ARG readings and reflections: an annotated bibliography

Update 28 January 2013: Readers interested in more up-to-date readings and reflections may wish to view my PhD research materials and/or read my dissertation here.

It’s hard to find someone who actually likes the term, “alternate reality game.” Observers worry that it’s too broad, or that it’s not broad enough; that it overemphasizes play, or that it underemphasizes players; that it leaves out storytelling, or that it puts too much focus on narrative. There’s no consensus on precisely what the term refers to and even less consensus on what it should. Still, at the end of the day, “ARG” is the most familiar of all the terms on offer, and I suspect that designers and academics will keep on using it until it slowly fades into redundancy. The boundaries between gameplay and storytelling, single-platform and multi-platform, real and virtual, author and audience, are all disappearing as we speak. It’s all fiction. Someday we’ll just leave it at that.

This resource contains links to blog posts, conference papers, journal articles, and other texts related to alternate reality gaming.

Defining ARG

  • WTF is an ARG? (Andrea Phillips, 2009) “Why can’t we reach a consensus on what an ARG is, and what an ARG isn’t? Why do we return home, like swallows to Capistrano, to that question: What IS an ARG? This is my attempt to wrestle with this knotty topic, and offer up a few opinions.”
  • Undefining ARG (Sean Stacey, 2006) “I have a way to define alternate reality gaming in such a fashion as to prove to you that I cannot in fact define it at all. While the previous statement may seem nonsensical, I encourage you to bear with me. The following is written with the assumption that the reader has some passing familiarity with the history, mechanics, and gameplay of ARGs.”
  • Alternate Reality Games (Sean Stewart, 2006) “Building an ARG is like running a role-playing game in your kitchen for 2 million of your closest friends. Like a role-playing game, we get players to actually enter the world of our story and interact with it, both online and in the real world.”

Design approaches and philosophies

  • ARG 2.0 (Jeff Watson, 2010) “In general, [the core design problems of “first wave” ARGs] center on three overlapping and relatively unchallenged aspects of traditional ARG design, namely: 1) that, despite the decidedly playful and improvisatory character of the relationship between puppet masters and players, ARGs are ultimately not game systems but rather vehicles for delivering story; 2) that ARGs treat their core audiences as monadic “collective detectives” rather than groups of living, breathing individuals; and, 3) that ARGs are linear, event-driven experiences.”
  • Everything you know about ARGs is wrong (Dan Hon, 2008) “There are, it seems to me, a number of differing interpretations as to what an ARG is, exactly, and that makes them quite easy to attack. If you don’t know what something is, it’s quite easy for it not to have lived up to your expectations.”
  • ARGFest 2007 Keynote (Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, 2007) “Delivering a keynote address to this audience is really difficult. What can we talk about? We can’t talk about anything we’ve done in the past because you were all there experiencing it. We can’t talk about anything we’re working on right now because that would ruin the fun and the mystery of the experience. We can’t talk about anything we have planned for the future because frankly, you are the competition. All that’s left is self-deprecation and the elephant in the room…trust.” (summary here)

See also: Part 2

Poetics, formal analyses, and surveys

  • Storytelling in New Media: The Case of Alternate Reality Games, 2001-2009 (Jeffrey Kim, Elan Lee, Timothy Thomas, and Caroline Dombrowski, 2009) “New media allows previously passive consumers to tell and shape stories together. Yet most information is still disseminated in a top–down fashion, without taking advantage of the features enabled by new media. This paper presents five Alternate Reality Game (ARG) case studies which reveal common features and mechanisms used to attract and retain diverse players, to create task–focused communities and to solve problems collectively. Voluntary, collective problem solving is an intriguing phenomenon wherein disparate individuals work together asynchronously to solve problems together. ARGs also take advantage of the unique features of new media to craft stories that could not be told using other media.”
  • Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games (Christy Dena, 2008) “This paper introduces an emerging form of participatory culture, one that is not a modification or elaboration of a primary producer’s content. Instead, this paper details how the artifacts created to ‘play’ a primary producer’s content has become the primary work for massive global audiences. This phenomenon is observed in the genre of alternate reality games (ARGs) and is illustrated through a theory of ‘tiering’. Tiers provide separate content to different audiences. ARG designers tier their projects, targeting different players with different content. ARG player-production then creates another tier for non-playing audiences. To explicate this point, the features that provoke player-production — producer-tiering, ARG aesthetics and transmedia fragmentation — are interrogated, alongside the character of the subsequent player-production. Finally, I explore the aspects of the player-created tiers that attract massive audiences, and then posit what these observations may indicate about contemporary artforms and society in general.” See also: Christy’s online augmentation for this paper.
  • Towards a Poetics of Multi-Channel Storytelling (Christy Dena, 2004) “As yet no poetics to address transmedia, alternate reality gaming, cross- or multi-platform and cross-media of content have been proposed in academia; in addition no poetics has been invented for multi-channel single-story creation (that is: one story told over multiple media). This paper provides an overview of the poetics being developed for multi-channel storytelling. It is a narrative schema intended for instructional use in story creation and literary criticism.”
  • IGDA ARG SIG Whitepaper (IGDA, 2006) “Although new to many people, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are still far short of achieving their full potential, each new wave of games bringing major new innovations and increased understanding of what works and what doesn’t. We hope you find both inspiration and real practical help in this paper, and look forwards to playing the next wave of ARGs you come up with.”
  • ‘This is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play (Jane McGonigal, 2003) “The increasing convergence and mobility of digital network technologies have given rise to new, massively-scaled modes of social interaction where the physical and virtual worlds meet. This paper explores one product of these extreme networks, the emergent genre of immersive entertainment, as a potential tool for harnessing collective action. Through an analysis of the structure and rhetoric of immersive games, I explore how immersive aesthetics can generate a new sense of social agency in game players, and how collaborative play techniques can instruct real-world problem-solving.”

Theoretical context

  • ARGs and Academia (IGDA ARG SIG Wiki, 2007) “For many academics, ARGs are the manifestation of theories they have been exploring for a long time. ARGs provide, therefore, the unique opportunity to see many theories in action. Popular topics of interest have been the notion of fictionality, the notion of a game space, interactive narrative, commerciality and player dynamics. They have entered the realm of ARGs informed by particular key ideas which are exemplified in the following texts…”
  • Participation (Claire Bishop, ed, 2006) “Participation begins with writings that provide a theoretical framework for relational art, with essays by Umberto Eco, Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, Peter Bürger, Jen-Luc Nancy, Edoaurd Glissant, and Félix Guattari, as well as the first translation into English of Jacques Rancière’s influential ‘Problems and Transformations in Critical Art.’ The book also includes central writings by such artists as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Joseph Beuys, Augusto Boal, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. And it features recent critical and curatorial debates, with discussions by Lars Bang Larsen, Nicolas Bourriaud, Hal Foster, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist.”
  • Relational Aesthetics (Nicolas Bourriaud, 1998) “Where does our current obsession for interactivity stem from? After the consumer society and the communication era, does art still contribute to the emergence of a rational society? Bourriaud attempts to renew our approach toward contemporary art by getting as close as possible to the artists works, and by revealing the principles that structure their thoughts: an aesthetic of the inter-human, of the encounter; of proximity, of resisting social formatting.”
  • The Open Work (Umberto Eco, 1962) “The Open Work remains significant for its powerful concept of “openness”–the artist’s decision to leave arrangements of some constituents of a work to the public or to chance–and for its striking anticipation of two major themes of contemporary literary theory: the element of multiplicity and plurality in art, and the insistence on literary response as an interactive process between reader and text. The questions Umberto Eco raises, and the answers he suggests, are intertwined in the continuing debate on literature, art, and culture in general.”

Case studies and ethnographies

  • ‘I am Trying to Believe’: Dystopia as Utopia in the Year Zero Alternate Reality Game (Alexander Charles Oliver Hall, 2009) “Year Zero, an ARG that includes a recent studio release by the “industrial” rock band Nine Inch Nails, is a dystopian narrative that is unfolding in the ARG tradition. As a dystopian narrative game, Year Zero is able to harness the cautionary element of the game for social awareness and quite possibly social action. Technology’s ability to resurrect its utopian energy by offering new ways of telling dystopian (and yet utopian) stories such as via the ARG is indeed ironic, but it is doubly important to finding utopian energy in postmodern culture and facilitating political action through gaming.”
  • Fictional Press Releases and Fake Artifacts: How the Smithsonian American Art Museum is Letting Game Players Redefine the Rules (Georgina Bath Goodlander, 2009) “In the fall of 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an Alternate Reality Game titled ‘Ghosts of a Chance.’ We did this with three goals in mind: to broaden our audience, to do a bit of self-promotion, and, most importantly, to encourage discovery around our collections in a new, very interactive way. This paper will discuss the challenges that the museum faced, evaluate the successes and failures of each part of the game, and make recommendations for other museums interested in trying something similar.”
  • Tracking the emergent properties of the collaborative online story “Deus City” for testing the standard model of alternate reality games (Adam Brackin, 2008) “This study explores the possibilities for better collaborative storytelling through Alternate Reality Games by investigating their origins as well as their definably unique qualities and characteristics; by critically analyzing the recent Alternate Reality Game “Deus City” which was specifically designed for the study to test new forms and delivery methods within the context of the genre; and by outlining areas of change which indicate where the future of Interactive fiction may be very soon.”
  • Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming (Jane McGonigal, 2007) “This essay describes the design and successful deployment of a series of massively collaborative game missions in I Love Bees, the alternate reality game. Alternate reality games (ARGs) are massively multiplayer puzzle adventures that combine online interactive content with real-world game events. McGonigal proposes ‘stimulating ambiguity’ as the central design philosophy of ARGs. She explores how ambiguous game content stimulates massively collaborative game play that allows for a greater share of leadership and meaningful participation in large-scale player groups. She also outlines how the open-ended puzzles of ARGs inspire multiple, creative interpretations that allow for diverse problem-solving strategies to flourish in a single player community. The essay is grounded in a close reading of player-produced content and their interpretations of the core puzzle of the I Love Bees game: a series of several hundred GPS coordinates, dates, and times that were listed on the central game Web site.” (.pdf here)
  • See also: ARGs in institutions

Interviews with designers, researchers, and players

  • Interview with Cathy’s Book Co-Author Sean Stewart (Michael Anderson, Sean Stewart, 2010) “[You] could argue that storytelling has only gone through five big revolutions: campfire stories, the invention of theater, the invention of the printing press and rise of the novel, the motion picture camera and cinema, and THIS, whatever the hell you want to call it. The multi-platform many-to-many art that the internet enables. I am incredibly aware of my stupendous good fortune in lucking into a ground floor suite in Revolution #5. It would seem ungrateful to turn my back on it just now.”
  • Events, not ARGs: Interview with the founders of 4th Wall (Elan Lee, Jim Stewartson, Sean Stewart, 2009) Interview on Variety’s Technotainment blog. “Our new company — 18 months old now — the basic idea is to take the rock concert and figure out, ‘What’s the album? What’s the content version of that so you can have these experiences any time, so they don’t go away on the date of a future release?’ They can ultimately be monetized. So, we think of the format and what we’re building as a genuine new entertainment format, one that sits between moves and video games.”
  • Producing Transmedia Experiences: Participation & Play (Frank Rose, Jordan Weisman, Ken Eklund, Louisa Stein, Mia Consalvo, 2009) Panel discussion from Futures of Entertainment 4. Moderated by Ivan Askwith. “One of the most overt forms of transmedia storytelling, the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), often makes participation a central and defining aspect of transmedia experiences, and creates opportunities to engage participants in play, performance and game-like systems. How can these interactive and participatory experiences be planned for? What is their function in the larger transmedia experience, and how do we understand the relative roles of the “author” and the “audience” in creating transmedia experiences?”
  • An Interview with JC Hutchins: Personal Effects (JC Hutchins, 2008) Michael Andersen’s interview on ARGN. “[We] all know that most ARGs require what I call ‘bunches of brains’ … lots of players … to unlock puzzles and push the story forward. Dark Art is different in that we’re aiming to allure folks who’ve never heard the word ‘ARG’ to participate in this awesome breed of storytelling.” See also: Lance Weiler’s interview with JC on the Workbook Project.
  • Storytelling 2.0: Alternate Reality Games (Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, 2008) TOC’s Liza Daly conducts the interview. “I wanted to know if ARGs are a viable form of commercial storytelling, if they can be packaged up after the experience has ended, and if they can engage with a wider audience beyond hard-core gamers.”
  • Elan Lee’s Alternate Reality (Elan Lee, 2006) “I consider the first ARG The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album. Of course, it depends how you define an ARG. My definition is very loose. An alternate reality game is anything that takes your life and converts it into an entertainment space. If you look at a typical video game, it’s really about turning you into a hero; a super hero, a secret agent. It’s your ability to step outside your life and be someone else. An ARG takes those same sensibilities and applies them to your actual life. It says, what if you actually were a super hero, what if you actually were a secret agent? Instead of living in the box that’s your television or your computer, why not use your actual life as a storytelling delivery platform?”
  • The Story Doesn’t Care: An Interview with Sean Stewart (Sean Stewart, 2006) “I honestly believe that the gods in their infinite mercy looked down and gave me a chance —miraculously and wholly unlooked for—to be at Kitty Hawk, to be in motion pictures in 1905, to be at a place and a moment in time where something extraordinarily exciting was just getting off the ground. As much as I’d like to think it had much to do with my merit, mostly it’s this huge stroke of timing and good luck to be in the right place at the right time, working with the right people, to have a chance to be in on something at an extraordinary cultural moment.”

Research resources and references

  • ARGology.org “ARGology is a group effort by a bunch of great people from the IGDA ARG SIG. It is a site which hopes to aggregate much needed information about alternate reality games for developers, journalists, researchers and players.”
  • ARGN “Simply put, ARGNet is the place to be when news breaks about new ARGs, as it offers insightful, investigative reporting from dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers through articles, interviews and netcasts.”
  • ARG Stats and ARGs Around the World Super-comprehensive list of ARGs, including information about uptake, impact, and awards. Compiled by Christy Dena (whose site also hosts many other great resources like this and this and this).
  • is this ARG? Real-time social media and news feeds about Alternate Reality Gaming and more.
  • Google Scholar keyword search
  • Wikipedia: Alternate Reality Game
  • Wonder Weasels Game guides and player information for a variety of recent ARGs.
  • Zotero Group: ARG Research Zach Whalen has set up a Zotero group “for building a bibliography related to Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), Transmedia Storytelling, Immersive Gaming and whatever other synonyms and related forms you can think of.” Most of the links found in this resource have been cross-posted there. If you are a Zotero user, please help the group to expand its bibliography!

Looking for a more traditional bibliography? Click here to view this list using the Chicago Manual of Style.

As always, any comments are much appreciated!

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