The term ‘Alternate Reality Game’ has been used to describe a vast variety of different games. These include traditional ARGs such as The Beast, to single-player games such as Jamie Kane, to immersive theatre productions such as Faust by Punchdrunk, to collaborative games without central narratives such as World Without Oil. I’ve also seen urban games such as PacManhattan and Cruel 2 B Kind being called ARGs. Lately, I have even seen an artwork consisting of carved stone gargoyles, left in English villages with riddles on them, described as an ARG, even though the artwork went no further.
What do all of these experiences have in common? Absolutely nothing.
They are not all multiplayer – if they can be described to have ‘players’ at all. They do not all have puzzles, or even challenges of any sort. They do not all have a story, or if they do, the story may be written by the players. They may not be live – sometimes they can be replayable, like Majestic. Many of them exist only on one form of media, so they’re not cross-media either.
In common use, the term ‘Alternate Reality Game’ has ceased to describe any particular type of game. Having spoken about ARGs at more conferences and formal gatherings than I can number, I have always been struck by the way in which people appropriate ‘ARG’ to describe any sort of work that they cannot describe in another way, whether that be a Flash-based website that accompanies a TV show to a social gaming Facebook application.
In fact, ARGs are not defined by what they are, but what they are not. ARGs are not videogames or computer games. They are not casual games. They are not traditional sports games, or board games, or playground games. But they are essentially everything else that involves some sort of game-like experience or play, and that is why we are seeing such a confusing collection of things being called ARGs.
I don’t think that this has happened simply because people are abusing the term. While I might not call carved stone gargoyles an ARG, I would call Perplex City, I Love Bees, World Without Oil and Jamie Kane ARGs. I have also described Orson Welles’ radio production of War of the Worlds as an ARG-like experience. And so I actually have a hard time seeing the link between all of them.
It was suggested to me that the link is that the games ‘play with reality’. This is true, but it’s rather too broad and not exclusive at all, since games such as Portal and particular text adventures also play with reality.
No, I think that the term ‘ARG’ is an umbrella term de facto used for the class of games that do not fall under traditional game definitions, and the reason why it is gaining such prominence and momentum is because of a blossoming of non-traditional games. It is testament to the commercial and cultural success of traditional videogames that they have assumed control over what people call ‘games’ today. If I tell someone that I am a game designer, one of the first questions they ask me is, “Oh, for the Playstation or for the PC?” They do not even think to ask that I might be making some sort of other game.
We shouldn’t forget that videogames didn’t even exist until thirty years ago, and there was nothing ‘traditional’ about them. If you said that you were a game designer, people would have assumed you made boardgames. What’s happening now is that large numbers of people are beginning to design things different to existing classes of games, but are still recognisably games or play, and they don’t have a word to describe them other than ‘alternate reality game’, however inaccurate the term might be.
I personally think that this watering down of ‘ARG’ is a good and realistic thing, on the whole. While it was useful to be able to know exactly what someone meant when they said they were making an ARG (this pleasant phase lasted all of 2001-2004), the fact is that ARG designers are now wanting to change their games drastically in order to progress, by removing the story or making them replayable or presenting them via a single medium.
And so we are presented with two options. We can stick with the classical definition of an ARG, as exemplified by early games such as The Beast. This has the advantage of actually being a definition rather than a bucket, but the disadvantage of the fact that very few people want to make these types of games any more. Or we can look at the wide variety of games that ‘ARG designers’ are now designing, and accept its usage has expanded to the point where it covers everything that is not already covered.
Does this make the term useless? I don’t think so. I recently helped to run an ARG design workshop in London for a group of (traditional) game designers, theatre directors, artists, programmers and writers. The games that came out of the workshop were wonderfully diverse, ranging from an epic urban game centred around travelling theatre productions to a collaborative art-making website. I wouldn’t have called a single one of these games an ARG if I had seen them in 2001, but here they were, products of an ARG workshop, and I don’t know what else to call them.
What I learned from the workshop is that there is, after all, one positive characteristic that links all of these ARGs, and that’s the skill and process that goes into making and designing them. Designing games that are not traditional games requires an open, adventurous and imaginative mind that embraces the huge range of possibilities out there and the ability to truly pioneer entirely new types of games.
In time, better sub-classifications will crystallise out of our experimentation, and genres of ARGs will emerge, just as the genres of videogames are now well-known. For now, though, we should recognise and savour the happy confusion that exists, and embrace the freedom that this wholly alternate class of games gives us.