Define Alternate Reality

In my free time over Spring Break, I attempted to continue making headway in Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken. For a game design student, I feel as though I ought to be taking notes the entire time as I read. But that thought aside, I was reading her chapter called “The Benefits of Alternate Realities,” which I was really eager to read since I was obviously interested to hear more of what she had to say on the topic of my thesis, and I came across something that I found rather thought-provoking. Here, I’ll write it in here. (This seems to be a trend, me copying in McGonigal’s words…)

Chore Wars is an alternate reality game (ARG), a game you play in your real life (and not a virtual environment) in order to enjoy it more. Chore Wars is essentially a simplified version of World of Warcraft, with one notable exception: all of the online quests correspond with real-world cleaning tasks, and instead of playing with strangers or faraway friends online, you play the game with your roommates, family, or officemates. Kevan Davis, a british experimental game developer who created Chore Wars in 2007, describes it as a “chore management system.” It’s meant to help you track how much housework people are doing– and to inspire everyone to do more housework, more cheerfully, than they would otherwise. — Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken, pg 120

As I read this I thought, “What? Chore Wars can’t be an alternate reality game. It’s not… big enough.” But then I went back and I read what she wrote again– “a game you play in your real life, not a virtual environment.” What? Can this be? An ARG that is so simple? What is this sorcery?

I read a little bit further and realized that maybe this was a form of an ARG. After all, this game is creating an alternate reality in which the chores that you do earns you points in a game land online. That’s not a true reality– it’s a reality that the game creates for you.

This has kind of redefined ARG in my mind. I used to think that an ARG was simply a huge massive game like Why So Serious or I Love Bees that had to have an elaborate and indepth narrative but no, an ARG can be something as simple as something that creates a new framework of doing something in your life. Keeping that in mind, at least for me, helps me to see game design in a whole new way. Instead of forcing myself to think a huge scale, I can look at a design problem and just think, “Okay, how can I create an alternate way of doing this that makes it fun.”

It was kind of a liberating realization, albeit a small one. I’d love to hear any thoughts about this!

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.

“Real Escape Game”: Totally My Cup of Tea

Okay so this. This is awesome. This reminds me a bit of the game that I just designed except on a much larger and harder scale. You can see the gist of the game in the video, but essentially players gather in a large enclosed area, such as a large building or sports stadium, and have to solve puzzles and riddles in order to move on through the different locations in the building, eventually leading to outside of the building, therefore escaping.

This is super awesome, and something like this is totally the kind of project that I would love to be involved with. It’s clever, it’s got enthusiastic people in it.

A full article about the game is here on ARGnet. Check it out! The American debut of this game is coming soon!

Puppet Masters: The Importance of a Team

Over the past four weeks, I have been in a chaotic state of panic and creativity as I launched my own version of an alternate reality game. I should note that the game that I created and launched was not a true ARG in many ways, but it did create an alternate reality for my University over the span of a week. I will be writing more posts on it later, I’m sure, but I wanted to simply post about the most important thing that I learned over the course of creating and implementing the game: the importance of a team when creating a game.

I feel like maybe this is obvious to some people– if you’re creating a large scale game, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to do all of the planning, implementing, logic-ing. That is clear. However, I think that no matter what the scale of a game is, even a game made only for a small university of only 2400 people and that had under 200 players, a game team is absolutely vital. There is just too much to do, too much to account for that a single person, no matter how brilliant and prepared they are can take care of.

I had help during my game, for sure. I was constantly bouncing ideas off my advisors and another thesis student. However, bouncing ideas off of people is different than having people intricately involved in the game design. If nothing else, having a team helps you with checks and balances. Just having someone there to say, “Hey are you sure that’s a good idea?” or “Maybe if we phrase it this differently, it won’t confuse as many people.”

My game only ran for a week and had under 200 players, and yet any alternate reality game that is launched requires so much attention to detail and so much involvement that no matter the scale, there needs to be a team of at least two or three people working on it. Several semesters ago, I worked on a project at an even smaller scale that the game that I just launched. It was so small that people didn’t even know it was a game and we had no one follow through to the end. We had a blast making it, but even still, it would have been impossible to pull off what we did if it was just one of us.

The technology that I used could have benefitted so much from a team. One of the most important aspects of a team is, of course, the ability to specialize with individuals who have certain specialities. One of my friends was already helping me with graphic design, but I easily could have used a video person for filming and editing, another person for developing an easy-to-use way to keep track of points (because that was an entire job in and of itself), and another for figuring out multiple platform distribution. I used the internet, email, and text messages and of course physical means to deliver my clues, but it would have been a lot cooler to find other technological methods to distribute clues. I feel like that can only be done with a team.

Becoming Peter Parker

The Amazing Spider-Man does an ARG

One ARG that I’ve been hearing about recently is the one in connection to The Amazing Spider-Man which I believe is being dubbed The Mark of Spider-Man. I produce a student-run show at Trinity University and one of my hosts actually covered a story on this a few weeks ago. I was too busy directing the segment to catch her entire story, but I was so pleased that ARGs were getting some coverage even at a very local level.

Anyways, ARGNet wrote up a great little summary of what’s been going on in the game so far, so if you haven’t heard of it, make sure to check it out. They also point towards Unfiction for more discussion as to what’s going on with this game. In the coming days, I’m hoping to loop back to this and do a more detailed discussion on this game, because I really love the idea of it, especially the clue in the trailer, an homage I think to The Beast. But really, how awesome would it be to open up a backpack and find Peter Parker’s stuff in there? I can’t even imagine. I think superhero tie-ins to ARGs are always so cool because the people who are going to play these games are already invested in it because they love the story already. It’s a great way to promote the movie, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Chuck Klosterman and Narrative

Yesterday, I had the extreme privilege to meet and speak with author Chuck Klosterman, who has written things such as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and The Visible Man. I’ll

Chuck Klosterman

have to say, he was pretty much exactly how he is in his books. Down to earth, very funny, and very conversational. Klosterman was in San Antonio at Trinity to give a lecture on pop culture and reality. It was really fascinating and it’s got me itching to ditch my homework and read all of his books. I thought that some of the things that he spoke about related quite nicely not necessarily to ARGs, but certainly to the idea of storytelling and media and technology, and how storytelling and narratives are changing with new media.

He talked a lot about television narratives and how television is at its peak– television has never been as good as it is right now. We had shows like Lost and right now we have really fantastic “high end” television shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and other AMC and HBO shows. He discussed how the way that television shows are structured, they allow for such depth and right now that is being taken advantage of in these “high end” television shows, shows that have the ability to spend more time on their characters and plots than say network television shows (even though shows like Lost did prove that was possible). Because television can show the subtle, slow character development due to its long, drawn out nature, television shows are replacing reading, especially reading deep literary fiction. This is a new storytelling medium that is finally being capitalized on. Television in the 70s and 80s was something to simply just be watched to pass the time; it has now evolved into this must watch phenomenon, where if you miss an episode, you actually catch up with it. Continue reading

Brief Review into my Research

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?)

What does the TARDIS have to do with my research on ARGs? Read below the cut to find out.

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 KnightI 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?

Continue reading

Call for Favorites

In my past six months of intensely researching alternate reality games, several games keep popping up in my research because of their exposure levels or measure of success by players or other game designers. I think it’s obvious to guess that the three that have cropped up the most are The Beast for A.I.Why So Serious for The Dark Knight, and I Love Bees for Halo 2. The Beast was arguably the first ARG and has retained notoriety for that. Why So Serious gained its popularity seemingly from the sheer amount of players it amassed (over 10 million). I Love Bees seems to have become an ARG favorite due to one of its designers, Jane McGonigal, and its quirky way of delivering clues– geolocation and pay phones.

I think my personal favorite ARG that I’ve read and studied about, besides Why So Serious, is Perplex City. Unfortunately, I’ve found very little literature or press about this game, even though I think it is just a really awesome game concept. I’m actually using some of its elements in my own game design. If anyone has any literature or information about the game besides the YouTube video previously embedded, I would love to read about it. The reason I’m partial to Perplex City is because it is already doing something that I really am focusing on in my research– the idea of crossing casual elements such as the game cards with smaller puzzles and larger, story arch puzzle pieces. I think this is brilliant because it allows for both casual and hardcore gamers. I really think that this is a great model because it opens up ARGs to more than just the elite few of gaming. I’ll probably dedicate an entire separate post to this idea because I can already feel myself getting off topic.

Some of the other ARGs that I’ve read about include:

  • Last Call Poker
  • Year Zero
  • Free Fall
  • Ghost of a Chance
  • The Shadow War
  • Traces of Hopes (British Red Cross)
  • The Lost Ring

There is so little information about these games out there for public access that this is all of the games I’ve come across in academic research. I believe my next step is to immerse myself into player sites and sort through the current ARGs that are being played in addition to some of the standout games of the past.

I simply pose the question of what do you think some of the top ARGs are in the past decade? Why? What made them work? What didn’t? Because there is so little information out there on followup ARG design, I’m trying to compile as much information as I can so that I can look at ARG design as a whole from an academic and theorist standpoint. It’s eventually my goal to have this great source of knowledge about all kinds of ARGs, both successful and not, so that designers can really look at them and then build on them. That is the goal after all, isn’t it? To build a better ARG?

I’d like to discuss lots of different ARGs in all shapes and forms and so I’d love to hear about any ARGs that anyone thinks are super awesome or super weird.