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Blurring the line between games and life

"Perplex City," a cryptic mix of Da Vinci Code mystery and video game logic, is generating buzz as latest "alternate-reality game." Images: Alternate-reality games

The first advertisement appeared in USA Today a week ago, right on schedule.

People from around the world had stayed up all night waiting for it, talking in chat rooms and online forums. It had to be a clue, they thought. Everything before it had been a clue.

"LOST. The Cube," read the ad, posted at the top of the paper's "Notices" section. "Reward Offered. Not only an object of great significance to the city but also a technological wonder."

News.context

What's new:
"Perplex City," a cryptic mix of Da Vinci Code mystery and video game logic, is generating buzz as the latest alternate-reality game.

Bottom line:
Alternate-reality gaming blends real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online community--and may be one of the most powerful guerrilla marketing mechanisms ever invented.

More stories on this topic

The cryptic notice, along with several subsequent ads in The New York Sun, The Times of London and Monday's Sydney Daily Telegraph, are the first tangible signs of a mystery called "Perplex City" beginning to unfold online.

It is the latest well-funded entry in a young medium called "alternate-reality gaming"--an obsession-inspiring genre that blends real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online community and may, incidentally, be one of the most powerful guerrilla marketing mechanisms ever invented.

These games are intensely complicated series of puzzles involving coded Web sites, real-world clues like the newspaper advertisements, phone calls in the middle of the night from game characters and more. That blend of real-world activities and a dramatic storyline has proven irresistible to many.

"It's a very addictive form of entertainment," said Steve Peters, a Las Vegas musician who is one of the founders of the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, a set of Web sites devoted to the topic. "People stay up all night; it really is very immersive."

It's exactly that dedication that has made alternate-reality games powerful marketing mechanisms. The two biggest games so far have been associated with products: Stephen Spielberg's "A.I." movie and Microsoft's "Halo 2." Advertising executives say it's a promising tool.

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"When other people are missionaries for your brand, you've got something special," said Jordan Fisher, director of brand planning at Perceive, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. "The brand becomes something much bigger, has a purpose rather than being just another product on the shelf."

To many players, that marketing role barely matters, however. If the experience in an alternate-reality game, or ARG, is good, that's all that matters, they say.

"If done by the right people, ARGs of any style can be amazing things," said Geoffrey May, a player from Canada. "Whether it's selling something or it's just for fun, most ARGers simply enjoy the game itself."

Transformed reality or underhanded trick?
Indeed, the appeal of playing the games--and of writing them, their authors say--is that the lines between what's real and what's part of the game quickly become blurred. It can be an extraordinarily paranoia-inducing experience.

As part of the run-up to Perplex City, known as "Project Syzygy," a series of postcards began appearing around the world. Several have been found randomly in Bologna, Italy, and North Carolina. They have a painting of a city scene on them and a series of coded messages on the back.

Players quickly realized that the lit windows of the building translated into "Hello World" in binary code. The "stamp" was an electronically readable barcode translating into "www.PerplexCity.com."

The significance of several series of numbers on the cards remains unknown, however--and that's where the paranoia is running high. One number was an anagram of 2012, the year that London is hoping to host the Olympics. Players visited the London Olympics Web page and found quickly that it had been created by a Web design company called "Syzygy."

A coincidence? Probably. But the players aren't sure.

The collective mind has come up with sometimes astonishing information, however. One series of digits featured in an early teaser advertisement was deciphered as the ISBN number of science fiction author William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition," with specific words on certain pages spelling out a message.

The community has even found the exact street in Japan where a video associated with the game was filmed. What that means, if anything, remains to be seen.

Bees, Beasts and the grassroots
The alternate-reality games have their roots in role-playing, in old text video games like "Zork," and in real-life geocaching, treasure hunts played with GPS, or Global Positioning System, devices. But their modern incarnation really began as a promotion for "A.I." and an associated marketing promotion led by employees at Microsoft.

Spielberg's studio contracted with Microsoft employees Jordan Weisman and Elan Lee to create "The Beast," a game that expanded on "A.I.'s" themes and story. For weeks a convoluted story unfolded that ultimately led back to the movie, but not before prompting thousands of people to collaborate on often fiendishly difficult puzzles with themes ranging from microbiology to the Japanese game "Go."

Lee and writer Sean Stewart set the pace for later games, creating hundreds of fake Web sites with thousands of pages, which--even if hacked and studied--all held coded clues to the story.

Their second big project, called "ILoveBees," was done as a promotion for Microsoft's "Halo 2" video game, with the story starting from an artificial intelligence inhabiting an otherwise innocuous Web site about bees. Relying less on puzzles, that game required players to work together to be at specific phone booths at certain times in order to get information that would help unlock pieces of the story.

Lee has been nominated for an innovation award at the upcoming Game Developers' Choice Awards ceremony. Both he and Stewart say they see the medium as a developing art form--even if it's equivalent to moviemaking in 1903--rather than simply a convoluted promotional vehicle.

"The Internet basically is about searching for things and gossiping, and we invented a way to tell stories that's about searching for things and gossiping," Stewart said. "It is a much nicer way to deliver art across the platform."

"The Internet basically is about searching for things and gossiping, and we invented a way to tell stories that's about searching for things and gossiping."
--Sean Stewart, writer

Indeed, game aficionados have already created a handful of grassroots games that have attracted a smaller number of players, training a generation of people who may be able to perpetuate the medium outside of corporate sponsorship.

It's too early to tell exactly how Perplex City will play out. Its story, as far as people now know, revolves around the theft of an artifact called "The Cube" from a civilization that may or may not exist in a parallel dimension to ours, and may or may not have been studying and visiting ours.

What information is known has come out during the last year or so in coded, teasing online puzzles. Nobody knows exactly who's behind it, or whether it's intended to sell something. According to a video posted on the game's Web site, clues will keep appearing in newspapers through March 21, and then it's anybody's guess as to what happens.

"Everyone in the community I'm involved with is quite impatiently awaiting the 'game' to start," May said. "People are analyzing and overanalyzing previous analyses and speculation for alternate answers to puzzles, fighting to believe that something has been missed."