Since I’ve decided to start a blog on alternate reality games, I thought it would be a good idea to explain what I think my credentials are in this field, since ARGs are a rather niche and complex beast (ahhhh, see what I did there?)
I very first learned about ARGs about three years ago in my very first Communication class as a freshman. The final question of my Mass Media take home exam asked us to examine the work of Jane McGonigal and several other ARG design companies (their names escape me now, but I’m sure 42 Entertainment was among them). As soon as I started researching, I was entranced. Games played in real world space? Surely nothing that awesome could exist. But exist they did. I remember distinctly writing on my exam to my professor “THIS IS AWESOME” before turning it in.
In my subsequent Communication classes, ARGs kept cropping up here and there, especially in my class on Transmedia Storytelling. I studied them in more depth here, learning about The Beast and Perplex City, and eventually I worked in a group with two other students to actually create our own ARG for our campus. We put it together in less than three weeks, and it was the most rewarding, entertaining thing I think I’ve ever done at Trinity. The end result was less than satisfactory (students who were intended to be players couldn’t make the jump from the online clues to the real world clues despite our almost forceful guidance), but it was still an eye-opener into what I could do with my creative and logistical skills.
This year, as an undergraduate senior I am working on my year-long Honors Thesis, which is essentially a course in which I do independent study in a specific area of focus. I decided to focus on ARGs and their promotional uses, since most of the major ARGs have promotional tie-ins (The Beast for A.I., Why So Serious for The Dark Knight, I Love Bees for Halo 2 , etc). I had actually studied this idea in my public relations class several semesters previously. However, what I also noticed was that ARGs were only being used to cater to a rather non-mainsteam audiences, usually ones that are already heavily involved in fringe gaming. Therefore, only a small demographic is being reached by ARGs. When I realized this, I decided that this was something that I could focus on– how could ARGs reach a larger demographic and therefore promote to wider range of people so that more people could experience the awesomeness that are ARGs?
Thus, I commenced my research for my entire first semester of senior year, researching various ARGs and other game designs, along with promotion techniques. After this, I condensed my findings down into a list of best practices for ARG design. Some examples include intense collaborative participation from players, multiple platforms for clues, low barriers of entrance, etc. Once I compiled this list, I combined some of these elements with design elements of casual game design. I did this because I wanted the depth of an ARG but with the functionality and ease of play of a casual game. A tall order, I know. However, I came up with this idea by thinking back to my Transmedia Storytelling class in which I studied the storytelling technique of Doctor Who (Yes, I study Doctor Who in school).
In our analysis of Doctor Who, we read an article by the wonderful fandom scholar Matt Hills called “Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005-2008) as Cult/Mainstream Television” that discussed that the success of the show largely came from the fact that the show was able to be watched by both casual viewers and hardcore viewers. People could watch an episode or two out of order without necessarily having to know what happened in the episode before it. However, more dedicated fans were also able to enjoy the long-term narrative of the show because of the subtle references to larger story arcs in these individual episodes. The example that this particular article pointed out was the constant references to “Bad Wolf” in season one (of the revamped series). Casual viewers wouldn’t particularly notice these references and therefore their enjoyment of that particular episode wouldn’t be distracted by some overarching storyline that they didn’t understand. At the same time, dedicated fans would notice these reoccurring instances of plot points and gain pleasure from recognizing that it was a sign of something bigger. This idea is also marked by the reference in the show to the “Time War” that occurred between the Time Lords and the Daleks. It is referenced in quite a few of the episodes of the show even though the War is never actually depicted in the show. This War has a significant meaning to the characters and the overarching meaning of the show, but not necessarily to ever individual episode. Therefore, if the Time War is mentioned, a casual viewer will still understand the individual episode without having to understand the implications of the huge War. A more dedicated fan, however, will understand the implications and will be able to connect this individual episode to past episodes, creating a deeper and more complex narrative. This illustrates the idea of “absent epic” and “implied story arc.”
So why did I just summarize that entire article for you? Because I wanted to take the idea of the absent epic that made a television show a success for both casual and dedicated viewers and apply it to game design in order to make a game that was a success to both casual and dedicated players. By combining elements of casual gaming with alternate reality gaming, I have created a new breed of game which I have called Casual Transmedia Game. This game will have elements of casual games, like short puzzles that take very little commitment, but also will have an overarching story that a player can engage in if he or she wishes to. Completing the smaller puzzles will earn players less points than completing the larger puzzles, but with the right balance of points determined by the game maker, it will be possible to win the game by only doing smaller puzzles. Thus the game attracts players who are more casual and more serious.
I will be putting my theory into practice in about a month’s time by designing and implementing a game on my college’s campus. Right now, I am still in the designing and production stages of my game. Hopefully throughout the next few weeks, I’ll be able to give updates on how I feel my game design is working out. I’m really hoping that the design of this game turns out to be successful, and I have high hopes that it will. Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see.
If anyone has any comments on my game design theory, please feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoyed reading about my theory that I’ve been developing for the past six months, and hopefully it gives you some insight into my knowledge and experience on ARGs.