Launching Strategy: Birth Your Alternate Reality in an ARG Community

On January 19, 2008 by christy

One of the issues when creating an ”alternate reality game” is that it may receive negative backlash from being perceived as a ”hoax”. Alternate reality games (ARGs) if you recall, are (among other things) multi-platform works that remove any cues to its fictionality. So, if you put fake newsfootage online, there is no meta information around it explaining that it is a work of fiction. There are many examples of negative backlash due to confusion over the fictional status of a work, a recent example is LonelyGirl15. August last year I posted a short essay on Why ARGs Aren”t Hoaxes on my old blog (which I’ve moved to my personal site). The argument I put forward was that ARG creators actively encourage players to co-create the work of fiction with them and the resulting player-production that occurs (gameplay resources) then puts all the fictional cues back in. ARG creators take the cues to fictionality out while the players put it back in. This has worked well with many ARGs, except those that are not launched to the ARG community first.

ARGs that launch outside of the community often garner lots of media buzz, but for (I argue) the wrong reasons: people are discussing whether it is a hoax and how this makes them feel. In an interview at ARGNetcast, filmmaker Lance Weiler, reflected that the reason why his ARG to market the Warner Bros. VOD release of his film Head Trauma, Hope is Missing , faulted temporarily under this hoax accusation was because it was launched outside of the ARG community. Weiler will be on a forthcoming podcast here (talking about distribution techniques and so on), but for now I wanted to explain why I think ARGs launched outside the ARG community suffer from hoax issues.

As I discussed in my mini ARGs & Hoaxes essay, ARG players have a new media literacy of ”judgement”. I reconfigured this new media literacy posed in the new media literacies whitepaper ”Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” in the context of ARGs:

Judgment: players evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources (to discern whether the sources are part of a game, or discovered at the right time) through activities such as checking the date the website domain was registered, who the website was registered by, the depth in the archives and the links to and from the site and ingame references.

Recently, a longitudinal study ”Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future” conducted by CIBER research team at University College London has found that the ”Google Generation” (among other things) lack the skills to critically assess online information. This deficiency of judgement is due in part I believe to the lack of education in schooling. At many universities and secondary schools there is a ”no web” policy where teachers do not train students how to judge websites, they just forbid them from citing the web. One of the reasons why this policy is so rampant of course is because many of the educators don”t know how to judge websites either. But the inability to judge content (including its fictionality status) is a skill in itself. That is why many educators are excited about using ARGs — they (among other things) help teach such literacies.

Anyway, this phenomena explains in part the issue of a ”hoax” perception in some ARGs and reveals a strategy that can be used to circumvent it. Target those who have these judgement skills, wait until they create resources that frame the work, and let the ripple effect spill over into the non-ARG communities (with well timed efforts to raise awareness from yourself too). How practitioners target the ARG community will be the topic of another post…but in the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this issue comment away!

[26 JAN EDIT: This post seems to have been misinterpreted by some, so I’ve cleared up and developed the idea with Steve Peters and SpaceBass in the comments here and also in my follow-up post here].