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Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are games that take place in a networked narrative, across multiple platforms that can include both digital spaces and physical ones. As many of these games take place in real time, participants can often make choices that will affect the outcome. Players can often interact with the characters, working together to solve a problem. ARGs can also be used for viral marketing campaigns, such as the 2004 game I Love Bees used to create hype around the release of Halo 2.
Precursor: Ong’s Hat
In the 1980s transmedia artist Joseph Matheny launched the Ong’s Hat game, inspired by play-by-mail multiplayer games run by Flying Buffalo. Though Ong’s Hat may not have set out to be an ARG, the methods by which the author interacted with participants and used different platforms to build and spread its legend has been reflected in later games. Also known as The Incunabula Papers, the game incorporated the practice of “legend tripping” in which a group of people visit sites known in folklore for horrific or supernatural events. Matheny built a mythos around a supposed ghost town in New Jersey throughout the 1980s through works disguised as research shared on bulletin boards and physical zines. One of the earliest archived theories about the alleged legend appeared in the October 1993 issue of Boing Boing and was posted online as early as February 11th, 1994.
Between 1994 and 2000, posts about Ong’s Hat were planted on a number of different Usenet groups to spark discussion, including sci.math, alt.illuminati, alt.conspiracy and alt.society.paradigms, among others. In 2001, Matheny stopped the project and went on to publish two books about it, as well as archiving all the materials on the Incunabula website.
Often considered the first Alternate Reality Game, Dreadnot was produced by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. The game involved investigating a local murder mystery, with clues hidden in the website’s source code. Players could interact with provided voice mail numbers and email addresses for the characters where people could leave tips and clues. The game also incorporated fictionalized versions of real people, including former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
In 2001, game designer Elan Lee and Microsoft creative director Jordan Weisman teamed up to create a viral marketing game prior to the release of the Steven Spielberg science fiction film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Titled “The Beast,” the game revolved around a murder mystery set in the world of A.I., 50 years after the movie had taken place. Players were tipped off by a credit in the movie’s trailer for a fictional character named Janine Salla who was credited as a “Sentient Machine Therapist” (shown below). After searching for Salla’s name online, players were brought into the world involving “hundreds of thousands” of websites, phone numbers to call and physical locations to visit.
When the game was first released in the spring of 2001, the developers put up six months worth of in-game content which players completed within 24 hours. By the end of the game that summer, more than 3 million people had participated, with many gathering in a Yahoo! Group titled The Cloudmakers to sort out the information of the game, with some participants going as far as to create flowcharts (shown below) of in-game activity. As of September 2013, the Cloudmakers site now serves as an archive for in-game websites.
After members of the Cloudmakers unsuccessfully tried to launch their own game, Ravenwatchers, another group began working on Lockjaw, which was first referenced in a September 2001 Wired article. It did not go live until February 2002, introducing players to GanMed Biotechnical (shown below), a fictional genetic engineering company, and a group of characters attempting to stop their human testing. Players could interact with these characters via weekly Euchre card games on Yahoo!. This was the first successful fan-made game since the launch of The Beast’s viral marketing.
I Love Bees
I Love Bees was part of the viral marketing campaign for the 2004 Xbox console game Halo 2. Created by 42 Entertainment, many of the same employees who created The Beast worked on this game as well. The game started with the website ilovebees.com, which was promoted in the first Halo 2 trailer, as well as through jars of honey mailed to previous ARG participants. Players were later given 210 pairs of GPS coordinates linked to pay phones located across the globe and specific times to expect a call, either consisting of a recording or a live message from an “Operator,” allowing the player to interact with the game. More than 250,000 people visited ilovebees.com during its launch month, with a total of 3 million visits throughout the three months the game was active.
Interactive YouTube Games
Interactive YouTube Games are videos that use linked annotations to other videos that continue the story different ways, most often modeled after a Choose Your Own Adventure book. One of the first games to use this system was uploaded by werneroi on June 3rd, 2008, offering an “Interactive Magician” who would show the viewer different card tricks depending on what part of the subject’s clothing they clicked. In just over five years, the video has more than 3.4 million views. As of September 2013, there are more than 51 million search results on YouTube for “interactive game” and curated lists of the best games have appeared on MakeUseOf and Mashable.
Marble Hornets and the Slenderverse
On June 20th, 2009, twelve days after Viktor Surge posted the original Slender Man photographs, a group of filmmakers launched a video series titled Marble Hornets (shown below, left), the first ARG centered around the character, referred to as The Operator. As of September 2013, the Marble Hornets YouTube channel has posted 76 entries and accrued more than 334,000 subscribers. These videos are supplemented by the YouTube account totheark (shown below, right), whose cryptic response videos are directed towards the characters in the series, often providing information or footage not seen on the main channel.
Marble Hornets, along with the popularity of the Slender Man mythos in general, has sparked dozens of other ARGs and interactive fiction blogs since 2010, notably TribeTwelve (shown below, left) and Dark Harvest (shown below, right). While each series has a different level of player interaction, many of them utilize YouTube comments, Twitter accounts and livestream events. A number of these series have been collected on The Slender Man Wiki, the Unfiction forums and the /r/Slenderman_ARGs subreddit.
XI is the first alternate reality game to be played through a console. The game could be played by those with a PlayStation 3. In order to start players could go to PlayStation Home and examine the new graffiti for clues. The goal of the game was to find someone named Jess using the clues, and ultimately discover the meaning of Xi. Players could also find clues in real life. The game began on March 23rd, 2009, and latested for three months.
World Without Oil
World Without Oil is an educational game set in a future in which there is an extreme oil crisis. The game is supported by the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The game lets the player see the consequences of an oil shortage, such as extremely high gas prices. Players can participate in the game by documenting all the consequences of the oil shortage. The game earned a 2008 Webby nomination in the Games category.
Year Zero is a game based on the Nine Inch Nails album which shares its name. Set in 2022, the game presents a dystopian universe with a heavy handed, oppressive US government which has become a Christian fundamentalist theocracy following several terrorist attacks on major American cities. The water supply is treated with a drug that makes Americans less likely to rebel against the new, harsher government. A major force of the game is called simply “The Presence,” which is an ominous creature many believe to be the hands of God. While the future looks bleak a rebel group called Solutions Backwards Initiative discovers a way to send a message to the past to prevent the terrible future.
In May 2002, Unfiction.com (shown below, left) launched as a hub site for fans of Alternate Reality Gaming, offering links to other games, helpful tools for solving typical in-game puzzles and a forum which has attracted nearly one million posts as of September 2013. In June 2002, ARG Network (shown below, right) launched as an aggregator for news about ARGs. ARGHive, an archive set up to mirror completed games, was created in December 2005. In May 2008, ARGology was launched as part of the International Game Developers Association’s ARG special interest group, but has not been updated since 2010. On August 27th, 2008, the /r/ARG subreddit was created, and has since gained nearly 600 subscribers.
Google Groups Archive – alt.magick: Kaos Magick! (Inculunabula: Ong’s Hat) (LONG)