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.)

Ernst Choukula

There’s been some ruckus about a History class at George Mason University in which students created a hoax about an ‘Edward Owens’, the “Last American Pirate”. They made a blog, put up some YouTube videos, and most annoyingly, created an article on Wikipedia.

I find these hoaxes tiresome. We all know that it’s easy to publish misinformation online; it’s done thousands of times, every day, on small and large scales, and it’s as easy as pressing an ‘Edit’ button. If someone is going to put up misinformation, I’d rather they do it with style and panache, like this brilliant addition to the Count Chocula article on Wikipedia (archived):

Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who– by the early twentieth century–had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland.

A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first “barrelled cereal” endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted “Ernst Choukula’s Golden Wheat Muesli”, a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called “gruhll” or “gruell,” and would eat the concoction each morning before work. The trend unwittingly spread, with alcohol being replaced by sheep–and then cow’s–milk, and the demand for the Choukula’s “cereal” reached as far south as Poland and as far west as the northern Jutland province of Denmark.

It wasn’t long before the unmistakable image (the original packaging, a three gallon wooden vat which featured a burnt etching of a jubilant, overalled Ernst holding a large dog and grinning broadly) made a pop-cultural splash throughout the entirety of Europe and northern Africa. In fact, Tunisia’s “Carthagian Sand Crunch” was seen as the first imitation of the Choukula form; the aforementioned product was presented in broad leathern bags with the woven insignia of a nude tribesman holding a sword and a bunched stalk of oats. Sadly, this would neither be the first nor the tamest appropriation of Ernst’s iconic visage. Continue reading “Ernst Choukula”

ARGs conference slides now online

Most of the slides from the ARGs in Charity and Education conference are now online, in a lovely Slideshare-embedded format. You name it – PowerPoint, Keynote, PDF – we’ve got it. There are also some links to good blog writeups of the conference, in case you want more commentary.

Next time, we’ll record the sessions on video and do podcasts and videocasts and whatnot, but small steps first…

ARGs in Charity and Education Conference

Despite the real and growing interest in ‘serious’ ARGs from companies and broadcasters, there hasn’t yet been a conference dedicated to the subject where people can share knowledge. There’s so much potential for what serious ARGs can do that I’ve worked with the guys at Law 37 to organise ARGs in Charity and Education, a conference being held in London on Friday 5th December.

This one-day conference will be the first in the world to explore the use of ARGs for educational purposes and to aid charities. With speakers from the BBC, Channel 4, Oil Productions, Six to Start, Leicester University, Open University and more, commissioners, developers, academics and educators will all be represented.

ARGs in Charity and Education is a great opportunity to learn about the latest serious ARGs around the world, gain behind-the-scenes insights from developers, and also find out what the two biggest commissioners of ARGs in the UK have planned for the future.

Channel 4 have kindly donated a very nice venue at their headquarters for the conference, and all profits will be going to Cancer Research UK. Tickets cost £70 (£35 for students).

‘ARGs in Charity and Education’ is run by Let’s Change the Game and Law 37.

The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read

How do you get boys to read? One way is to write entertaining and dramatic books, preferably including some violence. This is what Charlie Higson did for his Young Bond series of books, and judging by the fact that they have sold close to a million copies, it’s a pretty good strategy.

Of course, in this new era of digital TV, YouTube and videogames, it can be difficult to attract boys to books, but that’s exactly what we’re attempting with Young Bond: The Shadow War, a web-based point-and-click adventure that’s fused with a book.

Working with book publishers

Being an ARG designer has put me in contact with a variety of semi-famous film, TV and game producers, but I’ve particularly enjoyed working with book publishers.

The publishers I’ve met have all had a very healthy regard for authors. Given that it’s authors who write the books that they sell, this may seem perfectly normal, but in other industries, these people are not called authors – they are ‘creatives’. ‘Creatives’, who include everyone from designers to writers to artists – in fact, everyone who actually makes stuff – are treated as a black box, into which any number of woolly and contradictory notes can be placed, with predictably unhappy results.

(NB: I recently interviewed an actor for an upcoming project, and unwittingly used the word ‘creative’. The fact that she failed to stifle a giggle confirms to me that I have fallen so very far from grace…)

Six to Start‘s first project with a publisher was We Tell Stories, in which we created six online-only stories for Penguin Books. We worked with six different authors, and Penguin placed a refreshing amount of trust in us and our work, which allowed us to get on with the matter at hand – making some really fantastic stories. 1700 blog posts later, along with features in Newsweek, Wired, the Guardian and BBC News, this trust was borne out.

This experience meant that we jumped at the chance to work on a game to promote the final book in the Young Bond series, By Royal Command. Sure, it wasn’t for the movies, but it was still James Bond. And the books were very good. Continue reading “The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read”

Teaching ARG Design to teenagers

The vision: Eager teens, listening quietly and attentively as I led a discussion about alternate reality games.

The reality: Thirty seconds into my prepared spiel, there were four hands waving in the air and the kids at the back were already talking. “Oh boy,” I thought, hoping to make a quantum leap out of here, but it didn’t happen.

Three exhausting hours later, and what might be the world’s first ARG Design Workshop for teenagers was over. I was pretty happy – but even happier that there had been four other people there to help.

Before I get into any details of the workshop, I should provide some personal background. I’ve always enjoyed explaining things, whether it’s through educational websites or in person at conferences. I’ve never done anything aimed solely at teenagers – and I don’t think I have the energy or temperament to be a teacher – but I have occasionally worked with some really interesting and smart teens before, and I’ve long thought that it would be fun to expand and formalise that.

A few months ago, in the course of some work with Channel 4, Six to Start got talking with Roundhouse Studios. Roundhouse is an organisation in north London that gives teenagers the resources to make music, film videos and design computer games, all using some very respectable facilities and equipment. They wanted more multimedia and game design classes, we wanted to talk to some teenagers – it was meant to be.


When Claire (also from STS) and I sat down to plan the workshop, we had two big problems: we had no idea how many teens would be in the workshop (other than ‘definitely more than two’), and even worse, we didn’t know how old they would be. Our listing in the Roundhouse brochure was for teenagers aged from 13 to 18 – that’s wide as it is, but we knew that kids as young as 11 might turn up. No doubt they’d all be smart and at least somewhat engaged, but there’s a world of difference between 11 and 18.

From this tricky position, we came up with the following structure. We were well aware that it wouldn’t fully survive contact with reality and that we’d have to improvise, but it looked something like this: Continue reading “Teaching ARG Design to teenagers”

Creating ‘The (Former) General’

I love all the stories in We Tell Stories, but I do have favourites. Back when we were planning the six week schedule for the stories, we decided to structure it like an album – start with a bang, and end with a bang.

The first story was The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming. It was the most visually striking of all six stories, using the Google Maps engine, and we knew that it would generate quite a bit of buzz among the tech crowd, so it seemed like a natural choice to open with. It certainly paid off – The 21 Steps has now been read over 150,000 times, which is more than all of Charles Cumming’s book sales put together. I believe he told BBC Radio Scotland that he was now better known for The 21 Steps than his books, which I don’t think is an overstatement.

I had the idea to create a story in Google Maps some time ago, long before we got in touch with Penguin, and I feel that it’s a rather obvious idea. I’m happy that we made it, of course, but I don’t think it’s the most mind-blowingly original thing that I’ve come up with. We excelled more in implementation and interface design rather than in ‘story architecture’*. When it comes to originality though, I am most proud of the design we made for the final story, Mohsin Hamid’s The (Former) General In His Labyrinth.

* This is a term suggested by Nina Rastogi, who mentioned it when I was struggling to describe exactly what it was that I did for this project. The stories aren’t games, so I didn’t do game design, but they aren’t ‘just’ stories either; they each have a unique design. Or architecture. It works for now, anyway.

Right at the start of development for We Tell Stories, Jeremy (from Penguin) expressed a strong interest in doing a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)-style story. On the one hand, I can completely see why – it’s a fun style and it certainly fits the web, what with hyperlinks and so on.

On the other hand, it really doesn’t fit the web. People have made CYOAs on the web for a long, long time, and they are uniformly irritating to read. Whereas CYOAs in book format work, since you can keep your finger stuck in all of the branching points that you know you’ll have to backtrack to later, the traditional navigational metaphor of web browsers – back and forward – is just too basic. Coupled with the fact that pages on the web are free-floating rather than in a specific physical order, CYOAs on the web just don’t make much sense. Continue reading “Creating ‘The (Former) General’”

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:


Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.


Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Stories, Games, and The 21 Steps

Today we launched the first short story at We Tell Stories, called The 21 Steps. It’s a thriller written by the acclaimed spy writer Charles Cumming, and it’s set within Google Maps. I’m genuinely pleased by the way in which the design of the experience meshed with Charlie’s excellent story, and so I’d really recommend you to read it.

We Tell Stories has been – and still is – an interesting challenge, because what we’re trying to do is tell stories in a way that can only be told online. We aren’t adapting stories – we’re working with authors to create entirely new stories that are native to the web. In the past few weeks, I’ve called the process ‘designing a story’, and I talked a little about it in a Gamasutra article published today:

The first story looks to use Google Maps in some way – how did you work with the author to make this happen?

What the Google Maps story does is force us to think about the reader experience. While they might not realize it, authors simply don’t have to think about this when it comes to books, since they already implicitly know the ‘design’ of books – it’s words on page, divided up into chapters, and you can flick back and forth pages to look at the ‘story history’, and bookmark pages to keep your place.

The design of books is so great that it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, and so we just don’t think about it any more.

When we had the idea for a story based around Google Maps, we knew that it had to incorporate a lot of movement – otherwise what’s the point of having a map? So one early idea was a travelogue – a little like Around The World in 80 Days. Another was a thriller, like The 39 Steps. We ended up taking the latter option, due to its frenetic pace, and we asked Charles Cumming, an acclaimed British spy thriller author, to write a story for us.

To begin with, we simply told Charles to ‘bake movement in’ to the story. However, from early on, it became clear that this was rather trickier than any of had thought; it wasn’t enough to have the protagonist walking and driving and flying around the place, they had to do it all the time.

Early drafts of the story saw the protagonist having a very tense discussion for a couple of chapters – riveting stuff – but it was all in one room. Luckily we had a great relationship with Charles and we worked together to incorporate more movement, or references to other locations, in every chapter.

We would often give suggestions about scenes that would fit the design, and Charles was always very open to revising the story and coming up with new ideas. Ultimately, I think it was his flexibility that really made things fit together.

Something that is worth mentioning is that none of the authors we’re working with are particularly tech-savvy – some of them are the completely opposite. And while it does help, it only helps up to a point. From my point of view, I can teach an author about technology and interaction, but I can’t teach someone how to write.

I spoke about the subject of stories and games at Barcamp Brighton on Sunday (incidentally I wouldn’t call The 21 Steps a game, but it is an interactive experience). The Barcamp was a wonderful experience, and I’m sure to repeat it again. Rachel Clarke did a great writeup of my presentation on her blog, and I’ve also included the slides below:

Finally, Anne-Marie Deitering has written an insightful post about digital storytelling and her thoughts on what we’re trying to do with We Tell Stories.

Future of Books article in Sunday Times

Naomi Alderman, Perplex City lead writer, author of Disobedience, etc, wrote an article in the Sunday Times about the future of books. I’ve talked to Naomi often about eBooks and was quoted in the article:

Imagine, for example, a novel designed to take advantage of the features of the new must-have geek hipster accessory: the iPhone. When you download a new novel to your iPhone, the calendar might automatically remind you it’s the birthday of one of the characters in a few days’ time, or you might get access to the appointments schedule of the missing journalist in your thriller. The weather-forecast widget could give you the option to view the weather in London in 1880, the setting for your historical romance. Or your purchase of one of those classic Harry Potters could add The Daily Prophet to your automatic newspaper subscriptions. Stories could become pervasive: when you’re lost in a good book, your whole online world could blend seamlessly with it. The technology to do all this doesn’t exist yet, but it’s far from impossible.

Of course, all that additional content will have to be written. Therein lies one of the problems. As Adrian Hon, chief creative of the online games company Six to Start, says: “Authors don’t need to be great artists or programmers right now. They ‘just’ need to write. To make anything more advanced than a normal story, though, you need more skills.” Most authors aren’t also computer programmers, and most programmers aren’t novelists. As Hon says: “Web people come up with cool ideas, such as telling stories by web 2.0 series, wikis or e-mails. Twitter, but it fails because they can’t write a good story for it.” This needn’t be an insuperable hurdle. We may see a new partnership added to the traditional artist-and-writer combination for illustrated books, or musician-and-writer team for songs. Writers could work with programmers in this new form of storytelling.

Obviously my position is a bit more nuanced than this, but the quote gets the point across. While a lot of ‘stories on the web’ today involve some interesting technology, unfortunately, they’re just not very interesting stories. This leads a lot of people to conclude that the format of a book is superior. Of course, I disagree; we need to put a lot more thought into designing stories for the web, and that needs to be a collaborative process between not just writers and programmers, but also people who design interactive experiences on the web, who we might as well just call game or ARG designers.

The article also has a few tidbits about what we’re doing with Penguin (then again, you’ll find out much more early next week), and a review of the Amazon Kindle. The reviewer, a novelist called Stephen Amidon, has a rather plaintive lament about what eBooks and, I imagine, technology in general, holds for the future of his vocation. Continue reading “Future of Books article in Sunday Times”