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Alternate Reality: Nora Young on a new form of storytelling

Last Updated October 16, 2006

When teenagers buy the new young-adult mystery novel Cathy's Book, the words between the covers will tell only part of the story. The rest of the book's mystery unfolds in an elaborate series of clues readers have to dig up — clues left not on the page, but in the digital environment around them.

The book is one of the latest alternate reality games (ARGs), a kind of pop cultural mash-up of Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy theory, role-playing games and virtual reality.

In the case of Cathy's Book, real myspace.com pages have been created for Cathy and Emma, the book's fictional heroines. There's an online message board with comments and discussion of possible clues. Dialing a certain phone number even connects readers to a voice mail message "from" Cathy.

In other words, the 'story' is a package that includes both the linear tale in the book and a fictional world that exists alongside the cellphone culture and social networking sites of your average real-world teen. It's a distinctly literary twist on the booming world of alternate reality games and it may point the way to a new form of storytelling.

Although the genre is barely five years old, ARGs are exploding in popularity. Games can be as small-scale as a couple of dozen players or they may attract hundreds of thousands of players and observers who are encouraged to collaborate with each other.

A typical ARG is structured like a mystery. Game designers invent a conspiratorial narrative and the players have to put together the pieces of the mystery. In Cathy's Book, the narrative is rooted in a novel, but in many other cases, it is dispersed across real world media. Clues are typically delivered via digital media such as blogs, e-mails or text messages, but they can be low-tech, too, such as an ad in the classified section of a newspaper.

Although they're mostly virtual, some games take to the streets. They get players to look for clues in real, physical locations and involve such old-fashioned fun as playing a game of 'chase' to track down people playing the role of characters in the game.

Though an ARG mystery is entirely fictional, it's usually played straight.

"This is Not a Game" is a mantra for creators of alternate reality games; as much as possible, nothing breaks the illusion. When a clue tells you to visit a blog, for instance, not only does the blog exist, but the links on the blog also really connect to other fictional sites. It's this sense of a parallel world existing alongside real, prosaic daily life that gives ARGs a special "wow" factor for players.

Marketing debut

While they're starting to make an impact on the literary community, ARGs made their debut in the world of marketing. The first ARGs were promotional vehicles: they have been used to market movies and video games as well as Audi cars.

Sometimes, though, they are used to more artistic ends. Some artists, such as the UK-based group Blast Theory, create art/games that blur the line between the real and the virtual to political or philosophical effect. Blast Theory has been creating so-called "pervasive games" since before the advent of ARGs. These games blend action in real-world cities with location-aware mobile technology such as GPS-enabled cellphones.

In Uncle Roy All Around You, for instance, players in the real world collaborated with online players to locate the mysterious Uncle Roy somewhere in London. Blast Theory wants to raise questions, according to their website, about "the social and political aspects of technology."

ARGs can also be adapted for activism. Because the tools for mocking up these fictional worlds are cheap or even free, the only real barrier to entry for ARG designers is creativity and time. ARGs offer a fresh opportunity to combine entertainment and activism for a generation raised on the addictive power of gaming.

Last month in Toronto, for instance, a small group of students, community activists and artists launched TorGame: Waking City. This grassroots alternate reality game was designed to get players to connect socially and explore the hidden pleasures of a big, anonymous city while uncovering a mystery buried in a series of puzzles.

For TorGame founding member Adam Clare, the appeal of an ARG lies in its alternative to mainstream pop culture.

"Movies right now are generally awful … the same, old, boring story," he says. "I think people are looking for new forms of entertainment, something that actually respects their intellects and challenges them, makes them look around and see the world around them in a different way."

ARG players come from a range of ages, but the games do seem to attract younger gamers in particular. The appeal of an ARG that unfolds on real city streets, says TorGame founder David Fono is part of the same movement that sees young people reclaiming the streets through acts such as pedestrian-only activism.

Growing up with social media

"I think it's a reaction to what's been going on as we've been growing up. Everything's becoming so privatized — you've got billboards, garbage cans have advertisements on them…. I think among our generation, there's a large and growing sense that we're losing control of the space around us," Fono says.

Even so, alternate reality games, for now at least, are most often used as viral marketing for movies and video games.

Likewise, for the creators of Cathy's Book,the blend of fiction and interactivity comes not from activism, but from a background in games and literature. Edmonton-born Sean Stewart has written novels and he and creative partner Jordan Weisman are ARG pioneers. They created what's considered the first ARG, The Beast, used to promote the Steven Spielberg movie A.I. For them, a big appeal of ARGs lies in their sociability.

"This is an intensely social artistic experience," says Stewart. "If I read a book and you read a book, we each have our own experience. In an ARG, the audience puts it together. It lives in the place where blogging lives, where people are constantly talking to each other."

That's another reason ARGs may have a real future with the generation in their teens now. The so-called Myspace Generation is growing up with social media — the digital network of blogging, instant messaging and social networking. It is an intensely, even hyper-social, group. It's also a generation increasingly used to digital media as a part of life and a natural component of community.

Of course, like Generation X and the Baby Boomers before them, the Myspace Generation is also a target market and that's stirred up some controversy. Cathy's Bookhas already generated criticism for including a promotional product placement for Cover Girl makeup.

Rick Joyce, a representative of publisher Perseus Books, says "one of our responses [to the criticism] was 'Read the book. Your concerns will be allayed.' "

Others point out that it's early days yet in the evolution of games and new modes of narrative.

Says Weisman, co-author of Cathy's Book: "ARGs are at the stage where movies were before the [1903 film] The Great Train Robbery. We're still learning our craft, but we both feel there's more to go."


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