Alternate Reality Games SIG/Whitepaper/Antecedents to Alternate Reality Games

International Game Developers Association

Jump to: navigation, search

Original author: Bryan Alexander

As with any cultural development, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) depend in part on previous practices, texts, and traditions. While the outlines of any given ARG may seem strange or alien – fictional characters calling real life players, distributed detective teams, cryptograms and steganographically-hidden items advancing plots – their appearance evokes a previously hidden history of mysterious, gamelike texts and plots. Indeed, we can view the ARG as a revisionary project, recasting narrative in a mix of old and new lights. The antecedents to ARGs cross media, nations, genre, and canonical status, and seem too disparate to cohere. Alongside the podcasted novel, books read as RSS, and ghost stories told by images posted to a discussion board,8 the ARG represents an emergent narrative form, deeply based on the affordances and possibilities of new media.

In her influential Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), Janet Murray offers a powerful theoretical approach to ARGs9. Every new technology-based medium, she argues, evolves in two early stages. The first sees the porting over of forms from other media, as when early movies relied upon theatrical conventions. During the second stage creators pick up on the intrinsic elements of a new medium, and create new forms. In cinematic history, we can consider Griffith’s innovation of moving the camera while filming, or Dziga Vertov’s use of editing to break up filmic time and space (see also Manovich, 2001). A similar process is visible across the history of digital media. The first decade of Web design, for example, built HTML documents with the trappings of print (pages, bookmarks). As we see the proliferation of newer technologies, some dubbed Web 2.0, new storytelling forms emerge.

The full set of antecedents is fairly large, drawing on a wide range of games, documents, practices, and grows even if we include the literature of hoaxes and publishing stunts. This describes, for example, the eighteenth-century practice of pseudonymous authorship, extending into the eighteenth century with writers like Jane Austen, and as far into our time as Primary Colors (1996). The roman a clef appears under this rubric, based on the game of mapping a fiction’s characters onto their nonfictional targets, as in the Romantic-era satirical works of Thomas Love Peacock. Part of the pleasure in reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) lies in unraveling the details connecting fictional Willie Stark and his unnamed state to Huey Long of Louisiana.

The thin but important tradition of play-based, or “ludic”, texts play a key role in preARG history. These are books or other documents whose very form is gamelike. The most famous example is the Choose Your Own Adventure series (Edward Packard et al, 1979ff), which are both played and read at the same time. Published for a children’s audience, and beloved by ARG designers and players alike, these books reared two generations on both hypertext and the practice of reading a story as game/game as story. A similar group of books is the Fighting Fantasy series (1980ff), which let readers jump from page to page by dice rolls as well as choices. Espen Aarseth describes these influential texts as “ergodic”, requiring work (“erg”) to read. Like ARGs, “playing” ludic texts is essential to reading them. Unlike a traditionally linear text, like a Shakespearean history play, with a one-way track through events, the reader must choose a path through alternatives. Unlike flashbacks, flashforwards, or other time-based narrative strategies which

ultimately resolve into a unitary timeline, the ludic text’s reader is required to select from choices, actively constructing a single narrative path, which won’t necessarily be the same on rereading (or replaying). Henry V, in contrast, retains the same plot each time (setting aside what the reader might learn between readings).

Examples of ludic texts are well known in the established field of hypertext scholarship, as hypertext stories must also be operated to read: Maya Deren’s Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946), the OuLiPo group's activated poetry (1960ff), or the puzzles within the conclusion of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). The performance-oriented school of dramatic criticism leans to the ergodic, in this sense, as does performance art: radically, these texts require performance to be comprehended. Hoaxes surely fall into this history, texts pretending to be authored by or for something other than they are, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which purports to be a true story of fantastic adventure and survival, or The Blair Witch Project (1999), with its swarm of documentary evidence and staged discussion.

However, we can exclude many such works for the time, partly for reasons of space, but also being based on a single factor: most are evidently games or call attention to themselves as puzzles. They do not demonstrate a sense of the TINAG principle (This Is Not A Game), which David Szulborski (among others) sees as central to ARGs. They remain clearly identifiable as fictions, even though the structure of those fictions purports to be different than their publication history. They often appear in media or genres mature enough to allow this sort of play. They lack the boundary-crossing of ARGs, which clearly challenge the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, or at least open up the possibility of a different, mysterious platform for stories beneath the evident one. This crucial aspect of ARGs distinguishes them from other digital narratives and games, and can be viewed as a horizon or boundary around the field.

Even accepting that limitation, we can detect several antecedent threads leading up to the ARG. We will consider four such strands in the present discussion: fictional representations of ARG-like enterprises, games using ARG strategies, art using ARG strategies, and hoaxes relying on the TINAG principle.

Contents

ARGs in Fiction

ARGs and ARG-like projects have appeared in fiction for some time. We can begin with the past century, and one of the most widely-read, John Fowles’ The Magus (1965, revised 1977). Its protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, plays an elaborate, multi-leveled game, at one pointed dubbed a “godgame,” with ever-shifting characters, levels of fictive identity, and a deepening intrusion into his life. The game’s focal character and likely puppet master, Maurice Conchis, is the titular magician, but the precise nature of his role shifts as the game progresses, burying rather than revealing his intentions for most of the novel. As with any ARG, Urfe must investigate mysteries in order for the plot to advance. He interrogates visitors, trespasses on Colchis’ property, and attempts to influence the outcome of subplots. At the same time, as with EA’s ill-fated Majestic, “the game plays [him].” The game staff read his mail, mentally and physically torment Urfe, invade his personal life, and gradually draw him into a series of existential crises culminating in a romantic confrontation. The boundaries of the godgame are never clear, as with a good ARG, with part of the action consisting of Urfe trying to determine what is game and what is not.

G. K. Chesterton offers another ARG story in The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown (1905, in the Club of Queer Trades collection). During his retirement, the main character stumbles into a game being staged for him, and finds his faculties revived. The puppet masters, the Adventure and Romance Agency, Limited, use planted characters in Brown’s neighborhood, “chance” encounters, mysterious messages, hidden locations to simulate an invigorating adventure. The plot only unravels when Brown discovers the Agency, who then asks him to pay the game’s bill. This game is perhaps too deeply embedded in the player’s life to be the sort of ARG we recognize, but we can certainly appreciate the mix of distributed game content pieces and the delight in play:

<blockquote.the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and moving story is first written by one of the staff of distinguished novelists who are at present hard at work in the adjoining room. Yours, Major Brown (designed by our Mr Grigsby), I consider peculiarly forcible and pointed; it is almost a pity you did not see the end of it.” </blockquote>

One of the best-known fictional representations of ARG-like games is The Game (David Fincher, 1997). As with our previous examples, the main character, Nicholas Van Orton, plays and is played by a game embedded within his life and environment. The many puzzles and plot elements are mixed with out-of-game details, and distributed across reality itself, undermining the possibility of defining anything as “out of game”. As with any ludic text, Van Orton must play the game for its plot to advance, questioning strangers, investigating mysteries, and traveling to new locations. If he had ceased to play, the rest of the narrative would have been suspended (and the film ended quite early, or transformed into a truly strange, other story). Also consonant with our other antecedent texts is the ethical drive of the game, since the film is in many ways about Van Orton’s improvement as a human being. He begins as a cold, isolated, wealth-obsessed shell of a man, and grows out of that state as the game intensifies.

William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) is arguably the most significant description in fiction of an internet-age ARG. While the previous examples mentioned used costumes, actors, paint, and even a CNN hack as content, Pattern Recognition's ARG-like entity is built on digital video, distributed through the internet, and discussed in classic ARG fashion on discussion boards. The plot concerns The Footage, a fragmentary series of film clips apparently produced by the same source, but whose interrelationships are unclear. The distributed communities obsessed with The Footage research its components, closely analyzing them, extrapolating, testing, and revising assessments which coalesce into a sense of the films’ plot. TINAG appears once more, as The Footage is published secretively, in no single location, and is discovered in a distributed, uneven way. Debates occur around ruling content in-Footage and out-. Even the name, The Footage, is provisional and unofficial. Newcomers to ARGs who gradually realize that these games lack clearly defined boundaries around who is and who isn't a player would recognize Cayce’s interaction with Footage players. Some of these players suddently appear in face-to-face meetings, even though they are are strangers to the protagonist, such as a restaurant worker who recognizes Cayce as a fellow player:

“You follow the footage.” His eyes narrowing within their brackets of black Italian plastic.

ARGs teach us to heighten our ability to winnow patterns out of the otherwise seemingly random and meaningless data in the wider world. Gibson’s novel stretches between these two poles, as Cayce investigates The Footage (among other things), while seeking to avoid her mother’s obsession with electronic voice phenomena.

>Beyond ARG-like games themselves, key elements of ARG design have appeared in fiction for some time. For example, Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) concerns the insertion of fictive content into nonfiction. A group of academics, puppet-master equivalents, create an encyclopedia of an imaginary world, then sneak small pieces of it into conventional encyclopedias. Then that fictive world, Tlon, starts intruding its descriptions into our world on its own -the content escapes its creators. Beyond proving a delightful example for Wikipedia critics, this story brings to mind the tensions and thrills of seeing reality and fiction discovered alongside each other. Readers of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction experience something similar when they realize that the Necronomicon is a fictional book cited in Lovecraft’s stories, whereas The Witch-Cult in Modern Europe (1921), which also appears in those tales, is so real that it can be purchased from Amazon.com10. Fans, hoaxers, and the ingenious have created print editions of the Necronomicon, winning the right to claim that Alhazred’s book is real, blurring the fact-fiction line still further. Similarly, in the ARG-world, most games have player-built documentary sites describing game content. To an enterprising outsider, a secondary game of discerning reality from fiction may be played.

ARG-like Games

Moving beyond texts about games to games themselves, a series of games before and after The Beast launched used major ARG elements. Most evident here is the insertion of game content into everyday life and structuring a quest-like search using non-game content. For example, Assassin consists of players trying to “kill” other players, but while living lives in a non-game-playing society. College students stalk each other through residence halls and cafeterias, brandishing toy weapons at targets selected by a game system. The game exists all around nonplayers, operating silently or erupting suddenly into a classroom or quad. While Assassin, which dates reliably back to the 1980s, does have game boundaries in space and time, they are not apparent to nonplayers; moreover, the point is to intertwine life and game. Live Action Role Playing games, or LARPs, operate in a similar fashion by embedding players and game content into a larger social world, such as a convention or campus. LARPs greatly expand game content over Assassin, adding character background, rules for physical interaction, and so on. The How to Host a Murder game offers a smaller but still useful example of this embedding strategy, as players take on roles within an unrelated social setting. Role-playing here blends elements of the fictional character with perceptions of actual players.

Performance Art

Beyond games and texts about games, performative art has sometimes used ARG strategies to break Brecht's "fourth wall." The traditions of performance art and guerrilla theater have, in retrospect, resembled ARGs in this way. This historical connection suggests a possible ideology for ARGs, in terms of performance art’s political and psychological activism. One may detect a trace of this in Jane McGonical’s account of ARG players wanting to participate in the war on terror11. Ray Johnson’s Zen-like practice of sending his art to galleries and correspondents is relevant here. As depicted in the biographical documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Johnson’s mail art struck recipients as puzzles to be solved. The boundaries of each piece, like a good ARG puzzle, had to be determined in the course of exploration – what was a pun, what a bagatelle, what connected to which external referent?

Performative art can also intertwine an artist’s content with everyday life beyond either street theater or the gallery. For examples, Janet Cardiff has developed her Walks series since 1991. The audience experiences sounds through portable recorders as they walk through locations, the contents of which are largely or entirely native, rather than created as part of the project. As the description of a 2005 instance reads, Cardiff creates augmented realities:

interactive works where visitors are asked to touch, listen and move through environments layered with visual and aural narratives12

At a less avant-garde level, historical reenactments resemble both ARGs and performance art. Their encampments, fairs, spectacles are not as intrusive to outsiders as performance art can be, since they are formally and clearly demarcated. But the plunging down a rabbit hole of ARG play, the sense of immersion into a world extending very far beyond one’s ability to encompass, is a key part of the reenactor experience. Summoning up a historical moment, be it the seventh century, the American Civil War, or Jane Austen’s time, literally creates an alternate reality within our own.

Literary Hoaxes

Having touched on performative art, gaming, and stories about ARGs, let us briefly return to our earlier discussion of hoaxes. While literary fakes have a long tradition, some instances are remarkably ARG-like. These are not works which seek to disguise authorship, such as the Donation of Constantine (eighth century) or the first edition of The Castle of Otranto (attributed to one “Onuphrio Muralto”, 1765), but attempts to pass off fictional work as nonfiction. The most spectacular bibliophilic example is the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated book describing what seems to be an alien world. All of the text is written in an alphabet not used by any human civilization. The illustrations are strange, unnerving, macabre, funny, and surreal. It appears without authorship or secondary material in its earliest printings (1981), like a found document from a lost culture. It became the subject of discussion for some time, like Gibson’s Footage, but was revealed to be the work of Luigi Serafini, an Italian designer. Like Borges’ Tlonish encyclopedia, the Codex appears on bookshelves as if snuck into our world from an alternative reality.

The Sokal hoax took this theme and reversed it as a statement of public critique and obloquy. Alan Sokal (physics, New York University), appalled by the rise of science studies, placed a paper in a leading journal addressing that field. The paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was accepted by Social Text in 1996. It fulfills many requirements for a scholarly paper, including detailed citation and a steady flow of specialists’ discourse. But it was deliberately riddled with fantasies, gaffes, errors, and flights from reality. Once it was accepted and published in Social Text, Sokal strode out from behind the curtain in the pages of another journal, Lingua Franca, to explain his game. 13 A related public academic hoax from a previous generation, The Report from Iron Mountain (1967), outlined a pro-war domestic policy, and was published as a serious argument.

Such texts should bring to mind earlier satires, not always understood as such, including Jonathan’s Swift’s “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents...” (1729) and Daniel Defoe’s “Shortest Way With Dissenters” (1703). Each of these texts purports to have serious intent, and appeals to two audiences: those who get the joke, and those who do not. ARGs are predicated upon such bimodal reception of game content. ARG players alone “got” the numbers added to an A.I. poster, or tried to get into the Metacortechs company's directory. Indeed, we can infer that ARG play is predicated on players grasping a secret not appreciated by their peers.

We can locate a similar interpretive dynamic in the long tradition of “decoding” cultural texts. This includes putatively discovering numerological significance in documents, like The Bible Code (a best-seller in the United States), as well as applying such discoveries to everyday life, as when Russian priests determine that Napoleon Bonaparte’s name, suitably decoded via the French alphabet, yields “666” in War and Peace. Conspiracy theories in general partake of this interpretive approach. Such “analyses” separate the audience into the illuminated and the un-clued, which claiming some authority for the speaker.

ARGs and Politics

The creation of two levels of readers is a very political act, especially as ARGs win larger audiences. But the politics may in fact be very personal, despite the practice of collaborative play. Consider: one benefit of playing a game is, as with most fiction, the enjoyment of a character. Many ARG plots, like mysteries, turn on the death or disappearance of a single person, whom we get to know through play. In fact, the number of characters in an ARG is quite limited, resembling again the cast of a mystery novel, in contrast to, say, the teeming social strata of an epic or historical novel. Although we play ARGs collectively, we thrive on and give applause for our individual achievements. We each bring our unique perspectives and skill sets to bear on puzzles. The thrill of discovering a cryptogram, the joy in solving it, the sheer kick of having a game respond to you – these are ultimately deeply individual experiences. The process of playing this sort of collaborative game is also a celebration of the individual player.

ARG antecedents similarly celebrate the individual. John Fowles’ Magus is ultimately about the transformation of a single mind, focused on one point. The Game concerns the redemption of its main character, turning him into more of a human being. The Codex Seriphinianus was the work of one designer. Gibson’s Footage is played as, and ultimately revealed to be, the inspired work of one creator. Although it goes against the grain of the “collective detective” concept, the ARG ancestry teaches us that this field may be more deeply individualistic than we thought. Such individualism, if this hypothesis is right, makes the politics of ARG play richer, or perhaps more contradictory, than the rhetoric of collective action which is usually applied to it.

A collective problem remains. The preservation of ARG content and play remains an open, unsolved, and tragic problem. Game content web sites lose their hosting, player-created resources vanish, forums disappear, phone numbers cease to work, email addresses die quietly. ARGs are at worst as evanescent as early film, or dance performance. We are in desperate need of an archiving system so that we can in some way preserve game contents, and also record the experience of play. The fact that so much of the ARG antecedent world remains accessible signals the importance of working to preserve this rising field, before too much of it disappears, and the games become too mysterious.

There are antecedents to this problem, which the ARG community may draw upon. Libraries and archives have fought to preserve the written record for millennia, and remain at the forefront of concerns about preserving digital documents. Film historians increasingly work to maintain and expand our access to older movies, transferring content into other storage devices, reprinting obscure titles, editing improved versions of important works. Director Martin Scorcese has been a leader in this field for decades. Preserving live performance has been partly the responsibility of recording technologies, as film and video recorded music, dance, and theater productions.

The field of ARG antecedents offers a mixed record in terms of preservation. The books and movies we’ve discussed are fairly widely available, and ultimately appear in copies at key sites (Library of Congress). Performance art is less well recorded, especially when we consider how difficult it is to record performers and audience simultaneously. Dance ultimately developed notation systems to record dance designs, when readers had no access to their performance (Benesh Movement, Kinetography Laban),

Some ARG antecedents are partially preserved – we can find many Choose Your Own Adventure books, but how do we access the experience of playing/reading those? Live-action role-playing games face a similar problem, with game documents preserved (not always), but play hard to find in archival forms. How many people have watched a full LARP in video? Computer games in general face a difficult preservation road, between hardware and software succession and the problem of archiving game play. Imagine trying to present World of Warcraft to an audience fifty years from now. Consider the variety of ARG content: should we attempt to save every scrap of interaction, each forum post, IRQ chat transcript? What about the interactions between players? This may be a good time to start thinking about an ARG archiving selection protocol.

This is not a new problem, and partial solutions have been implemented. The ARG community has preserved a variety of game pieces over time. The Internet Archive14 contains a growing set of game web pages. Individual players no doubt possess a large number of game content items. Perhaps the ARG ethos of collaborative action, and a growing awareness of the genre’s historical depth and importance, can combine to form a larger ARG preservation movement.

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT, 1997.

David Szulborski, This is Not A Game. Lulu: 2006.


references

[8] Las Gafas de Platon (2005, http://www.sergioparra.net/~sparra/paginas/platon.html),

Pulse (ongoing, http://www.pulsethebook.com ),
“I Found A Digital Camera in the Woods” (2004, originally at http://www.gtaforums.com/index.php?showtopic=144008&st=0, mirrored at http://dirtyashtray.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=1374&sid=01969379d85a1ec1c5d52093ff2c86a2 ),
“Tell a Story in Five Frames Flickr Group” ( http://flickr.com/groups/visualstory ).


[9] I owe a debt of thanks to the kind commentators at Infocult, who offered so much useful discussion on this topic: http://infocult.typepad.com/infocult/2005/10/antecedents_to_.html .

[10] The HPLA site has a nice list of real books placed alongside the fictional at http://www.hplovecraft.com/creation/tomes.asp#nonfiction

[11] “'This Is Not a Game': Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play”, delivered 2003.

"We can solve the puzzle of who the terrorists are," one member wrote [3]. Another agreed: "We have the means, resources, and experience to put a picture together from a vast wealth of knowledge and personal intuition"[43]. One Cloudmaker suggested: "Let's become a resource. Utilize your computer & analytical talents to generate leads" [7]. Someone else implored: "We like to flout [sic] our 7,000 members and our voracious appetite for difficult problems, but when the chips are down can we really make a difference?"

[12]http://www.deltaaxis.org/powerhouse/exhibitions/cardiff.html

[13]One copy reliably available at http://www.physics.nyu.edu/~as2/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html

[14]http://www.archive.org

Personal tools