ARG 101

All right, I mentioned it and promised it, so here it is: a brief introduction to the world of ARGs. Consider this your first-semester, quick and painless, practically-impossible-to-fail course. First and foremost, the acronym ARG has nothing to do with International Talk Like a Pirate Day , so put down your eye-patches and swashbucks (for now) before anyone gets hurt. Got a taste for puzzle solving? Your mouth is parched for some adventure? Want to make a difference? Come along, do we have a feast for you!

ARG stands for Alternate Reality Game.

You might have heard of these in recent years, although the mainstream -as it’s wont to do- has blurred the details and might have projected a funky picture of ARGs. If you’ve read about ‘viral marketing’, ‘cross-media promotions’, ‘I Love Bees’ you might have a rough idea of what ARGs are and how they work. If you’re thinking of cos-play and LARPing, you might be a bit confused. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page, shall we?

[An ARG] is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by the participants’ ideas or actions. [wikipedia]

That’s a lot of fancy words! Let’s break it down:

  • Narrative: an ARG is a story-telling experience. Someone is telling a story (the ‘Puppetmasters’, because they are the people behind the curtain), and others are listening (the ‘Players’). Getting through the story (regardless of which side you’re on) is an entertaining experience (just like reading a book, watching a movie, playing a video-game).
  • Interactive: the story being told can be affected by the actions of the players. The Puppetmasters make sure to have feedback loops so that they can follow the players’ actions through the game, and incorporate the outcome of those actions in their story. In essence, it’s the same concept of the good old Gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series[1].
  • Real World Platform: this is a huge point. ARGs areblur the lines between reality and fiction better than anything else we’ve seen so far. Forget computer-generated Virtual Reality environments; say goodbye to ‘story immersion’. The Puppetmaster will do everything they can to make the story being told bleed into the reality the players live in. Imagine reading a book and receiving an email from one of the characters, or getting a phone call from the main villain. It is not unheard of characters in ARGs making actual contact with the players on the street. Would you help Atreyu on his way to the Ivory Tower if you met him at your local coffee shop? It may very well sound scary at first, but believe me, there’s no real danger involved in ARGs. If you enter an ARG, you won’t run the risk of being mugged next time you’re out on Saturday night[2]. ARGs never put the players in any real risk – you won’t find yourself cast in the role of a new Nicholas Van Orton, don’t worry. The games that plan to make the most of real-life interactions will most certainly let you opt-out of them (e.g.: “Can we call you on your home phone?”). In addition, sicne the game is played by other players, you can be passive, avoiding any direct interaction with the story characters, and simply join the other, more involved, players in their quest.

Now that we have a few general concept out of the way, let’s see what else there is to say about ARGs, with more practical examples. Perhaps a little walk-through might help. I’ll borrow an example from the web instead of making up my own crazy story:

You’re spending some time exploring the internet and someone points you to a couple sites and tells you that it’s a crazy mystery about some missing monkeys. The first site you visit is There, you see pictures of the monkeys doing funny monkey things as well as a list of the monkey zookeepers. All of the zookeepers have email addresses that are something like aside from one. His email is listed as Intrigued, you decide to visit and see that he mentions concerns that the monkeys have been replaced by robomonkeys! (everyone’s worst fear, of course, is the eventual destruction of man by evil robotic monkeys…maybe that’s just mine?)

What you have done is used your real world computer to explore a bit of a fictional world. You also solved your first ARG puzzle…yay you![4]

ARGs usually start with ‘trailheads’. You’ll find an email, or some dormant message somewhere (on a website, in a TV or magazine ad, who knows?) that leads you to a puzzle, or some other place where the initial steps of the story are told. The story will be slowly revealed as you follow the trail.

Where does the trail end? Hard to tell. Somewhere along the way, the players will be faced with puzzles and challenges. Whether they solve them (sometimes there’s a time limit) or not might determine whether the story will move in a certain direction or not. Perhaps one of the main characters is being stalked by a hitman and you find a puzzle that may reveal the hitman’s identity. If you solve the puzzle by a certain date, and send the hitman’s identity to the character being stalked, she will be safe. Without your help, she will disappear and the story will move in a totally different direction.

As you might have guessed by now, ARGs are not games you buy at a toy store, nor games you can quite ‘sign-up’ for. You have to look around for them (don’t worry, I’ll let you know where to look), and when a new trailhead appears, you may join in the fun and see where the rabbithole leads. ARGs tend to last a while (a few weeks, a few months?), although some are set up to be a much quicker business (where you can solve all the puzzles in a couple of hours; players tend to call them ‘timewasters’). Real life will get in the way of this fictional experience that tries to get into your real life, of course. Not to worry: you can leave an ARG anytime you need to. You might not even need to. After all, the other players will keep the story going, and you can always catch up with the latest puzzles and chapters.

One word of warning, as a form of full-discolsure: ARGs can be quite expensive to run. As a player you’re not likely to have to pay anything, but for the Puppetmasters to set up web sites, hints, puzzles, write a good story, and run the whole thing, they need resources (read: money). As a result, in recent years, some ARGs have been tied to commercial products (say an upcoming movie, or videogame, or a TV series). The people behind the commercial product have learned that ARGs are a great way to get people interested in a product; the people behind the ARG get the resources they need to run a great game, and the players can enjoy a tremendous production. Don’t worry though: not all ARGs are backed by a commercial product, and those that do are often very careful to keep the ARG and sponsoring product distinct – so that the ARG experience is not ‘ruined’ for any player.

I hope all of the above has peaked your interest, and to write more about ARGs in the future ([RealitySyndrome] and I have been following one lately, that has just started). In the meanwhile, here’s a few other places you may want to visit to read more:


[1] Yes, I know I’m dating myself with these references. Anyways, to rehash an old jihad: I always liked the Lone Wolf series (at least the first 12!)

[2] Technically the risk is there, but it has nothing to do with the ARG: it’s actually due to the real world being what it is.

[3] …you are.

[4] From the ARG Quickstart.


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