Alternate Reality — NOT a game?

“In an alternate reality game, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player. Once again, this implies that the very name – alternate reality game – is misleading…” (Szulborski, 31)

Dave Szulborski, the late and incredibly talented mentor of puppet mastery to us all, addressed this issue in his book, and it’s been debated countless times since.

So, what exactly do we create when we write things like Man of the People, Transition Village, Myth of the Seeker, or Purity Towers? Are these games? Interactive stories? Chaotic fiction?  Transmedia tales?

I like the term “transmedia,” because, as several people have already mentioned, it works better than “alternate reality game” for potential new players or clients. It’s not that I don’t embrace the alternate reality of the worlds we create around our audiences/players. In fact, the interactivity between audience and character, and the sense that fiction has mysteriously bled into the real world are some of the most important draws of ARGs. It’s the word “game” I dislike.

This is a connotative issue, I believe. Today, “game” means “console” to a great deal of people. Yesterday it may have meant “board and dice.” The day before it may have meant “casino.” There are very few people, in the present or the past, who have heard the word “game” and instantly thought “story/email/phone calls/treasure hunt/riddles/interaction/social networking/websites/real life/and more.”

As a result, when an audience member tells her friend, “I’m playing an alternate reality game,” or when a production company pitches to a client, “We make alternate reality games,” there is often a long and confusing discussion that must follow – most often focused on defining the word “game.”

The term transmedia experiences, or transmedia tales, removes the problematic word “game” and replaces it with a more accurate one. What we write are stories that exist in many different media. Someone new to the idea will hear the term and instantly be ready to think of several kinds of media – not just something that happens on the PlayStation.

Unfortunately, the experience of an ARG is so complicated that I doubt there is a magical title for the genre that will reduce discussion times down to one or two minutes for a comprehensive understanding. To truly explain what one is requires a pretty thorough conversation, regardless of what we call it. But removing the word “game” can only help, in my experience.

Sure, ARG has a nice, piratey ring to it, and I will likely always use that with people who already understand the genre. But for others who are just learning, I think I prefer to say that I write transmedia tales. It starts our conversation off on the right foot – and, hey. It sounds more professional.  😉

What do you think? Is there a better way to define ARGs? Do you even know what they are?

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3 responses to “Alternate Reality — NOT a game?

  1. I worry that the rebranding as transmedia storytelling could lead to a more or completely passive experience for the audience. One of the beauties of ARGs is that audience participation is vital to the creation of the story while the story is being experienced. At least the “gaming” bit in ARG strongly implies that that participation is required. There ought to be a similar way to deliver that idea with but perhaps with different (or more widely acceptable) terminology.

  2. That’s a very good point. I do think “transmedia” unfortunately leaves out the interactive and participatory nature of ARGs, which, as you mentioned, is vital to the stories we tell. However, I think the word “game” also fails to imply this in most modern contexts, as many people will instantly imagine Little Big Planet, Sims, Halo, or some other console/computer experience. Though even those games have interactive options, the interactivity for them is not vital to the story. What I think I want is a more catchy version of something like this: Interactive Transmedia Play. There the word “play” can do double work, indicating the gaming nature of an ARG, but also emphasizing that it is a storytelling production. Oh, dear. Will we ever find a proper terminology?

  3. Pingback: Is a Writer a Team Player? (ARG vs. Novel) « Irene L. Pynn's Blog

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