I honestly couldn’t tell you how many secret societies I’ve joined in the past decade. After going through a series of harrowing tasks, I’ve managed to accrue at least tentative membership status in secret societies like Sentry Outpost, the Jejune Institute, PLUS ULTRA, the Leap Year Society, the Gray Matter Sodality, the Koschei Society, Pizza Time Pizza (not a cult), and the Conspiracy for Good. Within the last month alone, I was initiated into the first circle of the Cipher Organization and restarted my application process for the Leap Year Society. Recently, however, there has been a surge of influencer-driven ARGs that provide a different model.
The First Rule of Fight Club Doesn’t Lend Itself to Virality
Secret societies are a bit of a trope within the alternate reality gaming space, and for good reason: investigating and infiltrating secret societies gives a diagetic excuse for locking information behind a series of puzzles and challenges. Want to know what’s really going on by joining the fictional cult? Complete the initiation ritual first, proving that you’re worthy of admittance into an elite circle. Ferreting out evidence from an evil organization operating out of a series of fronts? Find vulnerabilities in their systems, and then pore through confidential documents to find incontrovertible proof of their malfeasance.
While secret societies make a perfect narrative construct for ARGs, the trope also creates barriers to encouraging players to share the alternate reality game without stepping out of the narrative. Prospective secret society members shouldn’t proudly proclaim “I joined another secret society today” on social media – those recruitment efforts are best conveyed by surreptitiously passing notes at coffee shops, or through whispered conversations in church pews at an abandoned church. And when the organizations are evil, publicizing their crimes becomes outright dangerous, within the narrative conceit.
The Early Days of ARG Celebrity: Fictional Vlogging
Back in 2006, the most subscribed YouTube channel on the platform belonged to Bree Avery, a 15-year old girl who vlogged from her bedroom, with a little help from her friend Daniel. As Bree’s videos continued, viewers gradually realized that that her channel, lonelygirl15, was telling a fictional narrative about a secret society looking to drain the blood of “trait-positive” girls to extend their lifespans.
This framework is fairly typical in alternate reality games: first, set up a character to be the protagonist of the story. Then, enlist the audience to serve as the protagonist’s archetypal best friend, providing guidance, assistance, and moral support as the story progresses.
Bree Avery wasn’t constructed with the expectation that she would assume the role of an influencer, although the fame her character acquired in the game’s early months meant she quickly adapted to the role thrust upon her by an eager fan base. While lonelygirl15 engaged in product placement multiple times, Bree didn’t directly acknowledge the product placements or her status as an influencer in any of the episodes.
Like, Comment, Subscribe, and Share For All the Dad Feels
A year and a half ago, Nathan Barnatt launched Dad Feels on YouTube, centered around the simple yet lovable “Dad”. All Dad wants in life is to become the most subscribed YouTube channel ever. And over the past few months, he has shamelessly chased YouTube verticals to make it happen. Looking for some gaming content? Dad’s on Minecraft, with a series of Dadcraft videos. Looking for YouTube drama? Dad’s RealiTea series kicks off rivalries with half of the YouTubers who review Dad, and forms tentative alliances with the other half. Dad dabbles in ASMR, drops some lo-fi synthwave beats to study to, and even explores the “AniTuber” anime review scene.
At a surface level, Dad Feels is a project where the primary method of “helping” Dad is to follow him across every platform, drive his metrics up, and encourage other people to check Dad out. The primary goal of Dad Feels is to get more people interested in Dad Feels. Scattered throughout the Minecraft Let’s Plays, ASMR videos, and YouTube feuds, a complex narrative revolving around a space explorer named Captain Andan Rill whose consciousness was implanted into a series of “DadBot” robots for as-yet-unknown reasons.
Dad Feels‘ narrative acts are controlled by hitting subscriber milestones – Act I wrapped up after Dad hit 10K subscribers. Act II concluded after the channel reached 80K subscribers, and Act III came to an end when Dad “went quantum” at 100K subscribers. The end of every arc comes with a cinematic video providing greater clarity into the unfolding narrative.
While traditional ARGs might cast audience members in the role of best friend, Dad Feels instead positions the viewer solidly into the role of fan: spreading the word of Dad is a primary method of engagement, and Dad’s YouTube vertical-hopping videos serve as a tool in fans’ arsenals to lure in new subscribers, before introducing them to the broader narrative.
I Am Sophie: The Influencer You Love to Hate
Six months ago, the YouTuber Leon Lush received a tip about a new influencer hitting the scene, claiming to be the “Queen of YouTube”. The channel’s name? I Am Sophie. The first few videos introduced Sophie to viewers as a parody of the Rich Kids of Instagram scene, as she takes viewers on a tour of her father’s private jet, hawks an overpriced casual fashion line, and makes a half-hearted attempt to prove she can live on £10 for a day. Sophie’s channel does everything in its power to try and make you dislike her, so that when supernatural horror elements start to infiltrate the narrative, viewers view her trials and tribulations as a spectator sport.
The first act of I Am Sophie is only 7 episodes long, and presents a standalone morality play documenting the fall of celebrity, and players embrace that role. The final chapter’s comments section for Act I shows very little sympathy for Sophie, with comments dripping with snark. In a video ostensibly offering a hairband tutorial before things turn south, the top comment reacts to the video’s dramatic turn with a wry “Ok but I’m sitting here with a half finished funky headband”. I Am Sophie manufactures the mob justice mentality that sees the internet so often embrace influencers knocked from their pedestals as the vicarious thrill of viewing.
It’s only after seeing Sophie’s fate that the narrative jumps back in time to show the events leading up to Act 1 through the more sympathetic eyes of Lara, who is everything that Sophie is not. I Am Sophie chased and embraced influencer status not so that fans would love her, but so they could dehumanize her enough to brush aside her suffering.
Influencer Culture As Narrative: From Simulacra to Absolutely Remarkable Things
Dad Feels and I Am Sophie present two diametrically opposed methods of using online influencer culture to serve as the backbone of interactive narratives, at a mechanical level. For Dad, players are empowered to build him up: doing so creates a feedback loop of positive response from Dad as a character, and narrative expansion from Dad Feels as an experience. For Sophie, players exist to witness her downfall, and her online influencer status is what grants players the space to take pleasure in her situation without requiring as much suspension of disbelief. While influencer culture serves a valuable purpose at the mechanical level, it also features increasingly prominent roles in the narratives themselves.
Kaigan Games created a series of single player ARG experiences centered around a series of lost phones: gameplay is driven by players gradually exploring the virtual devices and piecing together the lives of a series of missing persons. Sara is Missing was released in 2016, followed by Simulacra in 2019. Both of these stories focus on regular girls, thrust into the extraordinary. But with 2020’s Simulacra 2, the missing person at the center of the case is an aspiring online influencer. As players explore they phone, they get to vicariously experience the fictional reality of life as an influencer, without having to be in the driver’s seat themself.
Hank Green’s Carls series approaches the subject of influencers head on, and uses alternate reality games as the context that gives shape to that influencer status. In his first book, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Hank introduces a Dream world full of challenges to solve – a task a global network of players band together to tackle. The story’s protagonists may assume the role of influencers, but their relationship with that community is more nuanced than the term “influencer” implies. The sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, re-invents the alternate reality game as a solution for players still looking for that high they experienced solving the Dream, offering an alternate universe’s take on the directions ARGs could have taken.
Reality games were like escape rooms or scavenger hunts, but they were ongoing and took place everywhere…puzzle masters distribute the game through the internet, physical spaces, and sometimes people. You pay a monthly fee to always be on the lookout for your next clue, whether it comes through the mail, through a chance encounter with a stranger, or on your doorstep accompanied by a cryptic text message.A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, page 14
Once again, the book’s protagonists step into familiar roles of influencers…but this time, their interactions with players take on a different shape.
It’s Influencers All the Way Down: When ARG Exposure Is Mediated Through Others
Even the simplest of alternate reality games are complex beasts, with narratives developing across both format and time, with stories unfolding across multiple channels over the course of months or even years. Because of this, even the most active players will frequently experience ARGs as oral histories as much as lived experiences.
Once players of Dispatches From Elsewhere‘s New Noology Network alternate reality game realized they were engaging with a spiritual successor to The Jejune Institute, a new batch of players pored over written accounts and even interviewed alumni of the prior experience to learn more about how the game. While the source material was rendered unplayable due to the passage of almost a decade, oral histories gave players a route towards engaging with the new story. Limited by access, Unknown 9 players relied on attendees of a Leap Year Society initiation at the McKittrick Hotel to tell their experiences navigating a surreal narrative tapestry, stitching together multiple accounts to learn more about the game’s factions, and why a “Drifter” might interrupt events. A small cadre of players were empowered to become the storytellers for the broader community.
The first alternate reality game I followed, I Love Bees, was experienced exclusively through those mediated experiences. I learned about the game when I was watching the 2004 Presidential Debates in Arizona, because a group of players from the area staged a fake protest, holding up signs featuring a cartoon bee. That player-driven event led me to the New York Times’ coverage of the game (and protest). And while I did eventually listen to the ARG’s six-hour audio drama, even that was mediated through players, who used context clues to stitch together an accessible listening order that made the most narrative sense. My experience with one of the most well known games in the ARG space never once touched the actual source material. And yet, I still had that experience, thanks to those mediated stories and retellings.
Earlier this year, I gave a talk at Narrascope about how players’ experiences with alternate reality games are frequently and increasingly filtered down to ARG audiences through influencers, expanding on ARGNet’s prior coverage on the subject. One of the examples I referenced was I Am Sophie. At the time, more people experienced the story of I Am Sophie through coverage from ARG review channels like Loey Lane and Night Mind than people watching the videos directly. One method of engaging with the story isn’t superior to the other: it’s just providing multiple levels for the curious to explore.
And so, we have influencers re-contextualizing games centered around influencers as characters, leveraging influencer models of interaction to shape the gameplay. Sometimes, when falling down the rabbit hole, it really is influencers all the way down.