Anti-Hoaxing Strategies and the TINAG Fallacy

On January 26, 2008 by christy

A few days ago I published a post highlighting one possible reason why alternate reality games are perceived as hoaxes by some, and posited one strategy to circumvent the problem. The point seemed to caused a little confusion, as some thought I was saying that all the content and marketing should be targeted to the ARG community only. [Steve was right, this would be quicker over a beer at a conference.] To be clear, that is not how I see a launch operates in any scenario. Launches require putting lots of content out into different communities of interest. My point was that a work that looks indistinguishable from real content would benefit from having a community that identifies it as fiction early in the launch process. That is: to target the ARG community in the first wave. Whether other communities are targeted at the same time or slightly after is a design approach relative to the creator — but the point is to include an ARG community early.

But, since focusing on one strategy in isolation is evidently not the most effective approach, I will step back and look at the bigger picture. One of the issues with ARGs is that they are often referred to as hoaxes, and sometimes (rarely) experienced as hoaxes. So my questions have been:

1) Are ARGs hoaxes?
2) Why are ARGs referred to hoaxes?
3) Why are some ARGs experienced as a hoax?
4) Why is it most ARGs not experienced as hoaxes?

And here are the answers:

Are ARGs hoaxes?
No. As I outlined in a post last year, a hoax is an attempt to trick, to deceive an audience into thinking something is real. Though many ARG designers try to make their content look indistinguishable from real life content as possible, the effort is not to deceive the player but to furnish a storyworld, an entertainment environment. They”re not trying to fool them, they”re trying to entertain them. An aim of an ARG is not to have players realise it was all fiction in the end, but to have enjoyed the different way the fictional world was created (indeed co-created). There is more I can say on this obviously, but I”ll leave it here for now because I think the other points will support this argument.

Why are ARGs called Hoaxes?
Many commentators refer to ARGs as hoaxes. This is for a few reasons, some of which I”ll posit here. One, they”re just using the term because someone else has used it but don”t really know either way. Two, even if the person knows ARGs to not be hoaxes, they may use the term anyway because it is dramatic. Three, they”re aware of ARGs, such as Save my Husband and Hope is Missing, that were experienced as hoaxes and tar all ARGs with the same brush. Four, they”re somewhat familiar an ARG design aesthetic of TINAG (this is not a game) where (among other things) the fictional status of an ARG is denied and played down as much as possible and think this correlates exactly with a hoax. It is this last possible reason for the ”hoax” labelling which I think pervades much thinking. There is this belief that ARGs have absolutely NO FICTIONAL CUES both inside the content and around the content. But it seems that drilling down and looking at why most ARGs have not been experienced as ARGs renders that TINAG assumption false. Designers do put in cues to its fictionality status. But first, I want to have a look at the ARGs that have been considered hoaxes.

Why Are Some ARGs Experienced as a Hoax?
In my previous post here I cited the example of Hope is Missing. Jumping off from Lance Weiler”s retrospective assessment of one aspect of his ARG, I cited the issue of people not being able to distinguish a work of fiction without paratextual cues (eg: a disclaimer or production company credit). When I look at videos and websites of works that have been regarded as hoaxes (ARGs and non-ARGs) it is pretty clear to me that they are a work of fiction. But that is because I have developed fiction-identifying skills. I cited a recent study that talks about the skills of the ”Google Generation” and how they do not have critical assessment skills for the web. Weiler recognised this issue and posited that his ARG perhaps would not have been perceived as an ARG if it was first launched within the ARG community. You see, ARGers not only have these ”judgement” skills, they also produce a lot of content that identifies the works as fiction. But there is a more common strategy that ARG designers use to make it clear that an ARG is a work of fiction.

Why Is It Most ARGs Aren”t Experienced as Hoaxes?
As I said earlier, it seems concentrating on one strategy seems to cause problems. So, after a good chat with Steve Peters and SpaceBass in the comments of the last post, I”ve garnered a few strategies that seem to point towards many ARGs have not been experienced as hoaxes. I”ve divided them into cues within the content and those around it (paratextual).

In-Content Clue: Set in Known Fictional World
The Metacortechs ARG launched outside the ARG community but had the ARG community playing very early on. They didn”t have an issue of it being construed as a hoax (except for the issue about who the creators were). A reason? The content referred to a known fictional world: The Matrix universe. Terms such as ”metacortechs” etc are in The Matrix and so were picked up by Matrix fans almost immediately.

In-Content Clue: include ‘Unrealistic Statements of Truth’
In our comment discussion, Steve Peters mentioned that in the press release of Metacortechs, they described it as the world”s leading software company. This reminded me of Virgil Tatum in the ARG Art of the Heist being referred to as a ”master video game auteur”. So, another strategy is to include statements that are fairly easily identifed as being false.

But the point with the ”judgement” issue is that despite clues of unrealistic statements (and even production quality or bad scripting etc) that many people still won”t be able to tell the difference. If I ever doubt this phenomena, I just recall my step-sister who last year, at the age of 18, spent many sleepless nights after I gave her the Blair Witch Project book. It was a few days before I realised that she had no idea that the Blair Witch movie was a work of fiction and couldn”t tell that in the book either.

So, if one cannot rely on certain factors inside the content, then perhaps what ARG designers do outside of the core content is the better strategy?

Around Content Clue: Access Through Existing Fictional World
Most large-scale ARGs have made the link between the ARG and a work of fiction (whether already existing or forthcoming) explicit from the beginning: The Beast, I Love Bees, Dark Knight for instance, had an early link to the ARG through a film or game trailer or from the main film website. There were sites on the Internet but then it was predominantly the credit for a sentient therapist on the A.I.Artificial Intelligence trailer that brought most of the players in. The same with the trailer for I Love Bees, which had a quick flash a few times of at the end, and more recently with the trailer for The Host, in which the URL was listed after the words ”Monsters Are Real”. And as for Dark Knight. The first main fictional site was revealed on the main film site shortly after its launch on May 12th. Then on May 19th there were cards found in comic book stores etc. Also, the ReGenesis ERG had an entry-point into the game (the online tour of the fictional company) situated in the television show website. So, although there may be elements of the game out in various communities, there is a very short time between fictional content being discovered and there being an explicit link between a fictional property and it.

Around-Content Clues: Access-Restrictions to Fictional World
One of the techniques Xenophile Media does with their ReGenesis Extended Reality Games is to make all the fictional sites only accessible by players who have registered for the game. And as I said in the previous point, players enter the game via the television show site so the relationship is very clear in at least two ways.

Around-Content Clues: Access Through Players
What about ARGs that don”t want to announce an ARG is part of an existing fictional world at the beginning (which is what Weiler wanted to do with Hope is Missing)? Well, another way is to ensure that there are paratextual (that is: content external to the main work) announcing it as a work of fiction. So, if there is no explicit link between a product and property made then the designer has to rely on players and commentators. Since ARG communities are the most adept at judging if something is a work of fiction or not or perhaps more appropriately can identify ARG techniques being employed, and they are quite prolific in their experience of game then they would be a good pathway to the fictional content. But it doesn”t have to be ARG players. Metacortechs had Matrix communities providing that fiction-frame, and likewise Dark Knight had superhero communities. But once again, these are players of an existing fiction. If you”re going to launch an ARG that is not part of an existing fiction or don”t want to announce it until the end…well then ARG players I”d say are your best bet.

To show how these techniques can be used in combination, here is an example from Art of the Heist , which was commissioned to raise awareness (and sales) of the Audi A3 — and so did not have an existing fictional property (but had a product). Here is a chart of the rollout of the beginning of the ARG, based on data from McKinney-Silver’s official report video:

Now, as you can see they first put the ingame, story sites online, then major ad buys for ingame advertising of ‘art retrieval’ services and Virgil Tatum (‘master video game auteur’). And then it was announced in the ARG community and then the video of the fictional break-in and then the ‘official launch’ at the car show, and then the PM-created gameplay sites. So, firstly the fictional world is furnished across the web and newspapers and these ads target lots of different communities. The ads raise awareness and curiosity. Who is this person claiming to a ”master video game auteur”? So, for a short while there is open speculation about the nature of the artifacts but perhaps the inflated claims about Virgil Tatum serve as fictional cues for some people. Either way, the ARG community is aware of it and they are announcing it on their main blog and are discussing it in their game forum unfiction. Players start to create gameplay resources. Then there is a break-in video which in my mind is the beginning of the game (the event that starts the plot and gives the players a mission). A few days later attendees at the Auto show see a missing Audi because of the theft. This launches it officially to the greater community but the ARG community is already in play. Then there is a PM-created gameplay blog and a micro-site on Audi. So, people learn about and access the game through the ARG community, Audi, media coverage of the ”marketing” enacted by Audi, and the ARG designer-created gameplay resource. [Post-Post Addition: Co-designer of this ARG, Michael Monello, commented that the ARG designer-created gameplay resource (the blog) made it very clear it was a game. See his comments below.] Here we can see how all of these strategies work together.

Basically the point is that most ARGs seem to avoid falling into the hoax pit of deception in a number of ways. It is clear that there is often an early clue that it is a work of fiction within the content (eg: set in a fictional world), but due to issues of judgement it is perhaps better to rely on the path people take to an ARG, how they discover it. That is: accessing it through an existing fiction or through players. In many cases even the ARG community benefit from the fiction-paths that PMs create. So, as we can see, the belief that the TINAG philosophy means PMs take out all the clues to fictionality (which is something I argued for a while), is false. However, the cues to fictionality are in many cases outside the work, in paths created by PMs and players.