Alternate Reality Games Hold the Line Between Game and Reality

Clayton Purdom Editor, Kill Screen
Alternate Reality Games

How alternate reality games test the powers of narrative.

The rise of smartphones, social media and (more recently) wearables has turned everyday experiences, like traveling, friendship and going out to eat, into a combination of digital fiction and real life. In many ways, these technologies have us living in an alternate reality.

Not to be confused with virtual reality from Oculus-like eye goggles or augmented reality, where we get digital information layered on the real world. Alternative reality games (ARG) are where players get influenced by digital media and also by people and events in the real world.

Like I Love Bees, the promotional ARG for Microsoft’s Halo 2.

We accept a certain amount of ambiguity between the real and digital worlds.

A real-world event might be planned and then remembered entirely through the narrative of a Facebook album.

Our digital lives have become inextricably linked to how we interact with the tangible world, and if Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift is any indication, this digital and real world link will likely intensify beyond gaming experiences.

So far, much of the so-called rules for this new, blended sense of reality has been — and arguably will continue to be — established through the world of games.

In the beginning, for example, there was the alternate-reality game. The fundamental marker of an ARG is the involvement of you, the player, as a main character. ARGs toe the line of physical reality and digital life by telling breadcrumb stories in the digital space and in real time.

Players of an ARG will scour websites and in-game social media accounts of characters in order to read bits of story. Often times, the story that unfolds online eventually requires players to take action in the real world — like calling a mysterious phone number or scavenging for hidden clues in public areas.

Elan Lee is considered a father of the ARG, since some of his earliest mistakes helped define some of those established conventions of the medium.

Elan Lee

In 2001, Lee created The Beast, which supplemented Steven Spielberg’s movie “A.I.” by engaging film-goers with an online story.

The game was scattered across different websites and social media platforms, allowing people to dig deeper into the movie’s narrative by interacting with peripheral characters from the movie. At the time it was considered an innovative marketing campaign.

Nowadays, The Beast is known as one of the first alternate-reality games ever made. Which in some ways is ironic, since Lee’s mantra during its production was always, “This is not a game.”

“I would repeat that to everyone who worked for me, and even inserted it into the game itself,” he admitted. “And that was totally wrong.”

Both Lee and the ARG community have realized that blurring the lines between reality and fiction comes with a certain set of responsibilities. Rule one of those responsibilities is making sure everyone knows this is just a game, and you can leave at any time.

“These are people who are trusting you,” he said, describing the unique relationship between creator and player in an ARG.

“They need to understand where the boundaries are.”

Neglecting to set those boundaries in an ARG gets messy fast. Lee learned that the hard way when the solution to a puzzle in Beast required players to hack into a character’s email account, which is a federal offense in the real world.

Many players outright refused him, deeming it an uncomfortable violation of their trust.

“This is not a game” mantra he’d been touting for months no longer applied.

“If this experience isn’t a game, then [the player] cedes all control. There is no off switch,” he explained.

“You’re getting phone calls in the middle of the night from characters who believe they are real. And who want you to treat them as though they are real because this is not a game, this is not a game, this is not a game.”

The level of personal immersion in an ARG goes far beyond any avatar identification in a video game because “when you play a transmedia game, or ARG, you’re playing you,” Lee emphasized.

“The only difference is that the character you’re playing [in an ARG], though like you in every way, believes that the game is real. And that fundamental difference changes everything. It gives you permission to behave in a way that you would not regularly behave.”

But unlike other mediums, giving someone permission to act in a way they normally wouldn’t in an ARG can translate into real-world actions.

Pushing the boundaries of fiction seems only to bring us closer to the personal and potent — two effects that stories have always aspired to. But wielding that power should feel heavy.

As technologies of all types continue to subtly alter our interactions with the non-digital world, this weight should feel increasingly palpable.

Games, apps and software that asks users to cede self-control will continue to tote a fine line. At the very least, we have ARGs to thank for determining just how thin that line should be.


Jess Joho contributed to this story.

Photo of Elan Lee by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, and photo of I Like Bees phone booth by Andrew Sorcini.

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