Alternate Reality Gaming – A Quickstart Guide

So, you’ve discovered the world of Alternate Reality Gaming and are completely confused by it all. You are not alone! Hopefully this little guide will answer a few of your basic questions and direct you to places to learn more.

Alternate Reality Gaming?!

Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) is an experience that encourages players (you!) to interact with a fictional world using the real world to do it.

For example:

You’re spending some time exploring the internet and someone points you to a couple sites and tells you that it’s a crazy mystery about some missing monkeys. The first site you visit is everyonelovesmonkeys.com. There, you see pictures of the monkeys doing funny monkey things as well as a list of the monkey zookeepers. All of the zookeepers have email addresses that are something like name@everyonelovesmonkeys.com aside from one. His email is listed as crazymonkey@crazymonkeyman.com. Intrigued, you decide to visit crazymonkeyman.com and see that he mentions concerns that the monkeys have been replaced by robomonkeys! (everyone’s worst fear, of course, is the eventual destruction of man by evil robotic monkeys…maybe that’s just mine?)

What you have done is used your real world computer to explore a bit of a fictional world. You also solved your first ARG puzzle…yay you!

On the high from finding a second website, you decide to send a little email to crazymonkey@crazymonkeyman.com asking him why he thinks the cute little monkeys have been replaced by evil robots. In a few minutes, you get a reply.

Now you are communicating with the fictional world using your real world email. Funky.

While you were waiting for your reply from the crazy monkey man, you poked around a bit more on the everyonelovesmonkeys.com website and happened to notice a phone number and address on their contact page. Out of curiosity, you decide to use a few of your free cell phone minutes to call the number. Convinced it’s a fake, you are completely surprised when someones answered the phone. In a panic, you hang up as fast as you can. (ok, that’s just me… you actually talk to the receptionist and learn that all of the monkey keepers are outside monkeying around… oh, comeon, it had to be said.)

Now you are interacting with a fictional world using your real world phone and your real world you. Wild, no?

Not all ARGs have those exact features and most are much more original than my quick little example. The one thing that ties all ARGs together is that you are interacting with the fictional world using things that you use every day to interact with the real world. Also, you aren’t interacting as a character, as you would in most computer and video games. You also don’t need any special equipment, as you would with most console games. Most games take advantage of computers and the internet (websites and emails) as well as phones and even the occasional live event (finding something hidden in your city, gathering around payphones, or even live parties with character interaction!).

That sounds great! Where do I buy the game?

Simple: You don’t! Most ARGs are free to players and the only expense might be the cost of gas to get to a live event or a stamp to send a letter to a character. Yet even those are optional expenses. There have been a few (EA’s Majestic, for example) that have attempted a “pay-to-play” strategy but they are few and far between and have, historically, not met expectations.

So, I don’t buy it… where do I find one?

You can find the currently running ARGs by visiting ARGNet, the best basic resource for ARG news and events. You’ll see a list of the most popular (and confirmed!) games at the top of the page with links to the forums where it’s being discussed as well as any other important resources (such as the game chat room). Also, be sure to visit the forums at unFiction (uf) as even more games are being played there, many of which are small grassroots games that are put on by fans of the genre for other fans.

If they are free, they must be huge ads!

Yep, that’s often the case. But don’t let that scare you, these are really cool ads that are not intrusive and usually don’t even mention the product that they’re promoting. It’s actually a brilliant form of viral marketing as it gets a bunch of people to spend a lot of time exploring a world related to the product (previous examples include movies, tv shows, and even a popular video game). Sure, I Love Bees was a huge promotion for Halo2. We all knew that it was a promotion, but not once did it scream, “Run out and buy Halo2!” Instead of being innundated with Halo2 banner ads, we were immersed in the backstory of the Halo2 universe. We spent the months before the release of the game interacting with some really cool fictional characters and other Halo2 players (making finding friends to team up with on xbox live once the game released really very easy). So sure, we were being hit by marketing, but it was really cool marketing that gave us something to talk about, something to enjoy.

And, if you just refuse to be a part of the consumer culture, there are ARGs for you! Not all ARGs are promotional products and great number of them are put on by people that just really enjoy the ARG concept and love making games.

I don’t want to give some ad company all of my personal information

Then don’t! Remember, you are in control and you only have to give out as much information as you want. Also consider that this is viral marketing, they want you to play more than they want your information. It’s the numbers that create the press and gets people talking, thus getting more people playing and more press and more people talking. They, generally, only ask for your information so that they can offer you a more exciting experience so that you’ll tell your friends about it.

Friend: Who was that on the phone?

You: OMG! It was a robomonkey!

Friend: Robomonkey?

You: Yes! Something about dancing robots at the corner of 5th & Main next week. You have got to check out crazymonkeyman.com… it’s nuts!

Friend: Dancing robots? I am so there!

You won’t miss out on too much if you don’t give them all of your details because of the community aspect surrounding most ARGs. So, if you aren’t sure about emailing strange fictional characters or aren’t comfortable calling someone, it’s very likely that someone else has already done so and posted the results of the conversation. You’ll also find that most ARGs provide a way for users to sign up and they don’t require that you give all of the information (or any information). Fill out as little or as much of the information you are comfortable with and if you don’t want to recieve a phone call from one of the robomonkeys, then don’t give your phone number. As far as email concerns, a number of people create an email account that is specifically for ARGs (gmail and yahoo are great for this) and aside from protecting your primary email address, it keeps the ingame mail in one place.

Ok, I can deal with that, but how do I play it?

Well, in our example above, you were playing when you were exploring the websites, sending the email, and calling the phone number. However, most players find that there’s more joy in playing along with others and, in many cases, playing in large groups is necessary. There are several forums out there dedicated to playing ARGs, the most popular are the forums at unFiction. Because of the collaborative nature, you will likely come to rely on the community, even if you are just a lurker (someone who reads the boards, but doesn’t post to them).

The puzzles that I saw on that one forum seemed impossible!

Yeah, some of them really are. I could never solve them on my own, that’s for sure! But that’s where it’s great to be playing with a lot of others. Someone on the forums will figure it out and it’s really thrilling when that happens, especially if you were the one to solve it or provide that little bit of insight that helped someone else solve it.

You’ll also begin to notice that there are puzzles of all sorts of difficulty. Some will seem rather easy, such as noticing crazymonkeyman.com at the end of the email address in our example above. Others will seem a bit more difficult, but usually only take a google search or two. And, yes, there will be ones that will have your head spinning! Don’t despair though, there will be a puzzle that you grasp right away (maybe it relates to a hobby of yours or something you just studied in school) that has other people completely confused. If you learn to rely on the forums a bit, you will soon find yourself getting excited even when others solve that killer puzzle and the puzzle difficulty won’t be as much of a problem.

OK, I’ve visited the forums & there are terms that I just don’t understand

ARG terms:

  • The Beast: One of the first and largest ARGs. Run as a promotion for the movie AI.
  • Curtain: the magic curtain that PuppetMasters live behind (ie pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)
  • Guide: A narrative retelling of game history. Very handy for catching up on what has happened.
  • Meta: Issues about the genre or a specific game but that are not in-game.
  • PuppetMaster: one of the game designers
  • Puzzle Trail: A series of puzzles where one puzzle leads to another webpage that contains another puzzle and so on and so on. Sometimes they contain a brief hint of a story and they can provide a great distraction for people in between playing ARGs. Many times, players will create little puzzle trails for other players.
  • Rabbit Hole: The site or events that lead into the game world.
  • Trail: 1) A reference of sites, characters, and puzzles used in the game. Currently, most are created on wikis. 2) another term for puzzle trails
  • Trout: Probably our most controversial term. It is used when information is irrelevant, likely because it has been mentioned before. Everyone gets trouted, even those of us that have been around for a while. If you get trouted, just take it with a smile… you are now a part of the gang!

ARG Acronyms

  • ARGN: ARGNet (argn.com). The best place to check for ARG news.
  • OOG: Out-of-game. Things that occur outside of the game world
  • PM: PuppetMaster. The people behind the game.
  • TINAG: This Is Not A Game. The ARG mantra.
  • UF: unFiction and/or the forums at unFiction. The largest ARG community.
  • #uf: #unfiction. The main chat room for the community.

Where can I find out more?

The lists below are not comprehensive as there seem to be more and more resources popping up every day. However, the ones listed below have withstood the test of time and should help you on your way.

  • If you want to read about the history of the genre: unFiction
  • If you want the current news in the genre: ARGNet
  • A longer definition of the genre: wikipedia

Portals & News:

  • ARGNet: The best resource for ARG news and events

Forums:

  • unForums: the unFiction forums, the largest ARG community

Chat:

  • unFiction: Java chat that connects you right to the proper chat channel
  • mirc: A popular IRC client (we use IRC for our chat network). You can connect to irc.chat-solutions.org and then join #unfiction (or any number of other rooms dedicated to specific games… but #unfiction can get you pointed in the right direction).

I truly hope that this helped answer a few of your questions and helped you figure out where to start. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, check out the forums at unFiction… it’s a bit overwhelming, but the people are generally very nice and will help point you in the right direction. It’s best not to ask to many “omg! this is soooo koool! what is it? what do i do?” type questions, especially not in an area devoted to a big game (as you’ll come to find, too much “noise” makes it hard to find the good information). If you can show that you’ve searched for an answer and have some solid questions, you shouldn’t have any difficulty. If you are comfortable with chat, the unFiction chat room is a great place to get some help.