Overreaction – ARGs & guerrilla marketing
As we all know by now, there was a little incident in Boston last week. Something about a non-bomb with a light bright-esque cartoon alien. The internet is a buzz. The blog world is going crazy over the idea that a few glowing signs could cause so much fear – I mean, really, does no one in the Boston Police Department watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force? And do they really think a terrorist would put out bombs that say “Hey! Look at me! I’m a Mooninite all lit up and flippin’ the bird!” Wouldn’t making it less noticeable be a bit more effective? Don’t even get me started on the fact that these were out there for weeks before anyone panicked. So, yeah, that’s what the blog world is talking about. The ad and ARG worlds are talking about it, too, but they’re also concerned with a statement by the mayor.
Facing a large bill over the city’s reaction (which, Turner will likely have to cover – a fair price for all this internet traffic on a campaign that only took place in a few cities), the Mayor has stated that “this nitwit guerrilla advertising” has no place in the city of Boston. A joke, really. How do you ban something that has no clear definition?
Over at Clickable Culture in a post titled Boston Guerrilla Marketing Scare’s Chilling Effects on ARG Design, Tony agrees with me about the lack of enforceability, but then questions what would happen if other cities follow suit. He goes on to say that, “[i]f any good can come out of the Boston incident, it’s that ARG designers will more carefully consider how the public is engaged, perhaps involving local people–and local authorities–earlier on in the development process, even at the expense of breaking the “this is not a game” mantra some hold dear.”
That statement troubles me on a number of levels, but especially in the way that it implies that designers currently do not fully consider how they are engaging the public as well as their players and that they do not take steps to retain a certain amount of control over the situation or to provide security. Perhaps I am playing the “wrong” games, but in every game that I have played or designed, I cannot think of any examples where designers did not show such concern.
In Art of the Heist, players had to go on a mission at a car dealership and distract the salesmen while another member of the team looked through a vehicle to find a memory card. Not only was the dealership informed of what was going to happen but the diner across the street, where players met, was also informed. People on the design team were present, unbeknownst to the players, and overseeing the situation. Another incident occurred in Chicago when players were taken out on a boat, at night, and in the dark. Again, unbeknownst to the players, members of the design team were hidden on the boat as well as on land overseeing the situation and ready to act as needed.
I Love Bees is notable not only for the amazingly rich story it told but for it’s incredible use of pay phones to tell it. It sent players to phones all over the United States in dozens of cities every week. Unlike Art of the Heist, game designers were not present for each phone call, but they did their best to ensure players safety by flying “payphone scouts” all over the country to find suitable working payphones. This kept players in safe areas and shows that concern was not only given to the game design but also to the public and the players.
Last Call Poker held playful events in cemeteries throughout the country. While the events were organized games and very obviously had members of the team present to oversee and photograph them, they were held in an environment that many don’t see as a playful environment. And, as a matter of respect to the public, not only were cemeteries carefully chosen but the boundaries in which we could play were carefully considered. If someone was mourning, we backed off and let them have their time with their loved one in peace. Every cemetery had agreed to the event knowing full well that it was rather unconventional and, from what I understand, they welcomed the activity provided that people were respectful. In addition, there were separate “missions” that people could take on and perform at any cemetery and these included things like cleaning up a grave site or leaving flowers or finding interesting epitaphs. The designers not only showed great concern for the greater public but encouraged their players to do so as well.
Granted, none of those events dealt with leaving battery operated objects with wires and blinking lights on highway overpasses and the like, but I cannot fathom that the same care and concern for both the public and the players would not be met if the games had included such things. To imply otherwise, is selling those of us involved in the genre short and is rather shocking, if not disconcerting, coming from someone that is involved.
It is important to remember that while ARGs are often part of marketing campaigns, when we engage in public play the goals are very different from that of your average guerrilla marketer. We are not out just to get some attention or after any sort of shock value. Our campaigns are complex and spread out over weeks at a time. We are telling a story and engaging the public in play as part of a play. We act in a spirit of collaboration and community. Therefore, our activities are more carefully designed to elicit a different type of response.
And while Tony was reminded of a similar over-reaction to the Mario Brother’s blocks in Ohio and Zombie Dance Party in Minneapolis, I can’t help but wonder how many dozens or hundreds of displays of public play occurred after those events that didn’t elicit any fear – including the number of cities that did not react to the Mooninite campaign as Boston did, and it took weeks for Boston to react in this way. Stating that these events have a “chilling effect” on ARG Design and/or public play is overstating the situation and, dare I say it, about as reactionary as the Boston police were last week.