A Game by any other Name…

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.

11 Replies to “A Game by any other Name…”

  1. I do think there’s another factor that links a lot of these are-they-aren’t-they ARGs – you need a brain to play them. In fact, often you need a brain to understand why you might even want to play them.

    Part of that is obviously down to how puzzles and in-depth research have been integral to most ARGs to date. But it’s also down to the same sort of dilemma you’re talking about. Those of us who ‘get’ ARGs as a concept then find ourselves questioning the boundaries of the concept. But there’s plenty of people who don’t get that far – they can’t get their heads around the very idea.

    So, if you’re looking for factors that link games which might or might not be ARGs (apart from whether they allow the player to dip into an *alternative* reality, as opposed to changing some of the rules of this one) then here’s one:

    An ARG is a game that requires a greater-than-average intellectual and imaginative wattage from its players if they are to get from the experience as much as the creator hopes they will.

    Which doesn’t bode well for the chances of them ever going mainstream…

  2. I always rather liked “avant-game” as a bucket term, although I can see why one might not want to use it in a commercial context 🙂

  3. Andy: While that’s not a bad definition for some ARGs to aspire to, I think that there are still interesting things you can do that don’t require that sort of brainpower – at least, not at the start of the experience. In many ARGs you have a gradient of experience where you can participate to different degrees – at the high end, yes, you need to put a lot in and be smart, but at the low end I would hope that anyone could play and get something out of it.

    Guy: Heh, yes. I’m sure there are better terms, but it’s going to be difficult for them to catch on at this lateish stage.

  4. I think you’ve done a great job breaking this down.

    Personally, although I understand the human need to want to classify something, I think it would be a shame to put parameters on the genre with a hard definition, since game experience for both the player and the creator can be so fluid. Part of the joy of ARGing is the feeling that the course of the story can change due to either player or creator.

    Eventually, yes, sub-genres will crystallize and gain definition, but for now, I am glad to see ARGs going mainstream and being recognized as a new form of play. Okay, well, somewhat mainstream. More than they were in, as you say, 2001-2004. Meh, you know what I mean. I feel like NOW people understand just exactly what I did for 6 months in 2004!

  5. I can see what Andy’s saying but I think that what is required of players of ‘ARGs’ can’t simply be defined as intelligence. As Adrian says, the one unifying factor of these games is that designing them ‘requires an open, adventurous and imaginative mind’. I would say that not only do all ‘ARGs’ require an adventurous, imaginative approach from designers, but they also require creative, daring, out-of-the-box responses from their players. Both designers and players have to be willing to experiment with anything and everything, which is why ARGs can simultaneously make wide-use of everyday media and then expect people to chase helicopters, both things that you’d never see in a PC game! And the best bit is that because the game play is so unique and untested, players can end up confounding the designers with how they respond to certain tasks. It’s the people on both sides of the curtain making that extra effort which makes ARGs so special.

  6. ARGs require a few things to fit the catagory:
    A Mystery and Clues – it doesn’t need to be a whodunit, but it shouldn’t make everything about it obvious.

    Suspension of Reality – any promotion that admits it’s a promotion, is not an ARG. Participants WANT to suspend reality and immerse themselves in an ARG. It should maintain that it is non-fiction throughout.

    Puppet Master – a promotion or game that is simply posted with no guiding hand, is just a game or a promo. There needs to be someone “behind the curtain” dropping clues, guiding discussion, leading participants down a path. Even if the path is effected by users, the Puppet Master must make that decision.

    User Interaction – users should be able to guess and hypothesize, exchange clues and links. This helps build the community which is what you want.

    An ARG need not involve multiple mediums, but it helps create a more engaging interaction. It should be centered around an online experience if only to allow users to interact with each other.

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