Flavour of the Month is . . . ARG

Alternate reality games. Everybody is into these now. Even the BBC has become infected with ARG fever – Radio 1 did a nice little number with Frozen Indigo Angel this summer. Worked with some real pros.

There’s good reason for the infatuation. ARGs have a demonstrated ability to attract huge audiences and generate huge buzz. They’ve even been used in current affairs, by PBS in the ‘States.

There’s material on ARGs all over the blogosphere, so I won’t repeat what has already been done here. For the basics, there is the internet’s overmind.

I could give plenty of definitions (wiki has a good one) but it’s not terribly useful to describe what an ARG is. The trouble with ARGs is that they’re a little like jazz. If you have to ask what it is, said Louis Armstrong, you’ll never know. ARGs have a deserved reputation for being this incredible multiplatform way to generate buzz and move an audience, but to really get the ARG thing, you have to experience one, face to browser.

And there’s the rub – who has time to play a game that could be weeks (or years) long?

Good thing is, you don’t have to. In the course of recent nosings and ferretings through dark and unpleasant back channels of the internet, I’ve picked up two nuggets that’ll give you a good idea of what all the fuss is about in 20 minutes.

I recommend the following 5-minute run-through from Audi. It’s a summary of their Art of the H3ist – a very successful promotional ARG. The vid gives a pretty good idea of what ARGs are all about and how powerfully they can motivate an audience to become involved in a story.

Also, if you actually want to play a short ARG, check this out. It’s a promo for the crime series Bones on Sky One. I think it’s really cool and I suggest you try it – have your mobile handy (that bit only works in the UK, though).

Played it? Go on, play it. No point being interested in ARGs if you’re not willing to give one a go.

Wasn’t that cool when they called you on your phone? Send a chill down your spine? Did for me. That’s pure audience-hooking power right there, manifesting through your ring tone.

Strictly speaking, the Bones site is not an ARG – I’d classify it as a deep-interactive website. But it should be in this post because it has some features you don’t usually find in an ordinary web site:

  1. It has a story.
  2. It involves its audience directly in the action.

These are ARG features. Key is the audience inviolvement, which is what really makes ARGs ‘sticky’ media. When something is happening to you, it’s real by definition. Fiction is something you watch, read, or listen to. If you’re doing something, it’s real. ARGs are powerful because you are part of the action. Not as a character, not as an avatar – ARGs involve you. There is tremendous power in this.

Power that can be harnessed for journalism – if the topic is right. See, ARGs ask players to deploy very sophisticated skills.

  • Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
  • Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
  • Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.

(props to Christy Dena for this)

Essentially ARGs are massively multiplayer mystery puzzle games. But the massively multiplayer element means they are qualitatively different from any other puzzle game. Across the internet, they acquire a whole new dimension.

Often the clues in ARGs are so few and far between, and the puzzles so difficult to solve, that players need to form collaborative networks to solve them. In The Beast, one of the first ARGs, players at one point had to decode a message encoded with a vintage WWII Enigma cryptographic device. The message was presented to players as a string of seemingly random letters embedded in a web site. Solving this puzzle involved several steps:

  1. Finding the letters lost in the large web site
  2. Realizing this gibberish could potentially contain a message
  3. Coming up with the idea of trying to decode it with a 50 year-old Nazi mechanical encryption computer
  4. Finding someone who has a working model of a 50 year-old Nazi mechanical encryption computer
  5. Using the computer to decode the message.

Clearly, accomplishing this sort of task is a little hard for one player acting alone. But when that player has access to a web-based network of 50,000 other players, the chances of one of them coming up with an idea for a solution are high. Communities – chat sites and web forums – are thus key tools of ARG players. It’s like distributed computing, only distributed gaming.

ARGs challenge players to locate and decode information, solve puzzles, and come to conclusions to progress the story. And they challenge players to do this all collaboratively, sharing information and communicating effectively. Which is interesting, because all this is exactly what journalists do. So here’s a game that powerfully involves an audience in exactly the sort of advanced information processing we’d like to encourage. Pretty cool, huh?

Just don’t tell them they’re learning.

For more information, I highly recommend Christy Dena’s take on ARGs and hoaxes.

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