What are Alternate Reality Games (ARG)?

An Alternate Reality Game – or ARG – can be seen as a webbased offspring of Webquests, Roleplaying Games, collaborative writing, massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and the german concept of „Planspiel“.

The ARG’s form is predominantly a forum-like website, interlinked group of websites, or any other form of (webbased) communication plattform, where gamemasters and players create a media-rich, developing background on a certain topic, event or place. Narrative and subjective contributions are especially favoured, since one main goal of ARGs is the immersion of the players as well as sharing personally relatable descriptions, meanings, feelings, thoughts, fears and ideas. Another mainstay is the development of in reality usable knowledge, strategies and networks, either for preparation of the event or to prevent it.

Gamemasters, players, spectators and innocent bystanders

The conceptual ‚playing field‘ is given as preparation by the gamemasters, for example a description of the financial breakdown of the nation’s economy, some fictious and real key media articles and clips, and links to actual mainstream articles dealing with the most likely consequences and driving developments.

The players try to imagine the impact the event will have on their life, their relatives and friends, their neighbourhood, country or world, and will put up fictive accounts of what they ‚experience‘, or what their ‚actions‘ are in form of a weblog, a website, a videoclip, photostories. Interlinking, commenting on each others ‚experiences‘, forming groups of interest etc. – social networking in front of a fictive background story – is one of the most important features of ARGs.

Pictures: ARG „World Without Oil“ (2007). Gamemasters‘ input and players‘ communicative moves.

The interlinked websites with the media rich material provide the medial ‚playing field‘ of the ARG, so non-players may read, view, play or comment the ongoing game, for a further reaching educational effect beyond the actual players. Initial ‚Peripheral participation‘, i.e. just watching or reading what active players produce, is a valid way to praticipate in an ARG.

The ARG is a game which is theoretically open in the numbers of players and the duration of play, but is most often limited to a certain compressed timeframe – i.e. a week real time equals one month playing time – to come to a conclusion and a metafeedback.

Educational ARGs and differentiation to other roleplaying genres

Educational ARGs usually describe different circumstances to live in for the players – who play the same person in-game as outside the game. Usually in a ‚Planspiel‚ – classic educational roleplaying games – the player becomes a person or an institution with influence, power and certain interests in a real-life scenario. This is a good approach to understand systemic interdependencies and empathise with different factions in a political or commercial struggle.
The same goes for the recreational Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Game or Life Action Roleplaying Game: here, too, is the base the transformation of the player into someone else, to see and act from a different viewpoint, and possibly with different character traits.

Educational ARGs try the other way round, to show a player what she or he – as her or himself – may have as options if there’s a e.g. desastrous earthquake („After Shock“ ARG, 2008) or the world runs out of oil („World Without Oil“ ARG 2007 ). This is – to my knowledge – a relatively new approach to educational roleplaying and collaborative game based learning. Why so?

Since the ARG requires, compared to other massive multiplayer online games, only a modest amount of technical infrastructure, it may be realized much easier by educators, non-profit groups or someone similar, as long as these can built upon an interesting topic, and an inspired, motivated playerbase. The dependence on human players and gamemasters to provide a dynamic background has also the advantage of integrating highly complex social interactions, something a virtual computer based systemic simulation can’t provide in itself.

Links and related topics


Concepts and Literature

ARGs and organisations