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
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ARGs in institutions: museums, libraries, schools, and beyond

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 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.”

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Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers

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.
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Ambient storytelling resources

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

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Making meaning with images: tools, resources and inspiration for visual communication

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.
  • (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

Good Places to Find Images

Inspiration and Food For Thought


Technical Support