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April 27, 2005


This Is Not A Game...

...and the TINAG Philosophy

Play any Alternate Reality Game or even just read one of the many articles on the genre and you will quickly and repeatedly come across the phrase, “This Is Not A Game.” Your first reaction will most likely be to chuckle at the thought, but before long, you will notice yourself declaring those exact same words. Why? What does it mean? Where does it come from? And, for the “metaheads” out there, what the heck is TINAG?

At the end of the trailer for the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, the phrase “This Is Not A Game” flashed in red. More than a mere coincidence, the trailer was the “Rabbit Hole” (entry point) into the massive online promotion that gave birth to the current ARG community. The promotion, now regularly referred to as “the Beast”, took hundreds of thousands of players on a wild ride throughout which the not-so-quiet screams of “This Is Not A Game” could be heard.

While that was four years ago, things haven’t changed much. In following the current games, you will encounter a player uttering that exact same phrase on a daily basis. While some scholars have questioned the idea of players becoming so involved with something that they consistently decry as “not a game”, Jane McGonigal, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that it is a solid performance on the part of the players and that players are, essentially, playing at not playing a game.

Why players of Alternate Reality Games enjoy acting as if they're not playing game is another subject entirely, but it does help to explain why the community has latched onto the mantra of “This Is Not A Game,” for it provides an easy reminder that they are, indeed, playing a game and are enjoying the experience of pretending that they're not. Taking this concept a step further, by repeating the mantra, the players are providing themselves a boundary between the real world and the imagined, alternate, world (though players typically don't require such a thing, as it’s hard to become confused over whether the house that’s writing to you from the year 2142 is real or not).

While “This Is Not A Game” is owned by the players, “TINAG”, a derivation of the mantra, is owned by the puppetmasters and metaheads (game designers and players that focus on the larger genre issues). However, the distinction between the way that the phrase is used by the players (as a mantra) and the puppetmasters (as a philosophy) is frequently misunderstood. As a rule, puppetmasters and metaheads shorten the term in order to facilitate discussion and, as such, I’ll continue to do so in this article. It also allows for a clear distinction between the concepts.

TINAG was first laid out by Elan Lee, Lead Developer of the Beast and I Love Bees, at the Game Developers Conference in 2002. In his presentation, he provided three rules: don’t tell anyone, don’t define the game space, and, most importantly, don’t build a game. For a more detailed look at what that means, you can read his handout and a transcript of his presentation (registration req’d). What is important and often forgotten is the audience for which that presentation was intended: Game Developers.

Clarification on the concept was made by Lee during a personal interview with McGonigal, who joined him in creating I Love Bees.

[T]he immersive experience of the game was always intended to be reflective and conscious, enjoyed on a meta-level. “It was a delicate balancing act to make sure the game and the meta-game worked in synchronicity,” Lee said. Players were never meant to believe the “This is not a game” rhetoric, he explained, but rather to be baited by it. “It was obviously a game,” Lee said. “There was nothing we could do about that. What we could do was make it a game with an identity crisis. If I know it's a game, and you know it's a game, but IT doesn't know it's a game, then we've got a conflict. source

To put it simply, TINAG provides puppetmasters with a philosophy to support their game design. By embracing the ideals of TINAG, puppetmasters are afforded the ability to build a full and complete world that believes that it is as real as our own. It allows players to become immersed in and explore an alternate reality that feels very real despite the, often extraordinary, differences from our own reality. To return to an earlier thought, the TINAG philosophy truly allows players the freedom to play at not playing. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

To see how this happens and why this works, let’s explore a few examples from ARGs gone by.

The first rule of TINAG is “don’t tell anyone.” This has seen a variety of extremes, from the Beast which even had Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates refusing to comment to Urban Hunt where those responsible were completely unknown. Not only does this support the idea that the game does not know that it is a game by not providing a reference of actual designers, it creates an enticing air of mystery that draws the attention of players, observers, and press which acts to increase the viral nature of the game, bringing in more players, observers, and press. The players themselves can use this mystery to further support the illusion as well as their “This Is Not A Game” mantra which leads to a greater level of immersion.

The second rule of TINAG is “don’t build a game space.” A game space is simply set area that announces quite plainly that it is, indeed, a game. It is very concrete and does not allow for expansion beyond the predefined area. In many cases, people point to the cues that the Beast, LockJaw, and Metacortechs provided (such as the popups expressing that the browser was out of date, the “best viewed with Net:Sight”, and the hosting company affiliate logo) to mark a website as “ingame” as being counter to this rule or to prove that TINAG is not a viable philosophy. However, all three examples were as much story elements as much as they were game devices, and while they established some boundaries they did not explicitly build a “game space.” For example, had the Beast only occurred on line and those popups contained some human readable legalese expressing the fact that the website was purely fictional, a game space would have been built. Had a game space been built, the game would not have been able to permeate the real world with the emails, phone calls, and live events. Furthermore, with such a rigid world and the constant reminders of the game, players would not have been able to play at not playing a game.

The third, and final, rule of TINAG is “don’t build a game.” That’s right, as game designers, puppetmasters are a unique breed in that they do not build games. They build experiences that are games that don’t know that they are games, they build experiences that need to look and feel real. To do that effectively, the game world has to be fully fleshed out and consistent. Looking solely at websites, they need to be carefully designed to fit the theme of the story, the site purpose, and the individual character(s) involved with the site. All email addresses and phone numbers must be working and respond appropriately. For example, a website owned by a corporation must have a design that fits their corporate image, WHOIS registration information to match (or be masked by a proxy service, not ideal but more within the scope of the game world than to identify the company or design team behind the game), and when players call the corporate office, they should receive an appropriate voice or message on the other end. Additionally, each site and character has to have an appropriate and distinctive voice. If the phone numbers in Metacortechs were all answered by the same voice, the illusion would be broken and players would have struggled to maintain their mantra.

That is the TINAG philosophy taken to its most basic form. It is purely a design philosophy and the typical players do not care, nor should they, about what drives their experience, their mantra. They are just looking to have fun. They hope to play at not playing a game. They want to stand up and shout, “This Is Not A Game!”

posted on April 27, 2005 07:51 AM | print this