Thursday, September 25, 2008


(HW: Blog about Szulborski's TINAG Appendices C through E on this post. Presentations begin this week. )

This is Not a Game?

Jane McGonigal’s seminal 2003 essay “This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” was the first serious academic examination of the genre. She writes:

It is reasonable to argue that nothing about this virtual play was simulated. The computer-driven alternate reality ‘The Beast’ created was make believe, but every aspect of the player’s experience was, phenomenologically speaking, real.[1]

The essay succeeded in fueling the fire of ARG, addressing the questions of what it is, what it means, and where it was going. At this early stage, McGonigal even hesitates to call “The Beast” a game, but summarizes the reality aspect of the budding genre quite well, showing a profound understanding between the virtual or simulated and the immersive. This concept of immersive elements is explored in greater depth in chapter 3, “The Elements of ARG.”

The first academically qualified book to investigate and critically analyze online storytelling across interactive media from both a classic and historical narrative technique approach and an in-depth look at modern technology within the genre was Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment.[2] The author begins with what is described as the “campfire model” of ancient interactive entertainment, and brings the reader quickly through to modern times for a comprehensive overview of the genre, and even ending with a glancing blow at Alternate Reality Games. While a number of other titles which examine the broader genre of Online Interactive Entertainment do exist,[3] most do not contain more than a small mention of the Alternate Reality Game genre subset if at all, since the primary focus of interactive entertainment is the multi-billion dollar video game industry including Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, and this reality is reflected in the related literature as might be expected.

ARG in Print

A very small number of books have been written on the subject of ARG specifically as of yet, barely providing a working definition of the genre, an in-depth look at the history and evolution of various games successful and failed, and making some small projections as to the future of ARG. Perhaps it is not surprising that corporate Commercial ARG developers have not revealed their secrets or business models in print, as they have been too busy building their own reputations and high quality Commercial ARGs veiled in secrecy. This is an understandable business practice and not a bad thing at all from a commercial standpoint, but it does create a disadvantage for those who would seek to study academically the multi-faceted and complex ARG phenomenon. Fortunately for the academic community, however, independent, grass-roots, and similar Non-Commercial ARG creators are not limited by a corporate agenda, and these books are easily discussed.

J. W. Gosney’s 2005 book Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming was the first proper ARG publication[4]. Gosney gives a brief history of ARG, but also includes an instructional guide for players with advice on approaching an ARG; including an annotated real ARG (“The Beast”), a sample rabbit hole and an example ARG (called “Route 66”) with analysis of each. The author is an experienced player with a unique perspective, but in many ways the book is still an incomplete glancing blow at ARG, if for no other reason than its admirable early entry into the field with so few usable references at the time, in a genre that was still defining itself. Also included in the book is a simple and somewhat dated, but clear outline for designing an ARG and suggested web design for would-be puppetmasters, which is more useful now as an archive of older web technology methods than as a practical, modern how-to guide.

Dave Szulborski’s This Is Not a Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming is in many ways the more academic and useful book[5], having been written by the experienced puppetmaster of a number of acclaimed grassroots ARGs. The book is an in-depth list of ARGs through 2005, focusing on not only the theory and history behind the genre but also the practice of making and playing ARGs with a look to the future of the genre and numerous references and resources for further study including various articles and academic insights, which predate and include the inception of the genre. Szulborski also implies that another reason that ARG should not be ignored as a form of online diversion is that it is the first form of entertainment that has been produced exclusively “by the Internet, and for the Internet”, though as mentioned it does spill over into the real world too – a bold claim either way.[6]

Szulborski’s 2005 follow-up book Through the Rabbit Hole: A Beginner's Guide to Playing Alternate Reality Games was written as “an introduction for newcomers to the exciting genre of alternate reality gaming.”[7] There is not much new content in the book to speak of as compared to his first book, but the games discussed are more recent and the rule-book style tone makes it a better choice for new players in the genre who are interested in breaking into ARG game theory without slogging through the meta-discussion of other books. Through the Rabbit Hole uses a simple and concise manner to lay out many of the game-elements and some general guidelines for playing Alternate Reality Games, using the games and his own experiences from the first five years of the ARG genre, as reasonably well as can be expected in the rapidly changing game environment of ARGs.

What is Lacking

What the current body of study regarding the genre of ARG lacks is an in-depth critical and statistical academic analysis of an ARG’s most critical elements, those qualities which make it by definition an Alternate Reality Game. This is a difficult and monumental task that will likely take years of collaborative work and access to data that is currently a closely guarded secret. Past ARGs have been determined to be either a success or a failure based on those factors which have been outlined in the above literature and resource studies, or as often as not by their commercial returns and simple website visit counts. Though a number of possibilities exist, it is also phenomenologically unclear at this time why the ARG player base seemingly prefers the reality of the player’s experience versus the computer-driven virtual and simulated reality environments such as those presented by newer generation video games or other virtual worlds like “Second Life.” Invariably ARGs set within these false constructs are short-lived and unremarkable, a phenomenon which is [...] well worthy of study at some point in the future.

[1] Jane McGonigal, “This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play,” Melbourne DAC, 2003, [accessed January 15, 2008].

[2] Carolyn H Miller, Digital Storytelling: A creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. 1st ed. [St. Louis: Focal Press, 2004]

[3] Andrew Glassner, Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction, [Wellesley: AK Peters, 2004]; Chris Crawford, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, [Berkeley: New Riders Games, 2004]; Kay Teehan, Digital Storytelling: In and Out of the Classroom, [Morrisville: Press, 2006].

[4] John W. Gosney, Beyond reality: A guide to alternate reality gaming, [Boston: Thompson Course Technology PTR, 2005]

[5] Dave Szulborski, This Is Not a Game: A Guide To Alternate Reality Gaming. 2nd digital ed. [New-Fiction Press, 2005].

[6] Dave Szulborski, This Is Not a Game: A Guide To Alternate Reality Gaming. 2nd digital ed. [New-Fiction Press, 2005], 1.

[7] Dave Szulborski,Through the Rabbit Hole: A beginners Guide to Playing Alternate Reality Games, [ Press, 2005].


Andrew Stallings said...

We talked about the willing suspension of disbelief, but we didn't talk about the unwilling suspension of disbelief. I would define this as when the unbelievable is forced upon us. An athiest gets into a taxi, it's driven by God. God proves himself and the athiest is forced to believe. The athiest can no longer believe in his old reality, he is now in an alternate reality.

I've realized something. I define alternate reality in a distinctly different way as compared to the unForum-ers. They aren't very good at looking at themselves nor thinking laterally.

I see reality as the rules and boundaries of the world as well as the current world story.


One of the rules of this reality is that normal people wear pants. Improv Everywhere comes along and has a no pants subway ride. It's not nudists it's not exhibitionists it's normal people who for a brief time are no longer obeying this reality's rules. They become the denizens of an alternate reality developed within our current reality.

Alternate Reality Games have players interacting with a "alternate Reality" that is in fact a game. It's fake. No one believes in it. No one holds both of them as true.

The alternate reality propagated by Improv Everywhere creates cognitive dissonance. Onlookers begin to question their reality while players get to experience a new one.


Andrew Stallings said...

Two things that the Boss wanted me to post.

I have to disagree with the idea that crowds cannot be controlled. Governments do it all the time.

One way to force the players down a specific path is to provide them with the illusion of choice. A shill if you will.

Imagine that I give a group of people a map and tell them that they can go anywhere. At this point I have no idea where they will go.

But if someone speaks up and says that they are going to place X, then I can assume with confidence that 50% of people will follow him; however that still leaves ~50% that could go anywhere.

So consider if two people speak up. Person X will go to location X and person Y will go to location Y. Now I have 99% of the people because humans still work on a largely herd based mentality. You now only have to worry about 1% of players choosing a third option. 1% is small enough that you can be ignore them or babysit them to the point where they will follow the herd.

Now both X and Y are agents, their job is to play the game but direct the players along the predetermined route.

It gives people the illusion of choice.

In Game characters can't post META it's in the rules. But why is that? It breaks one illusion but it opens the door for an even greater illusion. Paranoia is fun, horror movies are immensely popular. Get people to think that they are influencing RL events not just in game... they'll be hooked.

While technically sorta illegal if you can fake an injury have it reported in the news... it'd be like The Game. They wouldn't be able to leave.

And second I a while ago I found a real life pre computer form of the internet.

SCIENCE | June 17, 2008
The Web Time Forgot


The Mundaneum Museum honors the first concept of a world wide wonder, sketched out by Paul Otlet in 1934 as a global network of “electric telescopes.”

Doc B said...

@andrew - Your analysis of ImprovEverywhere is awesome. You've made the same connection to ARG that the guys at SFZero made.

robertreynolds86 said...

On the subject of ImprovEverwhere...Szulborski touches on the "smart mob" concept in the TINAG book, which is actually what ImprovEverywhere does.

The 'smart mob' is, according to the reading, a group of people who are part of some online community who meet up in the real world for a specific purpose. Szulborski mentions the gatherings around the payphones for the ILOVEBEES game that took place, which relates to the ImprovEverywhere MP3 event with the dart board and freeze tag.

In both cases, the events called for real people meet up at a real location to be a part of the event, thus creating a 'smart mob'. In the case of ImprovEverywhere and ILOVEBEES, it worked out as intended. But Szulborski warns of the serious real world implications of an ARG using these sort of events.

When does the event go from being 'in-game' to 'out-of-game' and can the players' (or even bystanders) reactions to the in-game events that unfold in front of them really be predicted?

It's intresting to me that, throughout the book, Szulborski hammers away at the idea of TINAG. But it seems that at the end of the book, he emphasizes that PMs should be extremely careful to ensure that the players know that it is actually a game and that they understand the boundaries of the game.

Candiluu said...

Ben Mack writes that “when an audience feels safe, respected and cared for, their minds loosen and the defenses drop” (Mack 331). He’s writing about misdirection in magic an the ability to create sight retention, but this applies to ARGs as well. Tell players a puzzle is too hard and you are saying they can’t do something. But make the puzzle exceptionally easy and you are calling them idiots. So where’s the happy medium?

Dee Cook explains that her team “tried to have specific reasons to include the game puzzles, studying character motivation to determine why he or she would obscure data behind a puzzle solve” (Cook 315). This says the team has enough faith in the player base not to assume they are idiots who will just run to puzzles. But, there’s a flip side to this. What happens if the puzzle is too difficult?

Paul Melamud describes a puzzle he created. He says he had to understand the theme, style, etc., for which he was creating (Melamud 318). He went through themes, made puzzle chains, gave the players a reason to make a huge leap from touch language to audio, then appears to gotten impatient. Yes, the players had to solve specific puzzles in order to progress, but isn’t putting a time limit on them kind of assuming they won’t get it eventually?

Melamud’s leap from touch (Braille) to audio (chords) seems pretty big, but the collaborative solving power of the ARG community is expected to be able to make that leap. But Melamud goes on to explain that the community didn’t solve the puzzle. At least, not on its own. “On October 4, 2004, our team decided to encourage the players by having an in-game character (who had been befriended by the players to help get to the bottom of the mystery, and who often posted his ‘discoveries’ on his website)” post another hint (Melamud 324-325). The PM’s put up a paragraph about the puzzle and what the character had discovered on the characters site. A day later, the puzzle was solved (Melamud 325).

Isn’t this like seeding the story and moving toward controlling the timetable? I thought part of the ARG was the solve, and if it took a while, so be it. While Melamud’s team was able to maintain the illusion by staying behind the curtain, it seems they created another illusion – the illusion that players solved the puzzle. That doesn’t come across as the safety, respect and caring about which Mack speaks. Where is the line?

Segosher said...

I was unimpressed with the chapter on collaboration. Maybe it should have just been titled differently--it was really about project management. Truly collaborating with creative minds is art so I was looking for the meat and potatos Matheny had promised. Mostly I was left with the impression that in the end someone has to make the decisions and put the hammer down. I see the wisdom in this, but the chapter was misleading as a discussion about collaboration.

For the benefit of any PM project leader, it would be nice to learn more specific techniques for inspiring creative problem solving among a group of people with diverse talents. How do you make it "safe" within a diverse group to have bad ideas? How do you let the good ideas rise to the top without personal attachments? How do you mitigate personality conflicts? How do you fire someone from a team without losing morale?

Andrew Stallings said...

If it cannot be archived it cannot exist.

Zen Almasri said...

Very interesting stuff Andrew. I think you hit the nail on the nose with your idea of the suspension of Disbelief. We got a look at that idea in the game. It was so real for him. He had went and signed up for the game and he still let himself get wrapped up into it. I think the unwilling suspension of disbelief could possibly be one of the best experiences.