Why ARGs Aren’t Hoaxes

The following is a short article originally published on 19 Aug 2007 at CME, but then moved here on 10 Nov, 2007.

As more and more people have become aware of ‘alternate reality games’ and their aesthetic of striving to be almost indistinguishable from real life, there has been some claims that ARGs are hoaxes. Although it is granted that there is a shared creative heritage in between ARGs and hoaxes, there is not a clear-cut parallel. This article argues that due to the distributed and collaborative nature of ARGs, they are not hoaxes. So what is a hoax? The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary describes a hoax as:

Humorous or malicious deception; a practical joke. Deceive (a person) with a hoax. [3rd ed, p 631]

While wikipedia says:

A hoax is an attempt to trick an audience into believing that something false is real. [wikipedia]

For the sake of pith, a hoax is one person or party attempting to deceive another person or party by presenting something false as real. Prima facie, the reality aesthetic employed in ARGs (and many other artforms) could be seen as a hoax. The aesthetic is specifically engineered to present something false as real. But the intention, I argue, is not to deceive.

In 2002 at the Game Developers Conference, Elan Lee, the VP of 42 Entertainment, presented on the creation of The Beast and how they engineered the ‘This is Not a Game’ design aesthetic. Lee introduced three rules:

1. Don’t tell anyone.
2. Don’t define a game space.
3. Don’t build a game.

The first, don’t tell anyone, instructs designers to keep the project secret from co-workers, family, friends and the media. This approach also, Lee explained, enables players to find what interests them, to take ownership of their discovery and to crave more information. For the second, don’t define a game space, Lee speaks about not confining the game to the computer – indeed, a single medium. Although Lee doesn’t discuss this, the fact that a ‘game’ exists across a number of mediums helps facilitate the belief that the fictional world is a real one. That is, in the past fictional worlds only existed in one medium, while real life exists in all. The third rule, don’t build a game, is described in part as follows:

“We are not building a game” became our mantra. We were building a page of real life. It had to look, smell, and taste real. Web pages had to appear to have been there forever, actors had to think of their actions and interactions as real events, and everything with the Microsoft name on it had to be tossed out the window.

We had to scour HTML source to ensure that nothing identifying was present. We had to register websites using fictitious names with functioning email addresses. We had to ensure that each website had a different look and feel so that no one would guess they were created by the same person. We had to register phone numbers in the area codes that matched their fictional locations.

All of these items can be bundled together under the directive to remove cues to fictionality. That is, all signs that indicate the project is a ‘game,’ like links to the producer, are removed. The look and feel of the sites was expanded later by pervasive game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal in her DAC paper:

Aesthetically, technologically and phenomenologically speaking, there was no difference at all between the look, function or accessibility of the in-game sites and non-game sites. [source]

In summary, The Beast was not announced anywhere (there was no ARG community at that point of course), it was indistinguishable from real world artifacts, the producers behind it were kept secret and it was distributed across media platforms. Why wasn’t The Beast considered a hoax? There were a few cues to its fictionality: the ‘game’ was launched surreptitiously through publicity for the fictional feature film A.I. Artificial Intelligence and the fictional setting of The Beast was part of the A.I. storyworld in an imaginary future. In addition, although the PMs did their best to ‘not build a game’ there were sites that were found before they were meant to and IP addresses deciphered to reveal other sites. In other words, the illusion wasn’t perfect and there were some players who had particular new media literacies that enabled them to critically analyse the construction.

ARG players are proficient in new media literacies, skills which are described in the New Media Literacies Whitepaper as:

  • Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
  • Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.
  • Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.

Although each one of the skills mentioned in this list can be exhibited in many media forms, there are particular ways in which these appear in the new media context. In ARGs, the skills can be elaborated as follows:

  • Collective Intelligence: players pool their knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal through their interactions on ARG community sites, gameplay resources (sites, wikis, forums, listservs) created by PMs but mostly by players.
  • 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.
  • Networking: players actively search for, synthesize and disseminate information through the internet primarily (sometimes libraries).

In other words, these skills facilitate players being able to discern a creative work that employs reality aesthetics from a hoax. This is why some educators are keen to employ ARGs to help teach students new media literacies. These abilities — to delve below the surface, to assess sites according to a critical awareness of websites in general, and to look beyond the game content — ensure there is no chance of a hoax. As McGonigal explains in her thesis The Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century:

The linked nature of the Internet, in general, makes it possible to seek corroborating evidence or corrective accounts. This is especially true as new tagging software and citation tools such as del.ici.ous, Bloglines Citations and Technorati emerge to help users track conversations about specific pieces of Internet content. And in a genre where players are encouraged to produce supporting content to share and keep track of the distributed, found evidence, the likelihood of a user discovering that a piece of game content is, in fact, part of the game increases dramatically. (thesis, p 330)

Another clue to the lack of hoax identity of ARGs is the fact that players do find faults in the construction and actively participate in repairing the faults. This is what McGonigal once again in her thesis calls ‘suturing the illusion’:

And rather than taking these gaps as opportunities to exit or to exploit the ludic network, the players choose to become co-conspirators in its active construction and maintenance. (thesis, p 332)

Most ARG players take this active, yet uninvited, role in maintaining the illusion by keeping the breaks in the illusion secret (from other players), by engineering ingame or diegetic solutions to faults in the plot, not speaking about the game on ingame sites with characters. Players, in other words, keep the game blissfully unaware that it is not real. This approach organically developed within the ARG community but has since been recommended as a rule of play by PMs such as Dave Szulborski:

ARG In-game Rule #3: Do not question the reality of the world or the game in in-game settings or with the game’s characters. Respect the curtain of “This is not a game” while playing an ARG. [Through the Rabbit Hole, p 42]

Ever since The Beast, however, players have also been actively invited to participate in the construction of the illusion. ARG player communities emerged during and in particular after The Beast. There are major differences in the role of players in the co-construction of the illusion in what could be described as before-communities (BC) and after-communities (AC). After communities such as ARGN.net and Unfiction.com emerged, most ARGs were announced and played through these sites. To keep the illusion that the fiction is real, and to facilitate player enjoyment, games are usually announced to players by players as if they have been stumbled upon.

Indeed, most people find out about ARGs through the player announcements and player-created content. The game sites are islands in many cases, they will not be found unless linked to. The majority (say 97%?) of ARG sites are visited through the links by players or media or through specific game-related searches. Indeed, this is just plain common sense: as websites are not simply stumbled upon out of the blue. If that did happen, companies would not be spending good money to be ‘findable’. In other words, they are visited in consequence of gameplay actions or descriptions about the game. PMs take out the fictional cues and the players put them back in. They are the ones that mediate the real world and fictional world.

In my opinion, it is when works do not require (indeed facilitate) the players/audience to take an active role in its reality construction that they exhibit characteristics of hoaxes. The only thing hoaxes require of people is to consume it as reality.

ARGs do not deceive, they delegate.

NB: I employ the term ‘reality aesthetic’ for the sake of shared understanding. There are many terms that have been employed to describe this phenomena or aspects of it, such as ‘immersive aesthetic’ and TINAG/TING (‘This is Not a Game’).