May 12, 2010
Post-Story, Post-Promotion, Post-Education: Archiving ARGs

Way back in mid-March, I posted a collection of tweets from the Transmedia, Hollywood event out at the University of Southern California entitled Transmedia, Hollywood: The Spreadsheet. If you didn't check that out, it current houses 1489 messages posted to Twitter by participants and off-site audiences following the conference through whatever means they could manage. As one of those folk, I voiced a few thoughts myself, one of which I will return to today:

[637] Something I'd love to hear more about: Must ARGs be ephemeral? If so how do you archive an ARG? #TransH [@alexleavitt - 10584590976]

Today, I will explore a bit about the implications on storytelling that alternate reality games present as a form of narrative (or advertising; or teaching tool) and how conceptualizing the documentation of ARGs lends insight into understanding that form better.

More after the jump.

If you haven't already watched it, I suggest checking out one of the videos from the Transmedia Hollywood event: specifically, the recording of This is Not a Game... But Is It Always a Promotion?, which was moderated by Denise Mann and includes a stellar panel of Ivan Askwith, Susan Bonds, Will Brooker, Steve Peters, Maureen McHugh, and Jordan Weisman.

Transmedia, Hollywood seems to be the first conference bringing together creators and analysts to discuss particular transmedia elements and properties.While the question of whether an ARG can move beyond simply advertising for a larger property is only touched upon about halfway through the panel, the latter half of the discussion picks up and becomes quite engaging.

However, the hour-long panel focused their discussion on the creation and nourishment of alternate reality games, without approaching the idea of preservation. How will these narrative experiences be retold to audiences that did or could not participate in them?

Before answering this question, there's a bit of background to ARG analysis, which you can gather from reading Ivan Askwith's C3 white paper on alternate reality games: This Is Not (Just) An Advertisement: Understanding Alternate Reality Games. In that paper, he categorizes these games as such: promotional (advertisements), grassroots (player-initiated, usually around an original narrative), narrative extension (around an original text, such as a film), and monetized (funded by players' payments instead of through marketing budget). We can also expand these to include "serious ARGs," which are alternate reality games that are used for education and go beyond entertainment (more at Wikipedia).

A question that might precede the question I posed earlier about archiving ARGs to be retold in the future is: What elements of ARGs dictate their documentation?

A primary element of all narratives is that they be recited. Perhaps some stories, like anecdotes, are to be told only once; others are meant to be repeated, like theatrical plays. But in the industry of mass entertainment, we are faced with a critical split in methodology: the past century has heralded narratives to be repeated, across radio, television, cinema. In the past decade, we have seen a return to experience- or event-centric narratives (anything from a live concert to a sports game) that requires the narrative performance to be acted out only once: in a way, striving to not be recorded. We can consider ARGs to fit into both of these camps. Some ARGs maintain their own unique narratives, while others capitalize or require an original narrative (be it a book, film, etc.) around which the game is scripted and played.

But if we look at the forms that ARGs imitate to consider their archival worth, these forms present no real answers. For example, a serious ARG -- imitating a classroom lesson -- has worth in teaching those beyond the game's participants about the critical issues at stake in the completed game. Contrastingly, a promotional ARG -- mirroring an advertisement -- might not be considered worthy of record, just as television commercials are not stored in a public-accessible format.

Should alternate reality games be archived? We can argue that they provide worth to their participants, a portion of which spent dozens of hours (perhaps longer) participating in the immersive experience. Somewhat differently, an archive of an ARG provides the marketing team (if applicable) valuable records of the project's achievements and effects.

We have seen simple efforts at archiving the experience for promotional, value-add purposes for the creative companies, such as the video for the True Blood campaign from Campfire NYC or the Why So Serious ARG from 42 Entertainment, both embedded below.

True Blood Case Study from Campfire on Vimeo.

However, these videos do not encapsulate the total experience -- the clues distributed, the information produced, the community formed -- that the ARG offers, especially in the online space.

If we were to jump on YouTube and do a quick search, for instance, we might find the following video...

... which was recorded by a fan participating in the recent TRON Legacy ARG. Hundreds of these videos exist, all across multiple alternate reality games, but they are not archived anywhere around the rest of the content for each game. At the same time, they are not required: the participants in these ARGs documents their experiences of their own volition, because they want to 1) provide evidence of their participation and status (hopefully victory) within the game, but also 2) record the experience for their own remembrance.

The archiving of ARG material is not a desperate problem. If you visit, you are presented with in-character documentation (written in the style of police reports) of clues, participants, and results over the course of the alternate reality game's duration.

Similarly, if you visit, the team of the I Love Bees ARG (for Microsoft's Halo 2) has retained the material of the game as well as included participant information (including the names of the creative staff behind the game's production). Even more useful, Jane McGonigal, the lead community designer for this game, wrote up a lengthy documentation of the experience here.

So, again, we are not facing a future where these narrative experiences are lost and forgotten, for anyone interested in following the proceedings of events past. However, alternate reality games do exist as a form like a rock concert: they are singular experiences meant to attract participants who extract meaning and value.

But as the Internet currently faces websites and services downsizing budgets and removing catalogs of information, I hope that corporations will consider these narrative moments as worthy of the archive (particularly as we see the death of major hubs of community creation, like Geocities -- which thankfully has been saved in a handful of instances by a few loyal teams). In particular, while the clues and narrative are saved on sites like the Why So Serious homepage, the production of the participants themselves -- the clue gathering, the information parsing, and the diverse theorizing -- exist on forums and sites of digital participation perhaps so varied and spread out that it is near impossible to catalog -- years beyond the end of these ARGs -- the full extent of the fans' production efforts that went into these games.