The Shifting Paradigms of Alternate Reality Gaming

Russian Spy (image by borderlys, Flickr, CC)The phone rings late one evening.  You answer it to hear the voice of a woman in distress: ‘I can’t keep this up any longer, they’re getting too close to the truth!’.  She hangs up suddenly, but not before leaving you with a cryptic clue – a password to some online network that she had managed to get a hold of.  Your next move, should you choose to take it, is to log onto that network and download the encrypted data hidden within.

But did you cover your tracks with an appropriate proxy, or just leave your home IP address open for the investigators to find you?  Unfortunately you didn’t cover your tracks well enough, and you receive a message to your Facebook account from a Russian femme-fatale asking you to return the data immediately or face the consequences.  You smile with glee at this latest twist in the world of subterfuge you are experiencing.  Because, you see, this isn’t an experience with real-life consequences of jail terms or physical danger – this is the world of Alternate Reality Gaming.

Alternate Reality Gaming is a phenomena that has been around in one form or another for the better part of 15 years.  The concept is remarkably simple, and yet impossible to pin down – an experience that transcends one single medium, blurring the lines between reality and fiction and in the best of cases leaving you questioning your own actions, motivations, and perception of everyday life.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) run the whole gamut from corporate marketing exercises; to intricate science-fiction delivered over multiple formats; to initiation-like experiences intended to have an impact on the very core of your being.  For the most part they are entertainment, but entertainment in which all of those participating have made a mutual pact to pretend that it is real and to act accordingly.

Emerging predominately out of the mid-1990s, ARGs are about to reach a new crescendo of popularity and public recognition.  With the emergence of social media ubiquity, the ARG experience has been enhanced quite considerably; and as we approach a more mainstream acceptance of technology such as augmented reality the possibilities for this reality-blurring form of entertainment are quite staggering.  Pretty soon the line between what is physically real and what is part of the collective hive consciousness will become so fuzzy that the time will be perfect for these all-encompassing entertainment experiences.

Spy vs Spy (image by Tony the Misfit, Flickr, CC)Where previously those running an ARG might be cheeky enough to put up a few graffiti stencils on a tube station to help bring the game into your world; or direct you to meet a shady stranger in a car park who gives you your next clue; now they will be able to quite literally paint an alternate reality over the top of the world you see around you.  A world only available to those participating in the experience, whereby through the use of your camera phone (or, in the more distant future, your augmented glasses) you will have access to a living and breathing conspiracy theory, murder mystery, or other such game of urban cat-and-mouse.

To be honest, I can’t wait – and it is something that I’ve started looking into in much more depth recently as I really do believe it will become a major form of emergent entertainment over the coming decades.  With this enthusiasm, however, also comes some very serious reservations (this is Future Conscience after-all!).  Serious enough that I think it is worth discussing very openly, and hopefully some active members of the ARG community will drop by and leave some thoughts to help enlighten us.  The reservations I have primarily revolve around two things: police intervention and the possibility of gross (and possibly militant/violent) participant manipulation.

Let me give an example to help you see where I am coming from.  In Melbourne, Australia about 5 or 6 years ago there appeared a number of billboards that simply stated ‘Get Out of Your Mind’.  That was it, no further information other than a website address.  Upon further investigation, there was some kind of registration process – but one that did not indicate in any manner just what you were signing up for.  It turns out that Neurocam was a kind of hybrid ARG, art-project and spiritual experiment.

Neurocam billboardThe whole purpose of it was to feel like you had joined a mysterious and secret organisation, an organisation which instructed you to perform various operations and report back to them.  It was a fascinating concept, and it certainly proved popular (if you do a Google search for ‘Neurocam’ you will find the remnants of debate about just what, exactly, this whole thing was).  There was even an article written up in a major Australian newspaper at the time.

Even to this day, it is not 100% clear who formed Neurocam (some shady entity known only as The Nautionier); what exactly it’s goals where; and whether or not it even continues to exist today.  As an art project, it was pure brilliance.  As an ARG, it perfectly blurred the line between fiction and reality.  As a spiritual/philosophical exercise, it certainly got a lot of people ‘out of their minds’ to an extent – although ultimately failed to truly deliver on its promise.  As a social experiment in obedience, it scares the living heck out of me.

Why would such a thing be cause for concern?  Well, in one of the early operations the so-called ‘agent’ would receive an email communication directing them to conduct surveillance on the public at a designated area and send the detailed report of all movements back to an unknown entity.  In others, they were asked to carry mysterious small packages to dead-drop locations – safes hidden away and buried in public parks or other such places.

The whole purpose was to become part of an experience in which your normal frames of reference no longer applied; one in which you had no relevant cultural norms to rely upon and instead exist within a newly created paradigm in which the present was more important than anything else.  From a close examination, it seems that the final fate of Neurocam was because of a failure of leadership – organisers eventually lost interest, and the second/third generation leaders were unable to continue with such enthusiasm or succumbed to the ravages of in-fighting and the lack of real credit since all involved at the top needed to remain anonymous.  But just consider the possibilities of such an exercise if done for nefarious purposes…

Because, you see, the agents did their operations.  Many of them with great enthusiasm and without question.  Some of them, even, clearly hoping that Neurocam actually was a real organisation (and indeed in many ways it was) with genuine secrets and hidden agendas.   Most of these people were involved in something fun, something that brought a sense of risk and excitement to their otherwise mundane lives.

For many people, being involved with something that evades definition like Neurocam will forever be a pivotal moment in the development of their personalities.  Neurocam became about more than the participants, more than the organisers – it became a living, breathing entity of its own with shifting agendas and structure.  Indeed, this was the whole purpose of the experiment all along.  Neurocam was Neurocam, nothing else could define it.

But let’s not beat around the bush any longer.  For there are definite areas that should raise cause for concern in this social experiment.

Urban Series 1 (image by Enric Martinez, Flickr, CC)Willingly picking up unmarked packages and delivering them to public areas is an incredibly easy way to become an unknowing drug mule – or, even worse, a ‘suicide bomber’.  Conducting surveillance for an unknown entity would be the perfect ruse for a government or militant organisation to collect intelligence.  Being given a password to an unknown FTP site and downloading the information there could set you up as the perfect cyber-patsy…all in the name of entertainment.

It might sound a bit paranoid, and indeed it is.  But what I want to highlight is that Alternate Reality Games are the perfect framework for unscrupulous organisations to take advantage of willing participants – those who want to be a part of the next James Bond movie, science fiction epic, or noir murder mystery; but only if, when all is said and done, it is inherently a fictional experience.  The problem comes from the mutual creation of a suspension of disbelief – that ‘bomb’ you are trying to disarm isn’t really a ‘bomb’; the ‘secret message’ you are delivering isn’t actually of any importance to the government; the person you are ‘stalking’ actually is in on the game and in the end just playing a role.

For the vast majority of these types of things – indeed, from what can be gathered, all of them thus far – it is a brilliant and truly genius way to blur the line between reality and fiction.  To make us question the paradigms we view the world with and show us a glimpse of a more exciting, illuminating, adrenaline-filled lifestyle.  But Neurocam is an example of where the line has already blurred between whether or not this is purely entertainment or a much deeper and all-encompassing experience.  The scary thing was, that there were a lot of people out there who would have done pretty much anything they were told – just to get a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole.

Even without evil puppet-masters, in our increasingly security conscious world it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets brought up on public surveillance charges or some other form of police-state heavy-handedness.

I’m being overly paranoid, I realise that.  But all I’m saying is that it’s a possibility; and because it’s a possibility we have to take it very seriously indeed. However, Alternate Reality Gaming is a truly new form of entertainment  – one to be enjoyed by those who like to challenge their perception of reality and everyday life.  Just be careful who you trust…

14 Responses to The Shifting Paradigms of Alternate Reality Gaming

  1. GaryPHayes says:

    Great Post and something much discussed as you imply, in ARG communities. Most of the larger branded ARGs do indeed require you to click on various disclaimers and TOCs on a hub 'sign up to play' website…this covers the backs of the studios/brands in case of accidents, public property damage or privacy charges etc: I think the 'legal' problem will indeed rear its ugly head with some of the more independent lower budget ARGs, eventually. Finally it is good you touch on one of my real interest areas in ARGs – the suspension of disbelief vs 'actually' believing you are caught up in a real world narrative – hence the early 'This is not a Game' tag line for early 2000s ARGs – but we are early days (ARGs are still in the silent movie era) but think we are only months away from the Citizen Kane equivalent…

    • RAGordon says:

      Thank you for dropping by and providing a more experienced view on this, I was hoping we would get some ARG participants/creators over here. I'm very interested to see where these things go in the future, as they are such a great form of emergent and immersive entertainment…

      What interests me most are the examples which really blur the line, such as Neurocam and it's offspring, and never profess to be a 'game' at any stage or in any capacity. They are an experience, and at least in the case of Neurocam it seemed it was intended to be somewhat of an initiatory experience – a fantastic idea which unfortunately didn't seem to really have the expertise to bring to its rightful conclusion.

      Emergent initiation – like life itself, but more purposeful. Fascinating stuff.

  2. As always, thought provoking stuff by Mr. Gordon…

    • RAGordon says:

      Thanks! Always nice to know there are people who read more than just the one article on this blog that they've found through some random internet search…

  3. Hugh D says:

    “Alternate Reality Games are the perfect framework for unscrupulous organisations to take advantage of willing participants.” As an ARG developer and researcher, I recognise the concerns of influencing belief and am willing to abide by any set of principles to ensure that ARG’s are socially conscientious so long as these same principles are adopted by government, religion or advertising.

    • RAGordon says:

      We're definitely in trouble then!! 😉

      I think there exists a particular subset of the ARG movement that is really looking to take this out of the purely entertainment based experience and into something far deeper and more impacting. This has a great deal of potential, but it is also an incredibly risky endeavour.

      I'm also really hoping that shady government/religious/militant organisations don't use this willingness to participate in a suspension of disbelief to truly do something insidious. Neurocam and others like it were, unfortunately, proof of concept that some people will do some really stupid things when it comes to ARGs without really thinking through the possible consequences…

  4. Hugh D says:

    Great Article BTW

  5. Martha says:

    The Nautonier has transfered all Neurocam Operations to Y1. Y1 exists as an alternate reality, but not as a game.

    • RAGordon says:

      Yes, Neurocam operations did seem to transfer to Yellow One around about 2008 – although does itself seem to go through various attempts to renew NCI work as well. Y1 is being even more secretive about its operations though, which brings even more need for measured concern in my opinion (note: 'measured concern').

      In the end, as you have rightly stated this is no longer to be considered a game. If so, it starts veering actually into new religious movement territory – or at least should be treated within the same kind of sociological/psychological paradigms.

      There's also quite a question involved in the ethics of any kind of artistic work being done with other people's emotions and lives as the muse (if that is the case…and many roads point towards NCI/Y1/Fiat Nox/Nautonier being an elaborate art project). The amount of psychological profiling done in Y1 seems to exceed that done in Neurocam, and to be honest from what I've seen in Neurocam I don't believe that the Nautonier and his/her team (if they are even the same one as those who did Neurocam, we just don't know) are qualified to be dealing with the depths of people's psyches in such an intense manner.

      Beyond of all this, there's still the issue surrounding just how willing people are to do 'operations' for organisations that know very little to nothing about! How do we know that Neurocam/Y1 isn't a goverment organisation? Or a militant one? We're presuming it's just a few art lecturers/students having a bit of a play with reality…but the fact remains that it's possible for it to be much more sinister and yet people will still play along completely unaware.

      Given that you seem to know a bit more about this Martha – I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this. Do you think that the trend towards a spiritual/ideological movement within NCI/Y1 is a good thing? Should we be putting our trust into shady figures who spread viral paradigms over the internet? How far would you go for an organisation you knew nothing about?

  6. Miss Guest says:

    Great points, and also see http://www.tomdalton.com/blog/archives/2007/07/paintball-as-alternate-reality.html

    “…It’s that blending of rules that makes things tricky. From a design standpoint, the biggest deal is I have to be sure not to force players into bending any legal framework. If that secret message is inside a diamond store, you can’t break in at night to get it. If police think you look suspicious leaving that brown, paper-wrapped package under the park bench, you’re in trouble…”…and in some places, police are even more likely to think you look suspicious leaving that brown, paper-wrapped package under the park bench depending on whether you’re male or female, how pale or dark your skin color is, whether you’re wearing a hoodie or hijab or turban, etc.  At first when I heard about I Love Bees I thought ARGs were cool and wanted to try one.  Then I realized, it’s probably less safe for me to play than for someone who doesn’t look Middle eastern to play.

  7. […] require real-world interaction through the use of portable devices.  This will lead to a boom in alternate reality gaming, bringing the paradigms of videogame culture to our daily activities.  In traditional forms of […]

  8. Brightwell says:

    Here’s the real question: Is it a game pretending to be reality, or is it reality pretending to be a game?

    I reckon even the puppet-masters lose sight of the answer to THAT question.

    Once you start messing with people’s perception and blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the potential consequences are unknowable. Fun and games? Legal action and police investigation? Chaos and violence? Global Movement? Who knows where it could lead…

  9. […] The Shifting Paradigms of Alternate Reality Gaming (2010) […]

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