ARG Design: A Small Canon

(Originally published Dec 3, 2016 on alternaterealitygames.wordpress.com)

After watching The Game at the beginning of this course I was struck by a dissonance that still bothers me.  All of us, myself included, seem to agree that ARGs are insidiously difficult to define (as Nate mentions in his post “Explaining ARGs”).  There isn’t an entirely clear definition or distinction between ARGs and non-ARGs, insofar as they’re both games; and every time we try to explain the genre to a friend or family member there is inevitably a lot of hesitance and chin tapping.  But we do still seem to have a clear idea of what goes into them.  A narrative backbone with documents spread across media, puzzles and trails, performance, spectacles, and an experience or learning objective that designers can measure up to.

But one could also imagine an ARG (or something that we might call an ARG) that doesn’t use narrative documents, instead relying fully on affect and player feelings for its impact.  Or, an entirely online ARG comprised exclusively of puzzles that wouldn’t require any performance (would the fact of a TING aesthetic make this game notably different from a video game?).

I wonder if the limited cultural literacy around ARGs is pigeonholing the possibilities for the genre.  Since we have such a small canon of examples and inspiration to draw from, are we likely to simply iterate on a particular style of ARG when so much more is possible?  I am especially wary about this because ARGs as we know them originated in a promotional and corporate setting with The Beast and I Love Bees.  Is it possible to leave this history behind and develop truly innovative games, or are we stuck with the baggage that those games left us?  Video games have similar origins, in that they originated in an environment that wasn’t purely artistic.  It took decades for the world of indie and art video games to coalesce in any meaningful way.  I guess I’m asking whether we are out of those waters yet, or if we need to actively incorporate an anti-corporate drive into our design.

At the very least, I think it’s important that we stay in conversation with the many non-ARG precursors to ARGs that were mentioned in class, and which we read about: Fluxus, the Situationists, letterboxing, “search operas,” paranoid fiction, etc.  Most of these movements and genres were founded on a drive for artistic and social innovation, which seems closer to the goals we set out to achieve in this course.

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