A Metaphor for ARGs

In his keynote at the Netherlands Festival of Games in Utrecht, Elan Lee compared a successful game to a magnet. A good game pushes away most people, but still makes them aware of what’s going on; it pulls people towards itself; and it charges those who come closest, so that they become part of the game itself, entertainment everyone else.

I thought this was a nice and simple metaphor for games and ARGs. OK, I still don’t understand the push part of it, but the notion that the closest players become charged really nails a core essence of ARGs. 16 hours after Elan’s keynote, I was in Cardiff, talking to a group of writers about multiplatform storytelling. On the train there, I resolved to talk a little about ARGs in general.

(And also about Perplex City. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t spoken about Perplex City much, but hearing Elan talk about I Love Bees (2004) and Last Call Poker (2005) reminded me of how neat Perplex City was, and how I ought to highlight that.)

Initially, I considered simply stealing the magnet metaphor, and I got as far as drawing a little magnet in Keynote when I decided that:

a) I really ought to try doing my own metaphor before stealing someone else’s (with attribution, naturally)
b) I wasn’t sure whether I could pull off the ‘push’ bit when I didn’t fully understand how the mapping worked

So I decided on a new one, about football. Some caveats – it’s not a genuinely original metaphor, since I’ve heard Dan mention it before, and I’m sure the comparison to sports has been made many times in the past – but it’s new for me and perhaps new in this specific case.


Despite football’s massive international popularity, most people don’t watch it. This is true of almost everything; most people are not Christians, most people haven’t read Harry Potter, and most people haven’t watched Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It’ll also be true of your game.

However, even if you’ve never watched a single game of football, you’ll know about the concept. You’ll know that two teams kick a ball around, that they score goals, that Manchester United is a popular team, and that David Beckham plays. Through the efforts of its fans and players, football is at least comprehensible by pretty much everyone, which allows them to participate in the game, even in the most remote way (by watching celebrations on the news, or seeing jokes about it on TV).


One step closer in, we have football fans. This massive group encompasses everyone who actively follows football, from die-hard fans who hold season tickets and loyally supports at every away game, to interested outsiders myself who will switch on the TV if a particularly important match is on (say, the Champion’s League final).

The most hardcore fans are so dedicated, they’ll dress up at games; they’ll form a brass band that irritatingly plays the Great Escape theme tune at every England match; they’ll raise money for charity, and they’ll even buy their own clubs. These guys provide entertainment not only for their fellow fans, but for everyone. They often play football themselves in amateur teams.

If you considered the world of football fandom to be a game, then these hardcore fans would be the players. But I’m not. Because the players are actually…


It’s telling that when we think of ‘football players’, we think of paid professionals like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney. Of course, a football player is simply someone who can play football, whether they’re 7 years olds playing with a tennis ball at school, or a 70 year old in the local pub team. Wayne Rooney is ‘just’ an exceptionally talented player, the hardest of the hardcore.

He, and other professional players, are so good that people will pay thousands of pounds to watch them every year. They provide the energy and the spectacle that turns football from being a simple urban game about 22 people kicking an inflated liver in between two posts into a worldwide phenomenon, complete with its own community, fandom, fan fiction and commentary.

This is what your game can become, if you can make it so good that people dedicate their lives to mastering it, and if it’s interesting for other people to watch them.


Starcraft is a science fiction strategy game, in which you direct an army from above to blow up your opponent’s. In South Korea, Starcraft is a national sport. There are at least two TV channels devoted to it, and the top Starcraft players are celebrities who open shopping malls, have fan clubs, win lots of money, etc.

None of this should be surprising. Starcraft is a fun game to play, so much so that:

a) Millions of people have played it
b) Hundreds of thousands of people are obsessed with it
c) Hundreds of people are fearsomely talented at it

Just like football. So, naturally, Starcraft has become a sport.


This football metaphor worked well at the multiplatform storytelling workshop today, and a couple of people said they liked it. However, it has a few flaws.

Firstly, it references a game that has no story. You could argue that the actions of players creates a meta-story about injuries, rivalries, transfer windows, etc, but that’s not the point of football; the point is scoring goals. This is not so true of ARGs with stories – which is to say, most of them.

Secondly, the metaphor fails to capture the wide range of involvement that players have in ARGs. In Perplex City, some players bought  thousands of puzzle cards and came to every live event; others just visited a couple of blogs a month; but they’re both, technically, players. In football, you have 22 players in a game – that’s it. You can have multiple teams and multiple leagues, but there exists a sharp divide between the guys kicking the ball and the guys watching them. A good ARG recognises and encourages a continuum of involvement, because it allows people to choose what suits them best. So I think that this metaphor is just too general – it works for almost any game, whereas I would like something a little more specific to what I do.

Of course, any metaphor breaks down when you inspect it too closely. I imagine that this football metaphor is best suited to a general audience, rather than an expert one. If you have a favourite metaphor for ARGs or games, or if you have ideas on how to improve this one, please let me know!

(Also, I’ll be putting my keynote presentation about ‘Why Stories in Games Suck’ online shortly.)

6 Replies to “A Metaphor for ARGs”

  1. “football is at least comprehensible by pretty much everyone,”…except Americans? Ok, too easy a stereotype, but they have invented a version of football that seems to be pretty imprehensible to pretty much everyone. 😉

    I’m not too sure of Elan’s metaphor either, as magnets repel because the charges are the same, so it does not quite fit for me. I like the footie metaphor, but it’s not quite story related. Maybe it’s more like ‘who shot JR’ or ‘who’s the next Who;. something that is related to a specific story and universe but through the power of the media and reporting becomes part of the wider cultural knowledge (and mass media reporting). In fact, Dr Who is a good one, there can be few who wouldn’t know what it is, a lot dip in (to the latest series) but the core group of fans who want to know as much as possible.

  2. Elan’s metaphor works for his type of game, and football may work for yours, but both fail at describing the full arc of ARGs, I think. Here’s a case to ponder: Emily and Rosario are playing an ARG and both encounter something thought-provoking. They go away and think about it, and separately come up with the same epiphany about it. But Rosario happens to post first, so when Emily goes online, she sees the epiphany already expressed and does not post.

    Under the magnet and the football metaphors, there is a big difference between Rosario and Emily. You’d call one a player and the other a fan, for example. But actually there is no difference between them at all.

    The metaphors thus continue a misperception I’m trying hard to correct, especially because this misperception undermines evaluation when an ARG is dealing with a serious real-world subject, i.e. RUBY’S BEQUEST or WORLD WITHOUT OIL. In those games, it’s clear that both Rosario and Emily are full-fledged players. Both have made an epiphany about something real and possibly life-changing. Those ARGs are more expressly about sparking a process for a player to go through, not the product of that process. That’s why they open as much room as they can for players to express that process and its personal nuances.

    This truth – that the game is the process, not the product – pertains to your games as well. I don’t think it helps to get all over-vertical and discount the Emilys who thrilled at every development in PERPLEX CITY yet never quite managed to post in time.

  3. Could the football metaphor be broadened to a ‘football culture’?

    So, fans are fans of a ‘football culture’ and their patronage of a particular football club is participation at whatever level they decide: funding through purchased tickets and merchandise, playing for B, C, Z teams, investing directly in club stocks, simulating match results and player fitness through fantasy football dream-teams, providing commentary that fosters community solidarity, etc

    I see all these things as being having the possibility of influencing the club’s fortunes in a similar way to a player’s relationship to an ARG. As for the special ‘players’ of the game, similar to frontrunners ARGS, they are self-selecting (mostly) and come from the ‘football culture’ itself. So there is a continuum, of sorts.

    As for the lack of story… lately I’ve really been wondering if any game has an actual story. What I think they all have is a psychology. And what we call story is simply the result of a character’s psychology meeting with an external reality with less than predictable results.

    I’d say the ‘psychology/story’ of football is: tidy up that mess. So a scored goal is the tidying up of a state of physical mess (the ball being ‘in play’) just as the resolution of a narrative conflict is the tidying up of a state of psychological mess (the future being uncertain, what to do next?).

    This all seems very simplistic, but lately I’ve been looking at all types of games and noticing the central pleasure is tidying up a mess whether physical (shooting down Space Invaders) or psychological (nurturing The Sims) or both (fighting in a WoW raid)

    So, if this metaphor holds, in the case of ARGs the final pleasure is in tidying up the larger mess of an overarching mystery (psychological) by solving the smaller messes of intermittent puzzles (physical) along the way.

    There is also a ‘process mess’ of an ARG community in action as players jostle for visibility by claiming solutions and discoveries. It’s a ‘who are the leaders in this pack?’ sort of mess.

  4. I rather like the pushing part of the magnet analogy. I don’t know that my understanding is in line with Lee’s meaning and my perspective is purely from the player side of things, but here it is.

    The big appeal for me and for, I think, many players is the exclusivity.

    If you pass a generic billboard with an ad for Pepsi, you don’t stop and think that you’re being personally spoken to. You know that everyone who sees the sign feels the same as you. You’re being marketed to and so is everyone else.

    Now add your favorite sports figure to the picture. It’s still appealing to a wide audience, but it’s a bit more personal than if it was a celebrity you aren’t that in to or one you only recognize as “someone famous”.

    Now replace your favorite sports star with your favorite chess player. Over here in The States – where no one knows anything about chess – you would be getting into the realms of a very personal ad. I don’t think I know anyone who would recognize Anand, let alone Morozevich.

    I mention ads because this is a medium sometimes used in ARGs with great impact. When an ARG puts something up in a magazine spread, a television commercial, a movie poster… you know that, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people are seeing this thing and have no idea what they are really looking at.

    And when people have no idea what they are looking at, they usually just turn away.

    This is where I see the magnet-like repulsion. When you’re not “in” on it, it will push you away. Maybe not in an overtly repulsive way, but the oddness of it will keep you at a distance compared to something more everyday. (Like paging through a magazine with an ad in a foreign language. There’s at least a chance you might read a line or two of an ad that’s in your own language, but not many would stop for one written in something they know they can’t read.)

    Have you ever heard someone respond to a celebrity endorsement with the words, “I don’t even know who that is.” You hear this when it’s obvious that the marketer is trying to say, “Hey look who’s endorsing our product.” If you don’t know them, it can actually be off-putting.

    But you take the same ad and the same person and you let them in on the secret and blammo! – poles reversed.

    Like a magnet, without the repulsion (exclusion) of some, I don’t see how such a strong attraction to others will form. Without the exclusion side, it’s more like gravity – a weak force that affects everything, just a little.

  5. Some great comments all, I appreciate the feedback!

    Rachel: I think you’re right with the comparison to Doctor Who, or any widespread cultural phenomenon (e.g. Harry Potter). What’s new with ARGs are the variety of ways in which people can interact with the content; with Doctor Who, the primary interaction is watching TV, or perhaps reading books – and while fans might influence the flow of the plot through their preferences, the feedback mechanism is slow and not obvious.

    In (some) ARGs, there is the explicit understanding the players can influence the flow of the game, in addition to playing the game in a range of ways. It’d be as if you could somehow affect the outcome of a football match (or at least be involved in it) while sitting on your couch at home.

    Writerguy: I wouldn’t disagree with your view that both Emily and Rosario have gone through an epiphany whie playing a serious or particularly affecting ARG; and it’s *possible* that they will share that epiphany to the same degree regardless of how deeply involved they were. However, you could argue that that’s merely one dimension of what it means to play a game, rather than just observe it. After all, if the measurement of a player is in how they were affected by a game, then I’ve played plenty of powerful games that happen to be called books 🙂

    Adam: Regarding football, there is obviously a way for fans, en masse, to influence games through their support at matches, their ticket purchases, etc; but it’s not something that was created deliberately as part of the game, and I think that’s what makes ARGs qualitatively different to ‘spectator’ sports (thus rendering my metaphor even more wrong than it was before!).

    There is something interesting about the notion of ‘tidying up messes’ as part of gameplay, and if it isn’t part of the literature, it should be. Still, it has such broad application across so many media and games that I wonder how useful it is. For example, much of western storytelling adheres to the traditional three act structure, the last act of which is the resolution of the tensions and dramatic questiosn raised earlier – in effect, it describes the same ‘tidying up’ process you mentioned, but in more detail. Still interesting though.

    UKver2.0: You know, I think that’s a very good summation of the ‘push’ part of Elan’s metaphor! It also provides an explanation for the apparent success of burying clues in trailers and billboards, even though most people won’t notice (or won’t care). Nice.

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