Five lessons ARGs can teach Journalism

ARG designers suck.

That was the upshot of Dan Hon’s presentation at the ARGs in in Charity and Education conference at Channel 4 last Friday.

His talk was the highlight of the day for me, probably because he was animatedly ranting about things that I’d only dimly considered before.

“How many of you have actually designed ARGs?” Dan asked, as he walked up to start his presentation. About a third of the hands in the audience went up.

He punched in his first slide.


it said,  in big friendly blue capitals. (Dan, if you’re reading, do us a favour and blog your pres. Dan’s presentation is now up.)

I’m inclined to agree with him. Obscure puzzles, codebreaking, twisted plot lines, and the inevitable webcam-equipped teen heroine (amnesia optional) are getting old. Dan’s point was that all this stuff isn’t enough any more. The numbers speak for themselves – ARGs just aren’t bringing in the crowds these days, not in an eyeballs-per-dollar sense. The novelty days of The Beast and I Love Bees are gone – now multiplatform interactive narrative needs something more.  ARGs need to work as stories and as games, as well as big social media experiences.

Dan’s point was that so far ARGs haven’t been up to scratch narratively or ludically, when compared with established genres.

But we can still learn something from ARGs, because they have been very good as social media experiences.

Journalism for Social Media

ARGs are really good examples of large-scale interactive storytelling in a multimedia environment. This is something that wasn’t possible before, and it’s something we’ll see a lot more of in the future. It has already begun to happen in news: the BBC’s coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks is an excellent example. They liveblogged the whole thing, bringing in links to tweets and blog posts from people on the ground. It was a little like World Without Oil – lots of people collaborating to tell a story, with the BBC’s reporters in an editorial role. Only in this case, it was actually happening.

There are lessons we can learn here. Long-form journalism hasn’t yet figured out how to adapt to the social web. But ARGs point the way. This was the subject of my presentation, which you can download if you want.

Five Lessons for Journalism

  1. Network effectively
  2. Focus your public with a challenge structure
  3. Be platform agnostic
  4. Tell stories collaboratively
  5. Interact

These are all things that successful ARGs do routinely.  Every one of them can make long-form journalism better.

Network effectively.

Ayres no Graces
Photo: Ayres no Graces

ARGs are all about building and using a community to solve a problem or tell a story. Probably this is the most important lesson: building community is the long-term goal. Long form journalism in social media can benefit from collective intelligence, the ability of groups of peoople to accomplish intellectual tasks they couldn’t achieve on their own. A functioning community is vital to this.

It’s about connecting the audience to each other. They have the tools to do this. You don’t need to build them, (though you can) but you need to participate. Even as a lurker.

A community shares values. If you’ve participated, they’ll share YOUR values. That means they’ll be more effective inattain ing your objectives, whether that’s investigating an issue or telling a story.

Focus your public with a challenge structure.

Photo: SideHike

The ‘Game’ in ‘ARG’ is about challenging the public to do something, not just watch. Challenges motivate. They’re essential to game design and they should be essential to interactive storytelling, whether factual or fictional. Nothing makes people participate like the feeling that if they only do it right, they can make a difference. But make sure they can make a difference (see lesson 5).

This is a challenge.

More of this, please.

Be platform agnostic.

Photo: Gak

There’s this myth about the TINAG aesthetic for ARGS – “This Is Not A Game.”


In fact, exactly the opposite is the case.

In a classic ARG, everything is the game. Mobile phones, movie trailers, posters, band gigs, TV spots, t-shirts, sky writing – it’s all been used to get the message across to the public.

This point really shows how ARGs set the paradigm for multiplatform interactive storytelling. ARG designers don’t think of themselves as filmmakers, or writers, or whatever. But journalists tend to pick a genre and stick to it. ARGs teach the lesson: the medium is irellevant. Use any one that gets the message across.

If I was doing a story on trouble in the citrus industry in Florida, I’d try to find a way to harmlessly laser-etch my copy into the skins of whole fresh grapefruit. There’d be a URL on each fruit where you could find out more.

You’d bet people who bought a grapfruit with a story in its skin would go to their laptops and click through.

That’s platform agnosticism.

Tell stories collaboratively.

Photo: Wikipedia

The older I get, the more my early RPG experiences seem relevant. In a way, running an ARG is a little like being the game master for a really, really big game of D&D. Table-top role playing games are the case example of telling stories collaboratively. The Game Master is the captain of the ship, but the vessel’s course is subject to the winds and currents of player ingenuity, creativity and intelligence. Navigating them is an additional challenge, but it can take you all sorts of places you never dreamed of.

Journalism in social media can’t just follow the rules of mass media. The internet is not video. To function well in this space, storytelling needs to be collaborative. The public needs to be involved appropriately. This does not mean that anything goes, that the public is in charge. No. It means that it’s OK to propose problems for which the public has the solution. It means that it’s OK to use other people’s material to build your story, like the Mumbai coverage used tweets. This goes especially if you’ve asked for it.


blackYeah, that big blank space there wasn’t so much fun. People hate staring into a void, or worse – talking into one. Social media technology is really good at interactivity. That’s its prime strength. So if you have a way for people to interact with you, and they’re doing it, interact back.

Any ARG designer who didn’t write back to the audience would find her project deflating faster than an investment bank’s share value. So the lesson is – get involved.

* * *

As a non-native ARG speaker, I think my spiel came a little out of left field for the audience. It led to an animated argument at the pub afterwards.

Adam, I hope we can continue this argument here.

13 thoughts on “Five lessons ARGs can teach Journalism

  1. There’s a simple yardstick I use: storymaking vs. storytelling. Am I creating the space in which the story gets told by others, or am I creating a space where others come to hear my story (and perhaps talk among themselves along the way)? WORLD WITHOUT OIL is still probably the best example of the former. Storytelling ARGs have surfed the wave of crossmedia entertainment for a while now, and as Dan points out that surge is playing out. As you point out, without some kind of more interactive story, storytelling ARGs face an uphill slog.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the “Be Platform Agnostic” point, but I think you mischaracterize TINAG (and you’ve got lots of company). In my playbook, “This Is Not A Game” is first and foremost a mantra that the gamemasters must internalize, because immersion value is more important to their players than the gamemaster’s story. Journalistic ARGs such as WORLD WITHOUT OIL really prove this out: authenticity trumps artifice.

    Immersion is really a big part of your “Tell Stories Collaboratively” point, I think; more about that in this recent post in the WWO blog.

  2. Good yardstick. I suppose Storymaking is what I’m talking about from a journalistic perspective, then. I think ARGs are relevant to journalism because they show us how we can do this. We can use social media tools developed to enable fictional interactive storytelling, to tell factual stories.

    This is why I find World Without Oil and Superstruct the most interesting ARGs from my perspective. Their storymaking aesthetic was quite different from the kind of user experience one got from I Love Bees and so on.

    As for TINAG, perhaps. But the main point is that the medium is arbitrary – it’s reaching the audience that counts. Immersion, as you say, is key. What game could be more immersive than one that is actually set in the real world, today?

    The techniques developed and implemented in ARGs show us how to build and incentivize communities of people for collective intelligence tasks. World Without Oil proved that these tasks could be relevant to real world problems. I’d say we’ve made a good start.

  3. I’m interested in rules 2 and 4.

    I like the idea of “challenge structure” journalism – the world is an interesting place, if a people won’t bother learning about it unless it’s in a game context, then why not accomodate them? At the same time, however, I wonder what this might do to journalism’s didactic purpose. ARGs could be a great way to get people interested in social causes, charities and politics, but is the news vulnerable to misinterpretation if presented in this context?

    Rule 4 intrigues me for a similar reason. I understand that you’re not arguing that bloggers ought to be in charge of the BBC, but if we allow that sort of collaboration for anything other than information gathering, aren’t we doing something other than news? This point doesn’t really matter to ARGs – they can create whatever narrative experience they want – but don’t journalists have perspective and analytical training that an average contributor would not? I may just need a better understanding of how social media relates to mass media, but I do believe that in an ideal world the latter can reveal truths that the former does not have access to, no matter how big its contributor base is.

    That said, maybe that “something other than news” is the sharp edge of something new. If ARGs have had a hard time conjuring enduring storylines, maybe the concerns of our old industrial media are the fodder they need.

    I mean… the IRI of real life would have to be pretty high, right?

  4. is the news vulnerable to misinterpretation if presented in this context?

    Well, the news is always open to misinterpretation. Challenge structure just allows the journalist as editor to pick the best material. But it allows the journalist to pick that material from the best of what everyone has seen, not just one person.

    As for journalists having perspective and analytical training . . . well, maybe experience, yes, and you’d hope some training. Depends on the outfit. But journalists are just ordinary people.

    The thing that journalists have over people who do other jobs is time, mostly. Time to go dig deep. If you’ve got a day job, you’re not going to go on an investigation. If you’re a journalist, that’s what you’re paid to do.

    The public should be able to give you the leads that let you go on that investigation. There’s a process for this now – personal relationships – and that’s not going to go away. But with a properly crafted social media structure, the net can spread much, much wider. That’s what I’m talking about when I say collaborative story telling. If I’m the journalist, you provide the leads and details that allow me to tell the story – but that means we’re telling it together.

  5. I’m still agnostic about Superstruct. Laudable intentions, not especially compelling experience, over-gamed to my taste. But I am willing to be told I’m wrong. Did you play?

    I admire the storymaking ‘world as if’ structure. But is it difficult for a player-run simulator to make connections and coherence between necessarily many different world-views, especially to make the world meaningfully respond to a single player’s journey. And is it also a problem that only the open-collaborative side of things is played? Sure that is the desirable side of player behaviour but it’s not exactly realistic nor without conflict does it lead to a compelling grand narrative.

    1. Well, if by ‘play’ you mean ‘create content’, then no, I didn’t play Superstruct. I explored the material a fair bit, though, so I was one of the lurkers. According to Sturgeon’s Law, that puts me in the majority.

      (It’s not a very sizeable majority, though. If this is anything to go by, the audience figures were quite low. I’d be very keen to see the breakdown of user stats on this one.)

      Overall I share your opinion that the experience wasn’t particularly compelling. The barriers to entry were high, too; creating a vid that’s actually good isn’t easy. I suppose that’s why I didn’t submit anything. Happiness is being a part of something complete and great, and as you say, the experience seemed to lack a feeling of coherency – it was neither complete nor great, though it was a very interesting idea.

      But I still think Superstruct is valuable. Assembling stories collaboratively with large groups of people using social media has really only been possible for a very short time. We’re learning the ropes. Ultimately it shared the problems of a lot of ARGs – the barriers to entry were high, and it wasn’t really interesting for the lurkers. But I still think we’re groping or stumbling towards something very interesting and projects like World Without Oil and Superstruct are our scouts.

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