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.
- 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
This resource contains examples of alternate reality games (ARGs) created for museums, libraries, schools, and government agencies. Also included are links to related resources, designers, observers, and policy-makers. Please see my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here, for more up-to-date information about this topic.
Know of something that should be listed here? Please get in touch with me via the comments and I will update the resource.
- Ghosts of a Chance (Smithsonian, 2008-2010) “We live in a world in which information and entertainment are customizable and immediately available. The Internet has become a larger part of everyday life, and so too have networked games, as people seek community, activity, a sense of achievement, and the chance to be part of something bigger . . . Museums can reach out to their audiences in more ways, using blogs, podcasts, video, and social media, but can they meaningfully engage visitors using games? 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.” (Archimuse)
- More on Ghosts of a Chance: Georgina Goodlander’s paper, Nina Simon’s blog writeup, Anika Gupta’s piece on Smithsonian.com and goSmithsonian, Washington Post coverage, and NPR’s coverage.
- PHEON (Multiple institutions, 2010) “For the past couple of months CityMystery has been building a new game, called PHEON. (A pheon is an ancient Greek arrowhead that has come to symbolize nimbleness of wit.) The purpose of our game is to celebrate (and reinforce) the American impulse to innovate. An economist friend of mine recently said that we have to “invent” our way out of our current mess. With PHEON I am promoting the idea that Americans understand innovation as a reoccurring utility of our democracy, one that matches our ability to adapt and succeed. PHEON’s subtext has to do with how ideas are passed along: how one person articulates a wish that another fulfills.” (“Sneak Preview of a New Museum Game“)
- More on PHEON: see Pass on the PHEON!.
- Many museums are also developing location-specific games and storytelling activities (like this or this) that don’t fit comfortably into the definition of an ARG. For some starting points for looking into these kinds of projects, see my locative media and ambient storytelling resources, and visit Nancy Proctor’s site, Museum Mobile.
Articles and discussions
- Reshaping the art museum June 2009 article from ArtNews: “Confronted with urgent demographic realities, art-museum directors are drawing on game theory, interactive technology, and a host of other new strategies to help people feel welcome, engaged, and emotionally fulfilled.”
- Smithsonian 2.0 “The two-day Smithsonian 2.0 gathering explores how to make SI collections, educational resources, and staff more accessible, engaging, and useful to younger generations (teenage through college students) who will largely experience them digitally. Over 30 creative people from the web and new media world will meet with 30 Smithsonian staff members to generate a vision of what a digital Smithsonian might be like in the years ahead.”
Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else — including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).
A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.
This post contains starting points for researching and developing “ambient” storytelling and interaction systems (i.e., stories or games that take place in the background, rather than traditional attention-focusing media artifacts such as movies or console video games). These trailheads and links are particularly useful for anyone interested in designing activities that engage with the existing flows in player-participants’ lives.
Precedents and origins
Image manipulation, found footage, guerrilla filmmaking, and video editing notes for my IML students.
Image Manipulation Tools
- Adobe Photoshop The industry standard bitmap image editor. If you’re a student, your school might have an arrangement with Adobe that will entitle you to a copy. If not, well… you could try looking elsewhere. I’m just saying.
- Paint.net (Windows) A good basic image editor that can do a lot and is completely free. “Paint.NET…features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. An active and growing online community provides friendly help, tutorials, and plugins.”
- The Gimp Cross-platform open-source image editor. Almost as powerful as Photoshop, and 100 percent free (and legal). Slightly steeper learning curve than Paint.net.
Good Places to Find Images
Inspiration and Food For Thought
A collection of supplementary readings and resources for my presentation, “Locative Media and Responsive Environments.”
- Rise of the Network Society — Manuel Castells’ excellent book about the economic and cultural implications of pervasive computing. Writing about nanotech, Castells notes that “…experimental programs seem to indicate that molecular electronics is a possible avenue to overcoming the limits of increasing density in silicon chips, while ushering in an era of computers 100 billion times as fast as a Pentium microprocessor; this would make it possible to pack the computing power of a hundred 1999 computer workstations into a space the size of a grain of salt. Based on these technologies, computer scientists envisage the possibility of computing environments where billions of microscopic information-processing devices will be spread everywhere ‘like pigment in the wall paint.’ If so, then computer networks will be, materially speaking, the fabric of our lives.” (53)
- Cell Phone Usage Worldwide — There are over 2.1 billion cell phones in the world today.
- Hitachi RFID dust — These tiny RFID chips look like powder, measuring just 0.05 millimeters (0.002 inches) by 0.05 millimeters (0.002 inches), and are thin enough to be embedded in pieces of paper.
The Semantic Web
- Tim Berners-Lee: “I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.” (Weaving The Web, ch. 12)
- TED Talk: Tim Berners-Lee on the next Web of open, linked data — “20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. For his next project, he’s building a web for open, linked data that could do for numbers what the Web did for words, pictures, video: unlock our data and reframe the way we use it together.” (TED)
- Linked Data — Tim Berner-Lee’s original article on the subject.
- Cool URIs for the Semantic Web — W3C article on standards for concept and data URI (Universal Resource Identifiers). Abstract: “The Resource Description Framework RDF allows users to describe both Web documents and concepts from the real world—people, organisations, topics, things—in a computer-processable way. Publishing such descriptions on the Web creates the Semantic Web. URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) are very important, providing both the core of the framework itself and the link between RDF and the Web. This document presents guidelines for their effective use. It discusses two strategies, called 303 URIs and hash URIs. It gives pointers to several Web sites that use these solutions, and briefly discusses why several other proposals have problems.”
- Related projects and associations: dbPedia, Friend-of-a-Friend (FOAF), SIMILIE, SIOC
Internet of Things
- Shaping Things (.pdf) — A pdf copy of Sterling’s 2005 book wherein he describes the concept of the spime. From the product description: “The future will see a new kind of object—we have the primitive forms of them now in our pockets and briefcases: user-alterable, baroquely multi-featured, and programmable—that will be sustainable, enhanceable, and uniquely identifiable. Sterling coins the term “spime” for them, these future manufactured objects with informational support so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means, and precisely tracked through space and time. They are made of substances that can be folded back into the production stream of future spimes, challenging all of us to become involved in their production. Spimes are coming, says Sterling. We will need these objects in order to live; we won’t be able to surrender their advantages without awful consequences.” (Amazon.com)
- Spimes and the Future of Artifacts (video presentation) — An entertaining 35 minute presentation elaborating on six key technology trends (RFID, GPS, visual search, CAD, rapid prototyping and “transparent production”) that are changing the way that we relate to objects. He defines a spime as an object that is “plannable, trackable, findable, recyclable, uniquely identified and generates digital histories.” (5:33)
- Flurb #6: Computer Entertainment (text) — A signature Bruce Sterling rant posing as a lecture given to a 2008 SXSW audience by a time traveler from the year 2043. Representative passage: “This is my General Electric Pocket Mediator. This one’s about five years old, it’s a student’s model. Personal mediators are a stable technology in my time, we don’t have to fuss with them much. Unfortunately it doesn’t have full functionality here in 2008, because we don’t have the cloud yet. As soon as I reached here, my Mediator reached out for the cloud to reload its apps and OS… and it tapped into something called “Window-Vista.” Then it just plain gave up. It’s gone completely limp now. There’s nothing left here but this frozen screen-saver pattern.”
- Four Stages of the Internet of Things — Former Wired editor and all-around whiz Kevin Kelly riffs on this article by Tim Berners-Lee to construct a succinct description of what he thinks “the Semantic Web” or “Web 3.0″ is all about. In short, his four stages are: 1) Linking computers, 2) Linking documents, 3) Linking the data in (and about) documents, and 4) Linking things.
- The net shapes up to get physical — Guardian article by Sean Dodson. Good general description. Excerpt: “Most people, if they bother to think about it at all, probably view the internet as an agent of profound change. In the 15 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, the life of almost everyone in the industrialised world has been touched by it. But just as many of us are getting to grips with its second stage, the mobile internet, very few are prepared – perhaps even aware – of the third and potentially most revolutionary phase of all: the internet of things.” (guardian.co.uk)
- RFID — Wikipedia article on RFID tags. Includes many interesting examples.
- Organizations: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), semanticweb.org, IPv6, IPSO Alliance, Zigbee.org, Pachube.com
- How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night? — Rich Gold critiques the notion of the “smart house” in this hilarious and thought-provoking essay. “Can an intelligent house fall in love with the house next door,” asks Gold. “Can they have baby houses? Is an architect a trained “womb” for houses, or more crudely, is an architect how a house makes another house? Does an architect feel like she/he is violating fundamental forces of evolution if she/he does not include the latest new technology in the house she/he next gives birth to? Do you believe in progress? Is a suburban house of today better than a terrace house in London in 1850 which was better than a thatched country cottage in 1700 which was better than the tepees and mud huts that Columbus found in the New World? Is the house that Donald Trump lives in better than the house you live in? If you were an architect and you designed an intelligent house, would the house’s own happiness matter to you? If the couple that bought the house you designed got a divorce, do you think you should be libel for damages?”
- Orchestrating your surroundings — A project proposal for a “smart house”-type environment by by Pau Giner, Carlos Cetina, Joan Fons and Vicente Pelechano.
Imagined Futures/Imagined Presents
- Ubik – A novel by Philip K. Dick treating themes of intelligent environments, resurrection and shifting ontologies. Research only: torrent here.
- Spook Country — A novel by William Gibson about locative media artists and shadowy private intelligence contractors.
See also: Ambient storytelling resources