Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are shared social games that use digital media and social networking to involve players in collaborative plot development and problem solving.
The designers aka Puppetmasters behind 'modern ARGs' typically use Internet and handheld technologies, amongst others, to shape, seed and elaborate a task-focused social narrative set in the real world. Players are given pieces of an overall story arc and encouraged to form onlineand situated communities dedicated to putting all of the pieces together to 'solve' the game.
An ARG's designers build an investigative narrative through 'distributed media', includingvideo, audio, animation, print ads, billboards, phone calls, texts and/ or email. Some of the media will often be geographically and chronologically dispersed, making it necessary for players to collaborate across great distances and through on-going participation in a game's community.
ARGs generally start with a 'Rabbit Hole' aka 'Trailhead', which takes the form of a fairly obvious entry point made available through a website or advertisement. The game has no fixed rules and operates much like a 'sandbox' or 'freeform' tabletop RPG, where a Gamesmaster (GM) offers a narrative framework and a series of adventure 'seeds', which players then use to build a shared narrative as they explore the game world.
Unlike tabletop RPGs, ARGs don't usually involve taking the role of a fictional character and the rules, boundaries and interactions follow a 'This Is Not A Game' (TINAG) model, i.e. thegame is an alternate reality embedded in reality, the rules and boundaries are flexible and the game is made real through player interactions.
In keeping with TINAG, a game's characters, websites, phone numbers and other in-game events are all expected to operate authentically. For example, an advertisement showing a phone number should allow players to dial a real number with information that contributes to the game.
The first Internet based ARG, Dreadnot (1996), featured multiple websites, character voice and email addresses, clues buried in the sites' code, real locations, real people and a mystery waiting to be solved. The Beast (2001) showed how successful the medium could be, with 3,000,000 participants from a wide range of backgrounds taking part in a 3 month murder mystery involving almost equal numbers of male and female players. Thereafter, ARGs became the 'darlings' of corporate viral marketing, with ARG campaigns being used to sell cars, videogames and movies.
The common feature set of most recent ARGs includes storytelling as forensic investigation, platform independence, designing for social collectives, 'white space' narratives, real life as a medium, TINAG, 'whispering' over 'shouting', (to gain greater exposure), and authenticity branding to define game boundaries.
Inevitably, there have to be some concerns about the exploitation of ARGs by corporate entities, as players are being enticed into a 'living, breathing' advertisement that turns them into viral marketeers. In addition, the core values and feature sets found in ARGs are, very often, at odds with the actions and ethos of the companies behind many recent ARGs.
Nevertheless, not all ARGs are corporate led or driven and the medium as a whole pre-dates both the Internet and mobile phones. ARGs have been around for a long time and can easily be traced back to childhood Treasure Hunts and the outdoor 'Wide Games' run by youth organisations. Two of the leading resources for ARGs are found HERE and HERE.