Alternate Reality Games

An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive experience that uses the real world as a platform to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions. Typically alternate reality games leverage social technologies to some degree or another for game designers (known as puppetmasters) to provide information to participants, and for participants to communicate with leash other during the process of the game. ARGs are sometimes described as the first narrative art form native to the internet, because their storytelling relies on the two main activities conducted there: searching for information, and sharing information. The form is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants' responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game's designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together with a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail but rely on the Internet as the central binding medium.

There is an important distinction to be made between traditional types of games and alternate reality games. Whereas traditional gaming is designed to help people escape from reality, alternate reality games are actually designed to make reality more engaging. Hence the importance of using the real world as the stage for the games. ARGs are typically free to play, with costs absorbed either through supporting products or promotional agreements. While it might be possible to follow the game individually, ARGs are really designed for collective of players that share information and solutions almost instantly, and incorporated individuals possessing almost every conceivable area of expertise.

ARG Terminology

Puppetmaster - The puppetmaster is responsible for running an ARG. Puppetmasters are simultaneously allies and adversaries to the player base, creating obstacles and providing resources for overcoming them in the course of telling the game's story. Puppetmasters generally remain behind the curtain while a game is running. The real identity of puppet masters may or may not be known ahead of time.

The Curtain - The curtain is generally a metaphor for the separation between the puppetmasters and the players. This can take the traditional form of absolute secrecy regarding the puppetmasters' identities and involvement with the production, or refer merely to the convention that puppetmasters do not communicate directly with players through the game, interacting instead through the characters and the game's design.

Trailhead - A deliberate clue which enables a player to discover a way into the game. Most ARGs employ a number of trailheads in several media, to maximize the probability of people discovering the game. Some trailheads may be covert, others may be thinly-disguised adverts.

While the game might initially attract a small group of participants, as they come across new challenges, they will reach out and draw in others with the knowledge they need to overcome the obstacles.

Alternate Reality Games sometimes fall into the category of serious games (a term used to describe games that have a specific educational purpose). Examples of serious ARGs include Tomorrow Calling (environmental activism), World Without Oil (foreign oil dependence), and Traces of Hope (conflict mitigation). Serious ARGs introduce plausibility as a narrative feature to pull players into the game. People participate to experience, prepare for or shape an alternative life or future. The games thus have the potential to attract casual or non-players, because ’what if’ is a game anyone can play. Their serious subject matter may lead Serious ARGs to diverge from mainstream ARGs in design. Instead of challenging collective intelligence to solve a puzzle, World Without Oil’s puppetmasters acted as players to guide the “collective imagination” to create a multi-authored chronicle of the alternate future, purportedly as it was happening. By asking players to chronicle their lives in the oil-shocked alternate reality, the WWO game relinquished narrative control to players to a degree not seen before in an ARG.

Examples of Alternate Reality Games

I Love Bees
i love beesI Love Bees wove together an interactive narrative set in 2004, and a War Of The Worlds-style radio drama set in the future, the latter of which was broken into 30-60 second segments and broadcast over ringing payphones worldwide. The game pushed players outdoors to answer phones, create and submit content, and recruit others, and received as much mainstream notice, finding its way onto television during a presidential debate, and becoming one of the New York Times' catchphrases of 2004.

> documentary of I Love Bees on YouTube
> article about I Love Bees from Wired Magazine
> visit I Love Bees website

Last Call Poker
Designed to help modern audiences connect with the Western genre, Last Call Poker centered on a working poker site, held games of "Tombstone Hold 'Em" in cemeteries around the United States -- as well as in at least one digital venue, World of Warcraft's own virtual reality cemetery -- and sent players to their own local cemeteries to clean up neglected grave sites and perform other tasks.

Cathy's Book
cathy's bookThe young-adult novel contains an "evidence packet" and expands its universe through websites and working phone numbers, but is also a stand-alone novel that essentially functions as an individually-playable ARG. Neither the cost of creating the book nor sales figures are available (although it made both American and British bestseller lists) to determine whether the project was successfully self-funded.

> watch video about Cathy's Book on YouTube
> go to Cathy's Book on

World Without Oil
world without oilIn a 2007 article, columnist Chris Dahlen (of Pitchfork Media) voiced a much-discussed ARG concept: if ARGs can spark players to solve very hard fictional problems, could the games be used to solve real-world problems? Dahlen was writing about World Without Oil, the first ARG centered on a serious near-future scenario: a global oil shortage. World Without Oil was a joint project of the Public Broadcasting Service's Independent Lens and its Electric Shadows Web-original programming. World Without Oil’s puppetmasters acted as players to guide the “collective imagination” to create a multi-authored chronicle of the alternate future, purportedly as it was happening. By asking players to chronicle their lives in the oil-shocked alternate reality, the WWO game relinquished narrative control to players to a degree not seen before in an ARG.

> visit World Without Oil website

The Lost Ring
In March 2008 McDonalds and the IOC launched Find The Lost Ring (game official site), a global ARG promoting the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. The game was run simultaneously in six languages with new story lines developing in each, encouraging players to communicate with residents of other countries to facilitate sharing of clues and details of the game as a whole. American track and field athlete Edwin Moses acted as a celebrity Game Master, and McDonalds Corporation promised to donate $100,000 (USD) to Ronald McDonald House Charities China on behalf of the players.

> visit The Lost Ring website

Design Principles

Alternate Reality Gaming Network - the hub of a network of sites dedicated to Alternate Reality Gaming.

social media


Related Content

Serious games

Social Learning