How alternate reality games work

I just attended Elan Lee's presentation "Designing Magnets: Connecting with Audiences in the Wired Age," a talk on Alternate Reality Game design at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in San Diego. Lee helped invent the genre of ARGs -- working on AI, I Love Bees, Tombstone Poker, and the other defining moments in its history.

Lee discussed the incredible, intense engagement that ARG players have with the medium (he uses the number of invitations to players' weddings as an index to judge the success of a game) and described some of the framework for building future games with comparable engagement.

ARG: Nine Inch Nails Year Zero (Charge)

* Trent Reznor wrote an album wanted it to be the soundtrack for an experience

* Hid songs on flash drives hidden in concerts, clues in spectographic analysis of songs

* Secret underground concert -- fans were brought to a secret location where NIN played, halfway through the wall fell down and they were invaded by a SWAT team

* The album and game was a dystopian commentary on the increased trend to authority

Link to my notes, Link to talk precis


  1. CBS’s Jericho just wrapped up their own ARG, Lost has one, etc. etc. etc. They’re bound to become more and more a part of our real-life reality, throwing “alternate” out the window.

  2. Jericho’s has NOT wrapped yet. Unless you have information that I don’t have. There’s a few things still outstanding in the game to this point.
    And in the Jericho spirit, come to the boards, watch the show, we need more viewers. On the plus side…it’s quite good and well written.

    I actually just started into ARG, due to Jericho, and I can say, it’s been frustrating and exhilirating, often around the same time!

  3. The Cloudmakers game created for A.I. was far more engaging and complex a storyline than the actual film… and in a way, made the movie a bit of a letdown, since the ARG seemed to be setting up a brilliantly intriguing storyline that the movie never paid off at all.

  4. They sound like treasure hunts, and do show how large groups can network to solve problems. Boing Boing should design one, just to contribute its fair share to world chaos.

  5. They just did one for the Sarah Connor Chronicles as well, quite entertaining.

    Watch the videos, and delve into some of the pics in the blog section. I don’t watch T:SCC but I think everyone understands the background for these,,,

  6. the NIN ARG was pretty badass, what i read about it. wired magazined had a great write up about it late last year – possibly their december issue? i’m actually surprised NIN doesn’t get more notice on this site, considering everything that trent reznor does/is doing to promote CC licenses and sharing music fairly. he just released a new album yesterday and linked the main page to an “official” torrent. pretty cool shiz.

  7. The only problem with ARG’s is once you’ve played one and know how they work it ruins the rest of them. I really don’t think anyone will ever top the Year Zero ARG. Hidden USB drives with songs, the songs matched new parts of the storyline the clues in drives reveled, it really was an amazing experience. It all started with a tour t-shirt, that led to web sites broadcasting from the future. People were getting strange phone calls. And then it all led to the concert with the swat team.

  8. Yeah, Wired covered this in their January 2008 issue. Good read, although the article included a “hidden message” that was pretty lame (as a recent letter points out.) They make us pick out highlighted letters and the best they can come up with is pull quotes?

  9. Fascinating article. I’ve been playing with the idea of maybe doing blogs for the characters in a webcomic story I’m working on.

  10. It’s a shame that in all these articles, the Nokia Game is rarely mentioned.

    While it was not as advanced as those mentioned in the article, it certainly predates them by a good few years.


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