Alternate Reality Games

Lately I’ve been researching ARGs, or “alternate reality games”, because they have a bearing on CD-Trip. An ARG is a “game” (or puzzle of some kind) that attempts to interact with real life in some way. It needs to pretend that it isn’t a game – that it’s an actual mystery, or some real world situation for the players to figure out.

Many are marketing tie-ins – there are ARGs related to The Dark Knight and a Nine Inch Nails album for example. And they often involve the Internet – streaming video, online forums, etc. – but not necessarily.

I watched a documentary (The Institute) about this “organization” that operated in San Francisco. The “Jejune Institute” posted flyers around town advertising far-fetched science fiction concepts. An automated phone message led people to an actual building with elaborate decor. Visitors watched videos and got invited further into involvement with the institution. Slowly, they unraveled a complicated mystery.

I just watched this talk by one of the designers of this thing, and I thought it was pretty interesting.

He talks about the idea that, as adults in society, certain ways of “playing” are off-limits – frowned upon, or just plain unthinkable. He created this “interactive narrative adventure” as a way of providing an opportunity for people to interact with the public space in a new way.

This makes a lot of sense to me – there’s an element of adventure or fantasy missing for adults in the world today. I think that probably has a lot to do with the popularity of conspiracy theories, as well as video games and other forms of entertainment.

Furthermore, I find the idea of questioning the parameters of society to be really interesting. I think the Internet, especially in the early days, can be a tool for this. The Internet was a way for people to communicate, interact, publish, and explore in ways that weren’t sanctioned by society. Because it was new and developing, there weren’t many rules and conventions. It seemed to be asking you what you could do with it. It was like an alternate society – outside of the real society – that gave us an opportunity to rethink it.

Now things seem more settled down. The Internet has shaken the world up in many ways, but has become a conventional part of life. There is a wide variety of activities to take part in online, but most of these fall into categorizes sanctioned by society. First, consuming “content” (social media, streaming video/music, news, education/self-help). Second, creating “content” – as social participation and/or in hopes of eking out a living by monetizing it. Third, to use tools for general and commercial purposes (email, cloud software, etc.).

By and large, the Internet doesn’t seem like it is beckoning with opportunity anymore. But, I think it actually does have potential. It just doesn’t seem like it because it’s so integrated with society now.

It seems to me that society wants us to treat the Internet like a souped-up television – our usage should either be passive or in service of commerce. I think we should be questioning that idea, even if the usage is as trivial as “play”.