The Weird World of Alternate Reality Gaming

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“Install base: Everyone. The entire public. Platform: The world… A single story, a single gaming experience, with no boundaries. A game that is life itself.”

 

Would creating such a game be possible? And if so, how would it look?

 

Thankfully, we already have the answer: it is possible, and it would look a lot like a global scavenger hunt involving a multitude of fake websites, devilishly tough puzzles, forged phone numbers and a group of millions of players who aren’t entirely sure that what they’re participating in isn’t real. In short, an Alternate Reality Game or ARG (not to be confused with Augmented Reality Games).

It’s hard to put into words exactly what an Alternate Reality Game is. Broadly, it’s what you’d get if you combined one-part marketing experience with one-part story-telling, added a dash of puzzle-solving and a sprinkle of community mobilisation and let it all cook in real time in a handful of hotspots around the world.

 

Still confused? Let’s put the cooking metaphors back in the pantry and explain with an example.

 

In 2004 a group of active members of the gaming community were sent jars of honey that contained a website address and a countdown. The website, www.ilovebees.com, seemed at face value to be a relatively unassuming blog of a bee enthusiast – except for the fact it had been hacked or corrupted in some way.

At roughly the same time a trailer was released for the then-upcoming video game Halo 2 in which the URL for the same website briefly appeared. These two events led those curious enough to recruit more people and delve further into what seemed to be a rapidly unfolding mystery.

 

A story began to reveal itself to participants – the website had been taken over by a refuge-seeking AI from the future – with new pieces of the puzzle falling into place with each clue solved. These clues were given in a variety of forms: corrupted website code to untangle, image files to piece together, and even sets of numbers that turned out to be coordinates of phone booths around the world as well the time that somebody had to be there to get the next clue.

 

Pretty soon there were thousands of players around the world all working together to solve increasingly complex problems and piece together a story evolving in real time. The lengths players went to in order to complete the puzzles became astounding. Of the 210 pairs of coordinates of then-upcoming telephone booth calls, not a single one was missed – not even the one in Florida upon which Hurricane Frances was quickly bearing down.

 

ilovebees, as the game came to be called, eventually revealed itself to be a Microsoft-commissioned viral-marketing campaign for Halo 2. The ‘winners’ of the game were invited to play the game early at one of four movie theatres and collect a commemorative DVD – maybe not the best reward for risking death in the face of a hurricane, but isn’t the real reward always the fun had along the way?

 

ilovebees was one of the first ‘true’ ARGs that managed to blend together non-linear multimedia storytelling and mass participation in a way that had never really been done before. It turned out to be a huge success and its creator Jordan Weisman (to whom the quote at the beginning of this article is attributed) went on with his company 42 Entertainment to improve upon the concept. This culminated arguably in their 2007 work with the band Nine Inch Nails to promote the album Year Zero – a story definitely worth telling.

 

During the European leg of a tour in early 2007 Nine Inch Nails sold what looked like an ordinary t-shirt with concert dates on the back. At closer inspection, however, some letters stood out, spelling the sentence ‘I am trying to believe’ when lined up. Many people wrote this off as some artistic nonsense from NIN frontman Trent Reznor, until some savvy individual decided to key that sentence into a search bar with a .com on the end. And thus the rabbit-hole opened.

What it led to was a series of websites that seemed to describe a (worryingly familiar) near future dystopia set in the fictional ‘Year Zero’, complete with authoritarian governments, drugs in the water supply, police killings and religious conspiracy nuts. The alternate reality game was used to contextualise the upcoming album of the same name, the pieces of the story coming together through fans digging progressively deeper into the web of mysteries laid out for them to find.

 

Clues for the community to progress further in the game came from every angle – false emails, hidden website buttons and murals in physical locations around the world to name a few. One piece of information was even discovered as a picture hidden in the spectrogram of an unreleased song from the album, the song itself found on a USB stick left in a bathroom during a NIN concert in Lisbon.

 

Eventually a few of the most dedicated players were telephoned to go to a ‘resistance meeting’ in a parking lot in LA, ostensibly to protest against the authoritarian government of Year Zero. Some who made it there and were judged trustworthy were given burner cell phones and told to wait for further instruction. A couple of days later those phones were called and those who picked up were invited to a secret ‘resistance event’ which turned out to be an unannounced concert from NIN.

 

But the surprises weren’t over yet. Halfway through the concert a fictional SWAT team burst in, barrelled the band off stage and shut the thing down – something you probably couldn’t get away with in 2020 because it would seem too real.

Though Year Zero went on to win a bunch of advertising awards including the prestigious Grand Prix Cyber Lion at Cannes, Reznor doubled down on the fact that the ARG wasn’t a marketing stunt, but rather a part of the larger experience that was Year Zero; that the ARG, the album and the surrounding story together created the art form. While he has a point, both Year Zero and ilovebees were likely only as complex and far-reaching as they were because of the financial backing from Interscope and Microsoft respectively.

 

Can an ARG exist without a profit motive? The best example of an attempt at this is SFZero. It’s a self-described ‘Collaborative Production Game’, where the goal is to get people to interact with people and public spaces in new and often silly ways by completing community made tasks to collect points.

 

The ground rules are pretty simple: tasks have to be voted in by the community in order to be legitimised, though anybody can submit one. The harder the task, the more points it gives. Players must amass a certain number of points to unlock harder tasks. Points are only given when the completion of a task is verified, usually by photo, but other methods are accepted. Oh, also you’re not allowed to kill anybody or loot their corpses. And most definitely not both.

 

Here’s a brief selection of tasks players can complete in SFZero:

 

-       Ask strangers to take a photo with you on mass transport (7 points)

 

-       Hide ten objects in ten trees (15 points)

 

-       Designate an unused public for an amusing purpose (25 points)

 

-       Find an abandoned lot and seed-bomb it (35 points)

 

-       Protest something that isn’t normally protested, and is unlikely to change as a result of your protest. Make signs and hit the streets. Bonus points if you get others to join your protest (45 points)

 

-       Install a mirror in a public space (75 points)

 

-       Put a flag on top of the Sutro Tower (or your city’s equivalent) (1000 points)

 

You get the idea. Though SFZero is completely different from the examples discussed above, it still fits loosely under the ambiguous umbrella-term that is ‘Alternate Reality Game’ by way of having mass participation played out in an altered version of reality. Indeed, it’s a vague term, some people have argued that it’s easier to define an ARG by what it is not rather than what it is.

 

Definitions aside, it’s an exciting thought to wonder what innovations will be made in the near future. There’s still so much to be explored in the format and with the technology we have now (smartphones haven’t been properly utilised in an ARG as of yet) the possibilities are endless. With that in mind, maybe the ARG of the future is something again entirely different – could you be playing one right now without being aware of it? Always keep an eye out for the white rabbit…

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