If you're making a new piece of pop culture and you expect it to reach a mass audience, or even just a subcultural audience, you'd better have an ARG. What's that, you say? ARG stands for "alternate reality game," and it describes a wide range of interactive puzzles that generally involve getting you to visit various websites, call phone numbers, and go places in major cities in order to get free shit related to a movie, TV show and even occasionally a book. Why are popular titles like Dark Knight and Lost using ARGs? It's more than just advertising: It's a way to build an instant fan base without working at it for years like Star Trek did. But so far, ARGs have few of the benefits of a fandom, such as a friendly community of like-minded people; and they have all of the bad parts of fannish behavior like pointless obsessiveness and fetishization of dumb swag.
Even if you've never participated in an ARG, you've probably seen stuff related to them without realizing it. The first movie tie-in ARG was probably for A.I., which created thousands of websites (most archived here) and phone numbers related to the game, probably the one that caught most people's attention was for the videogame Halo, whose ARG tie-in website ilovebees.com, told the tale of several characters fighting a 26th century alien invasion who desperately needed help from the past. Participants would watch the ilovebees website for GPS coordinates of payphones — at a designated time, the ARG would call the payphone, usually dispensing more information about the storyline via a recording. But a few lucky players also got to talk to an actor, and their conversations were incorporated into the game too. In 2004, ilovebees was the biggest ARG anyone had ever heard of, and it was a smash hit.
More recently, Dark Knight ran a several-month-long ARG, mostly off of whysoserious.com, which had fans doing everything from picking up cakes with cell phones hidden inside them to guessing the names of corrupt cops on the Gotham City Police force. People who figured out the puzzles first were rewarded with Batman swag and, later, tickets to preview screenings. Lost is running an ARG at Comic-Con this week where the fictional Dharma corporation tries to recruit new employees, and the Sarah Connor Chronicles had a tie-in ARG that was quite artful in which employees of the Enitech Corporation discover a camera that takes pictures of the future and predicts the rise of the machines.
ARG-making companies attract top scifi talent like Maureen McHugh, author of China Mountain Zhang, who recently gave a speech about how ARGs are the future of science fiction. But they still remain in a murky area between advertising and original stories, often paid for with advertising budgets and treated mostly as a way to increase brand recognition for a piece of content.
I see nothing wrong with making advertising more fun, and there's no doubt that a lot of people enjoy playing ARGs. What I do have a problem with is the way ARGs seem to have no lives of their own – they feel like they exist solely to advertise another story. At least videogame tie-ins to movies are marketed as their own, standalone items.
With a few notable exceptions, ARGs are basically treated like walk-in commercials a lot of the time. But commercials can't really masquerade as games: It's foolish for entertainment companies to assume that they can get audiences to forget that they're being virally marketed to. And yet I think ARGs are temping as advertising campaigns because their structures inspire so many of the fan behaviors that media companies translate into instant dollar signs. But getting people to run around and do things is not the same as inviting an audience to enjoy a compelling narrative with a bunch of pals. So with an ARG I get a crappy cell phone instead of a cool fan community? No, that doesn't make me want to see Dark Knight as often as I've watched Star Trek episodes with groups of friends.
One reason I liked the Sarah Connor Chronicles ARG so much was that it actually functioned as its own, compelling story. It was almost like the Heroes webisodes – stories set in the same universe as their parent story, but shorter and with a lower budget. The Dark Knight ARG, on the other hand, felt like it really was just advertising with a few perfunctory interactive bits thrown in.
Expect more ARGs everywhere this summer media season, with Dharma recruiting people and Fringe having some kind of treasure hunt at Comic-Con (let me guess: the prize is Fringe swag!). But what I'd like to see are ARGs for their own sakes — ARGs that involve fans not because they give away posters or free showings, but because they are genuinely compelling tales that you actually want to interact with. A best-case scenario for ARGs might be that they ditch parent stories altogether, becoming their own entities.
For now, though, I feel like the ARG is just a fancier term for guerrilla marketing. Like I said, I don't mind being advertised to, as long as you call an ad an ad — not an ARG.