Alternate reality games are a genre very much of their own. They take the game out of the console (or off the internet or the computer) and put it in the players’ real lives. Instead of following a set of clues or a constructed path in a game, ARGs demand that their players do much more legwork on their own. They must search for clues in real life, by decoding numbers or gibberish, finding anomalies in website code, or responding to phone calls and emails.
The chapter gives several examples of ARGs, including the non-Web predecessors. Early ARGs include “The Beast,” created for the movie A.I. in 2001. Non-Web ARGs are often books that are revealed to be fiction masquerading as non-fiction, or hoaxes and stunts. Alexander’s examples in this category are Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” the anonymous “Codex Seraphinianus,” and The Blair Witch Project.
For me, the most effective way to understand ARGs was to just find more examples. I found the website Cracked’s 2011 article “The Five Most Insane Alternate Reality Games” to be a very informative resource for me. The most gaming experience I have is playing Sims and Nancy Drew when I was 12, so a clear explanation of different ARGs cleared some questions up for me.
One of the more intense but easy to understand ARGs was a promotional game for the release of Halo 2. Halo 2 asks players to become soldiers fighting aliens in the 26th century, playing on a traditional videogame console. To win an opportunity to play the game in a movie theatre before it was officially released, Bungie Studios (its producer) had players work to solve a mysterious website hacking. An artificial intelligence had taken over an innocent person’s website, devoted to bees and honey. For three months, players worked to return this artificial intelligence to its home planet. They began by having to decode GPS locations of pay phones, which received a call from a robot. Each time the calls were answered, more information about the artificial intelligence was unlocked, until players could speak to the artificial intelligence itself. It demanded players do different actions, often things that were seemingly unrelated or unimportant. The game ends with the artificial intelligence returning to its home, but exposing Earth’s locations to aliens in the process, giving the players the lead-in to Halo 2.
I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of ARGs. Part of this is a discomfort with the technicalities – I’m not a gamer, so a lot of the terminology was unfamiliar to me, and I also just don’t think I’d ever be into something enough to answer robot phone calls to get early access. But I’m also not totally cool with the theory of the games. To me, it has the real potential for gaslighting: creating an alternate past or present, and then forcing players to agree that it’s real for an ulterior motive. I guess I can see applications in a public history setting by creating a scavenger hunt type of game for players to learn more about a historical event? I think it’s much too big of an ordeal for 95% of public history institutions to take on, though. Overall, while I (think I) understand the basis of ARGs and their purpose, I’m not sure that I’d ever be comfortable enough with them on a theoretical level to implement them or suggest them in any setting myself.