This ARG Brought to You by the US Intelligence Community?

internet_archiveIn recent years, the United States Government has launched a number of experiments in alternate reality games and collective intelligence. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of ARPANET in 2009, the Department of Defense hid ten red weather balloons across the country with a $40,000 prize to the first organization to verify the location of all ten balloons. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded an alternate reality game designed to help set Hawaii’s pandemic priorities. And now, the intelligence community is interested in exploring how alternate reality games could serve as a platform for social, behavioral, and psychological research.

As initially reported on WIRED’s Danger Room blog, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) issued a Request for Information on “Using Alternate Reality Environments to Help Enrich Research Efforts” (UAREHERE). IARPA is particularly interested in collecting information on the practicalities of running research in tandem with alternate reality games, managing privacy and safety concerns amongst alternate reality game players, and designing a game that balances free play and interactions with more controlled data collection.

Particularly intriguing is the RFI’s final question on preserving the privacy of UAREHERE’s participants, asking:

What protections can be put in place to maintain the privacy, safety, and anonymity of subjects…consider[ing] issues regarding the collection of data via personal identifiers that may be sensitive (e.g. user names, phone numbers, emails, IP addresses, etc.), other data that may potentially be sensitive, and data security and protections[?]

The RFI explicitly mentions our coverage of Conspiracy for Good on WIRED as an example of the type of project it is interested in pursuing for research purposes, so those security concerns may cross over from digital touchpoints to real world interactions. Conspiracy for Good‘s gameplay included a series of four live events that called upon participants to use mobile devices provided by the developers to navigate the narrative.

IARPA was created in 2006, focusing on investing in “high-risk, high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide the United States with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries” with programs that run between 3-5 years. The RFI for UAREHERE was issued under the Office of Smart Collection, which focuses on improving the value of collected data to intelligence communities.

While this RFI does not guarantee a government-run alternate reality game in the near future, it does provide an outlet for players and developers to voice their thoughts on best practices, particularly regarding privacy and research concerns. The deadline for responses is April 19th, electronically submitted following the guidelines in the RFI.


  1. Jenna

    This is a fascinating take on serious ARGs. I look forward to hearing about the results. I can’t even decide if I’d play in a government run ARG. Might be too weird.

  2. Ariock Knight

    “The Government does not intend to award a contract on the basis of this RFI or to otherwise pay for the information solicited, nor is the Government obligated to issue a solicitation based on responses received.”

    @Jenna one of the points of the RFI is making an ARG where you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s by the government.
    “5. How might subject recruitment, screening, and informed consent be performed for an ARE/ARG, while limiting priming effects that may occur when explaining the purpose of a research study?”

    They say “informed consent” but that doesn’t necessarily = knowing who is behind the game.

  3. Carrie Cutforth-Young

    Last week, I was contacted by IARPA for this very RFI. I was one of the hardcore players of Conspiracy for Good and am a transmedia producer as well.

    This is my public response to the 6 questions they’ve asked in which I dish some of the “little known” dirt on Conspiracy for Good that I’ve held back on publicly as well as draw upon my experiences with Zed.To/Byologyc, Veil Nanoscience, and Toronto 2010 G20 Summit.

  4. Eoku

    Intelligence Advanced Research Agency = IARPA? Where is the ‘P’?

  5. Michael Andersen

    Eoku, you’re right: that should read Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. We’ve revised the article accordingly.