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Alternate Reality Games

Another one for Simon.

That new media is capable of presenting material whose true purpose and origin might not be as it first appears is by now a commonly understood aspect of our online experience. In a negative light, websites purporting to be credit-clearing centres are responsible for hundreds of thousands of spam emails every day, resulting in any degree of disruption from irritation to fraud. Conversely, on a more positive note, the richness of media content now available online has resulted, alongside the growing maturity of our engagement with new media, in a host of narrative projects that rely on that unclear identity for their maintenance and engagement.

Conceived as a promotional tool for Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in early 2001, the first recognisable Alternate Reality Game (ARG) – nicknamed The Beast – drew upward of 10,000 players across the world into a murder mystery set in the fictional world the film presented. Over thirty websites were used to present the story, with scripted elements throughout, combined with email messages, video clips and puzzles.

Since 2001, dozens of ARGs have played out over the Internet, sometimes associated with a major media release (The Matrix sequels were accompanied by unofficial ARGs and the 2004 release of Halo 2 was promoted by means of a detailed ARG (I Love Bees) first hinted at in the movie trailer for the game) and others developed and released independently.

Of particular interest to the future of television and online media is the gradual convergence of ARGs and television drama. Emerging as a result of US TV networks’ reliance on a limited viewing season for shows (typically 24-26 weeks over a 40 week run, interspersed with repeated episodes, and three to five week story arc runs prior to and around key advertising periods), a number of networks have experimented with aspects of the ‘continuing narrative’ format of ARG stories between season breaks. The first major tie-in, has been the Lost ARG, designed to run between season 2 and 3’s broadcast schedules in the US. Co-funded by Channel 4 and ABC, and extending the narrative of the show by providing an ongoing ‘background story’ for the corporation named as a significant aspect of the island’s origin, the ARG has attracted mainstream media attention and given fans of the show a narrative to follow and, as is the purpose of an ARG, participate in, during the season break.

It has further been argued (by Dr Jane McGonigal and following, by Charles Leadbeater) that ARGs represent a manifestation of Collective Intelligence (CI). Requiring disparate teams of players to work together to solve narrative-based problems can certainly result in group organisation and cohesion. Furthermore though, Pierre Levy’s proposal that within a CI culture, knowledge “ceases to be the object of established fact and becomes a project” bears fruit in the experience of ARG players and PuppetMasters (the term adopted for designers and creators of ARG narratives), wherein teams of player do not simply respond to clues and puzzles in an anticipated fashion, but work to discover new methods and strategies to solve problems. The experience of Hazel Grian and Jon Williams’ MeiGeist demonstrates this phenomenon, one that is designed to work at the heart of their later project The Sky Remains.

Or, you can have the Guardian’s summary, from Thursday’s technology section, which is rather less wordy than my efforts above:

An ARG is an interactive narrative 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 adverts and more. All of which sounds like it must require even more effort and resolve than a bank holiday gym session, but ARGs employ media – text messages, blogs, social networking sites, video-sharing – that many people already use on a daily basis.

“We find the people who play these games range from teenagers right up to people in their 50s,” says Hazel Grian of Bristol-based Licorice Film, producer and director of new ARG The Sky Remains, in which players join a fictional detective agency and hunt for hidden messages scattered across the globe. “It’s something you can do while you’re doing other things, using skills you’ve already got.

That’ll be Jon Williams’ motion graphics illustrating the header of the article too. The boy done good.


One comment for “Alternate Reality Games”

  1. Didn’t you have to explain to Hazel not so long ago what AAARGHs were?

    Posted by mongo | July 25, 2008, 3:16 pm

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