Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

What is an Alternate Reality Game?

An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive, interdisciplinary group activity that weaves game elements into the real world. ARGs can have educational, entertainment, or marketing objectives, and games can be narrative or non-narrative.

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Narrative ARGs are centered around a story that unfolds over the course of the game. Players actively participate in the narrative, and their gameplay can affect the story’s progression.

In contrast, non-narrative ARGs are centered around a specific objective, and game activities tend to be centered around a theme related to the objective.

Techopedia Explains the ARG Meaning

Most ARGs require players to figure out for themselves that they are in a game. The moment of realization – when the player understands they are part of a larger, orchestrated experience – can be an important part of the game.

Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

History of ARG

Sean Stacey is credited with coining the term Alternate Reality Game in 2002.

At the time, Stacey was a moderator for an online community. As Stacey engaged with the community, he recognized the need for a label that would accurately and succinctly describe the type of game the community was playing. Stacey’s choice of label resonated with the community, and the acronym ARG quickly gained widespread adoption.

According to Stacey, ARGs combine elements of other immersive experiences like escape rooms, puzzle hunts, immersive theater, geocaching, and LARPs.

This is his original alternate reality game definition: “An interactive fusion of creative writing, puzzle-solving, and team building, with a dose of role-playing thrown in.”

It turned out that the game that inspired Sean Stacey to invent the alternate reality game meaning was developed by a small team at Microsoft to promote their new game console, Xbox, and the Steven Spielberg film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

The game, which was called The Beast, is remembered for how it used a mix of websites, emails, phone messages, faxes, and physical locations to create a murder mystery narrative. The fact that the game was not initially advertised as being linked to Microsoft Corporation or the film – and it was never referred to as a game – only added to its appeal.

How Does ARG Work?

Alternate reality games take advantage of transmedia storytelling, a narrative technique that spreads a product’s story across various delivery channels such as Internet websites, social media direct messages, phone calls, and physical meet-ups.

The use of mixed communication formats for different aspects of the game is intended to deepen player connection to the narrative and encourage interactive participation.

ARGs require players to use a wide range of skills and interact with both digital and real-world elements. Most ARGs encourage or require players to work together to share information or solve complex puzzles that no single player could solve alone.

Every ARG begins with a “rabbit hole.” A rabbit hole is game lingo for the initial (and intentionally noticeable) clue, puzzle, or strange occurrence that is put in place to draw players into the game.

An effective rabbit hole sparks curiosity and allows potential players to initially engage with the game in either an active or passive manner.

Once a player engages with the rabbit hole (actively or passively), they can follow the game’s breadcrumb trail. A breadcrumb trail is a series of activities, clues, puzzles, hints, or pieces of information that are strategically placed (or revealed) to keep players engaged and guide them through the game.

The duration of an alternate reality game can vary widely depending on the game’s objective, its design, participant engagement levels, and the resources available to the game’s creators.

Other Examples of Alternate Reality Games

Other examples of popular promotional ARGs include:

  • I Love Bees: This ARG’s narrative revolved around a stranded AI entity. The game’s clever integration of payphones with audio clues throughout the U.S. showcased the potential for blurring the lines between digital and real-world immersion.
  • Year Zero: This ARG engaged players through cryptic websites, USB drives, puzzles, in-person meetups, and cell phone prizes. Players who thought they were involved in some kind of socio-political movement were surprised to find out the game’s final reward was a Nine Inch Nails concert.
  • The Jejune Institute:  The rabbit hole for this ARG consisted of fliers placed around San Francisco for dolphin therapy and the “Aquatic Thought Foundation.” This ARG became the subject of a documentary and, later on, a feature film.

Skills Required to Help Solve an ARG

ARG participation requires both soft skills and hard skills. (It’s important to note that players do not need to be proficient in each of the skills below. ARGs are designed to foster collaboration, and game activities can be the most fun when players have diverse strengths.)

Hard Skills

Research Skills: The ability to search for information and analyze findings will help players understand the game’s context and complete tasks along the breadcrumb trail.

Puzzle Solving and Cryptography: Experience with deciphering codes, solving complex puzzles, and understanding logical sequences can be essential skills for game progression.

Image & Audio Analysis: Being able to spot hidden details in images, identify audio patterns, or run software to manipulate media can be useful skills when solving transmedia puzzles.

Location-Specific Knowledge: ARG real-world components may benefit from players’ knowledge of geography, history, or local landmarks.

Digital Literacy: Proficiency with computers, smartphones, and navigating the internet will help players research clues, and access game materials.

Technical Proficiency: Some ARGs may require basic knowledge of programming, image editing, or the use of specific software tools to clues and progress in the game.

Soft Skills

Critical Thinking: The ability to analyze information, think logically, participate in Socratic dialogue, and make connections between seemingly unrelated elements will be important.

Communication and Collaboration: Many ARGs require players to work together, share findings, and solve puzzles collectively.

Patience and Perseverance: Some puzzles may take time to solve. This will require dedication and a willingness to push through challenges.

Attention to Detail: Overlooked clues can prevent the game from progressing as quickly as it should.

Adaptability: ARGs often have unexpected twists and turns. Players need to be flexible and adapt their strategies in response to new information.

Story Types in ARG

While ARGs are known for their diversity, certain types of story narratives seem to be used more than others. Classic themes include:

  • Sci-Fi Mysteries: These frequently involve hidden experiments, rogue AI, time travel, or conspiracies involving strange or unexplained technologies.
  • The Paranormal & Secret Societies: These typically include supernatural beings, cults, forgotten historical figures, or hidden organizations manipulating events from the background.
  • Thrillers & Investigations: These frequently involve murder mysteries, secret agents, uncovering scandals, or a race against time to stop a shadowy figure or event.

Player Types in ARG

Player Types in Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

There are also some common character types that ARG developers use over and over. These archetypes include:

The Puppet Master(s)The GuideWitnessesAntagonistsExperts

These are shadowy figures that orchestrate the ARG’s events. Their true nature and motives are often the focus of mystery ARG narratives.

Sometimes, a friendly character will act as a source of information or support. This archetype typically appears as needed to steer players in the right direction.

These are fictional figures embedded within the story. They often play an active role in the breadcrumb trail and require players to complete activities that will reveal their real-world location.

Opposing forces actively work against the players’ goals, whether those be rival “detectives,” a secretive group trying to hide the truth, or even technological forces like malfunctioning AI.

In ARGs themed around history, technology, or science, expert archetypes can help make unfolding events feel plausible.

How to Create an Alternate Reality Game

One popular way to create an alternate reality game is to reverse engineer it. This means you begin by envisioning how, where, and when you want the game to end. A well-planned ending delivers closure – and allows players to leave the game feeling like they participated in something special.

Once you’ve envisioned the ARG’s end, you can create a journey map that begins with a rabbit hole and ends with your vision for the game’s last hour.

There are many ways to create a journey map, and the best approach will depend on your own planning style. Each of the methods below can be used alone or in combination.

  • Online Resources: Use ARG outlines and templates for a customizable starting point in game design.
  • Kanban Boards: Organize game development stages visually with tools like Trello or Asana.
  • Generative AI: Use AI story generators for quick brainstorming of story elements and puzzles.
  • Storyboarding: Visualize key scenes and interactions for narrative and aesthetics planning.
  • Mind Mapping: Map out narrative structures and story branches with tools like MindMeister.
  • Collaboration Tools: Utilize real-time collaboration for outlining, tracking, and task assignment.
  • Role-playing sessions: Conduct sessions to identify gamification issues and understand player interactions.

Difference Between ARGs, Video Games, AR Games, and VR Games

ARGs, traditional video games, augmented reality (AR) games like Pokémon GO, and virtual reality (VR) games relate to the real world differently and use different strategies to engage players.

Here’s a breakdown of the main differences:

Feature ARGs Traditional Video Games Augmented Reality Games Virtual Reality Games
Narrative Structure Blends game elements into everyday life. Player activity is confined to a digital environment provided by the game. Overlays digital content in the real world. Completely immerses the player in a metaverse.
Player Interaction Interactions occur in real-world and digital settings. Interactions occur strictly within a virtual environment. Engages players by inserting digital elements in physical locations. Interactions occur within a fully immersive digital environment using VR hardware.
Immersiveness Immerses players in a narrative that blends with the real world. Player activity takes place within a digital space. Digital content is inserted into physical locations. A fully immersive digital experience that isolates the player from the real world.
Environmental Interaction Encourages interaction by moving back and forth between analog and digital worlds. Interaction is limited to the digital environment. Digital elements do not interact with the real world. Interaction is limited to the digital environment.
Hardware Requirements Minimal. May require phone or computer access. Requires computing device. Sophisticated video games require a game console and game console software. Smartphone or AR glasses. Requires VR headset and compatible controllers.

Pros and Cons of ARG

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) offer a unique blend of real-world interaction and narrative storytelling that can engage players in ways that traditional video games cannot.

Advantages

The best ARGs foster community and collaboration among participants. Players will often come together, both online and offline, to solve puzzles, share theories, and work towards common goals. This can create a sense of camaraderie and collective achievement.

Another benefit is that ARGs encourage exploration and learning. Narrative alternate reality games frequently weave elements of history, science, and literature into the store to make the gaming experience both educational and entertaining.

Disadvantages

However, poorly managed ARGs can also result in unintended consequences.

When the lines between reality and the game are blurred too much, players can become confused and take actions that are inappropriate or unsafe.

The immersive nature of ARGs can also lead players to spend too much time in the game and cause them to neglect their real-world responsibilities.

FAQs

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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.