Alternate Reality: The New Frontier

What do the movies "True Lies," "A Christmas Story," and "The Game" all have in common? They all relate to the topic of this week's Gaming Insider. In "True Lies," one character gets caught up in an imaginary spy scenario, swindled by a used car salesman. In "The Game," the protagonist gets caught up in a huge mystery, which is ultimately just a game bought by his brother for a birthday present. In the classic "A Christmas Story," Ralphie finally gets a decoder ring and finds the secret embedded in his favorite radio broadcast: "Drink More Ovaltine."

And this mash-up of film events reflects something that has been taking place in the undercurrents of the Internet for the past six years. For the un-initiated, I'm speaking of course about Alternate Reality Games, more often referenced as ARGs.

The genre is supposed to have been initially created for the promotion of the film "A.I.," for which some folks over at Microsoft created a series of events for a game called "The Beast." It ran for twelve weeks, attracted around three million participants, and during the last half, 50% of the new participants were female. The game included phone and Internet communication, and a number of online groups were formed to tackle the challenges presented.

Since 2001, there have been a number of ARGs launched, ranging from promotions for Audi ("Art of the Heist"), to the famous "I Love Bees" for Halo 2. Currently, there is an ARG going on for Halo 3.

ARGs start with a "rabbit hole" - some hint of something that doesn't quite fit in. With "The Beast," the rabbit holes involved bizarre credits or embedded phone numbers on AI posters and trailers. When players followed up, they were pushed to the next hints for the game.

Particularly interesting from a marketing perspective is the issue of transparency. For the purposes of the game, all the events are considered to be "authentic" until the conclusion. Even though the ultimate message may be "Drink more Ovaltine," there seems to be an unspoken contract between the developers and the players that to create the suspension of disbelief, transparency should be forgone.

Also interesting is the way the games are skewed toward marketing. While a handful of non-marketing ARGs have been attempted, the financial model that seems to work best is a sponsorship model, where a particular brand or product is the driving force behind the scenes.

Much like user-generated content, ARGs are not an ad technique that will work if the market becomes oversaturated. These games involve time investment, and for the levels of engagement required, there should be a significant reward in the content of the story and the exclusivity of the experience.

That aside, I can think of a number of brands for which an ARG would be a fantastic idea to engage with their demographic. For those interested in ARGs, I suggest reading over the entry at Wikipedia. I've provided the "rabbit hole" for learning more, the rest is up to Google Search. Best of luck.