Puppetmasters Revealed

Dave\'s Book If you don’t already know about them, ARGs (alternate reality gaming) are huge. They are ‘games’ that traverse reality by delivering events through realistic websites, actors, faxes, phone calls and so on, over months. Some puppet-masters (people who create and orchestrate these games) are presenting at the ARGfest NYC: The Art of the Game event this weekend in New York. For those who cannot attend, the sessions will be webcast live at 9:30am to 3:00 pm (EDT) on Saturday, July 23rd. There is a Wiki on the event with info, but here are the sessions:

Saturday Schedule - July 23rd
9:30 - 10:45 - Mind Candy Presentation in group meeting room at the Hotel Penn
11:00 - 1:00 - The Art of the Game featuring the creators of Audi’s innovative and groundbreaking campaign THE ART OF THE HEIST in a panel discussion of the campaign and alternate reality games, in the group room.
1:00 - 1:30 - Lunch break (go grab a bite and bring it back for…)
1:30 - 2:00 - Metacortechs - A Large Scale Game on a Grassroots Budget, a presentation from a grassroots/indie PM team that created perhaps the most successful indie ARG of all time.
2:00-3:00 - THE FIRST ANNUAL ARGFEST ADDRESS: “There Is No Such Thing as an ARG” by Guest of Honor, Jane McGonigal
3:00 - 6:30ish - A secret FUN event leading up to,
7:00 - Dinner at a soon-to-be-revealed location.

The event is sponsored by Dave Szulborski, New-Fiction Publishing (the publisher of Dave’s book, This Is Not A Game) and Abacus Video.

What is extraordinary about these games is the way they are delivered across time and space, and the way they employ immersive devices. For the botmasters out there, you will recall or like to know that ARGs reached mainstream fame with an ARG dubbed The Beast, which was assisting the marketing of Spielberg’s film A.I. , which had a movie website with an Alicebot on it.

4 Responses to “Puppetmasters Revealed”

  1. 1 Mark Marino


    Is you haven’t already, can I get you to do some comparisons between the use of “immersion” in ARGs and “immersion” say in First Person Shooters?

  2. 2 Christy Dena

    Yep, I’d love to chat about this. I don’t have background ‘immersion’ papers at hand right now — I’ll post about it soon though, since I’m research for another project at the moment. But as for the specific difference btw ‘immersion’ in FPS and ARGs, that is easy:

    ARGs are designed to be as realistic as possible. They break the fourth wall/ the magic circle by employing real world devices (mobile phones, faxes, websites…); deliver the content in a nonfiction manner (sites look like actual corporations and blogs); don’t keep to the time that you are ready to experience them (you receive calls in the middle of the night, a fax at work, an SMS); you do real-world actions rather than simulations (you actually make a phone-call rather than pretend, you actually hack a page rather than pretend thorugh a GUI — it is for this reason that you will not find the need for guns to be used in ARGs!); there is little ‘framing’ of the game as a game: the TING or TINAG method is employed — This Is Not A Game (although the popularity of the games and the commencement of them through the players sites makes this approach somewhat redundant now).

    The very definition of ARGs — alternate reality games — is based on the concept that these games are not fiction, they’re not a game, but another real world. McGonigal explains this effect in her analysis of The Beast:

    In addition to pioneering collective play on a massive scale, the Beast created new, and arguably more effective, means of virtual immersion. In contrast to immersive artworks that try to create realistic sensory experiences and meaningful interactivity in an artificial setting (as explored in Oliver Grau’s 2003 book Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion [15]and the 2002 collection Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality [33]), the immersive aesthetic proposed by the Beast sought to use natural settings as the immersive framework. Rather than creating virtual environments that were (hopefully) realistic and engaging, the Beast’s producers co-opted real environments to enable a virtual engagement with reality. For them, “immersion” meant integrating the virtual play fully into the online and offline lives of its players.

    To achieve this kind of immersion, the game designers’ main strategy was to employ everyday network technologies as virtual reality devices. The Beast eschewed the kind of special technology we normally associate with virtual or augmented reality, such as wired gloves, headsets or goggles, and interactive programs or simulators. Instead, the Beast’s alternate reality required no tool or vehicle for interaction outside of player’s ordinary, everyday experience. The game called players at home, faxed them at work, interrupted their favorite television shows with cryptic messages, and eventually even mailed them packages full of game-world props and artifacts via the United States Postal System. The Beast recognized no game boundaries; the players were always playing, so long as they were connected to one of their many everyday networks.

    This kind of immersion made the game world less of a “virtual” (simulated) reality or an “augmented” (enhanced) reality, and more of an “alternate” (layered) reality. For four months, players had to adapt to interfacing with the 2001 real world and the 2142 game world at the same time. Success in the Beast therefore required developing a kind of stereoscopic vision, one that simultaneously perceived the everyday reality and the game structure in order to generate a single, but layered and dynamic world view. (In his 2000 book The Information Bomb, Paul Virilio outlines a similar kind of perspective, or “‘field effect,” in which the actual and the virtual combine to produce a new kind of “relief,” or dimensionality [43] )

    Dave Szulborski describes how videogames and ARGs differ in his book:

    An alternate reality game achieves this goal by ignoring the paradigms most people have about games in general and video games in particular, and then by transcending the media used to present it. That may sound impressive but it???s probably not very helpful at this point. What are the ???paradigms??? of games and video games? Think about all the games you played growing up - board games, card games, even video games - and what elements they all have in common. The similarities can be divided into four basic categories. They all have defined rules for playing the game, a defined playing space where the game takes place, a given set of components and / or game pieces through which the game is conducted, and a set of win / loss scenarios which define the end of the game and the objectives for the players involved. Alternate reality games have none of those elements and so, on face value, they do not appear to be games at all.

    Obviously, the assumption from all of this is that reality is the most immersive device there is. But, like the ebb and flow of artistic practice and experience over time, I believe this will shift to fictionality again.

    McGonigal, J. (2003) ‘‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play‘ presented at MelbourneDAC, the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia, May 19 - 23, 2003.

    Also check out the free chapter of:
    Szulborski, D. (2005) This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming (2nd Digital Edition), Lulu.

    I also briefly discuss McGonigal’s points on pages 5-7 in this paper:
    Dena, C. (2004) ‘Current State of Cross Media Storytelling: Preliminary observations for future design‘ presented at ‘Crossmedia communication in the dynamic knowledge society’ networking session in European Information Society Technologies (IST) Event 2004: Participate in your future, The Netherlands, 15 Nov, published by IST.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

    Thanks for the excellent references, Christy - Jessica Pressman and I actually accepted one of Jane McGonigal’s papers to the 2004 UC Digital Cultures Grad Conference - it was called “Suspension of Belief: Performance in Pervasive Play,” and I just dug out the abstract, because it seems highly relevant to this question of immersion:

    Ubiquitous computing and mobile network technologies have fueled a recent proliferation of opportunities for digitally-enabled play in everyday spaces. This trend is best exemplified by several new genres of networked gaming that employ everyday digital devices (cell phones, Global Positioning Systems, WiFi, e.g.) to turn real-world physical environments into virtual play spaces. These innovative experiments in multi-modal and ???mixed reality??? play, such as immersive gaming, augmented reality gaming and urban superhero games, juxtapose in-game narratives and objectives with non-game places, people and objects to create a liminal zone that requires players to reconcile their simultaneous experiences of the virtual and the real. In this paper, I explore the collaborative and performative aspects of this reconciliation. Using primary examples that include the immersive blog drama She???s A Flight Risk, the urban superhero Go Game, and the mixed reality project Can You See Me Now?, I analyze the collective efforts of players to protect, and often to improve, the diegetic consistency and ???believability??? of their networked games. I argue that traditional models of ???suspension of disbelief??? are inadequate for understanding player techniques for entering the narrative spaces of mixed reality games. I propose instead a more active and outwardly-focused model of ???performance of belief,??? in which players take on enormous responsibility for generating, framing, and communicating emergent narratives within the game space. Rather than suspending disbelief, I argue that players in fact suspend belief, that is to say, their desire to believe, in favor of a more social and authorial role that extends their agency and pleasure as players into increasingly wide-flung and non-fictive spaces. [emphasis mine]

    “Suspension of belief” seems like a nuanced take on the normal suspension-of-disbelief/immersion formula. It actually came up for me recently while commenting on a related idea about constraint over on Jeff on Games, something he calls “Suspension of Freedom.”

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