Report from Austin Game Developers’ Conference 2008: In ARGs We Trust

magnets.JPGEditor’s note: Brandie was ARGNet’s press presence at this year’s Austin Game Developers Conference. This is the first in a series on her experiences at the conference.

At the Austin GDC‘s only session devoted exclusively to Alternate Reality Games, Elan Lee of Fourth Wall Studios shared his thoughts on trust between ARG designers and players along with anecdotes from some of the most well-known cross-media experiences like AI and I Love Bees. In an interactive, real-time game-story experience, the level of trust between the designers (Puppet Masters, if you will) and the players can have a profound effect on the outcome of the game and the memories the players carry away at the end. “ARGs: Fake Websites, Invented Stories, Automated Phone Calls, and Other Methods to Earn the Trust of a Community” examined the building of trust as an integral part of the game-story experience.

Elan Lee opened the session with a look back at “The Beast” the promotional experience designed for the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Steven Spielberg came to Microsoft and said he wanted to do something promotional that would familiarize his audience with the A.I. world before the movie opened. What evolved from this was a series of websites, puzzles, and events that attracted thousands of dedicated players – who, incidentally, solved several weeks worth of content in a matter of hours. The designers had to scramble to keep adding content, altering the storyline as needed, and even responding to their audience by taking an initially unimportant but player-beloved character (The Red King) and promoting him to the character A-List.

After “The Beast” ended, Elan was surprised to receive three wedding invitations from players who had been deeply affected by their experience with the game. He realized, he said, that something magical was happening, when an audience felt close enough to a total stranger to invite him to participate in their real-life celebrations. “The Beast” and its designers had evoked a trust that transcended the anonymity of the internet and crossed over into the real world. What builds this intense sense of trust? According to Elan, one of the keys to trust is… a magnet.

Magnets have three fundamental features – push, pull, and charge. They can attract or repel objects, and they can change objects into magnets by imparting a magnetic charge. These types of games or experiences should be like magnets for players, pulling them in to a world created for them; pushing them out into the real world, out of their comfort zone, and rewarding them for playing along; and charging them with the power to attract, push and pull others throughout the game. You can trust magnets – they follow the same rules, they consistently give the same results, and not only that – it’s always fun to play with magnets.

Every game has magnetic elements of push, pull, and charge that spin a relationship between the game creators and the players. Elan used specific game-story events to illustrate each component of the trust magnet theory.

Pull: Cathy’s Book

Elan chose Cathy’s Book as his first example of “pull”. Cathy’s Book is a young adult novel presented as a teenage girl’s journal that moves its story beyond the static pages of its binding through phone numbers, voice mails, and websites. Cathy’s Book was designed to allow readers to experience Cathy’s world as they followed along with her story. Little details became important elements that helped to draw readers into that world. Elan told us how, in designing Cathy’s story, they decided she should have a Myspace page. To set up her page, they had to give her a date of birth. After the book had been released, Cathy’s birth date arrived, and a “Happy Birthday” message appeared in the comments on her Myspace page. In a few hours, the one message had turned into hundreds. Through that one detail, the readers had a way to reach into the book’s environment and interact with it.

I Love Bees

I Love Bees, Bungie & Microsoft’s promotion for “Halo 2”, provided another example of how games can “pull” players into the world. Bungie had expressed that they wanted the launch of the game to become a “cultural phenomena” associated with the Halo universe. The 42 Entertainment team decided to look back in history at other cultural phenomena – how they happened, how they were designed, and what made them memorable. The “War of the Worlds” radio drama of 1938 had been presented as a “real” radio broadcast, inviting listeners to pretend to inhabit a world being invaded by aliens from outer space. 42 Entertainment set out to create their own radio drama experience set in the Halo universe. It would be divided it up into segments and delivered through a media device that could be found in every part of the world – payphones. With this type of delivery, the designers hoped to pull players into the Halo universe by creating a story that lived all around them in the space they inhabited every day.

A member of the audience asked a question that has probably been burning for years in the minds of many ILB players: How did 42 Entertainment get access to all those payphones? In fact, they found a list of every payphone on the planet – and subsequently discovered that a huge percentage of those phones didn’t work. So 42 recruited scouters who scouted the phones and tested them to make sure that they worked. Elan’s post-payphone motto? Never Again. For players of I Love Bees, however, the re-purposing of the payphones and the radio drama narrative created an unforgettable story experience that reached out and pulled them into itself.

Push: edoc laundry

Real-world objects and content help to pull players into the alternate world of the game space, but what about pushing players to the game – or pushing the game to the players? Elan’s first example was “edoc laundry”, a line of clothing created with a story. “edoc laundry” used clothes and accessories as the delivery platform for a mystery story that played out over three seasons. Each style of clothing had a secret message for players to decode; each season had about 30-40 designs. By deciphering the clothing, players could unlock multimedia messages that moved the story forward. edoc laundry’s very visible platform gave players the opportunity to purchase and wear pieces of their game and talk about these things to other people. The game became so well-known that it was featured on an episode of CSI in 2006, bringing it to the attention of thousands of other would-be players.

Tombstone Hold ‘Em

Push is not just about pushing game content, however. It’s about pushing boundaries, giving players the space to step outside of their comfort zone. When a game asks its players to push boundaries, they begin to form a relationship with that game. Last Call Poker – the promotional for “GUN” – was designed as a haunted poker site. At some point in the design process, Elan Lee and the other designers began to consider: How do we move this outside of the computer? They again found the answer in real-world, everyday space and created Tombstone Hold ‘Em, a game that transformed a graveyard (every town has one) into an interactive playground. Players were encouraged to leave the graveyards in better shape than they found them, turning a community service into play – “push” in the real world.

Charge: Year Zero

The idea for Year Zero sprang from Trent Reznor’s (of Nine Inch Nails) desire to write the soundtrack of a dystopian, near-future world. The world and its secrets would be found within the songs, the album art, and other elements. The game was launched with hidden messages in the concert t-shirts and several USB drives containing unreleased NIN songs and hidden messages. Information from the USB drives alone resulted in millions of phone calls to an in-game phone number.

Elan Lee described how The Year Zero campaign tapped into social networks, reaching out to people with a message and connecting the people with a message to the people with a network – the Open Source Resistance. OSR asked people – “What is Your Message?” Through their user-generated content, players of Year Zero became magnets, pushing and pulling others, distributing their messages of resistance and art, even participating in meetings and rallies. (For those wondering about a Year Zero sequel: Elan could neither confirm nor deny plans for a sequel, as you might expect, but he did mention that all the people who were given cell phones at the “Art is Resistance” meetings still have those exclusive cell phones.)

Designing a story or game that reaches out to push, pull, and charge its players to join in, push boundaries, and draw others into the play space – does this process work to build a trusting relationship between the designer and the player? Elan has seen the answer to this question measured partly in wedding invitations. How many has he received? The Beast = 3 wedding invitations. Last Call Poker = 1 wedding invitation. I Love Bees = 2 wedding invitations. Year Zero? No wedding invitations, but remember that “Art is Resistance” flag? Several (no exact number) people tattooed themselves with that flag, a permanent reminder of the game and its message.


  1. This really affirms my want for trying to get out to California for the summer and intern at either 42 Entertainment or Fourth Wall Studios.

    I plan on doing study abroad in Tokyo next fall, does anyone happen to know of any studios or teams who do the same type of thing overseas?

  2. All these expos and I’m stuck in Minneapolis. This really makes me want to move out to California even though I’d hate to live in LA. Its fun to visit, but living there wouldn’t be so fun. Anybody know the connection between Fourth Wall Studios and 42 Entertainment? I hear different things on whether 42 Entertainment or Fourth Wall Studios have the credit for Year Zero (My personal favorite ARG so far) usually 42 though.

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