I regularly find myself defending alternate reality games, even though I never play them. They’re a weird, unpopular niche game that’s even more demanding and sometimes, absurd than massively-multiplayer online gaming. They attract a highly geeky – though otherwise diverse – audience, who bring commitment and laser-sharp brains akin to those of people who solve cryptic crosswords or play Nethack. ARGs aren’t for everybody. They’re probably not for me.
But I respect them, and I’m fascinated by them. Most people admire ARGs in theory rather than in practice. I guess that’s true for me, although I believe there have been successful ARGs. The Beast, I Love Bees, and Year Zero were by all accounts well-run and big hits. When we read about marketing ARGs today, and see a news story about some TV show or blockbuster film has an ARG attached to it, it’s easy to think these are cheesy, purely commercial ad campaigns meant to rile up a narrow slice of the fanbase and launched purely for the novelty of it. But reading about an ARG midway through is not the same as discovering it on your own – any more than seeing kids play Guitar Hero at the local BestBuy can compare with playing Rock Band drunk with your friends. ARGs are meant to be discovered through some lucky moment of serendipity, and explored through a process that ARG fans refer to as “falling down the rabbit hole.” You find a clue that catches your attention, you pursue it, and it leads you to somewhere strange and intriguing. If it doesn’t catch your imagination, there’s no point.
Personally, though, I don’t pay attention to the genre in hopes of finding a rabbit hole. I’m intrigued by it because it reflects a phenomenon that’s already happening in all media. ARGs are games that don’t fit in a game console, or on a board. They can take place across many platforms, including the real world. They shadow our reality and bleed into all the channels that touch our daily routines. And they’re not alone.
Back in the old days, people dug pop culture properties. You would read Spiderman or watch a movie or read a book, and your imagination would take over and immerse you in the world of this particular property. You would choose to believe in it: you didn’t expect Superman actually to fly by your window, but he took up about as much of your brainshare as if he could. (Occasionally, actually, you might pretend that it was real. I remember around age 13 trying to see if I was developing mutant powers like the X-Men. I wasn’t.)
So fast forward to the Internet age. Today, we interact with our favorite properties. And the characters aren’t just characters on a page, but imaginary friends. You can play as Spiderman in a video game, and you can also effectively hang out with his buddies or knock heads with his villains. The fact that fictional characters are also blogging, or running Twitter feeds – either in conjunction with a TV show, or just for yuks - or even talking with us, and posting on our blogs, and hanging out with us in virtual worlds, is a very small step forward from what we were all doing before that. Some of the people on Twitter who are most annoyed by ARGs also spend the most time talking about who they dated in Persona 4 and why. Do you really see a difference?
In the Brainysphere, some game bloggers are still annoyed that a few of us continue to interact with PixelVixen707, even though she’s been revealed as a character from an upcoming novel. And it is a little odd to talk games with someone who does not exist. But I guess it never threw me because it seemed so natural, in our ecosystem, for an imaginary person to be talking about these imaginary worlds and relaying experiences about something that was made-up, immersive, virtual and wholly fake in the first place.
The other problem with ARGs, of course, is that they’re usually tied to marketing and ad bucks. But so is everything. The Office is one of many shows that not only runs ads but deftly weaves in extremely heavy product placement. It pays the rent, and I’ve never heard anyone boycott the show over it. And usually a property is an ad for itself. People obsess over game-related merch. If you go by the old shorthand that a touring band makes more money off the t-shirts than the door, then the band effectively becomes an advertisement for its own line of clothing.
But ad money or no, I’m convinced this trend of imaginary properties and made-up people bleeding into every channel of our lives, interacting with us in every way short of standing right behind us and breathing in our ears, is just going to grow. Leigh suggested that this trend of people starting fake Twitter feeds is a meme that will, and should, flame out soon. She may be right about Twitter feeds like BahHumbugElf, but across all media, I believe the opposite. I think these imaginary friends are just going to root themselves deeper and deeper into our online lives.
And if I had to pick one reason I’m convinced of this, it’s because we all have to become such characters in order to fit ourselves online – a little smarter, a little funnier, a little brasher or moodier than we are in real life. The fictional properties we love are doing nothing more than meeting us right in the middle.