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Alternate Reality Gaming

Ever wonder what it would be like to be a part of an adventure like Indiana Jones or a story right out of a Ludlum thriller? We all have, right? And so we play hundreds of RPGs and MMOs to experience a little bit of that thrill. But what if you could really be a part of something like that — really a part of it?
Welcome to the immersive world of Alternate Reality Games (ARG) — a form of gaming that uses the real world as a platform, while involving multiple media and game elements, a powerful storyline that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions, all the while relying on the internet as the central binding medium. ARG is where the line between games and reality starts to blur, mainly as a result of its primary mantra — TINAG (this is not a game). Reminds you of an obscure Michael Douglas movie called The Game? Precisely! While being part of an ARG, say you encounter a bomb which is steadily counting down in the back seat of a car you’ve gone to investigate. As it nears zero you begin to wonder, if only for a brief second, whether it’ll actually blow up or a flag will pop up saying “boom” – that’s how real an ARG can feel to its participants. Some of the nascent ARGs had participants just stumbling upon a web site, claiming certain anomalous events have taken place or are going to take place, and from then on, clues would send them on an online adventure trail. But instead of presenting a chronologically unified coherent narrative, the story would be discovered in scattered pieces across the Internet and other media, allowing players to reassemble it, supply connective tissue, and determine what it meant. In effect, the players would themselves not know whether they’re part of a game, a hoax, a prank or just some wild goose chase.

The one thing that ties all ARGs together is that you interact with the fictional world using things that you interact with on a daily basis in the real world. Also, you aren’t interacting as a character, as you would in most computer and video games. You also don’t need any special equipment, as you would with most console games. Most ARGs take advantage of computers and the internet (web sites and emails) as well as phones and even the occasional live event - finding something hidden in your city, gathering around payphones, or even live parties with character interaction!

The bulk of the game-play happens online in the form of solving puzzles, conducting research, and interacting with in-game characters and community members. But since it’s often a collaborative effort, there is no need for all players to do all tasks, which is good since some of the puzzles and clues are insanely difficult, making even seasoned players pull out their hair.

How did all of this begin?

Well, if you really want to trace it back it probably has its roots in the early television show promotion campaigns which sent viewers on so called “Treasure Hunts”. Then there was the whole Beatles “Paul is dead” controversy where thousands of people believed that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike and sound-alike. People went about trying to prove this by uncovering hints among the Beatles’ many recordings that alluded to this fact, such as statements heard when a song is played backwards, symbolic interpretations of obscure lyrics, and ambiguous imagery on album covers.

But the true seminal work in ARG was The Beast, so called because an early asset list for the project contained 666 files.

The Beast was set in the year 2142, fifty years after the events chronicled in AI. There were a few overlapping entry points to the game, or “rabbit holes”. First, some trailers and posters for AI had a credit for Jeanine Salla as Sentient Machine Therapist hidden among the credits for Spielberg and the actors. Second, one of the trailers had a telephone number concealed in the markings on the promotional text; if a player called this number and followed the given instructions he or she eventually received an email stating in part that “Jeanine is the key” and that “you’ve seen her name before.”

Each rabbit hole led to questions about Jeanine Salla, especially since one would not expect a film made in 2001 to require the services of a robo-therapist! Googling Jeanine brought up several web pages set in the fictional world of the game such as the homepage of Salla’s employer, Bangalore World University. Reading Salla’s bio page, the player encountered a link to the personal page of Salla’s granddaughter, Laia Salla, as well as Jeanine’s phone number. Following these clues leads the player to the homepage of Evan and Nancy Chan, family friends of the Sallas. Jeanine’s phone message revealed that Evan recently died in an alleged boating accident on his A.I.-enhanced boat, the Cloud maker. But it is learned from several sources that Evan was a superb swimmer.

At this point the player joins the investigation into Evan’s death. Over the course of the three months that The Beast went on, it incorporated thirty diverse in-game web sites, from the Anti- Robot Militia to the Coalition for Robot Freedom; from an architectural magazine to a sleep clinic, and from the coroner’s office to a hat store. As the game progressed, the players came across additional mysteries, such as who is killing AIenhanced houses, the location of the sexbot with whom Evan had an affair, and malfunctions in the weather-control system. By the end of the twelve weeks, players had completely immersed themselves in the in-game action.

Why should I care?

Unlike other games, this type of game reacts to the players moves. The Puppet-masters (creators) often are forced to change the story line mid-game and also come up with newer puzzles and sub-plots to keep the players engaged. They have to continually keep up with the combined intellect of the player community and in fact, be one step ahead — so no more linear game play. Still, if all this doesn’t excite you and you ask “hey so what, why should I play?” well then maybe you shouldn’t. Or maybe you’ll try to give it a shot if we tell you that ARGs are popular amongst female gamers. Sound interesting now?

In any case, if you’re not the puzzle solving type, there is a way out for you too. Thousands of enthusiasts lurk around on the periphery to just follow the plot, and put in an occasional forum post. The great deal of community interaction might just facilitate meeting some interesting people.

ARG as a marketing and promotion tool

Unlikely beneficiaries of ARGs are filmmakers, who find that promoting movies through this form of interactive entertainment really gets the buzz going. Steven Spielberg’s AI did it with The Beast, one of the first mass AIGs attracting over 2 million active users.

And it’s not just film and TV; even the music industry is taking to ARGs. Year Zero was an alternate reality game based on the Nine Inch Nails concept album of the same name. The game was launched just before the album was scheduled to release. In response to criticism regarding this form of promotion for the album, Trent Reznor, front man of the band, stated “The term “marketing” sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment. What you are now starting to experience is “year zero”. It’s not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record — it is the art form... and we’re just getting started. Hope you enjoy the ride.” So are these ads and gimmicks intrusive?

Not really. Most usually don’t even mention the product that they’re promoting. It’s actually a brilliant form of viral marketing as it gets a bunch of people to spend a lot of time exploring a world related to the product. Take the case of ‘I Love Bees’, a huge promotion for Halo 2. Those that did play it knew that it was a promotion, but not once did it scream, “Please buy Halo 2!”. Instead of flooding the users with Halo 2 banner ads, they were immersed in the back-story of the Halo 2 universe. Players spent months before the game was released interacting with some really cool fictional characters. For example, the game presented players with 210 pairs of global positioning system coordinates and time codes, with no indications to what the locations referred to. Players eventually figured out the coordinates referred to pay phones and the times to when the phones would ring; one player in Florida stayed by a phone while Hurricane Frances was minutes away in order to recite answers to prerecorded questions. Other phone calls were made by live persons known as “operators”; these calls allowed players to interact with the characters of the games in spontaneous and occasionally humorous ways.

And all the interaction between players made finding friends to team up with on Xbox Live really very easy. So sure, there is marketing, but it was really cool marketing that gave players something to talk about, something to enjoy.

ARG in India

Is there really a scope for ARGs in India? Does the average Indian gamer want thinking games, or is he more into the shoot-em-up, high definition type of entertainment?

Not really. IIM Indore’s online puzzle game Kluless got 12 Million hits a month. It was a series of levels, which required the player not only to think but be resourceful by googling stuff and thinking laterally. Although a precursor, it wasn’t an ARG in the true sense of the genre.

Perhaps India’s first real ARG was hosted as a part of Malhar, the all India college fest of St. Xavier’s college, Mumbai. Dubbed the “Richard Burns Project”, participants had just as much fun as the Puppet-masters who were pulling their strings! Players were immersed in a plot involving disappearance, espionage and semi-paranormal elements, thinly connected to actual events in Mumbai’s history like the 26/7 f loods and the World War II era dockyard blast. All the while players were actively solving web based, audio and visual puzzles to progress to the next stage. The final leg had them running all over south Mumbai in the wee hours of the morning in search of cryptic clues. But since it was part of the fest, it was not open to the general public.

  1. Puppet-master - A Puppet-master is an individual involved in designing and/or running an ARG. Puppet masters are simultaneously allies and adversaries to the player base, creating obstacles and providing resources for overcoming them in the course of telling the game’s story.
  2. The Curtain - The curtain is generally a metaphor for the separation between the Puppet-masters and the players. Puppet-masters generally remain behind the curtain while a game is running. The real identity of Puppet-masters may or may not be known ahead of time.
  3. Rabbit hole - Also known as a Trailhead. A Rabbit hole marks the first web site, contact, or puzzle that starts off the ARG.
  4. Trailhead - A deliberate clue which enables a player to discover a way into the game.

Where do I start?

(1) www.argn.com

You can find the currently running ARGs by visiting ARG Network, the best basic resource for ARG news and events. You’ll see a list of the most popular (and confirmed!) games at the top of the page with links to the forums where it’s being discussed as well as any other important resources (such as the game chat room).

(2) www.unfiction.com

The forums at unfiction (uf) will update you on the latest independent games.

(3) www.cloudmakers.org

Cloud makers now serves as a clearinghouse for online gaming. Members can find out about new games, find fellow players, and reminisce about and discuss The Beast. Besides, we suggest you keep your eyes open; you might just chance upon something somewhere, you never know.