Living Games – ARGs and Our Need for Fun

May 14, 2008 at 2:57 pm 5 comments

(or The Value of Games in our High-Pressure Lives)

Note: I have bookmarked relevant items mentioned here on

I like to play. Here’s an example of a recent conversation I had.
(Note: I have these types of conversations often.)

She: So, what do you do for fun.
Me: … Well, I celebrated my 31st birthday at the PNE amusement park, if that tells you anything. …I love bumper cars.
She: So does my son.
Me: I’m sure. How old is he? (Optimistically,) 12?
She: 6

Yeah, that sounds about right. See, I work hard, but I also love to have fun. My work now often involves both which is fan-tastic.

I tend to paint things with a broad brush in these posts, and so why change things now? As a society, we’ve lost our sense of fun.

While, I’m no advocate of men in their 20’s + spending days online pretending to be warlocks, I also think there needs to be more of a balance – one that doesn’t involve giving up a strong game/fun factor.

This is where I think ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) and similar concepts come into play.

Games are making a comeback – and in our high-pressure, time-starved lifestyles there is a desire (and perhaps a new compulsion) to make fun a part of our lives.

The CBC recently explored ARG’s in several articles, describing them as follows:

A typical ARG is structured like a mystery. Game designers invent a conspiratorial narrative and the players have to put together the pieces of the mystery. …Although they’re mostly virtual, some games take to the streets. They get players to look for clues in real, physical locations and involve such old-fashioned fun as playing a game of ‘chase’ to track down people playing the role of characters in the game.

And some involved in ARGs are encouraging participants to be part of life, not escape from it.

…take everything we’ve learned about making games successful and inviting and do that in the real world so we don’t need to escape from it as much and it boils down to quality of life. …we’re very lucky in comparison to the people who use the systems we design, the games we make, their lives are not as exciting, engaging, they don’t make them as happy as the games do. I look at it as a moral and ethical responsibility to take everything I’ve learned to help those people have that kind of adventure. What if I felt if I was as good at life as I am at games. A lot of people are playing with that notion.

Jane McGonigal

Think this is a stupid, immature – at best a ridiculous outlet? How much better is it to get piss drunk after a long-work week, so wound-up that getting plastered is the only option/outlet? Or, going bungie jumping for thrills? Yeah, I rest my case.

New life-games blur the line between fact and fiction, work and play. I meant to write this post when I originally read Frank Rose’s piece about Immersive Games in Wired (“And Now a Word From Our Sponsors”/”Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games”), but today I came across some related concepts, and was compelled (or perhaps possessed) to finally post about the topic.

The Wired piece wrote in great detail about 42 Entertainment, a company which deals uniquely with this type of marketing. There are many truly electrifying elements in this article, but here are my favorites:

“…a new kind of interactive fiction. These narratives unfold in fragments, in all sorts of media, from Web sites to phone calls to live events, and the audience pieces together the story from shards of information. The task is too complicated for any one person, but the Web enables a collective intelligence to emerge to assemble the pieces, solve the mysteries, and in the process, tell and retell the story online. The narrative is shaped — and ultimately owned — by the audience in ways that other forms of storytelling cannot match. No longer passive consumers, the players live out the story.”

The ARG for the Nine Inch Nails “Year Zero” album, which is described in detail culminated with an event sequence:

“… The players were told to report to a parking lot, where they were loaded onto a ram-shackle bus with blacked-out windows.

The bus delivered them at twilight to what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse near some railroad tracks. Armed men patrolled the roof. The 50-odd players were led up a ramp and into a large, dark room where the leader of Open Source Resistance (actually an actor) gave a speech about the importance of making themselves heard…

With the sudden crack of a drumbeat, Nine Inch Nails materialized onstage and broke into “The Beginning of the End,” a song they had never before played in the US. “This is the beginning,” Reznor intoned, as guitar chords strafed the room. He got out one, two, three, four more songs before the SWAT team arrived. Then, as flashing lights and flash bombs filled the room, men in riot gear stormed the stage. “Run for the bus!” someone yelled, and the players started sprinting.

Simply put: uh, wow

Talk about incorporating excitement and fun….

Of course, incorporating play can fall into many categories. While it can involve a form marketing (and, as in the Nine Inch Nails example, much ARG does), it doesn’t have to.

a small group of students, community activists and artists launched TorGame: Waking City. This grassroots alternate reality game was designed to get players to connect socially and explore the hidden pleasures of a big, anonymous city while uncovering a mystery buried in a series of puzzles.

However, marketing that uses fun and our desire for fun (rather than the empty promise of enjoyment) can be very successful, especially when targeted the right group.

When teenagers buy the new young-adult mystery novel Cathy’s Book, the words between the covers will tell only part of the story. The rest of the book’s mystery unfolds in an elaborate series of clues readers have to dig up — clues left not on the page, but in the digital environment around them.

In other words, the ‘story’ is a package that includes both the linear tale in the book and a fictional world that exists alongside the cellphone culture and social networking sites of your average real-world teen. It’s a distinctly literary twist on the booming world of alternate reality games and it may point the way to a new form of storytelling.

At the recent Bridging Media [LINK] conference Monique Trottier of Boxcar Marketing mentioned (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she advises publishers not to think of the book as a final point, but to consider it a starting point from which to other media flow and connect to…

It’s About Adventure

Recently, I saw people participating in the Mitsubishi City Chase, a city-wide scavenger hunt. Players were excitedly chasing the buses (note the word “excitedly” to differentiate from what we all do, especially in Vancouver, on a daily basis) in order to get to their next destination.

Hey, a treasure hunt as an adult! I’m all about that! (It reminded me that the only reality show I ever found enthralling was The Amazing Race. So freaking cool.)

Oh how I long to play capture the flag again…

But I digress, once again.

In Jeff Howe’s latest excerpt of his Crowdsourcing book piece he discusses the MATLAB contests and makes the following astute observation:

Programming contests have occupied a time-honoured position in geek culture since the earliest days of the computing, for just this reason: they make the development of skills feel like a game.

Wouldn’t all most people’s jobs be more fun if they incorporated some aspect of games and basic enjoyment (and not the “hot chocolate day” or forced company picnic time (those things tend to be more painful than sitting through a romantic comedy or a Michael Bay film).

The need to thrill is within us, desperately being held back by our need to be “adults” to balance the insane pitch and tempo of our lives.

This month’s issue of Psychology Today has a piece about Jane McGonigal, who recently spoke at SXSW. I missed SXSW, which is my bad, since the topic, slides and summary all tell me this is a speech I would have greatly enjoyed. It speaks to me.

I’m all for happiness, and feel that it, along with the concept of fun has been abandoned along the way. Just as people are seeking workplaces where they feel more value (in their workplace, and at their job) they are similarly looking for this elusive happiness thing – which isn’t so elusive if you at least acknowledge one aspect – for many of us, that we are what we do.

When I hear the comment “It’s just a job” or “It’s not the most exciting thing but it pays the bills” I can’t help but wonder, is that really OK with the speaker (and if so, fantastic, power to them). But for many, it isn’t OK to toil away at a job that doesn’t fulfill their lives, because in many of our cases, even if we are lucky enough to have a great partner, friends and so forth, we are hopeless devotees to our jobs – and often to get ahead, we need to be. So, if all those hours are spent there, shouldn’t we at the very least be enjoying them…? (Longer rant on this to come at a later date, meanwhile awesome inspiration in Po Bronson’s book.)

But I’ll end here, with Jane McGonigal’s inspiring Slideshow, which decrees that Happiness and the Happiness Business is what we are propelling towards – and what we should be aiming for.

I’m game.


Entry filed under: alternate reality games, social media. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Low Down – May 2008 ARGs – Playing with Marketing – Piece up on One Degree!

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. One Degree  |  May 27, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Alternate Reality Games – Playing with Marketing…

    by Monica Hamburg I was fortunate enough to attend 42 Entertainment’s brilliant and inspiring VIDFEST presentation which centered around the conception and execution of their Alternate Reality Game for the Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero” album. Ha…

  • 2. Darren Barefoot  |  May 27, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    I’m sorry I missed this. No time to read your whole post right now, but I need to decide if ARGs are stupid, or I’m just old. It’s probably one of the two.

    I have another marketing friend who confesses to having a serious girl crush on Jane McGonigal. How much is it powered by the whole Harry Potter association, I wonder?

  • 3. Darren Barefoot  |  May 29, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Having gotten around to reading the (very informative) post, my question is that old chestnut: what’s the ROI?

    Much like marketing in Second Life, there are going to be some huge early wins from a PR perspective. That is, I’m sure the Nine Inch Nails game received a lot of media attention.

    However, once ARGs become more commonplace, that’s no longer a bonus. I worry that, by virtue of their connections to time and place, ARGs won’t be able to engage enough users per campaign to make it worthwhile. Because I’m guessing these projects are freakin’ expensive.

  • 4. monicahamburg  |  May 29, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Thanks Darren.

    Yes, the projects are freakin’ expensive. And I have the same questions/concerns.

    If the games are fun/engaging, perhaps it will still work even if they are more commonplace. Then again if everything has a game, you might remember the game and not the associated product (like those ads where you go “hey, did you see that cool ad with the guy who’s drinking juice and then turns into a giant cockroach. That was so cool. It was for……?” )

  • 5. monicahamburg  |  May 29, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Oh & I think the word you meant in your first comment was “cool” not “stupid”. People get those confused in reference to things I like often 😉


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