All the World a Game?

In The World of Serious Games I showed how 3D gamelike techniques are starting to be used in training situations particularly in areas that may be difficult to rehearse effectively in the real world – for example, disaster or emergency scenarios.

In this post, we’ll look at another blurring of the boundaries between the real world and the game world in the context of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

Alternate Reality Games

Alternate Reality Games are games that are played through the real world that typically make use of ICT (information and communication technologies) and interactive media as ‘hidden in plain view’ bridges between the real world and the virtual game world.

ARGs are described on the IGDA ARG white paper wiki as follows:

Alternate Reality Games take the substance of everyday life and weave it into narratives that layer additional meaning, depth, and interaction upon the real world. The contents of these narratives constantly intersect with actuality, but play fast and loose with fact, sometimes departing entirely from the actual or grossly warping it – yet remain inescapably interwoven. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, everyone in the country can access these narratives through every available medium – at home, in the office, on the phones; in words, in images, in sound. Modern society contains many managed narratives relating to everything from celebrity marriages to brands to political parties, which are constantly disseminated through all media for our perusal, but ARGs turn these into interactive games. Generally, the enabling condition to is technology, with the internet and modern cheap communication making such interactivity affordable for the game developers. It’s the kind of thing that societies have been doing for thousands of years, but more so. Much more so.

Technically speaking, ARGs are a form of Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG), with individual games attracting playerbases numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and with a heavy slant towards online media. However, ARGs use “online” merely as a convenient, cheap, mass-communication medium, rather than as a narrow straightjacket to deliver a tightly defined gaming experience. Where the typical MMOG uses a custom client, an application running on the player’s home computer, which delivers and controls all content and interaction, ARGs use any -and every -application available on the internet, and potentially every single website, as just small parts of the wider game.

ARGs do not require there be an avatar to build up, grow bored of and cast aside, or that there be a sandbox world for this creature to inhabit. There is, rather, the insertion of additional slices of reality into our own, and the only demand is that you interact with these as yourself.

ARGs typically unfold in real time, just as events play out in the real world in real time. Unlike a ‘traditional’ game, where a player interacts with a preprogrammed world, in a live ARG the events unfold in the real world in real time (although particular parts of the game may have been prepared – ‘preprogrammed’, or scripted – by the game development team some time in advance.) That said, whereas characters in a computer game are computer generated, in many ARGs game characters are played by real people, who may respond to real requests from players (such as email, or SMS message) using real world communication channels (email and SMS again, even phone calls…).

People playing an alternate reality game may often appear to an observer to be doing a normal everyday task whilst they are actually involved in a game. That is to say, in an alternate reality game, a person’s real world actions may actually be informing, and being informed by, their participation in an ARG.

In a sense, many ARGs augment reality with parts of a game that may not be seen as such by anyone who is not playing the game, or take some real world context and then elaborate on it using a game.

An example of a (fictional) ARG provides the setting for David Fincher’s film The Game which tells the tale of the lead character (Nicholas Van Orton, played by Michael Douglas) who becomes enrols in an ARG, and then is never quite sure whether the game has ended or not, or whether his paranoid fantasy has actually become real…

William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Pattern Recognition provides another fictional description of an ARG one the loose – in this case involving a community that develops around a series of movie clips released in various locations that are thought to come from the same source.

To a certain extent, Pattern Recognition predicted the “LonelyGirl15 phenomenon”, the video diary of Youtube user LonelyGirl15, which appeared became a popular ‘real life soap’ in summer 2006. As the video diary became ever more popular, many people started to question its provenance – e.g. on ARGNet: LonelyGirl15 – Is She or Isn’t She?, or from the Guardian: Is lonelygirl15 real or a hoax?

ARGs tend to be character led, with players being able to interact with some of the characters ‘for real’, at least in live, realtime versions of the game. Many games involve one or more people referred to as puppetmasters who actively develop the game as it is being played, for example by weaving in real world events that have occurred and were completely unassociated with the game into the game.

Here’s an example of a recent game that just about counts as an ARG…

BBC Torchwood ARG

The Torchwood ARG extends the Torchwood world with a game that wraps the Torchwood broadcast programmes with a series of missions for the audience to complete. Whilst the missions were originally released to coincide with the first transmission of each episode, they are still playable ‘after the fact’. For this reason, the game was designed to work as a ‘standalone game’ whilst at the same time being able to link in some way to broadcast programme episodes in a nice-if-you-saw-it:ok-if-you-didn’t sort of way! To involve players in the development of the game story, a radio show – Dark Talk – was created that featured audio content phoned in by game players.

The game also extended into the ‘real web’ by means of several ‘company’ websites built to provide a ‘legend’ or backstory for companies mentioned in both the broadcast programmes and the game.

As producer Matt Fidell says in an interview reported in the ARGNet story Torchwood Needs You: “The game is what happens in Torchwood between each episode. You’ll see and hear characters referring to events that have just happened in the show”

This Reuters news clip provides an overview of the Towrwood ARG: Join the Torchwood aliens online.

If you want to play through any of the game missions, they can still be found on the BBC Torchwood website: Enter the worlds of the Torchwood Alternate Reality Game…

You can also listen to an interview with the producers of the BBC Torchwood ARG at Tech Weekly: Video Blogging and Torchwood, 18minutes 55 seconds in; to what extent do the commentators think the Torchwood ARG is actually a fully blown ARG, compared to a ‘traditional’ minigame website wrapped around the programme?

Find Out More

In further posts on this topic, I’ll explore in a little more detail the details of, and design approaches for, creating an ARG. I’ll also look at how location identifying services such as GPS and mobile phone tracking can be used to bring games even deeper into the real world…

If you would like to learn about ARGs in more detail in the meantime, then read through IGDA ARG SIG whitepaper (2006) (that is, the International Game Developers Association Alternate Reality Games Special Interest Group!).

To join a ‘now playing’ ARG, visit ARGNet – Alternate Reality Gaming Network and check out the list of “What’s Hot” games… post a link back here if you come across a game you find particularly compelling…


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