each location was a payphone that would ring at the listed time. The PMs essentially crowdsourced the task of answering those phones. The players quickly organized, distributing the responsibility to any available individuals across the globe. Similarly, the players were instructed to create images that compared the modern day to the 23rd century. In this case, the task was best performed by individuals or teams of two or three.
The real-world applications of crowdsourcing are in place today, with sites such as iStockphoto.com, in which content is created by users, reviewed by a panel for content and quality, and placed online for purchase with a percentage of the purchase price paid to the user. Other companies employ a contest model to gain material for production. Daren C. Brabham of the University of Utah notes several flaws and benefits with crowdsourcing: introduction into the industry amid a sea of other amateurs, career advancement at the cost of a smaller commission, among others. (Brabham, 2008) Still, the act of participating in crowdsourcing, particularly for one’s own amusement as is the case of ARGs, offers invaluable experience in teamwork, resourcefulness, and practical application.
Crowdsourcing works best when combined with collective intelligence resources and group communication channels, as the success of ARGs have proven. It becomes an ecosystem of information: knowledge is harvested by some, processed and recorded by others, refined, and applied back into the host medium. Occasionally, the situation will call for the group to create solutions based on the collected knowledge and the individual skills of the members to overcome crises or to progress or improve the current environment. Possible applications for this formula include ARGs, political parties, medical communities, scientific researchers, charitable organizations, volunteer emergency personnel, academic institutions, and nearly any other group whose needs to archive information and enlist its members into action.
Alternate reality games are events that are both entertaining and potentially educational. They immerse the audience in a world that permeates the boundaries of the narrative, and participants become contributors to the collective fiction through their interaction. Players of all backgrounds and cultures can play at their own pace and to the capacity of their choosing. For most consumers of mass media, this format is more than they are interested in, but for those devotees of popular media, ARGs can provide an experience that will ensure their loyalty for years to come. Beyond mere advertisements, they expand the understanding of the source material, by entertaining and encouraging the gathering of like-minded individuals, to cooperate, share, and create in virtual and physical spaces. They can also be an invaluable tool for institutions of every sector to train their members in a realistic simulation utilizing common online interfaces that have real world relevance. ARGs spawn from commercial and grassroots sources, and there is always a handful of games in motion at any time. Whether called interactive dramas, chaos fiction, or pervasive storytelling, ARGs have earned a place amid their mass media co-conspirators.
Here are a few sites to get you started in the world of alternate reality games. Check them out, and find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
* ARGN (http://www.argn.com/) – The Alternate Reality Game Network chronicles the introduction and development of new games and presents news relevant to the world of ARGs.
* Unfiction (http://www.unfiction.com/) – Unfiction hosts many tools used to play the games, as well as forums in which the players strategize, speculate, and coordinate as they participate in the game.
* ARGology (http://www.argology.org/) – ARGology presents a comprehensive overview of ARGs, researched by the International Game Developers Association Alternate Reality Game Special Interest Group.
* "Traces of Hope." Despoiler. 20 Sept. 2008. Web. 20 Dec. 2009. http://www.despoiler.org/2008/09/30/traces-of-hope/.
* Brabham, Daren C. "Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving." Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 75-90. Print.
* Dena, Christy. "Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games." Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 41-57. Print.
* Jenkins, Henry. Convergence culture where old and new media collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.
* McGonigal, Jane. "Gamers have skills. Let's tap 'em." Christian Science Monitor 5 Nov. 2007. Web. http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1105/p09s01-coop.html.
* McGonigal, Jane. Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming. Avant Game by Jane McGonigal. Feb. 2007. Web. http://www.avantgame.com/McGonigal_WhyILoveBees_Feb2007.pdf.
* Spates, Alicia. "Keeping it real: Richland launches revolutionary theater/Internet project." Tribune Business News 27 Mar. 2009. Print.
* Szulborski, Dave. This Is Not A Game A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming (2nd Digital Edition). Lulu.com, 2005. Print.