Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A little about ARGs: Part I The Rabbit Hole

If you're new to ARGs you might be wondering what they're all about. Alternate Reality Games have a relatively short history (or long in the dog years of the internet).
First, the basics. ARGs, unlike many other kinds of games, are meant to nearly fool the audience into wondering whether the game is actually a game or reality. ARGs vary in their distance from reality but the purists may suggest that players should at least initially be fooled by the "rabbit hole." These can take the form of an ad in a newspaper, a phony blog...some little hidden bit of story that only those who notice it and pursue it will follow into another world. For example, the Nine Inch Nails ARG, Year Zero, had one rabbit hole hidden in the characters on the back of a tour t-shirt.
The highlighted letters led to a website full of intrigue and mysterious conspiracies.
The rabbit hole for the ARG that accompanied Stephen Spielberg's movie AI, "The Beast", was hidden within the end of the movie's credits. A sentient machine therapist names Jeanine Salla was listed in the credits just as the rest of the crew scrolled by.
A surprise awaited those who were curious enough to give her a little Google...a complete website with all of her details and the beginning of a great game.
There are many more amazing examples of rabbit holes but it may be important to point out that they aren't strictly necessary for a good ARG. They have a few downsides. Because they're hidden and only apparent to people who are motivated enough to pursue them they can limit your audience. If you, like me, would like to have a targeted group play your game (such as students), you can't take the risk of using too subtle of a beginning for your story. Sometimes you have to point and say "Here! It's a game! You should play!" especially if you're trying to attract players who aren't acquainted with this form of narrative and interaction. The second downside is that it can take a painfully long time for people to notice a rabbit hole. You put it out there and hope and meanwhile, you sit with your finger on the trigger ready to launch a fantastic experience twiddling your thumbs (the ones not holding the trigger) knowing that at any time you'll need to be ready to go.
Personally, I find this waiting tedious. It's not that I don't have faith in the curiosity of the crowd. I just don't think that it's practical. Games that have a finite window (such as during a class, a conference, or leading up to an event) give you a useful constraint to keep the game going and to know when it must be finished. I am also of the opinion that a story can be engaging and fascinating even if you know it's a story. After all, there are no great films or movies that present themselves as anything else. You know that you're about to fall into their narrative and it doesn't diminish the experience.

What do you think? Does making a story overt ruin it? What kind of rabbit hole might you use to pull your audience into a story?

To see a list of Rabbit Holes recently identified by avid ARG players be sure to check out the "News and Rumors" page over on the Unfiction Forums.
You should also check out the Seven Things to Know about ARGs article from Educause/ELI. It's a great guide to the basics and serves as a good introduction to pass on if you're trying to get others in on the idea of ARGs.
For some excellent insights into using ARGs in the classroom, Nicola Whitton's article "Alternate Reality Games in the Classroom for Developing Student Autonomy and Peer Learning"

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