Alternate-reality games flourish at the grassroots

While big ARGs like I Love Bees and The Beast get most of the ink, there has been a steady stream of games built for very small audiences, without corporate sponsorship.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
A photo of a meeting between a participant in Must Love Robots, a small-scale alternate-reality game put on recently by the New York duo, Awkward Hug, and the game's signature robot. Flickr user Tim Scribbles

For Kiaya Steele, the men in suits and dark glasses who appeared suddenly through the raindrops of a New Hampshire morning were the first sign that something very unusual was going on.

One of the men stood under an umbrella next to the car Steele and her friend Kellin had been riding in moments earlier and delivered a message. As Kelli's sister Jenna was brought out of a second car that had pulled up mysteriously behind them, Steele was told that if she couldn't quickly prove that she was "the real Kiaya," the bomb planted inside Jenna would explode.

And this was just the tip of the iceberg of a day spent driving all around the countryside, complete with vans, staple guns, cameramen in trees, threats, red phone booths, and a series of hidden clues.

But this wasn't a situation for the FBI. Rather, it was a very small-scale--and low-tech--version of what is known as an alternate-reality game, an entertainment genre that has grown in popularity in recent years, especially because its traditional use of mixed-media--the Web, cell phones, social media, and others--can allow large numbers of people to play together collaboratively.

Over the years, the games have become a favorite marketing tool of large companies like Microsoft, which has commissioned huge ARGs, as they're known, for the launches of things like the video game Halo 2 and Windows Vista. Indeed, the first widely known ARG was called The Beast, and was used as a promotion for the release of the Steven Spielberg film "AI: Artificial Intelligence."

Those versions of ARGs have seven-figure budgets and allow thousands of people to participate. Yet while they get most of the ink written about ARGs, there has long been a steady stream of games built for very small audiences or, as in the case of Steele and the friend with a "bomb" insider her, an audience of one. It turned out that the intrigue was all part of a day-long mystery concocted by Steele's boyfriend, and involving several of their friends, as part of an elaborate marriage proposal.

"It's such a cool format, and the people who can make it through a whole one of these get an experience that no other media can provide."
--Jim Babb, founder of the AGR Awkward Hug

"We use a lot of fictional analogies in our lives--gangsters in an alley (and) later in the quest there was a Soviet scientist, all themes that had played out in our courtship," Steele recalled. "We would write stories of sorts to one another before we dated. We'd take an image and run with it until it was too tired to move anymore. The whole thing was kind of a collaboration of our lives together."

Given that the game Steele's new fiance planned for his proposal had such a small audience, it was, to be sure, at the extreme end of the size and complexity spectrum for ARGs. But at any given moment, there are several ARGs being played that have slightly larger, yet still very small, numbers of participants. And it is these games, usually carried out at minimal expense and with no deep-pocketed sponsor, that may well be the true lifeblood of the increasingly popular world of ARGs.

And while there are practical limits to the kinds of interactions that are possible between the people running the larger games--the so-called puppetmasters--and the players, these smaller adventures offer everyone involved a much greater chance at direct communication.

"There are quite a few people making [small] ARGs, either without profit in mind or marketing [who are] saying, 'Look at me, I can do this,'" said Michael Andersen, who runs ARGNet, the leading source for news and information about the genre. "The motivations for a lot of these things vary. [One] advantage of doing these grassroots games is working for yourself. [And], it becomes a lot easier to have those one-on-one interactions [and the] feeling that not only can you communicate, but you can change what's going on" for fans.

Robot love
Earlier this year, a New York duo calling themselves Awkward Hug built and pulled off a small-scale ARG called Must Love Robots, which was centered around the idea of helping make love connections between people and robots.

Through a series of Web sites, social media, YouTube videos and more, Awkward Hug founders Jim Babb and Tanner Ringerud turned a $3,000 budget into a 3-month-long game with at least 300 participants.

Babb said that the project, which was entirely self-funded, came out of an original desire to create a Web series about a robot. But when the two realized that they could "make it so much more" by adding the various multimedia elements, they set out to build a bona fide ARG, one that would allow them to communicate directly with almost anyone who wanted to talk with them, even to the point of playing online games of Scrabble. And, of course, there were real-world meetings between prospective "dates" and the game's signature robot (see video below).

Given the huge gap in size between a large-scale ARG and something like Must Love Robots, it might be surprising that many of the ultimate goals are the same. It certainly was to Babb.

"What surprised me the most," Babb said, was that "players want more and they want to do things with you. It becomes a collaboration. The audience becomes characters."

And while it's not always possible for everyone to participate in person--Must Love Robots attracted players from around the world--one of the great things about the ARG genre is how many people who play do participate directly in one way or another. In Babb and Ringerud's game, for example, 20 people created costumes related to the story line and sent in pictures of themselves wearing the outfits, all of which were intended to be folded into the larger story line.

Kids creators
A different kind of small-scale ARG was Find Chesia, a project put on by the Finksburg, Md., library on behalf of its local schoolchildren and their summer reading program.

The story, said organizer Heather Owings, was centered on the story of Chesia, a 14-year-old girl whose parents have gone missing on an archaeological dig and who sets out to find them. The game was designed by five small teams of 11- to 15-year-olds.

Like with many small-scale ARGs, Find Chesia encountered a series of structural problems, most notably, Owings said, the fact that the kids turned out to be resistant--mainly due to regular conditioning about the dangers of online anonymity--to the idea of posting information in character to the game's Web site. In addition, there was the unforeseen problem that almost none of the kids were old enough to drive to the game's real-world locations.

This bracelet is an important element in the ARG, Finding Chesia, which was put on by a Maryland library on behalf of a town's schoolchildren and their summer reading program. Finding Chesia

Still, the game was successful enough for Owings to want to run the game again next summer, incorporating some of the lessons they learned this year. And despite the problems, Owings said that she came away with an appreciation for what the ARG genre can offer its organizers and participants.

"I like that ARGs use tools that were set up to do something else, and they're used to create something new," Owings said. "It's the taking of something and changing it and using it for something it wasn't intended [for] in a new and creative way."

Plus, she said, Finding Chesia turned out to be a perfect way to get the kids in on the enjoyment of building their own game, even though they lacked many of the skills generally considered necessary for such a task.

"It's a way for teens to create their own game," Owings said, "and we really enjoyed that aspect of it...They don't need to be computer programmer [and] here is a way for them to take ownership for creating a game on a fairly small level. [As well, it] helps them to realize how much the Internet does facilitate networking within the community, as well as outside the community."

These days, said ARGNet's Andersen, there are at least as many small, grassroots ARGs being produced as the larger, corporate-backed games. And those numbers could grow as an increasing number of people become versed in the tools for building them. According to Andersen, teachers at the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Mary Washington are both teaching classes about ARGs.

But the real upside in the genre's growth will come naturally, as more people in more local communities get exposed to ARGs and discover the joy of playing something truly interactive and truly collaborative.

And while it's true that most small ARGs quickly peter out as players and organizers discover that they don't have the time or energy to follow through, there are those who feel that the ultimate payoff of participating is there for anyone with the stamina or commitment to grab it.

"For an independent ARG, the most successful thing you can do is complete it and have your core audience go all the way through," said Awkward Hug's Babb. "It's such a cool format, and the people who can make it through a whole one of these get an experience that no other media can provide."