To me, Alternate Reality Games are a really clever combination of narrative and user generated content that becomes the game itself.
Did you just go blank?
An Alternate Reality Game starts off with a premise. Let’s take the example of the critically acclaimed World Without Oil (hence an Alternate Reality), which asked players to imagine such a world and then document their responses to it – through blog posts, videos, images, and even e-mails. This becomes the game content.
People discussed each other’s submissions, added and made changes to their original inputs, and may even have voted for the best contributions. The game progressed, on multiple parallel threads.
By getting people involved in contributing ideas and perspectives, maybe some unique high impact solutions result. In the case of World Without Oil some 60,000 people followed the game and around 2,000 actively participated over its 32 day run.
Jargon-lovers (Who, me?!) call this crowdsourcing!
Now imagine the Alternates to Alternate Reality Game in the above scenario?
Would you rather have had celebrities pontificate (Al Gore alert!) or played a casual game clone more out of curiosity (or guilt) than a real sense of involvement?
Central to Alternate Reality Games is the principle that the game designers (called Puppet Masters in this genre’s speak) will leave the gameplay and game progression to you – the player. This also has the side benefit of players not having anyone else to blame if the game sucks (Heh! Heh!)
Counter-strike: So why haven’t such games become “mainstream”?
Here is my take on what plagues the Alternate Reality Games scene:
Absence of a Mega Hit
Despite being around for at least a decade, and being used to promote everything from movies, to video games, and brands, Alternate Reality Games haven’t had their Quake, Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto moment – a blockbuster standout hit!
By their very nature Alternate Reality Games are used in a shot burst, and in advergaming applications, typically to support a larger property. It is hard to sustain a gaming franchise when the construct is inherently short-term.
Snotty Core Gamers
Fact, Core gamers look down upon Alternate Reality Games. Really, what did the Alternate Reality Game crowd expect when proudly broadcasting their TINAG (This is Not a Game) slogan to whoever cared to listen.
There is a caveat here. Alternate Reality Games are not just a different genre but a different form of games. Core gamers pooh-pooh the lack of interactive content, storyline as gameplay construct, absence of victory conditions and objectives as per conventional game structures. True.
However the irony is that Alternate Reality Games have many things that many core games lack – A powerful narrative (Yeah! that story thing!), user generated content (Whole game vs. just mods!) , and a totally open ended gameplay progression (yes, I am sneering at your scripted FPS games, core gamers!).
So gentle reader, you may ask, what makes for a good Alternate Reality Game?
Here are my ingredients for the secret sauce.
For marketing folks seeking to build a short term buzz around certain events or programs, Alternate Reality Games offer excellent applications . Especially around the “heavier stuff” to do with PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
What do you think – Are Alternate Reality Games just gamified Websites and Bulletin Boards? Have you used games for PR and CSR? What was the experience like? Comments are open!