Much to my surprise and delight, the April 6th entry received far more attention than I had expected having become a discussion point on Episode 20 of the ARG Netcast, hosted by Jonathan Waite, owner of the prevalent ARGN.
I must first say that having listened to the netcast, the ideas I attempted to convey were misunderstood. This, I believe, was a direct result of two contributing factors. Primarily, that entry came out more like a stream of consciousness and less like an op-ed (although I thank the panel for referring to it as an article, despite its format) which would no doubt foster confusion. Secondly, it is difficult to base an opinion using definitions that seem to be very loosely defined (more on this later).

With regards to the concept of the platformless narrative, my main point was that many ARGs do not transcend modes of communication in a way that I would characterize as platformless. More specifically, many of them simply define the platform in a different way. If an ARG’s story is advanced through the WWW and text message, with the puzzles distributed by way of card, its platform becomes simply the combination of the three. When a player is able to consistently predict(expect) the medium the game will use, the game becomes bound. It becomes chained. If I want to play a console, I go to the living room and turn on the TV. If I want to read a book, I open it up under adequate light. If I want to play certain ARGs, I get online and check the usual spots. I envisioned a system where any given player had no idea where, when, or how the next element would appear.
And no, the game creators do not need limitless resources to achieve this, just a less restrictive framework with which to tell their story. Technology has provided us with so many avenues to disperse information, why limit a game to just one, two, or three? Being truly platformless would be without a platform(huh?), using every medium available in what would appear to be a random(statistically equal, not deliberately so), creative order. Doing so would have no bearing on frequency, simply more completely integrate with our reality. If another world only had the web and text messages, you can be sure I’d choose to stay in ours. I tend to dig the robustness(yes) of what we have.
Brian Clark of GMD Studios speaking at ARGFest-o-Con 2007 explained platformless gaming as “…accepting the idea that gaming and play can happen anywhere, in any context, with any device. Once you sort of embrace that idea, it adjusts the way you see playfulness as your social role. So gaming doesn’t have any ‘this is the acceptable place to have gaming and this is the unacceptable place.'”
Embracing that idea is not possible when a game itself limits its scope and reach so definitively. It disallows the player from adjusting his/her concept of game. As Sean Stacey explains in the webcast, “the mechanics of how you deliver game pieces, the information bits, to the audience… it doesn’t matter what the mechanics are or what you use, or whether it’s biased toward a single medium or spreads across a few media or uses every available medium there is. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing an Alternate Reality Game.”
Then my question becomes, and should have been, why are so many limiting themselves to just a few media?

In retrospect, comparing ARG generated text messages to the ‘joke of the day’ services painted a picture other than was intended. Certainly the comparison made it sound like the text messages were of no purpose within the game, which is definitely not true. The point I was trying to make was that text messages are inherently impersonal and as such, do a bit to pull the player out of the alternate reality. As Jonathan Waite points out, the text messages in Perplex City had a purpose, but only engaged the player at a passive level. The very definition of immersion implies active participation — being ‘in the midst of it all.’ Perhaps the limitations of the medium lends itself to be used sparingly, at least relative to other methods within an ARG.

I agree with Jessica Price that marauding a game as real life for its whole duration is not advisable, or possible. I would contend that any reasonably intelligent person would eventually discover they are part of a form of entertainment or art. With the current emphasis on puzzles used as ‘gates’ for players, it shouldn’t take too many rot13 solutions before the player realizes it’s something a bit more ‘alternative’ than their day job.
But so many ARGs explicitly or implicitly identify themselves as a game through future dates or deliberately admitting it’s fiction. Why not let the player figure it out? Why remove the mystery before the player had a chance to explore it?

I think Nico Demeter was the closest to grasping my original thoughts(credit to him). He says, “I think that his point though, that eventually it becomes such a unique experience that you boil it down to a select few.” He goes on to say, “he sees ARGs as something that eventually becomes a unique experience or at least a selective group of few individuals as opposed to something that’s out there that invites people to get involved and the ARG adjusts itself to the player base as opposed the player base kind of is weeded out because of the ARG.”
My billboard example with you, the player, being “certain the message was meant for you, because it was,” incorrectly gave the impression of targetting a small group of players. The idea is to create a system in which many people are certain that billboard was meant for them, but given the method with which the message was delivered, makes them wonder if that’s the case. They believe they are unique in this experience. The idea is to start and continue an ARG without it being so obvious that it’s a new game. The idea is to avoid 10,000 people all rushing to a single online forum to share with each other the same information and finding out that once again, they are not special and yes, it’s yet another similarly formatted ARG.
What if 10,000 individual people[strangers] in a single metropolitan area discovered the ‘significant attributes’ of that billboard? All inquisitive persons would pool their personal resources to discover the purpose, not knowing that many others are doing the same. It might not be until the story brings each person(with their accumulated coterie in tow) to a single physical(or live virtual) location that they realize they had colleagues all along.
The experience is unique, special, and significant, yet the concept of cooperation does not have to be forfeited, especially if the story demanded those individuals expand their knowledge by interviewing experts they did not previously know.
Significant experiences or events in one’s life do not always rely on community. I would contend that more than half the world’s defining moments as persons happened in a very individual way. I think there is a place for both types of ARGs (community-based and individual-based) that appeal to two different types of people with the same ultimate outcome. I would like to see more of the latter.

Shortly referencing end of the second paragraph – In an effort to increase my understanding of ARG terminology, I referenced many sites that are regarded as ARG authorities and found little consistency. I think this must change before ARG as a genre is accepted by mass media.

Kudos to the panel for having the discussion. I think these are the dialogues that are needed for the continued maturation of the genre and what will ultimately force generation of finite and widely accepted definitions of ARG-specific terms… a standard.

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9 Responses to “ARG Generation Iteration Redux”

  1. Eric Trott Says:

    Since I quit smoking I can only keep a few minutes of information in my head at a time. So I would like to ask which web-sites you have been to?

    I would also like to add that what you are describing has already occurred with such games as “The Beast” (how, from my understanding, ARGN and Unforums got formed), “Art of the Heist”, “Last Call Poker” and probably some others that I do not remember at this time. There were people outside of the community that were drawn into the game (via pop-up ads and television commercials) without even knowing that it was a game until they were introduced to it (much like the “LG15” creators).

    I think you are looking more at “grassroots”, which use the internet as their foundation, where “corporate” use the internet as a gathering place rather then a platform of play.

    I think that no matter how “real” you try to make the game, or how much of the “real world” you try to use, the internet will still play a large part of how the game is played because it is the one place that is easy for people [players] to get to and converse about what they are doing. The beauty of “alternate reality games” is that it really is the players who decide how the game is going to be played. It just so happens that a lot of the players decide to use the internet to exchange and locate information.

    One question that I have always had about “alternate reality games” is how large can the player base really get? If a trailhead is located in the real-world (we will use your example of a billboard), how many people in the area of the trailhead will see it (#1) and (#2) how many of those who see it will know what to do with it?

    In marketing you have to know two main things: 1) who is your target market? 2) how will you reach your target market?

    “Alternate Reality Games”, as with any marketing platform, has a specific (that is going to be the wrong word to use, I just know it) “target market” even though it may not be the market that the company who is putting the game out is trying to attract.

    For example, a lot of the people who ended up playing “Art of the Heist” probably couldn’t afford a brand new Audi A3. But one thing that “AOTH” accomplished, if nothing else with the players, was getting a positive brand response.

    I think a lot of people did not know who Audi was as a company. Sure, they probably have heard of Audi, but really didn’t know the company. This experience provided those people with a better view of the company (even though they probably couldn’t afford anything that the company was offering) then they had before, and a good image in business is very important. Just look at how much money other companies spend each year trying to make a positive brand image and all Audi had to do was create an “alternate reality game”.

    If for no other reason then that, “alternate reality games” will have a place in business marketing.

  2. SWIFIT Says:

    My initial digging started with the Wikipedia article about ARGs, then moved into the Unfiction glossary. Further scavenging led me to less helpful sites and ultimately video captures of ARGFest panelists providing oral explanations.
    I agree my focus tends to be more on what is currently considered grassroots. This is mostly because current corporate endeavors into the ARG world have largely been marketing campaigns and not actual games(entertainment only), although the line between the two gets stepped on regularly. I see the ‘grassroots’ (or more specifically, independent) sector to be largely untapped in terms of potential and revenue.
    Again, I agree the internet will always play a relatively central role in any real-world happening. That has become a fact of life in any capacity. What I disagree with is the ARG system doing this for the players, or despite the players. There has been some substantial debate in the unforums around this, but I side with those arguing that the game system should not force the internet onto the players through either blatant collaboration tools or heavy reliance on websites. Website heavy systems just feel lazy.
    Your comments about size of player base bring me to the point. As with any new system or technology, scalability is important. However, achieving that should not be done at the sacrifice of granularity. I am currently searching for a(some) creative writer(s) that want to build a story. I would like to design a system that succeeds in all the elements I have described and in a way that will work in any size market — a system that will work with any story of any complexity. This proof of concept would start small and grow with applications of lessons learned through each iteration. If you know of any creative folks interested, hit me up. Thanks Eric.

  3. Brian Clark Says:

    I think your criticisms of “platformless” are valid, but the real world is full of so many complexities. In reality, it isn’t that you want to use each media or platform equally … it is that you want to use each media or platform for what it does best. One reason you see such an emphasis on online and Web is because what it does best is create community (and communal play is a big part of the genre) and because it still gives you a huge range of options … wait for it … texturally. (Inside Unfiction joke: somewhere someone is drinking because I used that word.)

    Where I think you start to hit the nail on the head is in that balance between individual and communal experiences. Individualized experiences are the main part and parcel of the media arts, communal experiences are the main part and parcel of the performance arts.

    There are still WAY too many people building the Web who think HTML is a medium rather than a performance. ARGs are a really interesting way to treat it like a performance. So if we tend to lean more into the communal, it is just because it is really fun to stretch the rubber band in a surprising direction.

  4. SWIFIT Says:

    With the majority of current and recent ARGs being experiments in tugging on the boundaries of the Web, is anyone besides me concerned with the precedent being set?
    The introduction of the performance arts through technology is obviously paramount for a number of reasons, but the current direction of the genre leads to communal proponents alienating the individualists (I like irony).
    Defining the genre as requiring communal play I think is a monumental mistake that seems to be, so far, completely accepted by the ARG community. Why isn’t anyone else refusing to drink the Kool-Aid?

  5. Brian Clark Says:

    Don’t think for a second, Swifit, that these definitional issues aren’t an area of constant, vigorous, unproductive debate among both genre enthusiasts and creators. Labels and their definitions are strange membranes that separate the “us” from “them” for many people in the community. If this is to ever be a healthy genre, that’s a line that should be in constant renegotiation (and be constantly tested and prodded by creators with a rebel streak.)

    As a creator and artist, I don’t really care what labels fly around externally to describe something I do (what does the skunk care what name the fawn has given it?) Some of what we do is “ARG”, some of what we do is “ARGish”, some of what we do is “non-ARG”. You should hear some of the labels that people stick on us or our work … sometimes years after the work is done. To constantly argue “it’s not a mockumentary, it is a faux-documentary, and there is a big difference” is ultimately exhausting and frequently unsuccessful.

    So you can call me Flower if you want to.

    Metaphoric example: there’s a school of psychology that approaches the problem of mind/body by suggesting that you don’t really feel emotions. You use “emotions” as a label to explain the internal feedback your nerves are giving you — you’ve learned what “fear” feels like in your body, so when those feedback elements start to kick on you label that subjective experience with the “fear emotion” shorthand. Asking someone how they know they are feeling that emotion produces a blink-fest of confusion in most people: they just know it, because the brain is designed to let that gestalting of feedback happen.

    Right now, I’d argue that much of the community’s definition of ARG is derived in a similar proccess. People had an experience (like all those little nerve endings) that required a label, to separate it from the other kinds of experiences one might have (oh, this is “love” not “fear” even though they have some similar traits.) However, that gestalt whole is actually a variety of smaller pieces of feedback working together, and not everyone has the same feedback from any experience (do the hairs on your arms stick up when you’re afraid? mine do … but they do that when I’m cold too, so am I cold or afraid right now? if I shave the hair on my arms does that mean I won’t be cold or afraid again?)

    So, long metaphor answer to your Kool Aid question reduced to simplier declaration: for many people in the existing community, the communal gameplay experience was an important element of what made their experience special. When you’re afraid, the hair on your arms goes up. When you’re playing an ARG, you’re having a communal gameplay experience.

    That definition could change as easily as a lot of people having an ARGish experience that was very low on collaboration THAT ALSO WAS ENGAGING AND “GOOD”. Then everyone would try to incorporate the feelings of playing that game into that label “ARG” … or more clearly define the edge between what that label means when other people apply it to your work versus some other label.

  6. Brian Clark Says:

    Gawd, typing more, but it occurred to me what you are describing is also perceptual narrative criticism (how’s that for ironic.)

    Different types of media experiences do different things to the implied relationships between protagonists and audiences. “Communal” is a short walk away narratively from “audience” which touches alot of transitional forms (and in transitional, I mean “between oral tradition and some future that works as naturally as that” which started with Gutenberg or papyrus or clay tablets or something.)

    Much of modern video gaming is based upon an egocentric storytelling method that’s unusual from the view of transitionary media makers — each audience member is the protagonist (or at least has a representation, “another you”, that fills that role.) Collaborative narrative still happens, but happens through the intersection of individualized protagonists. That’s actually a closer model to the way we experience real life (where we are each the protagonists of our own private movies, even if our “external self” might be representational of our “internal self”.)

    At the other end of spectrum might be something like the novel or the television show or the movie: you are a third-person observer of the actions of others. That isn’t you on the screen, that isn’t even a representation of you in the novel.

    Your argument about communal versus individualized is another way of asking where on the continuity between those two narrative points the “ideal experience” would be. ARGs rarely have opportunities for individuals to feel like a protagonist and can produce way too many experiences that feel like being a bench warmer on a team.

  7. SWIFIT Says:

    I would contend for the genre to be healthy, the line needs to be clearly defined with no renegotiation, but must have the constant testing and prodding you speak of. It is impossible to innovate on a moving target that allows only the deeply emerged to understand the structure at any given time, a pain myself and others feel right now.
    Historically, artists, especially the original artists, rarely label their own work. Afterall, artists do not create works to fit in a box, so why should they worry about building a box around their work? That’s what technical people like myself are for.
    Your metaphor very accurately illustrates and reiterates the monumental mistake the community is making, which I assume was your point. I suppose I don’t understand why the definition was formed by what I would consider the short-sidedness of feeling and experience. An enterprise look at the “ARG” concept immediately reveals directions excluded from today’s ARG dogma. I also suppose if the only[easiest] way to alter the community’s notion of an ARG is to let them experience a low collaboration system for themselves, then I’ll throw that mission statement on a Post-It at my desk and get started immediately. If nothing else, that type of ARG would attract a large sum of players who would not otherwise be interested in the genre.

    Perceptual narrative criticism, I like that. You again understand my view well. I would very much like to see entries into the genre that do not utilize the hive mind protagonist (collective detective for those at home).
    Were audiences so different in thought processes pre-papyrus that each audience member was unable to make revelations individually and simply discuss with others? This communal format of current ARGs creates a situation of either being an individual and behind the group, or joining the group and allowing others to control your pace. For example, with thousands of people working on the same puzzle, you’re likely not the one to solve it first. Your two choices are continue to be diligent and lose pace with pack (and ultimately the story as elements are triggered), or consume the solution as a spoiler in hopes of enjoying the story as it was intended (which goes back to repeatability).
    I think where ARGs have failed is proper appeal to those looking for the model closer to real life, which I contend is the shorter walk away from “audience” in the transitional sense of the word. It need not be egocentric, but at the very least egoaccepting. That’s why audiences of any presentation (movies, theater, lecture) become upset or walk out when others interrupt the ability to consume the media on their own accord.

    “Don’t tell me what’s about to happen or what it means. Let me do it myself and then I’d love to discuss it and check for insight I might have missed.”

    I wouldn’t dare attempt to define what the ideal experience should be. Even very well-defined genres don’t do that. I just want to see the single dot that ARGs currently inhabit on the narrative spectrum expanded to include a range of methods. Why settle for a non-dimensional point when you can have a one-dimensional line?

  8. Evan Jones Says:

    Kudos to you Swifit for your thoughtful response. Please keep them coming! I think the dialogue is great and obviously something that has got the attention of the community.

    What caught my eye was the discussion about unpredictability – the idea that the player/participant would have no idea where the next story element might appear. I cannot believe I am going to sound like my grandfather in this post, but I have some pragmatic issues from being a little too unpredictable in the past.

    1. The first is that an ARG without any boundaries is exceptionally easy to hijack. It is completely without a ‘safe zone’ to confirm in-game and out-of-game content and often sends players down digressions that exhaust their energy. True, it’s not as immersive or realistic but that brings me to my second point…

    2. ARGs are not really like real life at all.

    There, I said it. And I mean it in the nicest possible way. In the ARGFest videos, one of the techniques I mentioned was to set up characters first and give them reasons to communicate with the audience. What naturally falls out of that process is that certain characters communicate in certain ways, and pretty consistently stick to those methods. Here’s an example from personal experience: my aunt isn’t very good at computers and so she keeps in touch by random phone calls near holidays and typewritten letters. My best friend is always on the road but carries a Blackberry and talks in short email bursts. My spouse lives in my house and leaves notes on the kitchen table. It’s very rare for my spouse to type me a letter or my best friend to leave a note on the fridge. In fact, it’s completely inappropriate for their ‘character’ to break out of these conventions.

    I’m all for new characters to approach the user in novel ways but I just wanted to make the point that predictability may actually be closer to an immersive reality than you think.

    I think the reason I am so compelled to comment is that I know the exact same feeling that you’re describing in your post. The feeling that I am a part of something special – not some mass-produced entertainment vehicle but a story that I can personally influence. Your descriptions of ‘billboards that are meant for ME’ are exactly the chilling feeling that got me to dive head first into ARGs in the first place. Something like that would be a wake up call, a jarring experience to snap me out of my reality and into a new one. It’s something I strive for in everything I do.

    Thanks,
    Evan Jones

  9. SWIFIT Says:

    Evan,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree with your point that an open ended ARG would be easy to hijack and, admittedly, had not thought about that. Without dwelling on it too much, however, I could see myself arguing that those hijackings might not necessarily be a bad thing. For myself and, I believe, the majority of others, the best experiences are often the unplanned or more accurately, on your way to something scheduled. What’s the motto of Venice? “The best thing you can do here is get lost.” Having been there, I would agree. I always hated the “journey is more important than the destination” cliché, but I think it applies here. The meat of the ARGs themselves is the journey, so I’d be interested in investigating the validity of micro adventures within a larger system. Either way, I do not think it would be too hard to make the ARG itself identifiable. How do you know it’s your friend calling you on the phone instead of a random person claiming to be her? Caller ID and her voice? An ARG character would be identified in similar ways.
    See, I think ARGs should be more like real life. Your explanation of certain characters sticking to particular media of communication supports this because, as you explain, that’s what people do in real life. I simply do not understand the conscious and deliberate limitation or rather, neglect of many viable ways to communicate with the players.
    I realize it all comes down to preference of the player, but as I’ve said before, I represent an enormous group of people current ARGs almost purposely alienate because we find constant and blatant puzzle grinding boring. I love puzzles, but I’ll go find a book full of them when I’m in the mood. No one will ever convince me or anyone else in the aforementioned group that there is any immersion at all involved in working puzzles on a website to unlock more puzzles, or reading a girl’s diary that tells you on the cover that she’s fake. There is no alternate reality in that. They are just games; far less immersive than many PC or console titles that are truly compelling.
    Your final paragraph is “it”, and no one has accomplished this (or really even tried). I would love to work with a team dedicated to it, but it is certainly too much for an individual that has to concern himself with the trappings of his original reality.

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