Six to Start

Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG

Warning: this post contains explicit language.

Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG

This is a re-version of a talk I gave at the Let's Change the Game conference held on Friday 5 December 2008. It was a very casual, irreverent talk, but one that I hoped would bring some light relief to the day as well as (possibly in a rather confrontational manner) highlight some of the current problems - as I perceive them - with this whole "alternate reality game" business.

Unfortunately there isn't a recording of the talk, so what I've done is taken my slides and interspersed them with expanded commentary from my rather haphazard speakers notes. This should give you a flavour of what I presented on the day.

The Taboos

I wanted to open with a reminder of what I was supposed to be talking about:

The taboos of alternate reality games - the number of people playing, the types of people playing and the degree of immersion and ask: where did it all go wrong? (and, hopefully, have some pointers as to how to put the world to rights).

which admittedly was written in rather a hurry. And in no way was I honing (writing) my slides during the talks earlier on in the day. I mean: I did have a pretty good outline of what I wanted to talk about, and had a good idea of the tone I wanted to strike, too. There are, it seems to me, a number of differing interpretations as to what an ARG is, exactly, and that makes them quite easy to attack. If you don't know what something is, it's quite easy for it not to have lived up to your expectations.

Predictably, I also had some glib advice I wanted to impart, too.

Some Caveats

This is where I wanted to really set the tone:

List of Caveats

This talk was none of the above things. It wasn't researched. It wasn't objective, and it certainly wasn't inoffensive. I'm pretty sure that I set out deliberately to say things that others might not have wanted said.

Part of the reason for me wanting to style the talk in a somewhat offensive or expletive-laden honest manner was because of this chap:

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

Digression: Charlie Brooker writes the Screen Burn column in the Guardian, presents and produces Screenwipe on BBC 4 and also wrote Dead Set. He is horrifically talented and also quite rude. Also, since TVGoHome he's been one of my heroes, and with this slide I was trying to point out that the whole talk was effectively a homage to his style of ranting.

So. Who here's actually designed an ARG?

A smattering of hands go up. I'm actually quite impressed and pleased - there've been a number of talks earlier on in the day that have been about ARGish experiments in teaching and learning, and they've generally produced findings that were new to me.


Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

We all suck. We suck because of these reasons - no matter whether they're actually true or not:

Don't have enough players

Our games never have enough players - no matter who you ask. This is probably because there's some sort of horrific disconnect between the people asking the question, or making the assertion, that ARGs don't have enough players. Witness: lots of people knew about Perplex City, but not "enough" people played Perplex City (compared to, say, watching Doctor Who on primetime television on a Saturday night in the UK. Or, if you're American, watching Heroes on NBC). The "not enough players" is frequently something that's brought up by broadcasters or advertisers - organisations or bodies that are used to, effectively, spamming a whole bunch of people with more or less the same content, whether that's a tv show or movie or billboard.

The people who play are weird

Or: they're not "mainstream". They're the kind of people who, well, play ARGs. They live in their parents' basement and don't ever see sunlight. Also, they're probably geeks. They are not people who dress in white and are smiley and play sports games on the Wii together like a proper nuclear family.

The people who play have no money

So what's the point in advertising to them? I mean, they're weird, right?

They're not mainstream

See above. I'm basically making the same point here again, but imagine if I used the word "niche" and sneered at you.

We make games for the hardcore

What the fuck kind of "normal person" (see: sneering) wants to de-steg a jpeg, or write a distributed brute force attacker against military grade encryption? Jesus. Whatever happened to the kind of people who like playing Singstar? Or, you know, Snake?

We're too expensive

TV shows are expensive to make. Movies are expensive to make. ARGs should be cheap. Don't come near me with your minimum six figure budget ever again, you charlatan. I mean, they're just a bunch of websites, right? Can't you do that on Geocities?

We don't scale

It's fine sending a cake to twenty people. You just try sending a cake to twenty thousand people though. Or twenty million.

We lie

What's all this "This is not a game" shit we have to put up with? Novels frequently comprise made-up stories. We don't really think all fiction ACTUALLY HAPPENED, do we? Aren't we more intelligent than that? So why do we resort to tricks and stunts to get people to play our games? Can't we just say that they are what they are - and have people play them? If we carried through the THIS IS NOT A GAME mentality and required it to be an attribute of every alternate reality game - whatever that is - we'd end up with the Blair Witch Project every single time. And if movies had to carry the characteristics of one of their number across the entire genre, they'd be stuffed, too. 

An Apology

So now that I've insulted everyone who's paid to come here, I'd like to start with an apology. 

An Apology

When Adrian kicked off today, he told a nice story about one of the speakers who was excited about presenting today - this was going to be the first talk he'd done where he wouldn't have to "explain what an ARG was". This being a conference about ARGs, you'd be pleased to know that no one was going to have to do the whole "this is what an ARG is" thing.

Well, tough luck. I'm going to define an ARG and tell you what one is. I'm going to make this easy and break the phrase "alternate reality game" into smaller chunks so everyone can follow me.

Alternate Reality

"Alternate Reality."

What the fuck?

Picture, if you will, this alternate reality. It's the early nineteenth century. Our protagonist, Ms. Bennet, is in want of a good husband, preferably one with a good fortune. 

This isn't an alternate reality. We have a word for this. For this sort of "made up world" with "made up people". It's called fiction:

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

See? FICTION. This is what Merriam Webster has to say about fiction:

something invented by the imagination or feigned ; specifically : an invented story b: fictitious literature (as novels or short stories) c: a work of fiction ; especially : novel

See, when people say that alternate reality games, which have this really silly pirate sound like ARG, are geeky, it might have something to do with the fact that we've used the phrase "alternate reality" to describe what the rest of the world understands as "made up world and character", which apparently is "fiction".

Now I understand that the distinction that we may be trying to make is that an "alternate reality" implies multiple media, but the word fiction doesn't imply only one medium anyway. 

Look. Let me make this even easier:

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

Here's the definition for the word story. Do you see what I'm getting at here? The Beast, Perplex City, Art of the Heist, Project Mu, Who is Benjamin Stove, The Lost Experience, ilovebees. They've got characters. They're set in worlds. Most, if not all, of those worlds and characters aren't real. Some of them have involved "real" characters or settings. But they're, on the whole, made up. They are, to a large degree, stories.

That's that sorted then. No more "alternate reality" bullshit. We can use the word "fiction" or "story" instead, so normal people can understand us.


Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

Ah, yes. "Game". We all know what a game is, right?

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

See, there's World of Warcraft. Which, although not entirely a game, has game-like bits in it. When it's not being an evil addiction engine. I mostly just wanted to show a picture of my guild. See, there's our commissioning editor.

Just in case you don't know what a "game" is, I've looked it up for you.

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

Here's what Merriam Webster has to say about "game":

1 a (1): activity engaged in for diversion or amusement : play (2): the equipment for a game b: often derisive or mocking jesting : fun , sport <make game of a nervous player> 2 a: a procedure or strategy for gaining an end : tactic b: an illegal or shady scheme or maneuver :racket 3 a (1): a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other (2): a division of a larger contest (3): the number of points necessary to win (4):points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest (5): the manner of playing in a contest (6): the set of rules governing a game (7): a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport <a football team's kicking game> bplural : organized athletics (1): a field of gainful activity : line <the newspaper game> (2): any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle <the dating game> <the game of politics> ; also : the course or period of such an activity <got into aviation early in the game> (3): area of expertise : specialty 3<comedy is not my game> 4 a (1): animals under pursuit or taken in hunting ; especially : wild animals hunted for sport or food (2):the flesh of game animals barchaic : pluck c: a target or object especially of ridicule or attack —often used in the phrase fair game

I'd like to point out a few things here.

One is the appearance of the word "play" in the first definition, as well as the word "amusement".

The second is that an alternate reality game where the game are wild animals hunted for sport or food would be totally awesome and is on my list of Next Things to Make.

Anyway. Here's a slide to show you what "play" is if you don't understand the English language:

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

and here's what my computer's dictionary has to say about the word "play":

[ intrans. engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose the children were playing outside her friends wereplaying with their dolls.• [ trans. engage in (a game or activity) for enjoyment I want to play Monopoly.• amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense the boys were playing cops and robbers.

In case you can't get what I'm driving at, the key words there were:

  • enjoyment; and 
  • recreation

This strikes me as meaning, more or less, that the phrase "alternate reality game", as we had like this:

Charlie Brooker screencap from Screenwipe

actually means "story game". As in: thing that tells a story and a game.

Look. Let me make this even easier:


ARGs as a Label

Adam Martin posted to the ARG-SIG mailing list, which is a mailing list for people who every so often have an argument about what "ARG" means, that perhaps the word ARG is now just a label and in fact means "story game". Now, I've been to college with Adam and then worked with him at a startup and while he says many things, this is possibly one of the best things he's ever said and is probably something I'd kiss him for. ARGs are just things that you can play and that tell stories.

ARG doesn't mean anything.

ARGs as a Label

Story Games. See? Now let's look at the first bit of that phrase.

ARGs as a Label

I'm going to give you three principles of good storytelling. You should believe what I say here, because I have absolutely no experience in terms of telling good stories, but everything in terms of experiencing them. I have, for example, all of the Pixar DVDs in my collection at home, so I must know what I'm talking about. Speaking of which:

ARGs as a Label

This is an excerpt of the script for WALL•E, the latest Disney/Pixar movie. It tells the story of... oh, forget about it. It's one of the finest movies ever made. Watch this, and then despair, because you have to tell stories as good as this. 

ARGs as a Label

This leads to Clue #1. Clue #1 is: "Tell a good story, in the context of all storytelling." Stories in videogames are shit. I don't care if you have anything you're going to try and use to protest that assertion to me: you're wrong. BioShock is a wonderful game. In the grand canon of all storytelling in the entire universe, ever, it's in the long tail of mediocrity. I don't care if it's supposed to make you cry or anything - crying isn't by any means the only way to judge whether a story's good or not. 

The reason why I bring this up is because Adrian was telling me about a panel he was on earlier this month at Channel 4 - here, in fact - when he was putting forward his equally valid assertion that all stories in games have, thus far, been shit. I happen to agree with him. A videogame writer who was on the panel with him disagreed, and put forward the example of Grand Theft Auto IV. Adrian wisely disagreed, pointing out that if you compare Grand Theft Auto IV to, say, The Godfather, purely in narrative/storytelling terms, the latter trumps the former in much the same way as you'd be shocked by waking up next to a dead horse's head. GTA IV may well have a good story with respect to other videogames, but again: in the context of everything, ever, it's not that good. Games can, and should, be better at telling stories. 

Clue #1 means that you should all try much, much harder. Sean Stewart and Elan Lee make fricking awesome games with awesome stories because, in part, Sean Stewart is a fricking awesome author. At work, we say that we can teach a good storyteller about games, but we can't teach someone who's a crap storyteller how to write. Get a good writer, or give up.

ARGs as a Label

Clue #2 is "Less is more" which I kind of forgot how to expand upon during the talk, but in essence, means this: I don't want to have to read your blog posts.

It's very easy to write. It's very hard to cut down and edit. It's very easy to write lots of nonsensical blog entries, God knows I see enough every day on the interwebs. That's without even trying to tell a story. Pare down what you need to tell a story. Watch Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe on television writing, it's on iPlayer or, on certain sites of dubious virtue. Tell a story using the minimum that you need and don't subscribe to bloggorhea. This applies to both text and A/V content. Your audience just doesn't have the time to wade through that stuff. 

ARGs as a Label

Clue #3 is "The internet is not video". If I see another broadcaster or, well, anyone, proclaim that the future of entertainment is something like Lonelygirl or KateModern or some other tv show on the web, I'll kill a broadcaster, thus in the long run doing something concrete to deal with my rage. The internet can do much more than video. I've already ranted about this before. What's interesting about the internet - one of the interesting things - is that it allowed content creators to end-run around big, expensive distribution platforms. They used things like YouTube. Video is not the only thing that you can do. End of. 

That's my three clues. Next?

ARGs as a Label

Oh yes. The Game part of Story Game. Here's my number one point.

ARGs as a Label

Games are supposed to be FUN. Jesus Christ, when did ARGs stop being fun?

ARGs as a Label

To help with this, I have formulated a suggestion for you all to take in before you leave and start making even more ARGs:

ARGs as a Label

Please, no more of this shit:  

  • viewing source code
  • "de-stegging" (which, to be honest, sounds a bit like tea-bagging, and you don't want to know what that means if you don't already know)
  • waiting for stuff to happen
  • breaking codes
  • breaking more codes
  • making use of esoteric knowledge (for no apparent reason)
  • viewing more source code 
  • solving stupid puzzles (for no apparent reason)
  • (encouraging me to) buy stock in UV torch companies (because of above stupid puzzles and esoteric codes)
  • more waiting; and importantly
  • not telling me what to do
Now, it's not that I don't want to be told what to do. It's that I want to have some sort of semblance, an idea, the merest hint of a suggestion, as to what I should do next. This is what we in the industry call 'good game design', and it involves not putting a bunch of random puzzles online and hoping that interwebnauts will figure it all out in the end, because, OH MY GOD, that's not fun.
Instead, I would like more of this:

ARGs as a Label

  • short, snappy, fun gameplay (which may be entirely appropriate in the context of a longer, less snappy and more involved arc)
  • stuff like what 42 Entertainment did with Last Call Poker: which was embed the game of Poker, something a sizeable proportion of the normal human populace understands, into a game that not many people understood
  • stuff like what Jane McGonigal did with The Lost Sport, which was create a playground game that anyone, anywhere, could play, any when. Ignore all the rest of the stuff for The Lost Ring like the amnesiac sportspeople, that's just a red herring. Ignore the blog network too, that was just a diversion. And the classy, expensive trailer video. Just concentrate on the game. You know, the fun bit.
  • Oh, playtesting. That's good. Because, you know, you're making a game. So test it. Just like you'd test your user interface.
  • use proper game design. That means thinking and not going "Well, I guess if we just ROT-13 this piece of text, then it'll be fun!"
  • make your games repeatable. A non-repeatable live ARG (ie one that starts at one time, runs for a period of time, and then finishes and is only really playable while it's live) is the equivalent of investing a sizeable proportion of money on a big budget prime-time tv show that you demand everyone watch at the same time and can't record to watch later. In the world of I WANT EVERYTHING NOW, that's known as Being Stupid.
  • Oh, and be social. You know, with your friends.

ARGs as a Label

So we've come to the startling conclusion that we make games, which are fun, and that people can play, and we tell stories, which are less fun, but can move people and encourage people to do things. Like games. Anyway, it's not that complicated. Or is it? 

I'm going to have to go into some science now.

ARGs as a Label

Calm down now, it's not a shampoo commercial. 

Look, here's the first chart.

It's a chart of a pie chart, and how much of the pie chart resembles Pac Man. Some of you may have seen it before, but then again, some of you probably haven't, and I'm the last talk of the day, so I've got to wake you up.

Okay, here's the real chart:

It's quite simple. On your X-axis, on the left hand side you've got things which are very game-like, like, say, Gears of War 2, and to the right you've got things which are more story-like. You know, like books. On the Y-axis, you've got at the bottom "hardly anyone", also known as "nobody" which is a relative term, really, and "everybody" which is also relative and depends on who you're talking to. For some people, "everybody" is probably "Big Brother on eviction night" if you're Channel 4 or "the number of people who bought a Harry Potter book" if you're JK Rowling or "the number of people who secretly went to see Titanic or Mamma Mia" if you're in the business of throwing shapes onto walls.

Now, here's some of the projects that we've worked on superimposed onto the graph. We've got Young Bond, which was more game-y than We Tell Stories, both of which probably got more people to "play" then Perplex City, but to be honest, I just made up all the numbers and placed the graphics on the graph more or less at whim so you got the general idea. Now, Alice has already talked about what she hopes us to do next year for the Channel 4 ARG, and on the next slide, I show where we're aiming for:

It's Magical Pony Unicorn Land, which is smack bang in the middle of "story" and "game" as well as right up there with "everybody in the whole world playing" or "the number of people who watched the X-Factor Finale". So no pressure then.

Ah. I said I'd have one more thing.

Here it is:

No more of this, please:

  • This is not a sodding game: by which I mean the ludicrous assumption that every ARG has to pretend that it isn't an ARG and that it might really be happening and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CAN'T YOU PEOPLE JUST ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS ARE JUST MADE UP. You know, if we could say a game was a game then we might have a better time promoting it because people would know what they were getting. 
  • Lazy calls to action, by which I mean:
  • helping a teenage girl;
  • helping an attractive teenage girl;
  • helping an attractive amnesiac teenage girl;
  • helping attractive amnesiac teenage girls;
  • "the fucking order" or, "some secret society" or anything to do with the Illuminati or any of that crap;
  • more fucking countdowns: you're trying to get people who have relatively short attention spans online and you want them to wait? And you're going to remind them?
  • treasure hunts: oh, I'll smack the next person who proposes a treasure hunt and thinks it will make people play
  • millions of blog entries: that no one will read apart from five people
  • jumping through fucking hoops: by which I mean
  • masturbatory platform excitement
What's that, you say? Masturbatory platform excitement? Oh, that's this:

  • seeing an intriguing movie credit that leads you to
  • an intriguing website that leads you to
  • an email address that leads you to
  • an autoresponder that leads you to 
  • a phone number that leads you to
  • a voicemail that leads you to
  • a physical address that leads you to
  • a secret note that leads you to
  • another intriguing website that leads you to
  • a secret code that leads you to...
Enough already. This was interesting and new when it was, well, interesting and new. But it's not. It was fine when The Beast did it, but now a certain portion of your audience is used to stuff like that, and secondly: stop doing it because you can do it! Do it because it makes the game better and the story better! Just because you can splurge over as many platforms as you want isn't a reason or an excuse to. It'll make your game worse. Use platforms when they make sense and use them naturally. In short?


NO. Don't do it.

Please stop.

Okay, last suggestion and then we can all go to the pub. This, I promise, is actually some interesting and relevant advice:

Time to Decide

Do you want a game that's going to get lots of eyeballs, or lots of engagement? Those two things may well require two different and mutually exclusive optimisation strategies. Engagement requires something that's more game-like. Things you can get people to do. Viewers may mean more stunts, and more shallow interaction. Bluntly: are you creating a marketing campaign that people will talk about, but not necessarily large numbers of people will play, or are you creating a game that you do want lots of people to play. And lastly, do you actually need a really big story?

The End

That's it. The End. Happy Holidays!