What is an ARG? For those who know, this may be a bit old hat, as the phenomenon is not exactly new. ARG is an acronym for Alternative Reality Game, defined by Wikipedia as “an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions.” Typical ARG’s will utilize social media to build its network of players and present clues or puzzles that once solved, reveal further layers of the story. The hallmark of a well-executed ARG is the players inability to determine if it is fiction or reality, or even a game at all.
There are hundreds if not thousands of ARGs in existence, varying wildly in style, purpose, and intensity. They range from the humorous and benign, creepy and unsettling, to “holy shit, I have to smash my computer and erase my online footprint!” Others are creative attempts at viral marketing such as “I Love Bees” for Halo 2 and “Year Zero” for the Nine Inch Nails album of the same name. Perhaps the best way to explain the phenomenon is to cite some examples; here are three of my favorites.
This is My Milwaukee / Bear Stearns Bravo
Created by Synydyne and running from 2008-2009, this is one of the more amusing, if not pointless ARGs out there. The player is introduced to the game through a bizarre and hilarious tourist advertisement for an alternate universe Milwaukee that has recently overcome a small apocalypse. Through the course of the video we learn that the towns chief employer, Blackstar, somehow brought down the wrath of some massive eldritch creature, which decimated the town. However, not to worry, Blackstar vanquished the beast and sealed it beneath the city, where it now rests in eternal slumber.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be anything more than an art project, until you dig a little deeper. Several clues in the video lead to websites which in turn lead to dead drops and strange interactions with the game designers. Ultimately, the purpose was unclear and the game abruptly stopped. Synydyne returned in 2013 with an equally perplexing game involving defunct websites “Horse ebooks” and “Pronunciation Book”. This led players to a countdown clock that when completed presented another bizarre video themed around the real-world company Bear Stearns Bravo, involved in the 2008 housing crash. Most players were disappointed and confused. Personally, I thought it was brilliant.
In 2016 a hexadecimal code appeared on a 4-chan post that when translated produced the url for the “deeper” youtube channel. The channel consists of a number of short videos, either converted from VHS or made to look that way. The videos contain odd and seemingly random subject matter and are generally unsettling. Many include strange audio tracks containing clues encoded in spectograms. Their titles appear as meaningless strings of numbers and letters, but are actually coded using a variety of cyphers.
When decoded the videos typically provide the name of a victim from an unsolved homicide. The cases are very real and span from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. Once decoded, the clues bring disturbing context to the videos. The insinuation of the channel is that it represents the work of a serial killer who is now reliving his past crimes and daring the public to catch him. It is generally assumed that deeper is an ARG, though it has not been confirmed. A final puzzle on the channel seems to be authored by another hand and suggests that “deeper” has passed away.
This is one of the most elaborate, well produced, and controversial ARGs out there. It began with an innocuous social media account back in 2009 created by a woman calling herself Junko Junsui. Junko sent out hundreds of friend requests, seemingly at random, not unlike a bot account. However, soon she began contacting her friends with cryptic messages claiming she was part of a sisterhood that was in danger and requesting help. What unfolded, was a bizarre story about the Junsui, genetically engineered perfect humans, and a Russian paramilitary organization called Alfa Tsentr who were hunting them down and capturing them.
What sets Junko Junsui apart from other ARGs and makes it one of the most notorious and controversial games is its blatant disrespect for its players and their privacy. Many times, in game characters would break from typical behavior and dox players in online forums like Redit or Unfiction, often revealing their personal information in the process. Similarly, participants were required to interact with sketchy websites that put their online privacy in question.
In addition to compromising privacy, the game introduced an element of actual danger, unprecedented in any previous ARG. The most notable example of this is the fact that Alfa Tsentr is an actual Russian security firm, though the sites the participants accessed were created by the game developers. This led players to eventually find and actually attempt contact with the real Alfa Tsentr, accusing them of kidnapping innocent Junsui and keeping them captive. Compounding the issue, the “sisterhood” and “Junsui” are real life synonyms for an active Islamic terrorist group called the Black Widows, known for perpetrating suicide bombings. One such bombing was carried out during the course of the game, coincidentally coinciding with in game events! The entire ordeal had many participants scrubbing their computers and deleting their social media accounts.
Have ARGs Infiltrated Our Daily Lives?
There are countless other examples of ARGs and numerous sites and forums dedicated to discovering and solving them. For most, they offer a sense of community and a next level experience in puzzle solving, but is there more to it than that? If a game could have you doubting whether or not you were investigating a real serial killer, or communicating with a Russian death squad; could the mechanisms of such a game be used to blur and obscure truth? Could we be being gamed and not even realize it?
Consider Qanon and the proliferation of conspiracy theories grown and disseminated by his followers and imagine Q in the context of an ARG, feeding clues to his players. They “do their research”, share the “facts”, and draw conclusions. They are united in community against a common enemy, and their waging a war that can be observed in real time via social media.
Covid-19 is another perfect example of the philosophy. Content was created that contradicts expert consensus, i.e. “Plandemic”, then that content was presented to us via social media under the guise of some hidden truth that the ubiquitous “They” don’t want us to know about. We, the players, did our duty and spread the suppressed message in the name of freedom, the first amendment, and general jack-assery. Now, instead of trusting groups like the CDC and WHO, a large percentage of the population want to storm their castle with torches and pitch forks.
Remember, the hallmark of any good ARG is in the players inability to determine if it is fiction or reality, or even a game at all. Of course, I’m using ARG’s as a hyperbolas example of how we as a society have been cultured into accepting conspiracy theories. Regardless, I find it an extremely unsettling state of affairs when paranoia is the default condition of our collective consciousness.