Q: What is the difference between an Alternate Reality Game and a Virtual World or MMORPG?
(Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)

A: Virtual Worlds and MMORPGs are self-contained environments programmed to provide a place for their users to escape from the real world and immerse themselves in this other place. Instead of this approach, ARGs take the entertainment experience to the player and alters how they view their existing reality. It tweaks every-day things to get the players to see their normal lives as somehow essentially different and part of the narrative.

One way to think of the difference is a push vs. pull experience. Virtual Worlds and MMORPGs require users to make a choice and “pull” the entertainment to them. In ARGs, players opt-in to more of a push experience where the game reaches out and alters a players reality to put them in the center of the action, within it, instead of reaching in from the outside to pull the entertainment to them.

Q: What is the difference between an Alternate Reality Game and an Augmented Reality Game?

A: All these terms are so new the boundaries are still being explored. One way to think about these two concepts people are trying to talk about with these slightly different terms is that “Alternate Reality Games” strive to replace reality with a well-developed, real-seeming fiction, while “Augmented Reality Games” begin with real reality and build onto it – augmenting it, improving the way we interact with it or function within it, but not replacing the real reality with a fictional reality.

Q: What is the difference between an ARG and other Pervasive Games?

A: Here especially the boundaries are hard to define. In many ways the two disciplines inform each other and may someday come together. However, right now one of the defining differences is that ARGs all have an interactive narrative where players impact the outcome in some way. This narrative is one of the things that makes ARGs “feel” different from a Pervasive Game. Another difference is that Pervasive Games tend to have more defined barriers between play space and not-play space. They often use reality as a game space, but the rules are more defined than they are in ARGs. Alternate Reality Games blur the rules and use everyday functions as game mechanics.

Q: What’s the difference between ARGs and Live-Action Roleplaying (LARP)?

The answer to this question is similar to the answer about Virtual Worlds. LARP participants gather in a real-world environment, but for the purpose of escaping the real world and entirely inhabiting a fantastic environment and play space. Players essentially leave the real world to participate in a LARP, where ARG players don’t leave their everyday life, instead their everyday life is altered.

Q: What’s the difference between ARGs and Murder Mystery Dinner Party Games?

Murder mystery games usually provide players with a scenario to be acted out, with each player taking on the identity of a murderer, witness, victim or detective. The game then is to figure out who-dunnit before the end of the party. This requires players to step out of their normal roles in real life and pretend to be a wealthy millionaire or innocent bystander etc.

ARGs on the other hand ask people to encounter the altered reality as themselves. Fictional roles are not (usually) thrust on the players by the designers, although players are free to roleplay if they like. Additionally, ARGs usually allow players more of an interactive role in the way the narrative plays out. Their actions have been known to change endings, essentially changing who the murderer is (using the above metaphor), depending on choices they make as they play the game.

Q: Are all ARGs marketing campaigns?

A: Definitely not. ARGs can be hard to define, but the one thing they all have in common (so far) is a communal interactive narrative. Think of it this way: some 30-second TV commercials use a quick story to get you interested in their product, but not all short stories are trying to sell you something. In the same way, some ARGs promote a product or idea, but some are just out to tell a story or entertain.

Q: But how does one play an ARG?

Essentially, players in an ARG do whatever they would do if they found their reality altered in whatever way the ARG designers have chosen to alter reality. So each individual’s experience of playing an ARG is unique to them. Some are skeptical and interact with the new reality by trying to find out where the new information is coming from, or reading between the lines to find puzzles. Other players want to connect with a community sharing the same experience they are, and end up “playing” the ARG more like a cocktail game where the objective is to get to know each other better. Many people feel like they are playing along with the ARG just by observing how others are interacting with the altered reality, the way someone might “play” a movie.

For more information, please see the section of this website called “How to Play ARGs.”

Q: What does “TINAG” mean and why is it important?

A: TINAG (often pronounced tee-nag) is shorthand for: This Is Not A Game. Some consider it the prime – or only – rule for playing ARGs, while others argue even this rule is not required. Regardless of how an ARG designer views the philosophy, TINAG has been a primary moving force during the birth of the ARG genre. The idea is that this is not a game – this is your new reality. Now deal with it. Use the tools you use in everyday life to navigate this tweaked version of reality. Do research. Ask your friends for help. Improvise solutions to these new problems. This is not a game to be “played” this is an alternate reality to be explored and experienced.

Q: What are some recent examples of ARGs I can read about?

A: Year Zero – Trent Reznor’s solution to doing a concept album in an age where MP3s don’t come with liner notes and cover art. He pulled fans into an alternate world described in his dark, apocalyptic music. It ended with a private concert for those players who could follow the clues to the final venue which was interrupted by a staged police raid.
Wired Article
Nine Inch Nails Album Site
Wikipedia Entry

Art of the Heist – Audi introduced a new car model by setting up a theft at a car show and letting players track down the culprits.
Business Week Article
Audi Press Release
Wikipedia Entry

Last Call Poker – The story behind a console video game called Gun, set in the old west, was introduced through an online poker site where players discovered some of their opponents were ghosts and tracked down their tragic history. Groups gathered in graveyards to solve puzzles.
CNET Article
Marketing Company Brief

The Lost Experience – A website for the fictional airline featured in the show talks about the loss of the airplane and explains why no one is searching for the survivors on the island. They even got an executive from this non-existent company onto a late-night talk show to give a straight interview about the families of the characters on the show petitioning the company to go look for them.
ABC News Article
ABC’s Lost Experience Site
Wikipedia Article

Metacortechs – An entirely fan-run continuation of the Matrix storyline in ARG format which came out between the first and second movies in the trilogy.
MU Archives (archives written from the player perspective)

World Without Oil - An ARG focusing on raising awareness about our dependence on oil and getting people involved in finding solutions.
WWO Explanation Page
WWO Start Page

This resource created by Wendy Despain.