„Imagine an event so powerful, so pervasive, that years after the initial exposure people who participated in it still gather to talk about it and lang for the days when it actually took place. An event that participants willingly gave months of their lives to, without any thought of reward or recognition, in a collective effort to help others. How would you classify such an event, what would you call it, and how would you go about understanding it? Would you think it as something religious or spiritual, or perhaps even cultish?
What if the event itself never took place but was entirely fictional? A carefully constructed and deliberate attempt to deceive people while prompting a secret agenda. And, to make it even more difficult to comprehend, the participants came to know that they were indeed being misled, and still reminisce about the event as one of the most enjoyable things in their lives. Maybe now you would think was some sort of mind control or conspiracy on a grand scale. And you wouldn’t be far too wrong.“
These words originate in Dave Szulborski book This Is Not A Game – A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming. He was the first professional independent Alternate Reality Game (ARG) developer and keen on turning around the idea of what a game is supposed to be.
What caught my attention is the intensity in which Szulborski describes the feeling of the game, an event, a thing that changes the reality of the gambler. In this text I want to show how ARGs, sometimes also referred to as Augmented Reality Games, drastically change the concept of immersion and thus, of reality itself. There is a big variety of different definitions and concepts of what immersion is. What most of them have in common is a set of technical tools that play both with our sensual, physical and also our mental perception. The aim is to actively forget the artificial construct of the situation and create a feeling of being inside the game, of being completely absorbed in an environment.
Psychologists as Lev Vygotsk and Game Theorists as Johan Huizinga have emphasized the importance of playing as a basic human desire, as a voluntary and essential activity, in for example playing cops and robbers. Thus, the idea to engage in acting as-if within a formal system outside of the real world, defines the basis of the traditional concept of playing by Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture11Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1938)..
Going back in history, one can find a wide array of objects and installations, manufactured and painted to create an illusion, to simulate depth of field by using the central perspective in painting or in theatre. The available techniques might alter over time: although the painting is considered as a window to the world, in which the viewer becomes the (privileged and central) function of the painting, the film formats the view of the spectator even more, by introducing time into the medium. lt seduces and invites the spectator to literally jump on the train, as film critic Béla Balázs emphatically writes: ‘The camera takes my eye along with it. Into the very heart of the image. I see the world from within the filmic space. I am surrounded by the figures ( … ) I see what they see from their standpoint. I have no standpoint of my own. I travel with the crowd, I fly up, I dive down, I join the ride'22Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory. Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p. 48..
Today, analogue films and printed photographs seem obsolete, a material item connected to wistful nostalgia, or, something you go look at in a museum. In today’s world the digital image is not only ubiquitous. Also, it is approaching us via mobile phones, advertising screens in public or full body scans at airport checkpoints. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Balázs euphoria itself became a thing of the past. lt doesn’t stimulate most people as something new, just as it used to when photography became the medium of the masses 33For analysis of how images changed the way we look at the world and reality, see Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977). She looked at the levelling and normalising effects photography has on role models and class in society and thus gives a critical view on how reality is represented and mirrored through images. Today this might be common sense but some decades ago, this was not the mainstream view in academia..
Balázs enthusiastic sentiment resembles the introductory statement of Dave Szulborski about Alternate Reality Games. An event that never took place, being entirely fictional in its essence and highly stimulating? How is it possible?
An ARG can be described as an interactive network narrative that uses the real world as a platform and makes use of transmedia storytelling. Tue created story can be altered by the players. There is no image after image that the viewer passively has to observe.
The key point about an ARG is the way it jumps off of all platforms: ‘It’s a game that’s social and comes at you across all the different ways that you connect to the world around you'44He refers to classical platforms such as computer /video games, TV or complete web-based games., says Sean Stewart, the founder of 42 Entertainment, a company that has produced various successful ARG’s.
42 Entertainment collaborated with a music project called Nine Inch Nails. In 2007, they launched an ARG with the same name as their concept album, called Year Zero.
At its heart, the strategy perfectly illustrates how ARG work, as an article from Wired magazine indicates. On some of the merchandise T-Shirts fans bought at concerts on their tour, there were found hidden messages. The tour dates, for example, revealed several hold digits that turned out to be a Los Angeles phone number. People who then called the number would hear the recording of a newscaster, announcing Presidential address: America is born again, followed by a distorted snippet of what could only be a new Nine Inch Nails song. Then, a woman named Ana reported having found a USB flash drive in a bathroom stall at the hall where the band had been playing. On the drive there was a previously unreleased song, which she promptly uploaded. The metadata tag on the song contained a clue that led to a site displaying a glowing wheat field and the caption America Is Born Again55Which is a famous track of Nine Inch Nails.. Clicking and dragging the mouse across the screen however, revealed a much grimmer-looking site labelled Another Version of the Truth. Clicking on that again, led to a forum about acts of underground resistance66‘Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games’, www.wired.com/2007/12/ff-args/, last checked November 22nd 2016.. The Game cumulated in a live performance of Nine Inch Nails inside an abandoned industrial factory surrounded by professional actors performing as special military forces breaking down the whole event.
Alternate what kind of Reality?
ARG make use of multiple media outlets. lt typically involves a Website, although it can just as well be a contact like a phone number, or a USB flash drive. The engagement in the game involves solving puzzles, without any set of rules and without an official beginning. Just as reality is always somehow ‘there’: as are the ARG.
lt becomes a second layer, invisibly and immaterially spreading across your personal life. In contrast to traditional computer games, as well as beside the fact that there is no screen, ARG are played in real-time without an Artificial Intelligence mastering the game. Instead, a human being, the so called Puppet Master (PM), creates obstacles or resources to the game while it is being played. The (PM) designs the ARG rule set while he or she remains behind the curtain, which is what performers would call the fourth wall, and what gamers would call the outer wall, the wall between the PM and the players. A Rabbit Hole is the point of entry into the game, which would be the hold digits in Year Zero. A popular sentiment however is the TINAG (This Is Not A Game) philosophy that ‘one of the main goals of the ARG is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all.’88Dave Szulborski, cit.
The playmakers make use of tools and media outlets that are already a very important part of our lives, as Szulborski puts it: the pieces or components of alternate reality games are websites, e-mail messages, videos, Internet blogs, phone calls, and even real world interactions. The aesthetic principle is thus to maintain a seamless real world platform and to keep authorship open to the randomness of actual real world interactions99See Elizabeth Rywelski, http://e-flux.com/aup/project/elizabeth-rywelskitime-share/.
The academic Jane McGonigal wrote in This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play, that the computer-driven alternate reality that ARG create can be make-believe, but every aspect of the player’s experience is, phenomenologically speaking, real. Furthermore, she notes that the use of various methods of contacting and interacting with the players, makes the game even more interactive with the real world. In this sense, the interface is not your computer or TV-screen, but rather all the interfaces regularly used to communicate with the real world.
Or, according to Friedrich Kittler, who is mentioned by Szulborski: if an ARG is done right, there is no software.
Obviously, a film can be immersive, it can pull the viewer into the storyline, the action, even if it is clearly a fictional story. But it has no interaction between viewer and the medium (the film). With virtual interfaces and environments, for example with the Oculus Rift, ‘a virtual reality system that completely immerses you inside virtual worlds’ as the advertising slogan says, a player can walk through an artificial environment. Physically, he is totally immersed in a symbolic representation. But just because this virtual world moves along with him while he moves his head, it does not mean there is a meaningful interaction within this virtual world. Immersion remains mainly on the level of the senses, whereas – while watching a film – immersion primarily happens in the mind.
What both descriptions have in common, is that the forms of immersion (those of mind and of sense) are still lacking something to complete it, a something that would ‘reduplicate’ reality. Inherently, this logic aims at creating a fully 360° immersion of the player with the goal of jumping into a new world as if you were jumping into water. As Jane Murray puts it in ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’: ‘Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool – the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.’
ARG’ work differently, since you immerse yourself into your own personal real life, trying to immerse the components of the game into the player’s everyday existence. lt seems that this is a very effective marketing project in order to sell products. Not surprisingly, ARG have been used to advertise movies, games, fashion brands or, as in the case of Nine Inch Nails, rock bands. In that way, the ARG is the meta-platform for advertising products of the cultural industry. Szulborski remarks that, ‘in a strange but very real way, the ARG creator is trying not to create an alternate reality, but to change the player’s existing world into the alternate reality1010Ibid..
lt sounds quite like a Science fiction novel such as Neuromancer by William Gibson. Alternate reality? How will you be able to distinguish the real life from the fictionalised life? Why would there even be a need to do so?
Let me summarise: ARG use ‘real life’ as a medium. A player operates within the game using his real world gadgets and entities that identify him, such as credit cards, license IDs, address, phone number. Additionally, he might build fictional stories in order to win challenges with other players.
With the introduction of ARG, I propose a shift of attention, from thinking about immersion only in terms of the physical and psychological perspective, to rather thinking about the correlation between reality, production and representation. Something peculiar seems to happen with this type of games that do not appear as traditional games. Indeed, reality seems to be upside down, as Dave Szulborski describes ARG emphatically. Obviously, the reality that surrounds us has always been created by representations of something: feudal systems, hierarchies and role models in familial structures, the display of power within political systems and democratic nation states. These examples are entities rather linked to a traditional perception of reality.
In the age of mass media proliferation, said reality is additionally created by digital imagery and the internet, the products and artefacts that contemporary visual culture and industry produces.
As things become visible, they also become real. The media philosopher Vilém Flusser was among the first who saw this ground-breaking change in the 20th century: in the very moment things become visible, they also become real and thus, relevant: they are just as susceptible to propaganda as older media like text or speech. This is why today there is a great amount of scholars and academics that are involved in trying to understand the way these mediated and networked images shown on screens work, in an attempt on creating, producing and changing our Weltbild1111For an overview see for example Margaret Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture. The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005)..
With regards to technology and computer science, a certain Unbehagen (uneasiness), accompanied by a feeling of Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is picking its way through, from the back-end of the laboratories to the front-end of everyday life in modern societies. Those huge machines of early industrialisation quickly started to look unrefined and awkward compared with today’s tiny smart mini-computers that appear with a sleek design. With the emergence of mass media, and mass proliferation of images, this Entfremdung became another feel, another dimension was added. A distrust in reality that presented itself through mediated images, popularly described by Baudrillard’s term of Simulation and Simulacra in 19811212Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations:’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.. As he argued, the people in western societies do not get in touch with reality or truth anymore since they mainly seem to operate with sign and symbols (Simulacra). As a result, the experience of human beings can only be of simulated character. Add the internet, global marketplaces and the human DNA code, unquestioned premises of that ‘one objective reality’ started to crumble. lt was again Flusser, who observed the shift from things as objects to things as information and who saw the human being thrown into his self-made universe of technical images.
Life is Reality = Reality is a Platform
- 1Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1938).
- 2Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory. Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p. 48.
- 3For analysis of how images changed the way we look at the world and reality, see Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977). She looked at the levelling and normalising effects photography has on role models and class in society and thus gives a critical view on how reality is represented and mirrored through images. Today this might be common sense but some decades ago, this was not the mainstream view in academia.
- 4He refers to classical platforms such as computer /video games, TV or complete web-based games.
- 5Which is a famous track of Nine Inch Nails.
- 6‘Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games’, www.wired.com/2007/12/ff-args/, last checked November 22nd 2016.
- 8Dave Szulborski, cit.
- 9See Elizabeth Rywelski, http://e-flux.com/aup/project/elizabeth-rywelskitime-share/
- 11For an overview see for example Margaret Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture. The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
- 12Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations:’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.