EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a planned series of editorials exploring horror- and dark-themed ARGs from a number of different perspectives.
The saccharine lyrics and cheerful smiles of the popular Japanese pop group “Dessart” hide a dark secret: coded messages hidden within stage performances, websites, and promotional posters for the band lead concerned individuals to a cult inciting mass suicides among Japan’s disaffected youth. This is not a game. No, really — this time it really isn’t a game. Rather, it’s Japanese director Sion Sono’s award-winning film Jisatsu Circle. The movie paints a dark picture of what could happen within the alternate reality gaming industry.
Viewers never find out what drove Dessart to embed messages encouraging suicide within their seemingly upbeat music, but with song titles like Mail Me, it’s not too improbable to assume it was a viral marketing ploy gone awry.
This raises a question relevant outside the realm of fiction: what level of responsibility do PMs have over actions their players take?
This is not an idle question. “Dark” ARGs seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. Whether it’s The Human Pet (a story of kidnapping and torture that was censored from YouTube for disturbing content) or Bristel Goodman (a narrative revolving around a string of racy webcam-girl murders) things are getting scary in the ARG scene.
The game with perhaps the greatest potential for controversy is the Nine Inch Nails game Year Zero, which contains anti-establishment messages that can be seen as promoting terrorist measures against a secretive government very similar to our own. It’s easy to imagine a fan taking the game too seriously and doing something stupid.
What responsibility do the game creators and backers have in such a situation?
A string of lawsuits touching on similar issues have plagued the entertainment industry for years. Congressional hearings on decency and the media have been held for music, television, movies and — most recently — video games. The big four branches of entertainment self-regulated to avoid liability by instituting ratings systems. While this is definitely not a perfect system, it does help provide marginal protection to creators.
However, the existence of a video games Ratings Board creates nearly as many problems as it solves, and for similar reasons, establishing an ARG Ratings Board would not be an ideal solution. Puppetmasters relinquish a degree of control the instant their trailhead hits the internet, and providing game materials to a panel before launch paints an incomplete picture of the final product.
As the genre becomes more mainstream — perhaps within the next few years — the ARG community will need to address the issue of liability. Most solutions, including stringent self-regulation on the part of puppetmasters or pre-launch advisory committees, will severely curtail the freedom of expression currently enjoyed in the medium. Sadly, this columnist feels that some form of change will be necessary.
By the way, the MPAA gave Jisatsu Circle an R rating for disturbing thematic elements, strong violence/grisly images and some language. So view at your own risk.