In July, Logan received a notebook in the mail, along with news that his friend Matt Selby had committed suicide. Logan started posting pictures of the notebook’s pages to his blog, attempting to decipher its meaning. But in September, Logan disappeared, and now his friends are all trying to find him. There’s only one problem: Neither Logan nor his friends exist.
They’re characters in the Alternate Reality Game Just Another Fool. Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, blur the lines between reality and the game by telling the stories through various on- and off-line media, such as websites, social networks, mail, video, phone calls, and even real-life events. The players have to solve puzzles contained in these media in order to advance the story.
The Future of Entertainment
ARGs started out as a form of viral marketing for various products. The first big ARG was The Beast, set in the fictional world of the movie “A.I.” There have been highly successful ARGs for movies like “The Dark Knight,” “District 9,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” One of the most famous ARGs was called “IloveBees,” which was a promotion campaign for the massively popular video game “Halo 2.” Even though these ARGs were essentially giant advertisements, the players still found them incredibly entertaining.
“If a ‘Halo’ fan hears about an ARG about ‘Halo’ or a ‘Terminator’ fan hears about the [‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’] ARG, they would jump at the opportunity to participate in a story,” said Tyler Parrott, a first year student at Colby College, who has been playing ARGs for over three years. “ARGs have gotten me in touch with some incredible stories. Enitech got me watching [‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’] and now I love the series.”
Steve Peters, who has been developing ARGs professionally since 2005, sees ARGs as a new art form. Peters is the Chief Experience Architect for No Mimes Media and has worked on ARGs for “The Dark Knight” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “What hooked me was when the game called me while I was at lunch,” Peters said. “It’s the future of entertainment.” In recent months, there has been an explosion of grassroots ARGs run by fans, for fans. These “unofficial” ARGs have met differing levels of success. This is largely due to the fact that the people working behind the scenes, known as “Puppetmasters” in the ARG community, are required to balance the game with real-life obligations.
On the Unfiction.com forums, the largest online ARG community, these grassroots campaigns now outnumber the “official” games 2-to-1, and they have a comparable number of players. “ARGs sort of blur the line between creator [and his or her] characters and the players in a way,” Regina Erbs, a webmaster from Lima, Ohio said. “Being a part of the action is a lot of fun.”
Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That
When “Logan” disappeared, his friend Joshua hacked into his blog and started updating on how the search was going. Following Logan’s advice, he got rid of the notebook by mailing it to Tyler Parrott, .
Parrott then posted a YouTube video of the notebook’s pages. That was when Erbs spotted a pattern of numbers that turned out to be a phone number. When players called it, they heard “Logan.” Using the information he gave them, they were able to correctly answer a riddle, and the players were each sent pages of a new notebook. It was through their teamwork that they were able to advance the story.
“Ultimately, the main pull is the interactivity, the challenging puzzles, and the community that forms as a result of these games,” Parrott said. Parrott, who goes by the online persona of Dav Flamerock, is a community leader on the Unfiction forums, and a highly prominent player of the fan-created “Just Another Fool.”
Online Family, For Better or For Worse
According to Parrott, the large interest in these games is due to the player community’s involvement in the story. “I have made some amazing friends through these games,” Parrott said. These games are simply impossible to play by yourself, according to Erbs. The community is all-important to figuring out riddles and advancing the story. “So much of these games are about sharing information,” Erbs said. “If Dav hadn’t posted the video of the first notebook, he might not have noticed there was a phone number hidden in it.”
But it’s not all roses and butterflies. The community can create problems as well, particularly in grassroots ARGs. The stories are often inspired by conversations on other forum sites like SomethingAwful.com, which is where “Just Another Fool” and a related ARG, “Marble Hornets”, started. Because these games start in public forums, there tends to be a lot of what ARG players call “gamejacking,” which is when people who aren’t playing the game attempt to divert the course of the story by pretending to be characters.
When Peters was running a game for Cisco Systems, Inc., they created profiles for several of the game characters on LinkedIn.com. Someone attempted to “gamejack” them by creating a profile on LinkedIn.com, claiming to work at the same fictional company. This person then sent puzzles to players while claiming to be an official part of the game. But despite these annoyances, most players still find the games very rewarding. “Challenging puzzles ... engage players and make them feel accomplished when they complete a seemingly impossible task,” Parrott said.
ARGs are always evolving, as the Puppetmasters discover new ways to deliver their content. And though the community is much more mainstream than it was ten years ago, Peters says it isn’t quite enough yet. “The next step is for [ARGs] to go mainstream in a big way,” Peters said. “What does a movie look like when it’s not limited to the screen?” But with the amount of media that we are inundated with, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate website and the beginning of a game. The easiest way to find a game to join, according to Erbs and Parrott, is to check out http://unfiction.com or http://argn.com.
“Go to the News & Rumors section of Unfiction.com and find a trailhead that looks promising,” Parrott said. And from there, as ARG players say, go down the rabbit hole.