Why ARGs never worked

Back in November 2022 I gave a talk to students at Leeds Trinity University about transmedia storytelling, specifically around alternate reality games and electronic folklore. Researching the talk allowed me to explore my long-held fascination with ARGs.

The first ARG I heard about was The Beast, which was beautifully dissected by 50 Years of Text Adventures. The ARG initially looked like a new art form, an Internet-native way to tell stories: “the team began to see their scheme as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing art form for the new century, just as opera and cinema had been for earlier eras“. The form generated fanatical audiences – one puzzle from Perplex City was solved recently after 15 years of effort.

The most exciting thing for me was how ARGs told stories in the world. They merged reality and fiction, promising to make normal life a little more magical. I loved the idea of hosting stories within the world, of walking through them; how technology allowed ARGs to reach out to people through email or even phone calls.

But ARGs never took off, and I personally never got excited enough to chase them. One issue was the actual mechanics. I liked the idea of seeing symbols in the real world that led to an ongoing story, but the actual ARGs did not have the magic I longed for. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles so that is perhaps a part of it – I like the joy of solving something, but pitching the difficulty is tricky – too easy and it’s trivial, too hard and it’s frustrating.

This led to one of the problems with ARGs, that some of them had puzzles so hard that they could only be solved once. In a 2008 talk about ARGs, Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG, Dan Hon talked about the need for ‘casual’ ARGs with “short, snappy, fun gameplay”. The sort of thing that did not require people pooling obscure knowledge. As Hon said, “What the fuck kind of “normal person”… wants to de-steg a jpeg, or write a distributed brute force attack against military grade encryption? Jesus. Whatever happened to the kind of people who like playing Singstar? Or, you know, Snake”. Puzzles based on lute tablature are great, but they are not going to bring in many people. Without active communities, these games are basically unplayable.

The other problem with the games was scaling up to massive audiences. Some of the ARGs made use of personalised e-mails to players. The Dark Knight promotion famously baked cakes containing clues. Quoting Hon again, “It’s fine sending a cake to twenty people. You just try sending a cake to twenty thousand people though. Or twenty million”. This is “by intention an experience that can never scale to become a mass-market event“. Admittedly, the cake stunt brought a lot of vicarious delight, but then we’re back to the games relying on active community.

The games also quickly developed cliches, which were being clued out as past their sell-by date in 2008. Hon was harsh on codebreaking, secret societies, intrusive puzzles and treasure hunts (“I’ll smack the next person who proposes a treasure hunt and thinks it will make people play”). Another problem was hopping between platforms just for the sake of it.

A major point of contention was the boundary between the games and real life. I was fascinated by the idea of blurring these boundaries, but many ARG designers became obsessed with the idea of pretending the games were entirely real, and hiding all the seams – a technique known as TINAG, ‘this is not a game’. Dan Hon pointed out in a talk that ‘Alternate Reality’ is just a roundabout way of saying ‘fictional’. “No more “alternate reality” bullshit. We can use the word “fiction” or “story” instead, so normal people can understand us.” Later in the same talk, he said that ”ARGs are just things that you can play and that tell stories. ARG doesn’t mean anything.” Expending so much energy into pretending these things are entirely real is a waste of time.

I think there are many lessons that can be learned from ARGs. As Andrea Phillips said in an article on Atlas Obscura, “A lot of [the ARG] energy has gone into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.

The collaboration and investigation aspects of the games seemed to work better for explainers/investigations of TV shows like Lost where people would blog and discuss clues in the episodes – while most viewers ignored the actual ARGs that had been built around the game. People love looking for clues in serialised drama, and the ‘replayability’ of TV shows is much higher than for ARGs.

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One thought on “Why ARGs never worked”

  1. I think this needs further qualification – “Why ARGs never worked as a gaming business model”, perhaps. On another hand, the concepts behind ARGs haven’t necessarily gone away – you (or I?) may have read/linked to/quoted this before, but Adrian Hon’s piece linking the ARG mindset to QAnon is fascinating: https://www.wired.com/story/qanon-games-alternate-reality-conspiracy-theories/ and this BBC piece with him on the same subject also looks like it’s worth a read: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220920-why-your-life-could-be-part-of-someone-elses-game

    ARGs certainly hit something of an emergent internet zeitgeist, I think, in something of a cyberpunk “Future is Here!” way that exploded the idea that a game or a story was “in one place” – on a disc, in a book, or on a website – and out into the wider world of secret domains and a much fuzzier line between creator and audience. The co-creation aspect has arguably been taken up by other community-driven endeavours to create something (including possibly QAnon), while “official” gaming has moved to a parallel fragmentation, but one in which owning the platform is more important than the game itself – hence we see massive IPs such as Star Wars enter into the Fortnite universe, alongside (official and unofficial) community created content. It’s hard to tell whether a “game” such as Fortnite, Mario or Pokemon is now the game itself, or just our engagement with the characters across any medium possible.

    In that sense, the “open-world puzzle solving” that ARGs offered was more of a way of capturing what was happening anyway – a global, social effort to understand things and have fun at the same time. Maybe they “failed” because actually you can do a lot of that for free anyway – just join an active community and fire up a video editor to your heart’s content. I do think a lot of what you point out is definitely accurate though, the ARG “formula” was always going to be an inherently difficult one to scale – but maybe it was also just ahead of its time. There are certainly examples of massive online games which run in seasons, and which are fan-driven (or heavily influenced, in terms of direction of their universe narrative).

    Perhaps key to it is this gradual industry learning around how to use seasons more effectively, and how regular, global resets can be part of the social process (as well as the billing cycles)…

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