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The Birth of ARG - Alternate Reality Gaming

By Carolyn Allen, Editor

ARG, or 'immersive gaming' (also known as 'beasting', 'unfiction' or 'collective detecting'), is a predominately online melding of fiction and puzzle solving.

ARGs as Event Promotion for Films and Outreach

An article on the FutureLab site by Tash Lee detailed the beginning days of ARG in an article entitled "This Is Not A Game: Alternate Reality Gaming and its potential for learning." It was published in July 2006. Storytelling is human nature, so the genre naturally has a number of antecedents; however, the birth of ARG as we know it is widely considered to have been in 2001, with the launch of an online 'wild goose chase' to promote Spielburg's film AI. It started with a credit in its marketing material for 'Sentient Machine Therapist' Jeanine Salla, alongside the actor's names. This anomaly tapped into people's natural curiosity and when they Googled 'Salla' they found her profile at 'Bangalore World University' where she worked - in the year 2142. From here there were countless links to other websites all set in 2142 - all convincing and seemingly 'real'. Those who had fallen down the proverbial 'rabbit hole' were rewarded with the discovery of an elaborate real-time story about a murdered man in which they were now active participants.

Is an ARG even a game at all?

In addition to the reliance on cooperative game-play and the inherent flexibility of an ARG to adapt to its players' contributions, there are other characteristics that set ARGs apart. In most games - console or online - the player controls avatars to interact in a virtual world. In an ARG, however, players are 'playing themselves'. Instead of helping an avatar to 'learn' skills and gain experience in order to develop, ARGs rely on knowledge that a player already possesses.

In an ARG players interact with the fictional world through everyday artefacts (e-mail etc) that players use to interact with the real world - there is no special equipment, and no virtual world. The idea is that the game-play becomes integrated fully in players' lives - both on and offline.

It is in this omnipresence that the genre's mantra of 'This Is Not A Game' (TINAG) is cemented.

ARG brings two areas together in one package: video games and social software - both of which have been recognized as powerful tools for learning.

Early ARG Games

  • EA Games' "Majestic" - Subscription
  • Ilovebees - Free advertising campaign
  • Last Call Poker - Free advertising campaign
  • The Art of the Heist - Free advertising campaign
  • Mind Candy's Perplex City
  • BBC's Jamie Kane
  • Perplex City - purchased trading cards lead players online and into the parallel universe of the game
  • The Lost Experience - TV tie-in in 2006

ARG Games circa 2008-2009

ARGs are interactive narratives in which players work together to solve puzzles and co-ordinate activities in the real world and online, using websites, GPS tracking devices, telephone lines, newspaper ads, and media that many people already use on a daily basis - text messages, blogs, social networking sites, video-sharing.
  • McDonalds and the IOC launched Find The Lost Ring

  • World Without Oil by California-based creator Ken Eklund, Funded by America's Corporation for Public Broadcasting and presented by Independent Television Service (ITVS)

  • The Sky Remains by UK-based Licorice Film

ARGs and Education

There seem to be many advantages of ARGs over video games for learning. Firstly there is the fact that players are their own agents and use their own experience and knowledge in playing the game, rather than playing the role of a fictional character. Tasks and puzzles absolutely require social interaction and collaboration and are not reliant on pre-defined 'save points', which makes many video games inflexible in terms of logistics/time. Also there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the ARGs appeal equally to males and females - which isn't the case for many other genres.

The Art and Craft of ARGs

Andrea Phillips, an ARG writer and producer who helped developer Mind Candy, produce the ARG game Perplex City, says, "A lot of people in entertainment are seeing the value of using alternate reality gaming to tell stories as their own creative form..." Phillips says the key appeal of these games lies in the art of crafting a collaborative narrative. "Collaboration in storytelling is an old tradition, even older than print. All our stories are ultimately descended from this sort of back-and-forth oral tradition."

"In the not-for-profit sector, ARGs can be a great platform for raising awareness in a realistic way," says Siobhan Thomas, a research fellow at the University of East London and ARG design lecturer at London Southbank University.

The opportunities are limitless.

But issues relating to real-world gameplay such as privacy issues and protecting personal data is becoming an increasingly serious issue as more and more sites are sharing data.

The format is predicted to be increasingly of interest to performance artists and educational designers, but MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) and digital games are likely to hold on to the lion's share of the market because they offer more flexible player time. ARGs are more of an event that has to be staged.

For an irreverent (and slightly colored!!! Warning: this post contains explicit language.) Overview of the state of the ARG "fiction" genre, check out "Everything you know about ARGs is wrong" by Dan.

"Bluntly: are you creating a marketing campaign that people will talk about, but not necessarily large numbers of people will play, or are you creating a game that you do want lots of people to play. And lastly, do you actually need a really big story?" REFERENCES The referenced article was published in 2003

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