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Alternate Reality Game

Entry updated 10 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Term used to describe a type of Videogame which shares much with the fictional Godgames described in such works as Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). There is a notable resemblance between many examples of the form and the (perhaps carefully orchestrated) intrusion of the miraculous into the mundane experienced by the protagonist of the latter novel. In the classic literary Godgame, a magus figure constructs an illusory existence around the protagonist to teach or transform them; in an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) the world the players live in is altered to make it seem more significant and meaningful, though the new reality is deliberately made to be less than wholly convincing. The phrase itself was first used by Sean Stacey to promote the amateur science-fictional game Lockjaw (2002 Web) designed by Andy Aiken, Bruce Cain, Clay Chiment, Derek Jensen, Brooke Thompson, Krystyn Wells. The actual gameplay of an ARG is similar to that of an internet-based Live Action Role Playing game, but with many more participants and without explicit rules or roles to play. Typically, games begin with the distribution of clues or entry points into the work's fiction, such as coded messages concealed in posters, clothing or music. Players then spread this information on the internet, and use their collective intelligence to solve predesigned puzzles, allowing them to reassemble the fragments of an embedded narrative which explains the nature of the game (see Interactive Narrative). Notably, such works deny their status as games, instead presenting the fiction as real. Their true nature is generally made clear by the context, however, for example by the use of websites which claim to be in the future. Alternate Reality Games are also usually unannounced and unadvertised. Instead, they depend on their players to discover the initial clues and then make contact with others interested in searching for more. Once the game has begun the story continues in the present, shaped by the designers in response to the players' discoveries and beliefs, as revealed by monitoring their online discussions. The designers – often referred to as "PuppetMasters" – act as secret Gamemasters, generating an evolving drama based on prepared scenarios in the manner of a Role Playing Game. Players are often able to communicate with characters in the story, by speaking to actors on the telephone or communicating on the internet, and may be asked to personally attend rallies or perform simple tasks as well as uncovering information and decoding clues. Fundamentally, the design of such works depends on large groups of players assembling spontaneously and using their communal knowledge to make progress; they are, along with Massively Multiplayer Online Games, perhaps the first game forms native to the internet.

The clearest precursors of Alternate Reality Games are Role Playing Games, especially Live Action Role Playing games. Notably, Assassins, which evolved in Anglo-Saxon colleges and universities in the 1970s and was published as Killer (1982 Steve Jackson Games), shares with ARGs the quality of intruding on players' normal lives. While Alternate Reality Games may involve participants receiving telephone calls or packages at home, Killer makes an individual's entire life part of the game; players can be "eliminated" at any time using mock weapons such as toy guns and water balloons as part of a simulated "assassins' duel". Early internet-based works which share some of the form's traits include the promotional Cyberpunk game Webrunner (1996) (see Cyberpunk) and the contemporary horror Hypertext-based fiction Dreadnot (1996 Web), which contained hidden clues on its website and references to physical objects constructed to support the story. The first clear examples of the form, however, are The Beast (2001), created to promote the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Majestic (2001), a subscription-based Videogame which proved rather less popular than its contemporary. Majestic appears to have failed commercially at least partly because the requirements that players sign a legal waiver and pay to play, which may be unavoidable for a profit making game, made it difficult to sustain the sense of participating in a story which was at least half real. Almost all subsequent ARGs, therefore, have followed the model used by The Beast, which was free to play (and unadvertised), with funding obtained from the marketing budget for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Such works have become fairly common as promotional devices for films, Videogames, television series and on occasion other products such as cars, though some examples which have been described as ARGs can be difficult to distinguish from viral marketing campaigns. Notable sf examples include I Love Bees (2004) (see Halo: Combat Evolved) and Year Zero (2007 42 Entertainment, Web) designed by Sean Stewart, a game based on the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name. This latter game presented a more detailed picture of the Dystopian future which serves as background to the album, and is more accurately described as an expansion of the concept behind the music than as an advertisement for it. A community of enthusiasts, initially formed around The Beast, have also become active in producing smaller scale amateur examples of the form, some of which are of impressive quality; amateur sf games include Lockjaw and ChangeAgents: Out of Control (2002 Web) designed by Dave Szulborski, a spinoff from Majestic.

The concept of the Alternate Reality Game has proved influential on sf writers, appearing in Walter Jon Williams' This Is Not a Game: A Novel (2009) and (in the guise of the "footage", enigmatic film clips distributed on the internet which enthusiasts attempt to decode and assemble into a coherent narrative) perhaps also in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003). The form itself, though, remains somewhat limited by its general dependence on marketing budgets; most attempts to generate revenue from games of this kind, such as works based on winning prizes, have not proved successful. The model represented by Year Zero, however, in which the ARG is a freely available part of a commercial transmedia fiction, may prove to be a significant development. [NT]

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