This is Not a Game… or Is It?

Though it was not my very first introduction to ARGs, I distinctly remember first hearing the phrase “This is Not a Game.” For those of you well-versed in ARG history, you will know that this phrase comes from the famous and venerated The Beast back in 2001. I actually still have the article that I read for class where I heard about this phrase. I’ll copy in the text:

“All of these immersive strategies reached a climaz in May 2001, when the cryptic disavowal “This is Not a Game” flashed briefly in red letters across the screens of millions of prime time television viewers, carefully embedded in a national commercial for the film A.I. This message has since become the mantra for both players and developers of immersive entertainment. To “TING” a game now means to explicitly deny and purposefully obscure its nature as a game, a task that has become increasingly difficult as immersive players grow more savvy about TING techniques. One of the most interesting post-Beast developments in the immersive genre has been the unusual TING methods devised by games that, unlike the Beast, do first announce and publicize themselves as games (usually to attract a paying player base) and then, only later, try to destroy the game-reality boundaries.” — Jane McGonigal, “This is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” (2003)

I love the idea of immersive game play. The first time I read about The Beast I was in total awe. How on earth could an entire network of clues be sustained and hidden at the same time? The idea of how much work it would take to maintain that just boggled me. And now having created and launched my own game, it boggles me even more.

However, as much as I love the idea of immersive game play and the idea of TING, my entire thesis is basically working against this model. My game framework clearly and boastfully claims itself as a game in order to reach out to as many people as possible. As a promotional technique, it has to reach out to as many people as possible or else it’s not doing its job. This is quite clearly then not TING-esque. In fact, it’s the opposite of TING. And that kind of makes me sad. I am in awe of  The Beast and it would be an absolute dream to work on something as ambitious as that in the future. I think working on something like The Beast would be a career high for me.

But on the other hand, in the way that the ARG genre is shifting, I don’t think that all games can take this approach. TING approach can only be taken by a select few special games. If every game takes it on, it no longer becomes special or exciting. Even more than that, it just seems like the immersive game design industry is turning to what McGonigal refers to in her quote– the backtrack method. Create a game world, and then somehow try to destroy those boundaries that separate the game from reality.

The way that I think that I would deal with this in my own work is to compromise. Create a game that clearly announces itself as a game in order to attract a mainstream audience that will play the game. But then inside the game, in the inner layers, hide rabbit holes to a deeper level of the game that will absolutely thrill the hardcore players. The casual players won’t have to know a thing about it, but the hardcore players will adore having this inner secret of the game. This is something that I attempted to introduce into my own game, but with only one Game Master, this proved exceedingly difficult.

ARGNet wrote an article about “A Fond Farewell to ‘This is Not a Game.'” I’m so torn– while I think that the ARG framework is moving in this new direction, I refuse to believe that ARGs will give this signature up. I want to root for games who do this. Will they be able to compete with the larger, self-declaring ARGs? In player-base size, no probably not. But in richness and satisfaction? Absolutely. If I ever get to the point in my career where I can create a game that employs the TING technique, I will absolutely take that chance. Because I believe in This is Not a Game.

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