ARGS outside Education
Written by Professor Thomas M Connolly   

One of the earliest ARGs was developed in 2001 to market Steven Spielberg’s film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and a series of Microsoft computer games based on the film. It was based on a complex murder mystery played out across hundreds of websites, email messages, faxes, fake ads, and voicemail messages. The game had over three million active participants worldwide; in essence, it was a type of massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). Due to the size of the assets involved in the early stages of development, the game became known as “The Beast ”.

Microsoft also used this type of game to create significant market hype around the launch of the XBox game Halo 2. Called I Love Bees , the game wove together an interactive narrative and a War of the Worlds-style radio drama set in the future, broken into 30-60 second segments and broadcast over telephones worldwide. The gameplay of I Love Bees tasked players around the world to work collaboratively to solve problems, with little guidance. For example, the game gave players over 200 pairs of GPS coordinates and times, with no indication as to what the coordinates referred to. Players eventually worked out that the coordinates referred to telephones and the times to when the phones would ring. Each time a player correctly answered a phone question, the player was treated to 30 seconds of new material. One of the most exciting elements of the game for some players was the possibility that they would get one of the rare live calls in which the drama’s actors talk to the person who answered the phone and then incorporate the conversation into the drama itself. The game culminated by inviting players game to visit one of four cinemas where they could get a chance to play Halo 2 before its release and collect a commemorative DVD.

McGonigal (2008) argues that the gameplay within I Love Bees develops “collective intelligence” through three stages: a) collective cognition, b) cooperation, and c) coordination. She believes these distinct stages of collaboration occur through three aspects of game design, namely: a) massively distributed content, b) meaningful ambiguity, and c) real-time responsiveness, and “that these elements form a reproducible set of core design requirements that may be used to inspire future learning systems that support and ultimately bring to a satisfying conclusion a firsthand engagement with collective intelligence”.

While The Beast and I Love Bees were essentially marketing games, a more serious application of ARGs was World Without Oil (WWO), which was created in 2007 to stimulate debate and discussion for a possible near-future global oil shortage. The game outlined overarching conditions of a realistic oil shock, then called upon players to imagine and document their lives under those conditions. Compelling player stories and ideas were incorporated into the narrative and posted on a daily basis. Players could choose to post their stories as videos, images or blog entries, or to phone or email them to the WWO puppetmasters. The game's site contained the player material, and the game's characters documented their own lives, and commented on player stories, on a series of community and individual blogs, plus via IM, chat, Twitter and other media. By playing scenarios out in a serious way, the game aimed to apply collective intelligence and imagination to the problem in advance, and create a record that has value for educators, policymakers, and the public to help anticipate the future and prevent its worst outcomes. The experience aimed to bring about real change in its participants by building a community around a common, collaboratively constructed future-oriented game narrative.

Other examples of successful commercial ARGs include:

  • Perplexcity a commercial UK-based game that was launched in 2005, in which players had to purchase physical sets of puzzle cards that could be solved and the answers input online. Cards were of varying difficulty from those that could be solved alone in minutes to ones that needed thousands of players worldwide tackling a problem simultaneously. Players had to finish a fictional ‘cube’ that had been stolen and buried somewhere on earth (associated with a real £100k prize) by buying cards and solving puzzles.
  • Year Zero a game to promote the album ‘Year Zero’ by the band 'Nine Inch Nails', launched in 2007, where 3.5 million people took part. This included codes hidden in tour t-shirts linking tommerco secret messages and telephone numbers, flash drives found in toilet cubicles at gigs, clues hidden in the album music itself, messages delivered through distributed mobile phones.

 

References

McGonigal, J. (2008) Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming. Ecologies of Play. Ed. Katie Salen