First Monday

Storytelling in new media: The case of alternate reality games, 2001–2009

New media allows previously passive consumers to tell and shape stories together. Yet most information is still disseminated in a top–down fashion, without taking advantage of the features enabled by new media. This paper presents five Alternate Reality Game (ARG) case studies which reveal common features and mechanisms used to attract and retain diverse players, to create task–focused communities and to solve problems collectively. Voluntary, collective problem solving is an intriguing phenomenon wherein disparate individuals work together asynchronously to solve problems together. ARGs also take advantage of the unique features of new media to craft stories that could not be told using other media.


1. Introduction
2. Evolution of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)
3. Five ARGs between 2001 and 2009
4. Distinctive findings from five ARG cases
5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

“If people knew what to do with a [cognitive] surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.” — Clay Shirky, “Cognitive Surplus,” 2009 Web 2.0 Conference.

Why would teams across the U.S. show up at payphones in costume, waiting for the phone to ring (See Figure 1)? Why would groups show up at cemeteries the world over, ready to play poker? How can widely disparate individuals collectively solve problems? This paper answers the first two questions, and seeks to provide a framework for analyzing the third.

In particular, we examine the case study of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) as an example of collective problem solving and a new genre of storytelling. A new form of media that contains new delivery mechanisms creates new opportunities for storytelling, and the seemingly special case of Alternate Reality Games provides valuable clues to how and why storytelling is becoming more interactive and participatory.


Figure 1: A group of players waiting to answer a pay phone during an ARG
Figure 1: A group of players waiting to answer a pay phone during an ARG.


The emergence of new media and increasing access to technology has changed how we can interact and solve problems. New media are Web and mobile phone tools that allow users to participate and contribute to affinity groups, enabling users to design and collaborate within collective experiences. Most uses of new media have not exploited the fundamental structural changes at its core.

As usual, digital games are on the forefront of this technology use, creating and shaping various attempts to use new media in pursuit of different objectives. Alternate Reality Games are specifically designed to tap into the power of collective problem solving through powerful stories and participatory mechanisms. These participatory mechanisms extend digital gaming to incorporate aspects of ‘Reality’ in the form of text messages, phone calls, instant messages and real world meetings.

At heart, all people love stories and seek to interpret the world through comprehensible narratives ranging from the intensely personal to the future of the species. One type of story is a game, which historically has been a diverting pastime shared by groups, with at least one winner in a competition. Every year, more and more people are exposed to digital games, and a recent estimate claims that they are played by over half of American adults (MacGill, 2008).

Meanwhile, participatory collective mechanisms for disseminating and creating information have exploded. This “new” media includes wikis, blogs and commenting mechanisms, which allows constant feedback and participation on the part of the “audience.” These tools have not yet reached their full potential. In the context of ARGs, they allow for vastly increased data for game designers to shape more powerful, moving experiences.

From Minesweeper to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, more and more people are exposed to and excited about digital games. Digital social experiences are becoming more and more common, and games have emerged as a genre that often takes advantage of features of new media to hook and retain players.

However, the stereotype of gamers is that they are geeks and freaks. The stereotype of the lone, asocial, male gamer is pervasive, but also disproven (Osborne, 2003; Williams, et al., 2008). Gamer self–reports reveal that they get more exercise and are less overweight than average Americans (Williams, et al., 2008). On personality measures, they also score more extraverted, open, and conscientious, than non–game players (Teng, 2008). People often play with people they know, turning the game into a social experience (Teng, 2008) and often make, confirm and maintain friendships and relationships through gaming (Cole and Griffiths, 2007).

The social aspect of gaming is evident in certain types of games, particularly those not limited by a console. For the past few years, a new kind of game has been amping up the social aspects of gaming by intertwining games with real life. The driving force behind these games is to bring groups of people together, online and physically, in sharing and shaping a story. One name for this type of experience is an Alternate Reality Game (or ARG). These experiences involve real world clues, information and people.

For instance, Last Call Poker started as a virtual poker table, where anyone could play for free. It evolved into a team–based game played in cemeteries throughout the world. Millions of people around the world have participated in the most successful of these games, and more play every year.

ARGs encourage players to participate in an emerging collective story to motivate particular types of behavior and encourage the formation of social groups. Players participate because they find the story fascinating, and the social network encourages them to continue to participate, team up and work for recognition. Instead of passively witnessing entertainment, players take part and shape their own interactive, collective experience. However, ARG designers focus very strongly on the story at the heart of the game. They use new media to reveal and shape collective stories, with amazing results.

In this paper, we consider ARGs as an example of digital social experiences. These games take advantage of new media, often draw participants from around the world and frequently require collective problem solving. For these reasons, we view ARGs as a phenomenon that utilizes the current capabilities of digital social experiences, rather than conforming to older production models. We believe that many industries can learn from the best practices and lessons of ARGs to similarly take advantage of new media and collective problem–solving.



2. Evolution of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)

2.1. Definitions

Definitions of the term ARG are few and far in between, and tend to be a narrative rather than a concise description. Game designers frequently reject the term ARG altogether, saying that the form is still evolving and they don’t want to be limited by a definition yet. However, here are definitions we find interesting:

From Jane McGonigal, ARG researcher: “an interactive drama played out online and in real world spaces, taking place over several weeks or months, in which dozens, hundreds, thousands of players come together online, form collaborative social networks, and work together to solve a mystery or problem that would be absolutely impossible to solve alone.” (McGonigal, 2008)

From Wikipedia, “Alternate Reality Games:” “An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.”

From “Save Hazel,” an ARG: players can “jump in headfirst and wreak creative havoc in the story.”

From Sean Stewart, ARG story writer, the definition and motivation for ARGs can be described as follows:

“A story that was not bound by communication platform: it would come at you over the Web, by e–mail, via fax and phone and billboard and TV and newspaper, SMS and skywriting ... . For me at this time, the hallmarks of an ARG are:

  • A story which is broken into pieces which the audience must find and assemble;
  • The story is not bound by medium or platform: we use text, video, audio, flash, print ads, billboards, phone calls, and e–mail to deliver parts of the plot;
  • This audience is massive and COLLECTIVE: it takes advantage of communication tech to work together; and,
  • The audience is not only bought into the world because THEY are the ones responsible for exploring it, the audience also meaningfully affects how the story progresses. It is built in a way that allows players to have a key role in creating the fiction.” (Stewart, 2008)

We use Sean Stewart’s definition as an analytic tool, focusing on the pieces (or problems), platform independence or multimodal communication, collective action and problem–solving and the participatory and interactive nature of the story. As is obvious from these definitions, the overarching story line ties together all of the elements of an ARG into a cohesive whole. We suggest that the collective story that emerges during an ARG normally supplants the grand or master narrative (Lyotard, 1984) and allows players to become actors and heroes.

2.2. Common elements of typical ARG experience

The term Alternate Reality Game implies that players enter into an alternate reality. But the goal of these games is not to create an alternate reality, but to create a storyline that infiltrates real life.

To do this, game designers must create clues or story elements and spread them throughout the players’ information space. Those clues and problems allow players to participate in building the story that motivates them to play the game. Players’ information space includes regularly visited Web sites, IMs, e–mail messages, physical locations and news sources. One game designer describes it as creating an archeological dig for players to explore; instead of creating shards of pottery, bone and fabric, game designers hide pieces of content that players need to assemble into a coherent story and solve the problems the story presents (Lee, 2009).

The term storymaster, or puppetmaster, is frequently used to describe the role of the game designers, who are often marketing a particular product. Historically, ARGs have been funded by companies promoting particular products. Usually, the game is intended to hype a product before its release, often a video game or a movie. In these cases, game designers have a set of characters and an existing storyline inherited from the sponsoring media which they use as a starting point for the game.

Puppetmaster implies a single, authoritative entity, but that is misleading. A team of game designers create the narrative, challenges and infrastructure of the game and then begin to scatter clues. The team often denies their own involvement, but behind the scenes they monitor challenges, react to feedback and work to ensure that the player experience is good. In this sense, ARGs always have a centralized team of storytellers who controls the release of clues and facts.

However, players are given control over how quickly puzzles are solved, story direction, and the characterization of various aspects of the game. For that reason, these gamers are participants. They are part of the story.

Players’ responses often change the game designers’ story, pacing or set of problems. For instance, in one game (The Beast, discussed below), the game designers created what they believed were three months worth of very difficult problems. The players solved them all in a day. The shocked game designers had to rethink their entire strategy, and ended up choosing to release new information on a weekly schedule. That way, they could create content and deliver it without trying to keep up with the collective force they had created. The players changed the entire story delivery and timing mechanism of the game, just by being eagerly involved.

Web–enabled participatory culture encourages the emergence and stabilization of different kinds of norms, collaborative expectations and social interactions (Jenkins, et al., 2006). In the case of ARGs, a collaborative culture develops. Because game designers focus on problems that no single individual could solve, players know they must develop a strong community for the experience to be complete.

A simple example is seen in “I love bees,” an ARG in which clues were released separately in Sanskrit, Russian and German, thus ensuring that multiple players would be required. The story is limited by the size and collaboration of the group. This differs from traditional, competitive games.

Technology also enables distributed players to work together. During an ARG, collective action spans continents. Problems are solved by teams working in different time zones, languages and specialties. Web–enabled, real–time access to the clues, puzzles and available solutions is a necessary prerequisite for a collectively solved ARG. Even though parts of the game take place in real life and may not be recorded, the distributed nature of the community requires players to capture information via technology.

The roles of the players and characters have not been well analyzed. This is a huge gap in ARG research. That collective storytelling requires a breakdown of traditional storyteller–audience roles. The adaptable, controlling puppetmaster role has emerged, but this paper focuses on the new dynamics available for the players/audience. The roles that players contribute have not yet been closely examined. Individual players are sometimes catapulted to fame within the game, for actions that cause entire re–writes by the game designers or for solving particularly difficult problems. This may well be an important motivator for game participation, but the process is not yet well understood.

Yet the changes that players effect in the game are not minor. One writer of ARGs characterizes the interaction between storymasters and players as being like jazz; the game must be loosely defined enough to improvise with the players, accepting major changes in content (Stewart, 2008). In a very real sense, the story of the game is undetermined at its outset.

For instance, in one game (I love bees) a participant answered a phone and spoke with the villain of the story, who demanded to know where a valuable character was. Against all odds and to the dismay of all the other participants, the player told the villain. At that point, the entire story that had been created for the game had to be scrapped and re–written (Lee, 2009). This interaction gives the players real–time involvement in the story. One way to define a story is that a person or group is a hero, trying to reach some goal, with obstacles in the way [1]. Using this definition, the players themselves become the heroes, overcoming the game designers’ obstacles in order to get to the goal of story completion.

This type of participatory story structure demands collective action — both to construct the story, and to solve the challenges and puzzles that allow the story to unfold. Understanding player and character roles as part of a social network that is creating the story is necessary for analysis of collective social experiences. The heterogeneity of views across participants, characters and game designers needs to be understood, as they are critical in achieving the collective goals (Kim and King, 2004).

In game parlance, the entrance point for an ARG is called a “rabbit hole,” evoking Lewis Carroll’s story device of falling into a rabbit hole, where the rules are different on the other side. This draws attention to the story and assumptions that develop around ARGs. Usually, the rabbit hole is an online site. This is a low–cost, easily updated, free access point.

However, game designers do not constrain themselves to a single technology. One game takes a book as its starting point — Cathy’s Book is an ARG that starts with the traditional experience of reading a young adult novel (Stewart and Weisman, 2006). The game “I love bees” started with packages mailed to people around the country (Kim, et al., 2008).



3. Five ARGs between 2001 and 2009

We have chosen five ARGs to discuss. Each of these was informed by or designed by Elan Lee. The final case we present questions the definitions above.

3.1. The Beast (2001)

The Beast was arguably the first ARG. The game was created to promote Kubrick/Spielberg’s movie A.I., and was designed and written by Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, and Jordan Weisman. The project was funded by Microsoft, and emerged when Spielberg asked for a way to let the audience know the world of the movie before seeing it. At first, the game designers thought they would create a series of linked console games with similar characters. Then, they decided more was needed — some kind of “glue” to hold the games together. That glue would be a set of Web sites that connected the characters and the setting of the movie.

Three months prior to the movie release, they canceled the console games entirely and focused only upon the “glue,” which did not yet have a name. They decided the entry point for the game would be on movie posters, although they e–mailed clues to gaming news sites as well.

The game was set in the future, and clues were strewn throughout posters (see Figure 2), trailer credits and mass mailings. The initial clues pointed to a character named Jeanine Salla (see Figure 3), a therapist for sentient robots. When interested players searched for her name, a range of sites emerged, including her employer (a University) and her phone number. Calling the number provided more clues and entangled players in a murder–mystery story that took place in the future.


Figure 2: Posters contained credits for Jeanine Salla, a person from the future
Figure 2: Posters contained credits for Jeanine Salla, a person from the future.



Figure 3: Images of Jeanine Salla uncovered by investigating clues
Figure 3: Images of Jeanine Salla uncovered by investigating clues.


For three months, players unraveled the clues to figure out the murderer. This included live phone conversations with actors and rallies in three cities around the U.S. Players created a Yahoo! group to discuss clues and exchange information and also archived the entire game — including the game Web sites. The resulting player community’s size, dedication and puzzle solving ability amazed the studio, the game designers and traditional news outlets.

The game had classic viral, exponential growth: on the first day a player found the site, only a few hits were recorded. By the first week, hundreds of people had visited. Over three million unique users visited the game site (Kim, et al., 2008).

3.2. I Love Bees (2004)

When the XBox video game Halo 2 was being released in 2004, the producers wished to start a viral marketing campaign to hype the console game and build a new fan base while providing intriguing experiences for existing fans before the release. As a result, they contracted with a game company to create an ARG. In the game, players collectively helped an AI program that crash–landed on Earth to find its way back to the Halo universe. Much of the story was revealed through calls to pay phones throughout the U.S (Jenkins, 2004).

The ARG began when prominent game participants and designers around the country received a package, containing a jar of honey and the address of a Web site (, still active) (Kim, et al., 2008). In addition, the Web site was briefly flashed onscreen during advertisements for Halo 2. This began the game journey, through the rabbithole of the Web site.

The entry site appeared to be an amateur beekeeping Web site, but significant analysis and community work revealed a set of GPS coordinates around the world, and times. When curious players showed up at those locations, at those times, a pay phone would begin to ring. If the players answered, they heard a section of a story about an alien marooned on earth, needing assistance to escape. Participants had to figure out the location of the pay phones and the time to be present for the call, physically get there and then respond to the story. When a player answered a phone, the story segment was unlocked on the main site, so those who were not present also had access to the information and the clues within it. Players were encouraged to create teams, dress up and take photos of themselves (see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Players waiting to answer the payphone during I love bees
Figure 4: Players waiting to answer the payphone during I love bees
Figure 4: Players waiting to answer the payphone during “I love bees”.


The game included clues in Russian, German and Sanskrit (Losowsky, 2003). Over time, the game called players on their cell phones, e–mailed them and created a large community following and contributing to the game story.

3.3. Last Call Poker (2005)

This game was designed to increase initial sales of the video game “Gun,” by Activision. The central story followed the path of a gun throughout history, but its entry point was far simpler. Last Call Poker started as a virtual poker table, where anyone could play for free (see Figure 5).

However, some of the players were gradually revealed to be ghosts, and each ghost had interacted with the gun in question. Every week, the game moved backwards in time to another ghost who had been cursed by interaction with the gun. Players detected this slowly, by noticing clues scattered in the background and investigating the profiles created for the ghosts.


Figure 5: The entry point to Last Call Poker, which looked like a simple online poker site
Figure 5: The entry point to Last Call Poker, which looked like a simple online poker site.


Over time, when the community had identified the ghosts and was on track to solve the mystery of the cursed gun, the ghosts began asking the players for “small favors.” Successful completion of these favors provided recognition and points for the players. A sample small favor was to visit a graveyard and clean up a neglected grave. To collect the points, players had to take before and after photos and post them. Another small favor was to visit a graveyard and tell a life story that needed telling. Players became very involved in these tasks, conducting research, revealing personal connections and creating works of art around the tasks themselves.

These real world tasks gave the players a sense of action and initiative. Friendships and community developed around various tasks, adding to the overall appeal of playing poker and unraveling the story around the gun. The rewards were more than this, however. Each week, the top five poker players were invited to a special poker game with one of the ghosts. Other players could watch, but not participate. The ghost was played by live actors, who won nearly every poker game while instant messaging clues to players. Each conversation was archived, and the top players became celebrities within the game world.

The game included one other element: social gatherings. Ghosts provided information that led to players convening at their local graveyards, where they were given poker chips and information on how to play team–based poker using tombstones as cards (see Figure 6). Their “hand” of cards included tombstones, according to the game rules. As a result, collective problem solving evolved into social outings, held together by the thread of the story.


Figure 6: Players dividing chips for a social gathering at a cemetery
Figure 6: Players dividing chips for a social gathering at a cemetery.


3.4. Year Zero (2007)

When Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails finished his album named “Year Zero,” he wanted to create an experience to parallel the world created through sound and lyrics in the CD. As a result, the game Year Zero was created to engage fans in a participatory experience that took place in the world of the album, as well as in their everyday lives. The album told the story of the end of the world, and players were drawn into the game through Web sites, the CD itself, as well as clues left at concerts (Powers, 2007).

The story told in the album is in the future, when the American government has remade itself, declaring the start of a new era — the first year of which is named Year Zero. Due to terrorist attacks, emergency powers were granted to the government, leading to a Christian fundamentalist theocracy with a Bureau of Morality and an intricate licensing system, as well as a system to detain dissenters. Drinking water was drugged to keep the populace happy and in line.

The game story began when a set of scientists in the future sent the Web sites of different government agencies back in time, to convince people to take action and change the future. Fans were thus catapulted into a participatory role, where they could change the world if they found and shared clues found in Morse Code, scattered across Web sites, listened obsessively to the songs and closely examined fliers and murals.

Fans immediately took the game to heart, working on clues and playing with fervor. Some players were rewarded with a private concert. Other players “discovered” unreleased tracks and released them online, providing further clues. In one case a track was “released” by placing a single thumb drive in a urinal at a concert. Within days, the track had spread throughout the fan base, with no other effort on the part of the storymasters (to the dismay of the record company, [Blabbermouth, 2007]). Embedded within the song was yet another clue (see Figure 7).


Figure 7: The unreleased song contained wave forms that a common mp3 player revealed to be a spooky hand and a phone number
Figure 7: The unreleased song contained wave forms that a common mp3 player revealed to be a spooky hand and a phone number
Figure 7: The “unreleased” song contained wave forms that a common mp3 player revealed to be a spooky hand and a phone number.


Fans also had the opportunity to create art that reflected the story’s world. By immersing themselves in Trent Reznor’s imagined world, they achieved the ability to participate in shaping that world by creating its visual art for the community of fans as well as for the futuristic world of the story.

Unlike most ARGs, Year Zero was a series of small, individual puzzles without an overarching storyline. Instead of putting together pieces to find resolution (in the typical sense of a “story”), players sought small pieces of information that allowed them to explore Trent Reznor’s world. There were no heroes, no beginning or end, and the only community was the fan base itself, which shared information but rarely worked together to solve puzzles.

3.5. Free Fall (2008)


Figure 8: Free Fall gave players a sense of engagement by calling them on their cell phones and presenting images of targets and satellite feeds
Figure 8: Free Fall gave players a sense of engagement by calling them on their cell phones and presenting images of targets and satellite feeds.


To promote the movie Eagle Eye, a game called “Free Fall” was released. Following a story similar to the movie, the game required players to become detectives and unravel a confusing story situation where they were accused of murder.

The game begins by going to the Web site ( and entering your name and phone number. The player’s phone then rings, and the adventure begins. A female voice demands your help in apprehending a fugitive.

For the next ten minutes, the player is part of the story, as characters from the movie call and ask for help solving problems. A player’s responses dictate the course of the game. Satellite images, photos of individuals and other images are displayed online based upon the players’ responses (see Figure 7).

This ARG is very unusual in that it has a very short timeframe (approximately ten minutes) and is played alone, with no community experience.



4. Distinctive findings from five ARG cases

So how do the definitions noted earlier play out, with respect to these five case studies?

4.1. Discussion

Most of these case studies emphasize collective problem solving, when a group works together to solve a problem faster and more completely than an individual. The major exception is Free Fall, although Year Zero also emphasized individual experiences.

Free Fall is very similar to console games, in fact. Game play is limited to a screen and sound interface, choices are present but limited, and there is no time to seek feedback from friends or other players until the game has ended. A player can replay the game to apply new knowledge and see other branches of the story, but it is a fundamentally individual game. Despite having discrete problems, multimodal information delivery and participatory action, the game lacks the collective element.

Following Sean Stewart’s definition above, we suggest that this means that Free Fall is not an ARG; it lacks a critical element. Although Free Fall does incorporate multimodal information, visual and auditory, the game is played alone and without significant player input into the story. For that reason, we suggest it is not an ARG. Instead, it is an interactive trailer. However, Free Fall does suggest how new media can integrate player control and multimodal information to create a unique, inspiring, Web–initiated story.

Across the spectrum of five case studies, several commonalities and differences emerge (see Table 1).


Table 1: Comparison of five ARGs and their features.
 BeastI love beesLast Call PokerYear ZeroFree Fall
PuppetmasterHiddenHiddenHiddenStated & HiddenStated
Discrete problemsYes, collective solvingYes, collective solvingYes, individual and collectiveYes, collective solvingYes, limited duration & individual solutions
Overarching narrativeYesYesYesYesYes
Participation and communitySubstantialSubstantialYesSomeNo
Multimodal information delivery from puppetmasterWeb sites, posters, fliers, previewsPackages, Web sites, payphones, meetingsWeb site images and “player” profiles, instant messaging and physical gatheringsPosters, mp3s, T–shirts, Web sitesWeb site, telephone
Other features“this is not a game”Player–generated communityIndividuals taking actionConcert/experience tie–in, Story–based artShort


One key finding is that low entry barriers tend to encourage collective behavior. During these games, not all participants are equally engaged. Levels of engagement have been described along a continuum, starting with devotees (who read every update, post frequently, and solve puzzles often); then active players (who participate in the game, but less frequently and with less of an emphasis on real–time updates and immediacy); to casual players (lurkers who enjoy the game experience without contributing information or ideas on how to solve puzzles); and, of course, the curious — the wide group of people who stumble upon the game or hear about it from a friend, but do not take part in the entire arc of the story, even as witnesses (IGDA, 2006). For substantial success, ARGs require communities who are in the first two categories. Without the players collectively telling and revising the story, the storymasters do not know how to distribute facts and continue to engage the audience.

Most ARGs are built to encourage collaboration. Unlike most traditional games (including console digital games), ARGs are often specifically designed to be unsolvable by an individual (Jenkins, 2004). Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games, such as World of Warcraft, are a notable exception. For ARGs, the necessary skills and the nature of the tasks, such as requiring coordinated action in different cities, absolutely requires cooperation.

In an ARG, pieces of the puzzle are distributed so that players will need to compare notes and figure out common threads. Instead of pitting your own wits against other individuals, the game pits the entire pool of players against the puzzles created by the design team. Clues might be in different languages. The likelihood of any individual knowing all those languages is miniscule and would decimate a traditional game’s player base. But when cooperation is encouraged, it becomes part of the game to find people with the skills to further the game story.

As a result, ARGs develop robust communities of individuals with wide skill sets, who share an overriding interest in the game. Social connections follow, reinforcing the overall cooperation and encouraging players to continue to expand their social network so as to improve the chances of solving the next puzzle. This virtuous cycle increases the size of the player base while players become more dedicated and engaged; game designers like the exposure and increasing market, while players are ever more individually and collectively motivated. Collaboration requires interaction and awareness of other players (Nova, et al., 2007). This suggests that when a game becomes part of a person’s day–to–day life, social aspects are inseparable from the game (as demonstrated in other fields [Kim and King, 2004]).

All current ARGs use digital information to relay at least some of the clues. That digital information includes initial rabbit holes (such as the Web site, which launched the game), individual clues to the story (such as Jeanine Salla’s falsified University profile) and the ghosts who IM–ed with characters in Last Call Poker.

However, storymasters view digital information as merely a single channel by which clues could be found. Technology is a delivery mechanism, a part of the overall information landscape (IGDA, 2006). Some clues lend themselves to being digital, but not all — storymasters almost always incorporate physical experiences. This multimodal information delivery provides an element of realism that assists players in suspending disbelief and looking for clues in everyday life.

Multiple channels for participants to enter and analyze the game also makes the game easy to access. This convenience vastly increases the ease of participation, which has been demonstrated to increase initial, short–term adoption even more than the quality or fun of the game (Okazaki, et al., 2008). Because players look for clues on billboards, in familiar Web sites and on clothing, all of life becomes the game board.

Unlike traditional games, the game space is not bounded by a single delivery mechanism. In some games, characters call participants’ cell phones to give clues. Letters or packages sometimes are sent to players — even if they had no idea the game existed! Their puzzlement might lead them to find the game online and join the community. An ARG can be played all the time, since anything might be a clue.

Clearly, the online aspect of an ARG is simply a portion of the experience. Information delivery is multimodal, taking place across many channels: phone, physical, e-mail, Web sites, posters, etc. However, because game players are usually geographically distributed and may not know each other at the start of a game, online communication mechanisms are key to player engagement and communication. For that reason, most of the story of the game is captured online. Players upload images of the packages, from all angles; players upload mp3s or images of locations, so that the entire community can look for clues and discover the next part of the story. Without easily accessible online access, a player is at a huge disadvantage.

4.2. Future of ARG

If ARGs move towards personal games, such as Free Fall, game resolution will not require a community. In Free Fall, the individual was pitted against the game, the intensity was ratcheted up, and the timeframe was shortened. The player was able to influence the pace and outcome of the game by participating and changing his or her responses.

The element of becoming part of the story, participating in its unfolding, was vital to each ARG. In Year Zero, individual experience can be shared and built upon to enhance a community’s experience. The fans who participated in Year Zero had a connection to the album that could not be replicated by simply listening to it, or reading articles about it. The community shared a viewpoint. What does this reveal about ARGs?

For most of the ARGs described in this paper, the collective story told and shaped in these ARGs uses participatory mechanisms to build and strengthen affinity groups. A set of problems aligns the interest and attention of a group and pulls them into the story’s action.

For instance, Nine Inch Nails fans were required to view a “leaked” mp3 on a particular program to see one of the clues for the game. In addition to the excitement of a new, unreleased song, fans had the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of participating in building and shaping the world dreamed up by one of their heroic figures (Trent Reznor). The story included them, and fans reacted passionately and willingly, creating and submitting art to an imaginary, futuristic world. This suggests that storytelling cannot be only the passive, top–down experience familiar to content producers. Audiences demand a stage and a voice of their own.

We suggest two mental frameworks to consider how ARGs link people into problem–solving networks. First, ARGs could be considered an alignment of interest, where problems are presented in a fashion that assists game designers in their goal while intriguing and aiding players in their goals. For game designers, the goal might be engagement and focus on specific types of problems; for players, connecting to a community and talking about a passionate interest might be the motivation. Analyzing how to align problems and build them into coherent experiences could be helpful, particularly with input from players. Fujimura (1987) made inroads into this type of analysis for medical research.

Secondly, we suggest that ARGs are a form of collective storytelling. Although game designers hold most of the story in hand, players have much influence on how the story unfolds. Because players discuss the game in public forums, game designers adjust the story and clues based on player feedback. As a result, the story co–evolves between the groups. Most stories are told collectively (myths being a great example), but using new media the feedback and adjustment cycle is visible and rapid. For this reason, ARGs can be considered an example of collective storytelling, where all data is tracked and available online.



5. Conclusion

ARGs can and have stimulated the formation of voluntary networks collaborating for collective problem–solving. The story at the heart of an ARG provides a powerful motivation to players, where they wish to make sense out of a set of disparate facts and need a community to do so. As a result, the story engages a large, voluntary community in collective problem–solving.

Harnessing such power has been a goal of organizations throughout the world. Nonprofits try to mobilize volunteers, businesses try to generate word–of–mouth marketing, and government agencies try to activate civil society to help regulate public behavior — all of these and similar goals benefit from voluntary networks collaborating to solve problems. Just as Wikipedia taps into an immense team of volunteers, ARGs could serve a similar role in other aspects of society.

As technology access becomes more pervasive, how can groups find willing participants and harness their energy to solve problems? Collective problem solving is a vital need (i.e., Pennington, 2008). We suggest that the elements that make for a successful ARG allow storymasters with any set of problems in mind to tap into the same benefits. If the drive to solve collective problems could be yoked to a significant social goal, ARGs could result in collective behavior that does more than market media products.

Furthermore, during the course of their evolution, ARGs reveal that stories can be told in new and exciting ways using new media. The intersection of personal experience with community action creates a way to connect disparate but like–minded people. Interactive trailers like Free Fall, which allow the player to jump into a known storyline with familiar characters or actors, suggests that immersion in a story can be taken to new heights. ARGs are certainly not the end of the road, but they provide key insights into how storytelling evolves as technology continues to shift.

In the next few years, such interactive experiences are likely to replace the majority of passive entertainment such as newspapers and television. At the least, those passive experiences will serve as jumping off points for interaction, as Lost or American Idol have begun to explore. Overall, this could result in a fragmentation of the collective experience, as it becomes less top–down and governed by a few media sources. As the numbers of professional journalists continue to decrease, the role of organization of vast amounts of data and individuals becomes crucial. ARGs provide a realized way to make sense out of amateur data and provide structure and interactive experiences. The role of the storymaster will likely evolve to become more flexible and open as this new art form matures.

Given the importance and interest in these digital social experiences, how can researchers proceed with analysis? These digital social experiences present a series of challenges, which have limited the availability and usefulness of game data.

First, interactions span several types of technology, as well as occurring in–person. Yet, given the size of the communities and the depth of interactions, qualitative studies are daunting.

Second, these communities are ephemeral, emerging for the purpose of a single game and dying off when the game is complete. This provides a key opportunity to examine the life cycle of a digital community, but is also difficult terrain upon which to capture and map data.

Third, although the game designers have a planned route in mind at the outset, the very nature of the game requires participation and player contribution. As a result, predetermined outcomes are rare.

Like the game designers, researchers must be adaptable and able to process the unusual diversions from planned routes. Models must be flexible to map to real–life social interactions. Currently, ARGs are dominated by their marketing purpose and tightly linked to product release. The pace and flow are tied to the product release, and data capture is only intended to guide the team of storymasters as hype reaches a critical stage. Researchers need to work with designers or create their own games to capture full sets of usable data.

No single methodology exists for analyzing digital social interactions. However, we have identified several avenues to apply. Existing theories can provide windows not only into communication and game story mechanisms, but also into the gaps in this field. The theories we see as having immediate relevance are listed below.

Social network analysis: Social network analysis provides visualizations of the strength of connections between individuals and communities. Usually, this involves mapping the existence of and/or frequency of digital interactions (i.e., Granovetter, 1973). For ARGs, fictional characters could also be included in the network, to see how they organize or connect the community.

Actor–network analysis: Actor–network analysis includes the role of technology as a “player,” enabling a researcher to map community interactions across individuals and communication mechanisms (Callon and Latour, 1992). This could reveal varying tendencies to use certain types of technology to address certain types of problems or interactions.

Entropy–agency: Using a statistical analysis of entropy and uncertainty, researchers could map the tendency of players to exert agency by aligning and solving problems. This would explain player motivation in terms of reducing uncertainty (or game entropy) by increasing agency through collective action (similar to Saviotti, 1988). Sensemaking can be a powerful motivation.

Aligning interest and sets of problems to create buy–in and generate solutions is entirely possible, as ARGs demonstrate. The next few years will reveal if industries outside of gaming and marketing can use the same principles to harness the intellect and drive of wide groups of people. The rise of “serious” games, such as World Without Oil, demonstrates the growing desire to do just that (McGonigal, 2008). As participation and information sharing increases, the special case of ARGs indicates a potential path towards changing the world. End of article


About the authors

Jeffrey Kim, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute for National Security Education and Research at the Information School of the University of Washington.

Elan Lee is one of the foremost Alternate Reality Game designers and founder of Fourth Wall Studios.

Timothy Thomas is a CIA Officer in Residence at the University of Washington.

Caroline Dombrowski is a Research Project Manager at the University of Washington.



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Editorial history

Paper received 14 April 2009; accepted 10 May 2009.

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Copyright © 2009, Jeffrey Kim, Elan Lee, Timothy Thomas, and Caroline Dombrowski.

Storytelling in new media: The case of alternate reality games, 2001–2009
by Jeffrey Kim, Elan Lee, Timothy Thomas, and Caroline Dombrowski
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 - 1 June 2009