Editor’s note: Brooke Thompson is back after a whirlwind tour of some of the biggest festivals so far this year. She attended the Game Developer’s Conference and was a speaker at the South By Southwest (SXSW) and ARGFest-o-Con conferences. This article is the first in a series about her experiences.

GDC.jpgWhat happens when you spend 15 days on the road traveling from conference to conference? You get just about nothing done, including writing reports from the road for one of the greatest websites on the internet (that’d be ARGNet, of course). At first this distressed me, but then I realized that most of the conference sessions that I had attended were well documented on blogs and news sites – some nearly word for word! – and that waiting allowed the experiences that I had to sink in and meld together into a bigger picture. It’s that picture that I hope to paint for you over the next few articles.

The thing that I realized as I traveled from ARGfest to GDC to SXSW is that Alternate Reality Gaming is leading the future of entertainment.

We’ve been saying that for a long time. So, what’s different? What’s changed?

The word is out. People hear “Alternate Reality Game” or “ARG” and they understand what you are talking about. I don’t mean to say that everyone that I met understood it, but if I walked into a crowd at least one or two people did and they were able to get the rest of the crowd excited and curious. And explaining it to those that have never heard of ARGs is easier today than it’s ever been. People might not know that Lonelygirl15 has an alternate reality game component, but they’ve heard of it and when you talk about how the story is out there and it’s fiction outside of a book or TV show and, in fact, might send you an email or call you on the phone – they get it. It doesn’t seem strange, it seems cool.

The word is spreading. In a number of sessions, I saw references to alternate reality gaming on presentation slides or heard questions from the audience asking how alternate reality gaming fit into the larger picture of what was being discussed. From fictional blogging to pervasive gaming to online communities to collaborative game play – people are interested in how alternate reality gaming relates to what they are doing.

Not surprisingly, it relates very well to what a lot of people are doing. The concepts that we have been using for the past few years are now in the mainstream. Community has always been a topic at these conferences, but it was often something adjacent to the topic at hand. Now it is a point of fact, something that must be considered before moving forward. Collaboration is being considered alongside competition in ways that I had not noticed before. User-generated content is being discussed everywhere. And, whether you like to think of it in this way or not, alternate reality gaming would probably cease to exist if it weren’t for the guides and trails, forum posts, screenshots, emails to characters, and so on. Alternate reality gaming is one big mass of user-generated content created by communities of players that collaborate to put together stories.

I don’t mean to imply that alternate reality gaming is responsible for any of the above changes. It is purely because of the state of technology and an ever-increasing network, in particular broadband, that is making these things possible. However, as a net-native artform, alternate reality gaming has been on the forefront of adopting what one might call Web 2.0 culture and it is forever reaching out to try new things and to push the boundaries of the way we experience our entertainment.

While I still feel very out of place on the GDC expo floor as I walk through rows and rows of booths attempting to promote stuff that is way beyond the needs of most ARG developers, I’m beginning to feel more accepted at the conference, itself. The official theme of GDC was “Taking Control” but that was just what was printed on their materials. In just about every session that I attended and conversation that I had, the theme was “Getting Connected.” The rest of the gaming industry seems to be catching up to the fact that there is an internet and that it can connect players. That this connection can allow for new types of collaborative and competitive game play experiences and that online communities are more than just places for fans but for players. They are embracing the fact that players want to participate in building their gaming experience and they can add their own content and that content can help to build the game and affect the experience of the game and of other players. The game industry has discovered Web 2.0 and what they have discovered are things that alternate reality games have done since the beginning. They are looking at us to see how we’ve done it, why it works, and what we are doing next.

Of course, Web 2.0 is old hat for those at SXSW, a conference that brings together storytellers, web designers & developers, and filmmakers. Game designers are not the focus there, but with the second annual Screenburn, gaming is getting a bit of attention. With so many areas of entertainment coming together, it’s no surprise there was a great deal of discussion on convergence (the blending of old and new media which is one thing that ARGs are exceptionally suited for), storytelling, and play and how these things impact entertainment, the internet, and online communities. As more and more people discuss these things, it becomes easier and easier to see how playful the internet and entertainment can become. It also becomes easier to explain the concepts behind alternate reality gaming and how the genre fits into the larger entertainment picture – whether it’s as a supporting element or something that stands on its own. The pieces are all there, it is just a matter of putting them together and, everywhere I turned, people were doing just that.

For years we’ve been saying this is the future of entertainment. Some of us actually believed that. This past month, I felt it. The questions this time were not just how ARGs could help improve their games, their films, their websites, but how ARGs could change their games, their films, their websites and how ARGs could tell their stories and engage their audience.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be writing up more specific reports on each conference. I’ll cover some of the sessions that I attended (those that I liked and those that made me so angry that I couldn’t stop talking about them for the rest of the day) and social experiences that I had, linking to transcripts, presentation slides, and/or detailed blog entries in an attempt to build a clearer picture of how and where alternate reality gaming comes into play and why I returned home so excited for our future as ARG designers and players.