Stories that change reality

One of the best newsletters I’m reading right now is 50 years of text adventures. Rather than focussing exclusively on computer games, the series has given glimpses of a revolution in literature that never quite happened (see for example Galatea, Screen or Patchwork Girl). There have also been some great stories, such as how young programmers in communist Czechoslovakia used videogames as subversive art. And then there is 1992’s Silverwolf, whose background is so weird that it defies summary.

I had wondered what the series would write about as it approached the present era, when text adventures have become a less important genre. The recent posts have presented some innovative and fascinating ideas. One I’ve particularly loved is the piece about 2001 Alternate Reality Game (ARG) The Beast.

The Beast was a puzzle game marketing the movie AI, with clues in movie trailers, websites and on answer phones. Players from around the world collaborated to solve the puzzles. While I never played it myself, I remember being amazed by the possibility this had for story-telling. It had around 3 million players and led to a whole series of other ARGs.

Reading around this led to listening to a series of interviews with Joseph Matheny who produced what is likely the first ARG, Ong’s Hat. This was a story about a strange cult, told across a series of different media. There was a good summary of this in Gizmodo’s article Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real. The idea was that a community of physicists had collaborated with a group of mystics to produce a portal between dimensions. The story was seeded over years, including a zine article by Hakim Bey in the early 90s. Interestingly, one of the people involved was Nick Herbert, whose book Quantum Reality was one of the main inspirations for me studying physics.

In a long podcast interview with Project Archivist, Matheney spoke about Ong’s Hat and how it emerged through his thinking about how to use the Internet as a story-telling medium. Refences to Ong’s Hat were placed in zines and on bulletin boards, and fake publications were listed in a rare books catalogue called The Incunabula. They even went as far as photocopying articles and leaving them in coffee shops and concert venues. In 1999, Matheney was able to produce an ebook that collected together all these sources. Within a few years, Matheney shut down the project, as a number of people were becoming convinced it was real, and behaving dangerously.

Matheney has also admitted to being a consultant to the people behind time-traveller John Titor. He also worked on Majestic, a 2001 ARG from Electronic Arts (there’s a good summary from Wired in May 2001 – the game was shutdown to security concerns after September 11th)

One of the things I love about these ARGs is the way that they merge fiction with reality. There’s something Borgesian about them – not just in the combinations of reality and fiction, but also in the way that some of Borges’ fake citations turned up in real contexts. This has a negative side too – some of the conspiracists who are into Ong’s Hat have refused to acknowledge that it was a work of art. There was also a claim by Adrian Hon that QAnon is structured like an ARG. It’s interesting to see how the iteration/repetition of fictions can have an affect on their reality.

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