Alternate Reality Games

By Jason Griffey |

In a Techsource post a couple of months ago, I talked about the hot video games for the Fall and holiday season. This time around, I want to introduce readers to a type of game that they might not be aware of: the Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. ARG's are becoming more and more popular, and libraries need to be aware of them and ready to embrace them.

So what is an ARG? An ARG is a game that utilizes the real world as a gameboard and everyday communications mechanisms (cellphone, email, snail mail, etc.) as the controls. Think of an ARG as a form of live-action roleplaying game that doesn't necessarily involve a is you, and not a character you are portraying, trying to unravel the mystery or solve the puzzle. Honestly, these are hard to wrap your head around if you aren't already familiar with them. The best way I have to illustrate how one works is to give you an example of one, and show you how it progressed.

In 2007, the band Nine Inch Nails (or, rather, the man behind the band, Trent Reznor) worked with a company to produce an ARG around the storyline for the album Year Zero. The album was written around the concept of a distopian future America, where the government has become a fundamentalist theocracy. In the storyline, the government is controlling the populace through a drug that is introduced via the water supply, and the Bureau of Morality ensures that dissidents to the new order are disappeared. That storyline, a melange of 1984, Brave New World, and other classic distopian tales, is extended into the real world through a combination of websites, posters, cellphones, and USB drives.

The first clue to the game was printed on t-shirts for the band's European tour. There were a series of letters on the shirt that were different colors than the rest, which unscrambled to reveal the phrase "I am trying to believe". Someone quickly noticed that was an actual website, and the rabbit hole for the remainder of the game. From there, fans began researching and sharing their notes online, and discovered that there were other websites in the same IP range as Trying to Believe. These led to further clues, and more and more of the story was revealed as people connected the websites to each other.

Over the following weeks, fans began to discover USB keys in the restrooms of tour venues that had unreleased songs on them. These were uploaded to the Web, and the community began subjecting the music to all sorts of analysis. One enterprising fan discovered that if you ran the music through a spectrogram, more clues were revealed in the form of photos and phone numbers. Calling the phone number revealed yet more of the story, and led you to the next set of clues.

Now, with the story firmly in place, the game began to recruit people to "take sides" in the storyline, introducing a group called Art is Resistence to the game, and asking people to give their email address and cell phone number if they were interested in being a part of this "resistence" movement. There is a meeting scheduled for this group in Los Angeles, where attendees are given "Resistence Kits" with stickers, posters and other propaganda for the movement. 25 of these kits contain pre-paid cellphones, which are used as a part of the finale of the game.

In April 2007, months after the first person realized that random letters on a tshirt led to a website, the cell phones given to the Resistence members rang, and told them to meet in a particular place in Los Angeles for a meeting. When they arrived, an actor playing the part of a member of Art is Resistence told them that the meeting place had been compromised, and hurried them into black vans that took off to an unknown location. They arrived at a warehouse, and were treated to a Nine Inch Nails concert....which, in true ARG form, was "raided" by a Bureau of Morality SWAT team at the end.

There's a lot to digest in this summary: the necessity of social interaction to solve the various puzzle, the almost mind-boggling amount of research that individuals are willing to do to solve clues, the interaction of the virtual with the real, the use of modern communications technologies to leverage interest and engagement. So very, very much of this could be used by outreach programs in libraries, by library instruction teams, and by libraries trying to boost research skills in their patrons. The experiments with the ARG form in libraries is only just beginning, but there are some early leaders in the space.

The current "must read" blog for news about Library ARGs is Hidden Peanuts, by Chad Haefele at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's involved in planning an ARG for his library now, and I look forward to hearing how it goes, and how they feel it can be improved. Aaron Schmidt has also written about them, and is someone else that everyone should be reading. At ALA Annual 2008, Jenny Levine helped put together California Dreaming, a "Big Game" with ARG elements to it. Keep an eye out for more and more of these cropping up in libraries and educational institutions, and bet on the fact that you will hear more about these in the next 2-3 years.