August 8th, 2008 08:31 EST
Media Is The Masses: This is not a game
Ironically, what Alternate Reality Games reveal is not a desire to avoid engagement with the real world, but a desire to pursue engagement, where it is deficient in their regular lives. The reason most people participating in ARGs do so is because their "real world" experience lacks intrigue and interactivity.
These immersive games allow them to become more involved in living at least a semblance of a life with meaning and purpose. Such disenchanted individuals tend to feel dis-engaged from, powerless and insignificant in real world activities. The so-called real world does not provide them sufficient stimulation and involvement, so they seek this in games providing an alternate reality in which they can be, and are, more engaged... by which I mean creatively involved as collaborative co-creators in an environment that provides a sense of being part of a "shared experience" community or purpose greater or larger than themselves. By being part of something meaningful (to them), their lives attain a sense of meaning through the gaming pseudo-reality story-telling narrative. The most effective games are immersive fictional narratives-- presented as, crossing-over into, and integrating aspects and elements of the real world (or an illusion of real world entities)... essentially blurring the line between reality and fiction. These games typically invite players to contribute and participate in the narrative, often asking or permitting players to complete missions, helping characters in the story solve puzzles and research clues and give advice.
It is sometimes referred to "fourth-wall fiction", because it removes the invisible wall between audience and program.
The game reality is validated as players participate, or even just acknowledge and observe it. Players can become proxy-characters in the story either as witness or by their involvement. There is even the rare possibility that such proxy-characters and their activities may be adopted by the game`s directors. They essentially give players something to do. The game depends on, and is defined by, player involvement. It brings together the resources of a collective group mind and atmosphere.
Such a trend indicates or represents a drifting away from books, movies and TV shows as entertainment media, because they are too "passive", solitary and vicarious, making the audience too much a spectator or feel disconnected from people-- especially for a generation raised on immersive video games.
The youth of today seem to prefer taking a more controlling and self-centered role in their affairs "including their media and entertainment, to the point of influencing its creation and content directly. Video games often have the same appeal for this audience.
ARGs also become a more social and socializing experience than books and movies can be or have been. There is a suspension of disbelief which manifests a perception or impression that the game is not a game.
Role playing games provide the same kind of immersive and participatory story telling collaboration, but not the same form or degree. Like books, RPGs exist too much in the mind and on paper, while ARGs extend more into the real world and include video/audio features. Which makes me wonder why Live Action Role Playing has not become more popular. Maybe we are too immersed in electronic media? To appeal to this audience, books and movies may need to incorporate a "choose your own adventure" format.
The downside of ARGs is that they are momentary, once the game is done, the story is ended and cannot be re-enacted or replayed exactly the same way. It becomes second hand narrative. So in order to share or experience the game after the fact, there will have to be a way to encapsulate, summarize or transfer the game play results and reality in other media.
The ARG format is also effective as a medium for viral memes and marketing campaigns, either by sponsoring these games or product and brand name placement within the narrative. ARGs can be used as promotional tools or extensions of other stories, but they must be able to function separately as their own narrative, independently of an advertising aspect or its parent story-- or people will see through it as nothing more than a commercial imitation.
The ARG genre is not just a deviation or derivation of gaming, but part of the evolution of entertainment media and creative narrative toward greater interactivity and immersion, as well as a reaction to our increasing ability and willingness to accept and utilize cross-media platforms.
Maybe what we really need are game designers applying their skills to fix the real world to make the real world more game-like, instead of making games more like the real world. In games, we have a sense of purpose, allies, a sense of being part of a larger community and story, participating in a world that wants us to succeed and be happy.
Shouldn`t the real world be like that?
(ok, so I exceeded my intended limit of 500 words; but there was too much I wanted to say on this topic, and I still left stuff out.)