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.”
Birth of a Term
While The Beast was the name that eventually stuck as the name for Microsoft’s grand experiment in storytelling, that moniker was an internal working title created by the developers to recognize the 666 assets that went into the game’s initial launch. To the players discussing the game in the Cloudmakers Yahoo Group, it was simply called “The Game.” In June 2001, a new trailer for the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence came out with red letters spelling out “THIS IS NOT A GAME.” Former Cloudmakers moderator Andrea Phillips reflected on seeing those words for the first time, explaining,
It wasn’t a game in the conventional sense. So when [this is not a game] came up in that trailer, it felt like [the developers had] been listening in on all that talk and laid down the law: This was…something…but a game was not it. We eventually started using it as a shorthand to remind one another that the game was going to act like a real thing as much as it could, when we were talking spec or trying to solve something. Nothing was out of the reach of possibility.
From the player perspective, the phrase “this is not a game” was viewed as further evidence that the game’s developers were closely monitoring its fans and as a signal that this was something new.
During his TEDxSeattle talk on the Evolution of Storytelling, The Beast co-creator Elan Lee echoed many of Phillips’ sentiments, explaining that
scattered throughout [The Beast], I kept inserting this phrase: this is not a game. And the reason that I kept putting it in, it seemed very important to me at the time to say as boldly as I could, “this is not a game, this is real, I’m going to tell you exactly what this is, what it isn’t, and how you as the audience should experience.”
The initial ideal was an attempt to provide contextual framing for a nascent form of storytelling. Six to Start CEO Adrian Hon, a former Cloudmakers moderater himself, viewed the phrase as having two complementary aspects. “This is not a game” was an acknowledgment that The Beast didn’t have any of the explicit trappings of a game. There were no instructions on how to play and no overt signals telling people where to start. It also came to represent the Microsoft team’s refusal to publicly acknowledge their involvement with the game, despite enterprising fans uncovering hints at that involvement through website registration data. The term’s origins, however, were highly personal to The Beast itself.
Codification of the Term
As alternate reality games developed, the term took root and became viewed as a necessary element of alternate reality games. Jane McGonigal offered the “this is not a game” rhetoric as the defining factor of immersive games, noting that these games “do everything in their power to erase game boundaries — physical, temporal and social — and to obscure the metacommunications that might otherwise announce, ‘This is play.'”
While The Beast is the dominant origin story for alternate reality games, parallel streams have produced equally compelling modes of storytelling. One of the most prolific alternate reality gaming developers, Dave Szulborski, discovered the genre through Electronic Arts’ ill-fated Majestic campaign. Even Szulborski embraced “this is not a game” as being synonymous with alternate reality games. In his book on the subject, Szulborski defines alternate reality games as
a game of sorts, that takes place on the Internet, although it’s nothing at all like most Internet or video games you may have played in the past. In fact, one of the main goals of an ARG is to deny and disguise the fact that it is a game at all. This is what the community of immersive gaming fans and creators embrace as the main principle of Alternate reality Gaming and what has come to be called the TINAG philosophy, for This Is Not A Game.
An Often Misunderstood Term
At its heart, all the mantra “this is not a game” is calling for is the willful suspension of disbelief for the sake of a story. As The Beast co-creator Sean Stewart explained in his ARGFest keynote address, “a book has a frame…a box. Between the covers, disbelief is suspended. Outside the covers, disbelief is not suspended…an alternate reality game asks you to extend that bubble of suspension of disbelief into your actual life. That’s a very delicate membrane.”
Although a literal reading of the mantra denies this central truth, alternate reality games are still games. They merely ask players to extend their suspension of disbelief across media, in exchange for a more engrossing narrative. There’s an expectation with fiction that characters won’t openly confront their audiences with their fictionality, even in more interactive media like video games and theatrical performances. Similarly, there’s a responsibility on the part of participants not to force those characters to confront their fictional natures.
With The Beast, the team at Microsoft chose to facilitate that suspension of disbelief by deliberately neglecting to offer rules for their game and by keeping their identities secret throughout the experience. And while companies like 42 Entertainment still maintain that practice to great effect, it is a design choice that is not essential for alternate reality games. Indeed, as Adrian Hon explains, “a couple of years after The Beast, I began thinking that the term was being seriously misunderstood by designers, who thought it meant that any successful ARG must also adhere to the ‘TINAG’ rules [of not acknowledging its status as a game and refusing to publicly acknowledge involvement].”
Stich Media partner Evan Jones offers the clearest explanation of the underlying philosophy behind “this is not a game” in his TEDxHalifax talk, where he explains,
Alternate reality games really excited me because, at their core, was something I never saw before. The characters believed they were real. And because they believed they were real, they demanded interaction out here in the real world. So in order to participate in an alternate reality game, you had to believe they were real too. You had to play along so that your reality matched their alternate reality, or the story just wouldn’t happen.
Of course, along with that belief comes a responsibility on the part of the developers. Elan Lee summarizes that responsibility as the promise: “we will never make you feel stupid for believing us. We’re going to ask you to do insane things…and if you ever feel like you are stupid for believing us, we have utterly failed.” In The Beast, the team at Microsoft doggedly worked to earn that trust by following what came to be viewed as the “this is not a game” philosophy. However, many of the individuals behind the project went on to earn that trust through their personal and corporate reputations.
Time to Admit This Is A Game
As alternate reality games have evolved over the years, the term “this is not a game” has fallen into disuse, only to be dredged up by new players and aspiring game developers who stumble across the philosophy and view it as permission to embrace storytelling without rules or boundaries. It’s time to move on.
I’m not saying that all games should abandon the format established by The Beast: some of the most popular alternate reality games currently running, like Marble Hornets, have built upon The Beast‘s aesthetic admirably. However, I am arguing that it’s time to admit that an aesthetic choice is not a requirement: that games like Legends of Alcatraz that openly broadcast their sponsorship deserve an equal seat at the table and that alternate reality games have evolved to embrace a wider spectrum of gameplay types.