In the fourth panel discussion at ARGFest, titled “Defining ARGs and the Future of ARGs”, I was fortunate enough to moderate what turned out to be a lively and entertaining discussion from a panel full of people I have professional and personal admiration for. The panel consisted of Brian Clark (GMD Studios), Adrian Hon (Mind Candy), Jane McGonigal (Avant Game, The Institute for the Future), Sean Stacey (Unfiction), Brooke Thompson (Giant Mice) and Evan Jones (stitch Media).

There was an opening round of statements in which McGonigal talked about her latest project, The Institute for the Future, and spoke about how alternate reality gaming can have an impact on the real world by delivering messages about important world issues. She also discussed World Without Oil, which is poised to launch in two weeks. In his opening remarks, Clark went on to state that he was interested in the idea of sustainability, noting that the community needs to find ways to embrace and celebrate all forms of ARG.

The first question for the panel was, “When asked by others outside of the industry, how do each of you describe what alternate reality gaming is?” Clark described ARG as “platformless gaming,” while Thompson focused on the story and narrative and how pieces of the story can be broken up and distributed in many different forms. Stacey agreed, and as he talked about the “collaborative storytelling process,” he added that player actions ultimately color the experience and make it unique. McGonigal focused on the idea of “massively-scaled collaboration,” where game elements “can’t possibly be solved alone,” and real-time game design. Hon interjected with humor as he talked about a “decision tree” approach that he had used in the past, and discussed the ideas of controls and using real-life interfaces within game design. Jones wrapped up responses by bringing up the accessibility and cross-platform aspects of ARG, adding that talking about the idea that “characters believe that they are real” is one of the ways he describes ARG to others.

The next question for the panel was, “You all have varied interests in alternate reality gaming. What is the most important aspect of these types of games, in your opinions? What is it that draws you into playing, promoting and creating these games?” McGonigal responded first and talked about how her views on this topic have changed recently, moving from looking at the “large picture” to the “small picture” and how ARG can give people a sense of “collective direction.” Hon added to that idea, bringing up religion as an example as to how people are more likely to work together when given a common purpose. Clark’s response centered around the element of surprise, and touched on the collaborative elements of ARG game play. Clark also talked about “happy coincidences” and how uncontrollable situations can often create “incredible moments of artistic clarity.” After Hon supported Clark’s statements with an example from his experiences with Perplex City, Stacey noted that the most interesting part of ARG, for him, is in how games utilize emerging technologies for the purpose of instantaneous collaborative communication. Thompson also talked about collaboration, noting that ARG players are essential parts of the first “net-native” narratives, and Jones noted that his motivations lie in the fact that he loves to tell stories — “It’s what I do.” — and that it is nice that ARG allows him the outlet to tell his stories on a global scale.

I went on to ask Hon about the self-sustaining ARG model, specifically about how much of the creative planning for Perplex City was influenced by ARG models of the past, and if he thought that the PXC model was something that others can emulate successfully. In his response, he talked about creating a model that worked for his company, rather than using an existing model. He also talked the difficulty of “running two businesses” — one dedicated to the ARG, and one dedicated to the puzzle cards. In regards to pay-to-play or “premium ARGs”, he sad that sponsorship seems to work, but hopes that audiences that are getting more familiar with paying for episodic content (TV shows on iTunes, for example) will consider doing the same for an ARG.

My next question was for McGonigal, a noted academic, as I was curious how her colleagues and other educational leaders viewed ARG. In response to the question, “Is the genre respected among [academics], or is it still looked upon as simple viral marketing?” McGonigal made clear that “nobody takes ARG more seriously than educators a and people of academia.” She noted that researchers appreciate ARG for connecting people through virtual communities, and ARG resources are being developed currently to help educators in their classrooms, both with curricular content and skill building. Hon tipped the audience off about a game in development by the BBC which will come out in May that he describes as a “pseudo-ARG” which will have an educational focus.

Following this, I asked Thompson , a renowned champion for the player base, what she thought the players of ARGs would like to see next. She emphasized how players see the “fourth wall” of ARG, which prompted Clark to reference A Christmas Story, the classic movie in which a character decodes a message from a radio show, only to find out the message is a marketing ploy. Thompson continued to talk about how alternate reality games are shifting away from marketing projects to focus on more artistic or socially relevant topics, and noted that audiences will see more artistic experiences soon.

Admittedly, my next question for Evan Jones was slightly loaded — “Cross-media experiences have been gaining popularity within existing media structures. Where does ARG fit in within the existing scope of cross-media experiences, and are there more ‘traditional media’ entities looking at ARGs as a viable, practical, essential content delivery model?” With a grin, Jones answered, “Yes.” After a round of laughter from the audience, Jones added to his response as he talked about the “interesting couple of months” he had leading up to ARGFest, relating to the attendees that as production teams meet with broadcasters, they are often told that television pilots will not get consideration without an “integrated cross-media approach.” Jones also spoke of an “intersection between the [ARG] business model and the mindset of some other industries and how this industry works with it as well.” Clark asked a follow-up, wondering if show creators are responsible for the “buffet of emerging strategies” that broadcasters are now asking for, and Jones remarked that in the past, broadcasters would rely on “interactive departments” under their control which would be responsible for the interactive content.

Jones went on to generalize, noting that broadcasters are now going to show producers and asking them to create the content-driven cross-media experiences. Adrian Hon chimed in on this aspect, relating how broadcasters and producers may not yet fully understand best practices in developing quality cross-media entertainment. To this end, McGonigal commented that the ARG community may want to consider “[saving] every bad cross-media/360 project that comes out,” using the Heroes 360 experience as an example. This led the discussion on an interesting tangent in which ARGs were compared to films (by Clark) and artistic performances (by McGonigal) — Clark compared alternate reality games to Sundance Film Competition submissions, while McGonigal likened ARG to “an amalgamation of media.”

Clark, who has experiential insight into the world of advertising, was the target of my next question: “What is the advertising community saying about ARG, and have those comments changed in the past year or so?” Clark made it clear that his “love affair with the advertising industry is a love affair with their money,” and that the advertising world is dominated by creators whose ideas get rewarded. Clark continued on this idea, noting that there is fascination in how “integrated media” can be developed and used in combination with traditional advertising ideas. He is wary, however, about media companies that release cross-media experiences prematurely, noting that an experience that may take up several hours of a consumer’s time should be ready for market before being released to the public. He urged those in attendance to “help the advertising people come up with a way to measure what we do.”

I had one other panelist-specific question, written for Sean Stacey, which dealt with the ARG community and how it has used online resources to organize itself. Stacey commented that while the “model of how people collaborate” may not change, the tools that communities use to facilitate collaboration will. The means in which the ARG player community have used to relate game information to other members has changed over the years, and Stacey thinks that, while “Unfiction does a pretty good job at… setting an example,” he appreciates seeing more community growth outside of the existing structures at sites like Unfiction. He acknowledges a tipping point where players are now learning about ARGs through resources like Unfiction, then taking that knowledge back to their own playing areas to share amongst their own communities, something Stacey thinks is “so cool.”

The last question I had for panelists before turning things over to the audience concerned whether or not the term “alternate reality game” was accurate in the current atmosphere the genre exists within. Clark was forthright in telling the audience that he likes the use of the word game, in so far that there are rules which govern games that are designed in such a way to get a certain set of results from the experience — helping to “separate the idea of a static work from something that is designed to be populated by people.” Thompson spoke on a related idea that the word game can mean different things to different people, which led Stacey to discuss the difference between using game as a noun and using it as a verb. He spoke about how players can “[game] the system itself” which leads to the creation of the alternate reality, resulting in a different experience at the end of the game than that of the start. McGonigal brought up philosopher James P. Carse who wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games, and she described the basis of ARG as a mixture of the two gaming models — finite games playing with boundaries, and infininte games playing with boundaries. She noted that ARGs are special in that there is rarely an emphasis on winning, but there is a collective desire to keep playing.

Hon continued the panel response, stating that it “boils down to semantics.” He disclosed that he had “gotten sick of the term ‘alternate reality game'” a few months ago, because the term “doesn’t actually mean anything, and its hard for people to understand what [it] is.” He also raised the idea that people are using the term to describe all things cross-media, to which McGonigal commented that she too feels that the term is not accurate in describing the types of games traditionally known as ARGs. Stacey talked about his article on “chaotic fiction” at Unfiction in which he attempts to explain how authorship, ruleset and coherence form a balance in gams such as ARGs. Jones finished up discussion by remarking how ARGs often do not take place in an “alternate world” as much as they are taking place in our own world.

After opening up the discussion to audience questions, the panelists were first asked why people aren’t promoting ARG as its own platform. In response, Thompson talked about IonARG, a collection of projects and initiatives that will be maintained by ARG community members which will allow the community to take ownership of promoting and maintaining the genre. A follow-up question asked why the community is trying to define what an ARG is, as the audience member wondered if a narrow definition was worthwhile. Clark responded to this, starting off by saying that the narrowing of a definition is good, and continuing his point by talking about how the distinguishing factors of such games as I Love Bees and Cathy’s Book become part of the fabric of the definition of alternate reality gaming — diversity in game design is part of what makes ARG what it is.

After an audience question about the role of the real world in the future of alternate reality gaming, Jones was quick to remark that he was “scared to death of all sorts of real life events,” due to the vast amounts of variables that need to be considered when planning these sorts of events. He added that another issue is replayability, and linking content to real world events ends up being a liability when trying to license content in the future. Another aspect Jones touched upon is the amount of effort put forth by players to make real world events successful, and how media becomes part of the success of any real world event. Comments from Stacey, McGonigal and Clark followed as they brought up issues concerning control and scalability within the design of the real world event.

As the panel discussion was nearing the end of its scheduled time, one of the last questions that elicited responses from the panel dealt with emerging technological and social developments, and what sorts of developments the panelists were looking forward to. Hon identified mobile phones as his top choice, while McGonigal mentioned Google Earth and Amazon Mechanical Turk, stating that, “if there’s not an alternate reality game on Amazon Mechanical Turk in the next three months, that is a great, great missed opportunity.”

The final audience questions dealt with bad publicity, taking ownership of the term “alternate reality game”, and the ARGish elements of new companies who offer ‘alternate reality’ alibis for people who want to mask their actual real world activities. Jones summarized his thoughts on these topics by saying that bad publicity should not go unnoticed and that game creators should take many things into consideration when presenting content to an audience, while Clark argued that the collaborative nature of ARG game play helps to provide safeguards against something going terribly wrong during a game’s run. Sean Stacey finished up the discussion by pointing out that there is a “big difference between a hoax and an alternate reality game, but there is a fine line between them, and making sure that you communicate that in meta fashion, clearly, to everybody, is really important.”

Editor’s Note: In conclusion to our ARGFest coverage, we’d like to share an Easter Egg from FestQuest ’07 — Daisy’s Epilogue. Thanks for reading!