Archive for the 'Alternate Reality Games' Category

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

– Storytelling or narrative
– Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
– Cross-medium interactivity
– Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

– Lack of interactivity, too linear
– Lack of a reward
– No instant gratification
– Too difficult
– Same old game, different name
– Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

Perplex City Exposed

Moving on from ARGs Uncovered, which reviewed the IGDA white paper on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), this post provides you with an opportunity to find out for yourself a little more about the design of the first Perplex City ARG.

First up is a presentation by Adrian Hon (who you may remember we’ve come across before…), of the game development company Mind Candy, which created the original Perplex City ARG as well as its successor….

To set the scene, you may like to read a little bit of background about the game by reading this review of Perplex City… The Wikipedia entry for Perplex City also provides a brief summary of the game.

So now you sort of know what it is, let’s here about the game from the inside: “Alternate Reality Games and Perplex City Season 2”, by Adrian Hon (Google Tech Talks)

Whilst you are listening to the presentation – or maybe afterwards? ;-) – you may like to visit the Perplex City Season 1 retrospective website.

One of the great features of this site is an archive of some of the design notes used when creating the game (Perplex City Season One Story Planning).

You may notice that the game was storyboarded using a series of flowcharts to describe the order of events that were planned for the game. Flowcharts can be used to provide a very concise summary of the key actions and decision points that must be negotiated in a game in order for the story to progress. They can also reveal the complexity of a game’s design at a glance!

The site also contains a brief history of the evolution of the Perplex City map that provided a solid foundation for the game.

You can still explore an interactive version of the Perplex City map at

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?

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…