FileBlog: Alternate Reality Games: I'm Not So Sure I Love Bees.
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Alternate Reality Games: I'm Not So Sure I Love Bees.

February 13, 2007


I'm also a cartoon in real life. They're called "Alternate Reality Games," or "ARGs" for short. What are they? They're a bit like interactive stories that are pieced together by the players, who assemble clues from emails, websites, text messages, forums, or even physical hints in real-world locations. The first ARG to really take off surrounded the release of the movie A.I., but as gamers you're probably more familiar with the "I Love Bees" game that was part of the hype leading up to the release of Halo 2. (You can Download an Anthology DVD of all the I Love Bees Content here on FilePlanet.)

I'll be honest: I'm an ARG doubter. Sure, they're good for getting some press attention, at least now while they're still a novelty. And they can be very, very clever -- actually, they have to be, for reasons I'll get to below. But how many people do they really touch? I Love Bees won awards and got plenty of press, which was probably the point, but even among die-hard Halo 2 fans I'm hard-pressed to find many people who participated in a serious way. Did you? My impression of ARGs is that the noise they generate is high compared to the actual number of people who are entertained.

Jordan Weisman Speaking at DICE
Jordan Weisman talks about ARGs

At this year's DICE summit two ARG pioneers took the stage to try to change my mind. First up was Jordan Weisman, Chief Creative officer of 42 Entertainment, creators of I Love Bees and other campaigns. As gamers you might be more familiar with Weisman for the killer franchises he helped create, such as MechWarrior or Crimson Skies. Check out my writeup of his 2004 presentation. I might not be hyped up on ARGs, but I'm not ashamed to admit that Weisman is one of my heroes -- a creative genius who manages to be both innovative and successful in whatever industry he plunges into. Also speaking was Michael Smith, the CEO of Mind Candy and creator of the ARG PerplexCity.

I'm still not a convert, but these guys opened my eyes to just how complicated these games are to run, and just how crazy things get once you hit a critical mass of players. ARGs might deserve more credit than I give them.

"Inspired Social Storytelling" - Fun Facts About ARGs

Alternate Reality Games are a new type of storytelling. Weisman calls it a "Distributed Narrative," and here's how he explains it: first, you make up a great story. Then you create "Evidence" that would exist if the story were true -- classified ads, blogs, voicemail messages, fake websites, etc. Then you throw the story out, leaving only the fragmented evidence behind, which you carefully hide. Finally, you let the audience in from some entry point -- what he called the "Rabbit hole" -- where they can begin tracing through the clues and trying to piece together what happened. Here are some of my notes:

A Natural Evolution of Storytelling: New forms of storytelling emerged with every leap in technology. Printing presses gave rise to the novel, radio spawned the serial radio drama, and film inspired, well, films. Weisman asked himself, 'What kind of stories will people tell using the Internet?' And ARGs are the result. The Internet is all about sorting through noise to find information, like an archaeologist reassembling a shattered vase from fragments in the dirt.

"Social Storytelling:" In ARGs, there's no narrator. Instead, as people discover new bits of information, they write the story themselves. The participants become the storytellers.

The 'Hive Mind:' On the Internet, it doesn't take long to accumulate a stupefying array of talent. Weisman calls this the "Hive Mind." He says if you get 250,000 people together working on a game problem, either they or a friend (or a friend of a friend) will possess any skill or have the answer to any question. Need a latin translation? Need to know the location of a building from a map fragment? Need to identify an obscure mathematical formula? Someone will figure it out. It's "the ultimate problem solving engine," online 24/7, connected, and self-organizing.

Audiences Segment Themselves: With ARGs, only a small number of players are the "enthusiasts." They're the ones combing through graveyards for leads, lurking by pay phones at 4 AM, or setting up Oracle databases of clues. The rest of the audience are spectators -- they're as entertained by the antics of the hardcore as they are with the unfolding story. Weisman says the tricky part is getting the people in the middle involved: people who want to be active in the story but can't dedicate the time that the enthusiasts can.

Strangers on the Street: One thing that PerplexCity's founder Michel Smith pointed out is that ARGs give people reasons to interact, particularly in public places. PerplexCity players can wear special buttons that can cause other players to strike up a conversation with you on the street. It's one of the most social forms of gaming.

Who Plays? According to Smith's demographics, most players are students, the average age is around 26, and there's about a 50/50 ratio of male to female players.

Like I said, I'm still not 'sold' on Alternate Reality Games as a major new entertainment medium, but I have to admit I've got a newfound respect for them. If you have any thoughts on this, you can email me at my super secret email address.

      -Fargo

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Posted by at 11:53 AM PST
Edited on: February 13, 2007 12:51 PM PST
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