A Beginner's Guide to Alternate Reality Games

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In the credits on a poster for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. was a mysterious job title: "Sentient Machine Therapist - Jeanine Salla." Some curious folks did a web search for this woman and found themselves involved in a murder mystery that included messages hidden in movie trailers, bizarre websites, strange phone numbers, and angry emails from fictional people. It was all part of a revolutionary marketing scheme that has since become known as an Alternate Reality Game, or "ARG." While there are a few ARGs that weren't designed to market a new product, most are conceived to blur the line between our world and the fictional world of the movie, TV show, video game, record album or book that is being promoted. Some ARGs are purely online affairs, but the most exciting ones bleed over into the real world, providing players with a genuine adventure experience.

For example, in the ARG for The Dark Knight, a few lucky players visited participating bakeries and bought cakes that had been reserved for "Robin Banks." Written in the icing was a phone number. When the player dialed the number, a cell phone hidden inside the cake began to ring. As the campaign went on, these players received text messages, recorded voice messages, and were instructed to call numbers to gain further access to the game's many puzzles.

How do I get in the game?

This all sounds like a lot of fun, but getting in on Alternate Reality Games is not always easy. Often they are underground campaigns launched without a press release, adding to the intrigue and making players feel like they're in on a secret. Therefore, one of the first hurdles is finding what are called "trailheads"—websites that lead the player "down the rabbit hole" and into the ARG world.

Like the A.I. game, one of the most common ways to find ARGs is to look closely at promotional materials like posters or TV commercials to find repeated phrases or hidden messages. But it's much easier to let someone else do that and simply monitor sites where fans of the show, band or movie congregate. For example, it was on a Nine Inch Nails forum that a fan first told of finding a USB flash drive in the bathroom at a concert. On the drive was a new track from the band and a message to check out a special web address.

What if I get stuck?

Once you've found a trail, the game producers, or "puppetmasters," present puzzles that you will have to solve to reach the next level of the game. But figuring out each step is where things really start to get difficult. If you get stuck, you'll be happy to know there are websites dedicated to ARGs, including argn.com, despoiler.org, wikibruce.com, and unforum.net, where player groups, or "collective detectives," gather to hash out the latest riddles. This brings a wide variety of skills together to solve a common problem, forcing game producers to be more inventive in creating complex, exciting, and engaging puzzles.

What are some games going on right now?

1. topsecretconspiracy.com

If you head over to topsecretconspiracy.com, you'll see poorly made videos of aliens starting California wildfires, fake alien coins created by the U.S. Mint and video from a science fiction convention where fans are interviewed about the government's alien conspiracy. That all sounds like pretty typical stuff for a UFO site, right? But look closely at the paperbacks for sale at this sci-fi convention and you'll notice that the some of the book covers feature the stars of the upcoming animated film Monsters vs. Aliens. Did I mention that the website is owned by Pacific Data Images, which is part of Dreamworks Animation, the company behind the film?

2. The 39 Clues
A new ARG has emerged that's tied to a kids' book series, The 39 Clues. The books, written by some of the top names in young adult literature, include trading cards with unique identification numbers that readers can enter into an accompanying website and gain valuable clues to solve the mystery plot at the center of the 10-book series. To help young sleuths gather clues, additional trading cards are sold separately. With a $10,000 prize going to the first person to solve the mystery, even non-readers might pick up a book or two, which is never a bad thing.

3. Stop the International
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If you're interested in grand theatricals, Stop the International is a tie-in game for an upcoming film starring Clive Owen. Players can go to the website and enter the serial number of any paper money in their pockets to learn the bill's sordid history in the hands of international drug dealers and money launderers. But by following clues on the site, some players have already met with real people in public places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where the mysterious contact tells them the hidden location of special $2 bills whose serial numbers lead to a special section of the website. It's rumored the game is being run by 42 Entertainment, the puppetmasters behind many influential ARGs (including the Dark Knight game), so if you want to get in on a major ARG, this might be the one.

4. Coraline
As mentioned before, most ARGs are released with barely a whisper. Other times, though, they'll start with a bang. Such is the case with an ARG surrounding the soon-to-be-released film Coraline. The stop-motion film from the people who brought you The Nightmare Before Christmas is coming to theaters this February, but the marketing campaign recently began with the delivery of gorgeous handmade boxes to various people around the world. Inside each box are items that look like they belong in the world of the haunting film, as well as an old fashioned key with a small note attached by a string. By visiting the movie's official website and typing in the keyphrase written on the note, players are able to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film. Fifty of these boxes are being sent out and the passwords are being collected at various ARG sites, most notably Evil Buttons.

5. Traces of Hope
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For the most part, ARGs are all fun and games, but "Traces of Hope" is an ARG designed by the British Red Cross that is hoping to change that. While the game is fun, it's also meant to shed some light on the real-life struggles of those in war-torn regions of the world. You play the role of humanitarian Alan Hackston as he attempts to help Joseph—a survivor of war in Northern Uganda who is wandering around a Red Cross refugee camp in search of his mother. He has been given a satellite phone that you can use to track his location around the camp and direct him to various Red Cross services. Many interactions with Joseph are handled via an instant messenger feature, but you will also receive emails and video messages, and you can visit websites like LinkedIn and Flickr to gain additional information to aid him in his quest. It's a game with a message and might very well be the next stage in the evolution of the ARG.

6. StreetWars
If the notion of hidden messages on movie posters and cell phones planted in cakes is all just a little too unrealistic for you, StreetWars is a slightly different take on ARGs. Rather than play the game online, it gives people the chance to live out their wildest dreams as hired assassins stalking their prey through the streets of New York, London, San Franciso, and a handful of other cities worldwide. Once a person has joined the game they are given an envelope containing a photo and contact information for their target. From there, the assassins begin the hunt, "killing" one another with a blast from water pistols, usually when the target least expects it. As hitmen make their kills, they take on the intended targets of their victims, narrowing down the playing field until only one assassin remains. And that's when the big guns come in "“ the masterminds of the StreetWars game come to town and attempt to take out the last man standing. The next game starts in June.
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While ARGs are undoubtedly an exciting new tool in a marketing company's bag o' tricks, many question if the advertising message is really getting through to the consumer, or if this is all just a waste of resources that could better be used on other, more effective media outlets. Only time will tell the viability of ARGs. But for now, get involved and have some fun playing in another world for a little while.

Rob Lammle is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. You can read more of his work on his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.

January 9, 2009 - 10:08am
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