This Is Not A Game. This seemingly simple mantra, coined by a collective of Microsoft Game Studios employees, has served as a rallying cry for alternate reality gaming fans and developers alike. And yet, it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the genre. As alternate reality games have evolved, so too has its nomenclature: puppetmasters have gradually given way to game developers and transmedia producers, and “this is not a game” itself has fallen into disuse. Perhaps it’s time to make the term’s retirement official.
Everything Starts with The Beast
The Beast was not the first alternate reality game: the term was coined months after the game’s conclusion, with the launch of Lockjaw. Similarly, promotional campaigns for The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project introduced many of the storytelling elements that would later be embraced by the genre. What sets The Beast apart were its players, who referred to themselves as Cloudmakers.
Jay Bushman, a former Cloudmaker who now works at Fourth Wall Studios, compares The Beast to the Sex Pistols’ concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. There were only around forty people in attendance that night, but something magical happened, and those few attendees went on to form Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, and The Buzzcocks, creating a renaissance for the genre. The Beast has sent similar ripples through the community as Cloudmakers and developers alike have gone on to found many of the companies and resources dedicated to the genre. And one of those ripples was the phrase “this is not a game.”
Image courtesy of the BBC
On September 10, 2011, Pete Ryland cracked The Code and took home the coveted prize, a unique bronze and silver mathematical sculpture by Bathsheba Grossman. The lead-up to the tense finale was a collaborative transmedia treasure hunt centred around the three-part BBC2 show The Code, presented by Marcus du Sautoy. The game was designed by Six to Start, working with the BBC from the beginning to integrate clues and puzzles seamlessly within the broadcasts.
Before the first airing of The Code on July 27, about 700 postcards were sent out with an image and a code. Collaborating on Facebook, participants in this first stage soon discovered that each postcard image was a thin horizontal slice of a three-dimensional Platonic solid. Several of these “perfect” shapes then had to be combined and arranged into three concentric spherical shells – revealing the complicated nested sculpture that would be the grand prize.
Now the hunt could begin in earnest. The main stage of the game was intricately connected with the three episodes of the show: Numbers, Shapes, and Prediction. For each episode, participants discovered three clues: one by watching the program, one clue by playing related Flash games on the website, and one clue by solving a puzzle described on the blog. They also had to complete the Prime Number Challenge as a group, which involved uploading photos of all 305 prime numbers from 2 to 2011 to collectively receive the sixth clue for each episode. The six clues were then entered into a codebreaker to reveal three passwords, which granted access to the next stage of the game: The Ultimate Challenge.
For the next few weeks, Los Angeles residents have a chance to do something many of us can only dream about: a little time traveling, courtesy of Superfreako Productions. Participants in time/trip LA are tasked with finding strategically placed QR codes located in 8 shops and stores around the Hollywood area, starting at Meltdown Comics on West Sunset Boulevard. The QR codes unlock a series of videos revolving around time travel. The time/trip LA experience follows Katie and Kelly as they travels through time and space that guides participants through short films keyed to each location.
As part of the experience, time/trippers can submit five pictures of themselves with the QR codes for a chance to win swag from some of the participating retailers. Spoiler-ridden details about the sweepstakes explain the rules and prizes, but players in the LA area are advised to get moving: the contest ends at 11:59pm on August 31.
It’s worth noting that time/trip LA is not Superfreako’s first foray into the crossmedia storytelling space. One of its earliest attempts is the Last Days Journal, a social media storytelling site for survivors of a zombie apocalypse that launched in 2007. While Last Days Journal was created to support a project that was never developed, the survivor site still “lives” on.
Between 2008-2009, Superfreako worked with Benji Schneider to create The Society for Linian Studies, an art project with alternate reality gaming elements including a live lecture event at the Velaslavasay Panorama and an exhibition of related artifacts at San Diego State University. Having followed along with The Society for Linian Studies, I was impressed with the high production value of the artifacts, acting, and other assets for the project. According to Chad Kukahiko, Creative Director of the superfreakos, “it was fun as hell working on a piece of art so ridiculously original.” The idea of dueling institutes that permeated the narrative, along with the characters and story elements surrounding the Linian Society, was the brainchild of his friend and former coworker Benji Schneider. For the The Society for Linian Studies, “the plan was to was continue to do mini-ARG installments perhaps 2 to 3 times a year,” but Schneider’s growing commitments to his band Lord Huron forced the team to modify the game’s plans.
The planning process for The Society for Linian Studies provided the inspiration for time/trip LA: not in terms of story world or plot, but in terms of techniques and technology. As Kukahiko explained to me: “The initial concept from which time/trip grew was a vague QR code wild posting dystopian-themed ARG off-shoot I was tooling around with in my head — something I was actually hoping to bring into the Linian Society fold.”
It’s been three months since ARGNet’s first look back at this year in alternate reality gaming, putting over half of 2011 behind us. Alternate reality games have continued to insinuate themselves into pop culture, spanning movies, television, music, video games, and books. The genre has stretched out beyond the entertainment industry to support social causes, provide more enriching museum-going experiences, and even sell packs of chewing gum. During the past three months a number of major campaigns have come to a conclusion, to be replaced by a number of tantalizing prospects. Read on for a few highlights from the quarter.
Growing up, my parents had me convinced that one of the local librarians lived the building’s basement. For years, Jim Caccamo was an archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, and spent countless hours preserving the library’s collection of artifacts. He spent so much time there, it was a relatively simple matter for the librarians, with a little help from our parents, to convince many younger library patrons, myself included, that he never left the building. I suspect that one of the reasons we were so willing to believe this local urban legend was because the prospect of staying overnight at the library with all of its artifacts from history was such an exciting one. Sadly, Jim is no longer with us, but the legend he inspired stuck with me through the years. On May 20th, the New York Public Library invited five hundred people to stay overnight as part of the Centennial celebration. I was lucky enough to be one of the attendees at the launch of Find the Future, letting me live out the fantasy Jim planted in my head so many years ago.
Find the Future is a game developed by Jane Mcgonigal and her husband Kiyash Monsef along with Natron Baxter Applied Gaming and Playmatics, on behalf of the New York Public Library. The game itself involves a mobile scavenger hunt to discover one hundred artifacts including a fireproof copy of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Malcolm X’s briefcase, the stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Charles Dickins’ letter opener with a handle made from his cat’s paw. QR codes near each object can be scanned in using iPhone and Android apps to unlock writing prompts that ask players to think about their futures. The game provides individuals with a casual way of exploring many often overlooked details of the library along with prompts designed to make visitors think about how each artifact is relevant to their own lives. Interacting with the experience is a deeply personal, contemplative experience that plays out over time as players gradually return to the library and post their responses online. Players are rewarded with points for unlocking artifacts and submitting stories, allowing them to level up their writer level and receive achievement badges. Players can then assemble their favorite stories into an online Epic. Visitors to the public library can play the Find the Future game through the end of the year.
The Write All Night event invited 500 players to experience an intensely collaborative version of the Find the Future game. Players were selected from a pool of 5,000 entrants who explained what they would accomplish by the year 2021. The goal for the night was to create a 600-page book collecting player responses to each artifact prompt between 7PM on May 20th and 5AM on May 21st: in turn, the library promised to preserve and protect the book as long as New York City exists. Paper Dragon Books’ Gavin Dovey was on hand to bind the entries into a book before the night’s end, and editors made themselves available to help participants polish submissions. Before the event started, McGonigal assured players, “we have not rigged this game so you will win: it’s up to you.”
It’s been a little over 90 days since I wrote a Year in Review article on the state of alternate reality games in 2010, and 2011 is already shaping up to be another busy year. Read on for a summary of some of the major news items to hit ARGNet’s radar.
One of the most celebrated news items to date occurred when Fourth Wall Studios announced that it received $15 million in financing to expand into an alternate reality entertainment studio. Previous companies that secured multi-million dollar investments to enter the cross-platform market like Smith & Tinker and Mind Candy departed from their roots in alternate reality game development to focus on virtual worlds, creating Nanovor and Moshi Monsters, respectively. A recent job posting by Fourth Wall Studios indicates that the company will be retaining its roots in transmedia and alternate reality gaming development, describing the company’s games as “massively multiplayer online games and enhanced reality worlds on transmedia technology platforms” that will serve as “scalable alternate reality entertainment experiences.”
Area/Code Games experienced its own transformation in January when it was acquired by Zynga, the team behind Facebook games ranging from FarmVille to Mafia Wars. Area/Code is a familiar name to fans of alternate reality games for its work on Drop7, an insidiously addictive puzzle game that stole hours of my life away. The game was introduced as part of Chain Factor, an alternate reality game that launched during an episode of Numb3rs. After the ARG’s completion, the casual game at its heart was rebranded as Drop7. In addition to alternate reality games, Area/Code has developed a number of augmented reality games like Plundr that use geolocative data as a factor in gameplay, encouraging players to play in different locations. Area/Code is one of Zynga’s many acquisitions over the past few months, but may signify Zynga’s interest in bringing alternate reality games and augmented reality to the Facebook audience.
Finally, transmedia and alternate reality game developers may have a new source of financing for their projects now that the Tribeca Film Institute has established a New Media Fund to promote cross-platform storytelling as a means of promoting social change. In its first year, the fund will support non-fiction projects by providing four to eight grants of $50,000-$100,000.