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You may be wondering what are alternate reality games, or better known as ARG’s? Firstly, let’s determine what it’s not. It’s not Virtual Reality, nor is it Augmented Reality. An ARG takes place in the real world, it blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Augmented reality systems can be used in ARG’s but they are not what makes it an ARG.
ARG’s are essentially very large and far-reaching mysteries with puzzles and clues in an elaborate story. They are stories that appear to be real, feel very real when you’re playing them, but are in fact complete fiction. “I think most of [the appeal of ARGs] is the feeling that the world around you is more magical than it might at first appear,”(Andrea Phillips, an ARG designer).
If you have come across the term ARG before, you might be thinking to yourself, but this was a thing back in the early 2000’s, I thought this was outdated and old. Well, you’d be half-right. It was quite a popular way back in the early 2000’s but people are still creating ARG’s today. It’s just that these new ones are smaller, more personal endeavors, either crowd-funded or created within companies, universities, and schools. Not like the old ones you remember which had a large corporate backing and were used as promotional tools.
The ARG became famous as a promotional tool for companies to leverage advertising in a transmedia world. It was an exciting way of getting better word of mouth marketing and interest into a new product. The most notable ARG’s are The Beast and I Love Bees for Spielberg’s “A.I.” and Halo 2 respectively.
As part of a marketing drive for both these products, the publishing companies behind them developed intricate ARG’s to get people more interested and invested in the product. And this was done through deciphering codes on websites, finding hidden locations, delivering items to dead-drops, listening to audio recordings, and so forth, the list goes on. But the main thing is that these games didn’t rely purely on the format that the product came in. The Beast did not purely exist in the film world, it was everywhere, so anyone could join.
Other examples are ARG’s developed for “Cloverfield”, “Super 8”, “Tron: Legacy” and much more. A more recent one that people may be familiar with is Blizzard’s ARG for the Sombra character in that was released in 2016 for Overwatch.
TV series such as “Supernatural” and “Dexter” have also dabbled in ARG’s.
Many of these ARG’s incorporated breadcrumbs/clue games and geolocation techniques to leverage a worldwide audience. They are also some of the first games to widely use QR and Barcode technology, due to its ease and visually cryptic look.
Many of these ARG’s were quite successful with a great number of people enjoying them. They all finished, either due to the game running its course or in some unfortunate cases, because the financing ran out. But many participants still remember them fondly because they seemed so very real.
As you may have seen in another article on this site, the Magic Circle is a concept from Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens, where everyone who enters a game, the circle, does so voluntarily (this is very important) and all agree to stick to the specific rules of that game. In essence, it’s a social contract for the reality inside of a game.
ARG’s are somewhat different in this respect. You don’t really know the ARG is there until you’ve already dropped down the rabbit hole. You fall into it rather than consciously accept an ‘invitation’. The magic circle within an ARG is a bit like swiss cheese, a bit porous. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s part of the game.
This duality of whether it’s really real or whether it’s fiction is what makes ARG’s so exciting and so immersive for the people who take part in it. The only catch though is that you as a player, have to start from when the ARG is initiated, at least if you want to have the full immersive experience. You can start later but it’s somewhat disorienting trying to catch up to where everyone else is. Having to discover the lore and story all on your own and all the fun and challenge of solving the puzzles and finding the initial clues is also somewhat removed. Mostly due to everyone having already posted it everywhere.
The story that creates an Alternate Reality in the game is the most important. In many games, you are balancing between mechanics, elements, narratives, aesthetics, and so on, but in an ARG it’s all about the story. As the story takes place alongside the real world, the mechanics are everyday life, the aesthetics are what people see when they open their eyes. But the story is what grabs them, it’s what pushes them along to find the next clue, to unravel the mystery that you have weaved.
The story of an ARG needs to be holistic and all-encompassing. For you, it must be clearly outlined, and have a few caveats in it for if the players cause a divergence in your storyline. But for the player it must come across as more of a legend, a myth, a story told as though it were lore and not a linear narrative that is spelled out.
If you were the player, you would need to find all the hidden clues that are spread out across the world in the various mediums that transmedia offers. At no point is an overt narrative presented to the player. They need to willingly follow the white rabbit, even though they aren’t sure where it’ll lead them. The surprise and discovery of an ARG are half the fun.
The problem I’ve found with ARG’s, and why they die silent deaths, is that by their nature they are too well hidden. And if something is too well hidden, well then, we come to the tree falling in a forest scene.
For an ARG to work well it needs to find traction. People need to become engaged with it and enough people need to be engaged in it for it to form a community that drives itself and makes the experience worthwhile.
Getting traction for an ARG isn’t easy because you must traverse that thin edge of creating a game that appears real enough that people buy into it but is still a game based on a fiction that follows certain rules. Many ARG’s don’t rise up because they don’t have enough funding for marketing, which means a lack of players. Or they had the right funding but it was so cryptic that not enough people joined and no community was formed.
The solution for this type of problem is varied, and it may prove difficult for you to solve them, even with these helpful tips. But I believe that the first most effective way to ensure that an ARG survives is by doing it on a much smaller scale. You may have grand ideas of getting the whole world to join in your treasure hunt, but it’s simply too expansive and expensive. Start small, either with your company or school.
If you’re lacking funds, then at least within those environments you can request for some budget or personnel to help. Otherwise crowdfunding through something like Kickstarter.com is a good alternative. Also, being within a company or school means you have direct access to your player base and can monitor them closely. Follow how they are progressing and make alterations as you see fit. This I believe is the most realistic way for you to develop your first ARG, and hopefully subsequent ones.
ARG’s are excellent tools to use for learning and development, in schools, universities and the corporate environment. There is another tool that looks similar to the ARG that you may be familiar with and that is the Live-Action Roleplaying simulation that so many Business Schools are fond of. These are great tools, don’t get me wrong, but they have some problems that an ARG might be able to solve or help with.
Firstly, the simulations are very short. They usually only last a day or two and therefore need to be fairly minimal and info-efficient in what they can teach a participant. You may have taken part in one of these, and even though they are fun, that’s usually all they are, fun. Very little active learning takes place, or the learning is so abstracted because it’s being forced through an arbitrary medium, just to make the day work. And on top of that, the participant buy-in is sporadic, due to the overt nature of the simulation/game.
Secondly, the learning outcomes of these simulations are usually predefined and static. They aren’t very flexible. For a 1-2-day experience, it has to be that way, but it does make it limiting. In an ARG the outcome is defined before the start of the game, but because it lasts much longer than a day or two, and is subtle, these outcomes are flexible and can be altered to suit the participants as they move along. This mimics real life a bit more, in that you can never be certain where a decision will take you, especially if you have limited knowledge and are working off scraps of information and clues.
Though one danger with this is that you run into what could be called an ARG’s sell-by-date. You always need to have an end-goal in mind. Even if there isn’t necessarily a hard and fast date associated with it, the game needs to end, it needs to have a climax. And the player must be made aware of this ensuing climax, even if it is on a subconscious level. If you string the player along for too long, then you run the risk of irritating and alienating them from the game and what it was you were trying to teach them.
One thing you don’t want to do is alienate players, because ARG’s are phenomenal at gathering very large and diverse groups of people together into a community, with a singular goal and vision. These communities are then able to solve highly intricate and complex problems, and they are only able to this if they are communicating, being challenged and having fun.
Therefore, if you wish to use the ARG concept, then it’s great for creating a collaborative environment, teaching teamwork skills and soft skills. It’s also great at transferring hard skills, giving the players an environment where they can apply knowledge that they wouldn’t necessarily use or have the opportunity to use elsewhere. Perhaps an idea if you want to promote cross-departmental innovation in a company.
Cross-departmental learning and cross-disciplinary learning is brilliant within an ARG. As this article mentions in an example; law students could be thrown into an ARG where they need to investigate and effectively plea or defend a court case as part of their term assignment. These students are then invested in this game for the next 4 months roughly. But other departments can be brought into this game as one-week experiences. For example, forensics students need to understand the ins and outs of a legal case, and law students need to know how to interact with physical evidence and reports. Combining these makes it a richer and more immersive learning experience for everyone involved.
Expanding on this, ARG’s can be developed around real-world problems and can leverage the ever-growing resource of people and their education. Jane McGonigal has spoken about this many times in her TedTalks and in her books: “Reality is Broken” and “Superbetter”. ARG is a community creating and use collective knowledge and energy to solve problems that singular individuals may or cannot solve.
The most important aspect of the ARG that you need to keep in mind is that no one person can or should be solve everything in an ARG. And no one person should develop an ARG. The breadth and flexibility to develop a truly engaging ARG would be too much for one person to bear. If you think an ARG is a great way to bring across some learning, then find partners or bring consultants. Reach out to other departments, leverage your own company or universities inherent knowledge base to create something exciting.
As much as an ARG can be a multi-departmental or multi-disciplinary experience for the player, developing it is very much a similar experience for those involved behind the curtain, pulling the strings and moving the puppets.
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