Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ARGs ---> ARGHs

Just read "Through the Rabbit Hole" the "rulebook" for playing ARGs ("Alternate Reality Games"). I finished it and walked away knowing, uh, not much. Honestly, the book was fine, and for the uninitiated I can see how it would be helpful. Really though, I think creating a "rulebook" misses the ENTIRE point of an ARG(more on that later).

First off, the name "Alternate Reality Game" is redundant. A game is already an alternate reality, that is a central component of what it is to be a game!

From "Rules of Play" by Sales and Zimmerman: "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome."

"system" and "artificial conflict" that adds up to an alternate reality in my book. What is a reality but a set of rules that we all live by (physics).

Then, are ARG's games even? According to Szulborski from "Through the Rabbit Hole": "Many ARG endings don't have the feeling of finality and sense of completeness that most traditional video games do. On other words, there is no blatant "Game Over" message. In some cases, because ARGs try to mimic life so closely, players aren't even sure if a game has ended or not"

So, the game requirement of "a quantifiable outcome" is missing too.

Maybe I am being too tough on ARG's, so far I have just insulted the name, that isn't fair. The truth is ARG's do have the characteristics of game play, but I think they actually fit the category of "puzzle" much better. Puzzles, again according to Sales and Zimmerman, are a subset of games with absolute correct answers created by the game designer. And in ARG's we clearly see how there are "correct" answers embedded at every step which are crafted by the "puppet masters." So much of what goes on in ARG's is solving word puzzles.

Finally, what is the motivation in creating a "rulebook" of ARG's? ARG's belong to a set of puzzles where the rules are unknown. In creating an ARG the creators decide how much instruction to give, they decide how well defined the rules are. Then an integral part of the puzzle(and often the most interesting part) is figuring out the rules of the puzzle! The fun of an ARG is being immersed in the unknown. It is getting into the mind of the creator. It is in the thinking "if I were to have created a puzzle like this, what might I have done..." It is the process of creating a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis. It allows the player to approach an unknown system(alternate reality) like a scientist approaches our well-known system(reality). Throw the rulebook out! I know if I were to create an ARG I would look at the rule book and deliberately try to break every "rule." So, you can be sure that the next "puppet master" will too.

If ARG is a poor name, what is an appropriate name for what this is? I would go with: Trans-media Puzzle or even better: mystery hunt.


  1. I definitely see whe you're coming from, as I would love for ARGs to have a stronger element of physicality. They exist in our physical world, after all.
    The problem with disqualifying a vague end state as not being a game is that that is more of the classical game model than a comprehensive definition of games: WOW is a game, but it looks like that will never have an end point. That said, I hadn't considered how vague the term ARG really is.
    Here's what I'm thinking when we talk about them being puzzles and that being something different from games: all games are puzzles. Mario is a puzzle of physics, COD is a puzzle solved through shooting, etc. They're all puzzles.
    What makes a game a game is that it is also a state machine. A puzzle only has two states: complete/incomplete. An ARG has a changing state, and solving puzzles changes that state. A lot of where this thinking is coming from, by the way, is the Juul book

  2. It seems there is a strong connection between the words "puzzle" and "game state". Game states are often puzzles, right? when are game states considered puzzles and when aren't they?

  3. "The fun of an ARG is being immersed in the unknown. It is getting into the mind of the creator. It is in the thinking 'if I were to have created a puzzle like this, what might I have done...'"

    I have been trying to figure out what makes ARG's so fascinating to me for quite a few months now. I think when you say "immersed in the unknown" you hit on the primary reason why it is interesting to be involved in an ARG; the unknown evolves outside of content and begins to infect form. I think this is where my theory on why ARG's are captivating has taken me; into form. The content of the puzzle itself and even the narrative (though narrative helps create that tension between reality/fiction) is not the driving force for engagement. Instead, an ARG captivates by blending its devices (narrative/puzzles/game states) with the normal/real tools or elements of communication a person uses and associate's with OUTSIDE of games. In other words, I feel like the true "definition" of an ARG is any game that uses a non-game platform or apparatus to fool the player into its web of "alternate reality." Therefore, that's why TINAG exists as a term, because if the ARG tells its players this IS a game why bother even non-game apparatus as platform for gaming?

    In short, I think I'm attempting to show how ARG's engage the player, and that they do it by way of creating an "alternate reality" by using the apparatus reserved for non-game-like situations or communication. As far as a "rulebook," I think the author does poor job of explaining WHY he is writing the book. When I read "rulebook" I cringed too. I do think the book, like you said, is a necessary part of the discourse surrounding ARG's and definitely a good start for anyone who has NO CLUE as to what one is. As far as theorizing the ARG...I don't think its quite the right book for that. In its defense, I don't think its trying to be either.

  4. I understand what you are saying Jordan, about the true definition of an ARG being in "fooling" the player. I wonder if "fooling" is the right word though... When I talk of being fooled it is involuntary, I don't choose to be fooled. The ARG really isn't fooling the player into the alternate reality is it? that would be dangerous. I think the best example of a "real" arg I could imagine is explored in the movie eXenstense, and the scary possibilities are really interesting. So, I don't think "fooled" is the right word, but I struggle for a better one.

  5. I totally agree that fool might be a dangerous term to use, especially because you are attempting to resolve the problem of player intent. Of course, a player eventually figures out that they are involved in a game of sorts, but that mystery to invoke the suspension of disbelief must be incredibly strong. The ARG I have been working on this year has struggled with this exact problem. Without the rabbithole mechanics, its almost impossible to theorize why a person would want to "play" the core game experience. I think one of my favorite popularized ARG's would have to be Year Zero.

  6. Thanks for the link Jordan. I actually would be interested to talk to you in person about the experience of playing the game. What kind of puzzles did you encounter and how "addicted" did you get. Also, the knowledge or possibility that the game is designed to lead you to purchase something, does that bother you? If the player is "fooled" or willing to suspend disbelief, does that make them more likely to buy a product at the end? Do you feel when playing that you are more vulnerable to manipulation in this way? I think the reason I like the Mystery Hunt, what I have argued is a real world ARG, is that I know it is a pure game with no other goal than being an amazing game. The awe I feel in playing it is that of being in the mind of a person that is making a puzzle(game) for the pure joy of it.

  7. [my post timed out and I didn't save it in word, so here's the short and sweet version]
    I felt similarly while reading "Through the Rabbit Hole." It seemed like most of the rules that were discussed would be more properly labeled as "codes of conduct" for ARGs, since the whole message of the rules can be summed up as "don't be an ass and ruin the game." I would have liked to see some rules that were truly unique to ARGs, and not just rules that can be applicable to other games as well.
    As for the name "Alternate Reality Game," I'm hesitant to even call them games. Although there is puzzle-solving combined with a narrative, it seems less like a game and more like a massive community-based interactive story. Sort of like a modern version of "choose your own adventure" books. It also feels like the word "play" is less appropriate than the word "follow", since most ARGs I've learned of involve following updates about a story.

  8. Thanks for the reply Alex. It is funny, you say you wouldn't call it a game(and I was agreeing), but then I heard your description "puzzle-solving combined with a narrative" and it totally sounds like a definition of what a game is. Like Brandon and I were saying earlier "game states" are often puzzles, and a series of game states is what makes a game. Maybe that is part of the fun of an ARG, since they straddle the line between narrative (follow instead of play) they can attract players(followers) that are more interested in the narrative aspect of games than the interactive aspect of them...

  9. You mentioned that you recently ordered the James P. Carse book FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES. This book draws a distinction between finite and infinite games... finite games play within boundaries; infinite games play *with* boundaries. Finite games play by the rules; infinite games play *with* the rules... Your description of ARGs as having no clear ending doesn't bother me so much after reading Carse... When I first came across the ARG, I wish I had this Szulkorski book to orient me to the concept... It took a while to wrap my head around the concept.