ARGs Uncovered

In All the World a Game? In introduced the idea of alternate reality games (ARGs) that merge fictional game world events with real world interactions. In this post, we’ll look at at how communication between ARGs and their players can be managed, and the different ways and levels of engagement people can have with them.

This post is essentially a summary of two sections of the IGDA 2006 Alternate Reality Games white paper. (The paper is also maintained as a wiki: IGDA Alternate Reality Games White Paper wiki).

Read the following sections of the IGDA 2006 ARGG white paper: Methods and Mechanics and Understanding your Audience. As you do so, try to answer the following questions (feel free to ‘augment’ your answers with information from outside the white paper wiki):

  • How does digital publishing and “ICT” support audience interaction/participation in an ARG, both at an individual and group level? (Bonus points for every TLA in your answer!;-)
  • What sorts of challenges (“mini-games”) can be used within an ARG?
  • What levels of engagement might be expected from players of an ARG?
  • What different ‘structural’ roles might a player take on in an ARG, and to what extent must these roles be filled in order for the ARG to unfold as desired by the game developers?
  • What issues need to be considered to try to ensure that players remain successfully engaged with an ARG?


A wide variety of media (particularly ‘new media’) can be used within the context of an ARG. Blogs are ideal for relaying information from game characters or “agencies” (fictional companies, for example) in a ‘broadcast’ way to the audience at large, although sometimes care needs to be taken that information is not divulged through a public blog that should be unknown to other characters within the game (who would also be able to read the blog….). Video sharing websites such as YouTube might also be used to release video elements into the game.

Players can communicate with the game through ‘point-to-point’ communication channels, such as text messaging or email. (The game may also ‘broadcast’ material via SMS and email). Instant messaging/chat may also be used to allow the player to interact with game characters. IM conversations may be handled by the actual people running the game (who are maybe living out the life of an in-game character) on a one-to-one, or group chat/chatroom basis, or by ‘chatbots’, artificially intelligent software programmes that can respond to messages on a particular topic.

Wikis and online forums provide another way of supporting group discussions. Wikis are particularly useful for maintaining a ‘story so far’ walkthrough of a game in progress. It is likely that ‘social network’ sites (such as user created social networks on Ning) will increasingly play a role in supporting ARGs.

Some games may even make use of live events, often reminiscent of “happenings“.

The Games within the Game

Many ARGs make use of cryptographic puzzle games, where the player must try to solve some sort of code-based puzzle. (A good recent example of a cryptographic game, albeit not an ARG, is this recent Guiness “Dominos” advergame.)

Others require the player to ‘manipulate’ in-game characters to try to get them to divulge a certain piece of information (this approach may also be used with respect to getting information out of a chatbot, for example).

Some games may make use of geocaching – hiding physical artefacts at particular locations in the real world. Increasingly, with powerful 2D and 3D mapping tools like Google maps and Live Virtual Earth, game clues may be hidden on map overlays. With many user-contributed content sites, such as flickr and Youtube, supporting ‘geotagged’ entries (that is, photo or video uplaods associated with a particular geographical location).

Levels of Participation

The white paper identifies participation at four levels:
Devotees: the ‘hardcore’ players, devotees will likely know the minute an update has been posted, and will be the ones to find the new sites associated with a game first…
Active Players: dedicated to the game, they are likely to engage in the community aspects of the game and communicate with the game through whatever communications channels it offers.
Casual players will wander through the game, but not necessarily engage with the community around it (though they may lurk in the forums, for example). Casual players will not be receiving information through ‘active’ game channels (such as SMS/text messaging, for example) so they rely on second-hand sources (such as walkthrough or catch up sites) for this information.
Curious Browsers & Information Seekers
Curious browsers are peope who wander by the game, maybe once, maybe a few times, and dabble with bits of it without actively engaging, or even engaging to the extent of becoming a casual player. Curious browsers have no real intention of playing the game, though they may be interested in seeing what it has to offer.

It is interesting to compare this breakdown with research into more general uptake of online “social technologies. For example, in the “Social Technographics” approach developed by Charlene Li of Forrester Research: “We group consumers into six different categories of participation – and participation at one level may or may not overlap with participation at other levels. We use the metaphor of a ladder to show this, with the rungs at the higher end of the ladder indicating a higher level of participation.”

social participation ladder, social technographics, forrester

See if you can find a way to map each step on the social technographics ladder of participation for social web technologies maps onto the levels of engagement suggested by the IGDA ARG white paper. Is there a correspondence between the two approaches? Try to explain your answer.

Player Roles

The white paper suggests that players of ARGs tend to take on different roles in the way they consume – or help further – the game. The roles identified are:

  • Character Interactor and Story Hacker
    Character interactors like to become a part of the game by interacting directly with the characters involved. Some of they may even aspire to being mentioned in the game directly as player participants. Story hackers fully engage with the game story and may attempt to extend the game story, for example by crreating fictional websites that complement the ARG world. Story hackers are the sorts of player who may well engage in the creation of ‘fan fiction’ based on the game.
  • Community Support
    Community support players help the game scale by looking after game forums, for example.
  • Information Specialist
    These players help catalogue the game, building wikis, and so on. Information specialists are the people who are most likely to pick up on ‘continuity errors’.
  • Puzzle Solver
    Puzzle solvers may see the game purely as a source of puzzles and interact with it at the ‘micro-game’ level, rather than necessarily buying in to the whole ARG experience.
  • Reader
    Readers follow the game to a certain extent, and may comment on it, but they are not necessarily engaged in activley playing the game or helping further the story of it.
  • Story Specialist
    Story specialists are interested in the overall shape and direction of the game, and may fill the role of ‘conspiracy theorist’ based on their predictions of the direction the game may go in, and for what reasons.

To what extent do you think that the level of participation is likely to reflect the player role favoured by a player? That is, do you think that certain player roles are more or less likely to be fulfilled by devotees or active participants, for example, and if so, why?

Keeping Players Engaged

As many ARGs last for several weeks or months, growing the audience and maintaining participation over an extended period may present significant challenges to the game designer. When an ARG is used to extend a television series, the series itself will help drive traffic on a regular basis from the programme to one or more website entry points to the ARG.
The level of detail expressed by the ARG miust be enough for the ARG world to be plausible – if large companies are mentioned in the game, they should have a website, for example. Since ARGs are played in part through the medium of the real world, game constructs must be plausible within the context of the real world.
The real time nature of many ARGs can make them difficult to maintain, and difficult to keep up with as a player. It is therefore no surprise that blogs are an important component of many ARGs, because they offer an element of ‘fractured real time’ publication on a daily or weekly basis that is faithful to the way blogs are used in the real world.
Maintaining engagement across players with a wide variety of skill levels and experience of ARGs is another important factor in the game design. To a certain extent, the game playing community may be used to provide hints, explanations and even walkthroughs of the game, but within the game itself, hinting strategies may also be used. Where a communication channel is available to a registered player, their progress may be monitored and hints provided on a personalised basis e.g. through the use of hint condition email or text messages that might be sent if the system identifies the player is not making progress through the game.

By considering the possible communication channels between the game and the player, what ways are there for offering personalised hints to individual players, and on what basis do you think those hints might be offered?

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