How real is real enough?

Last night, I was out with a group looking for a restaurant and couldn't find it. Someone in my party joked that maybe it wasn't a real restaurant I'd made reservations at, but just a page in an ARG. This got me to thinking about where to draw the line between too-real and not-real-enough, when you're constructing an alternate reality.

Clearly, as a puppetmaster, your goal isn't to allow some non-player to make a reservation at an in-game restaurant that ruins an out-of-game night on the town when it manages to not exist. ...Right?

In some whiz-bang synchronicity, just when this was already on my mind, I woke up to the Jamie Kane controversy. (Thanks, BoingBoing). Here's a case where ARG and non-ARG interests are clearly colliding. The traditional ARG community has historically felt the realer, the better; I've seen posts critical of in-game sites that don't include address and phone number information, *even if it's made up*, because its absence adds the taint of unrealism.

The Wikipedia community, though, clearly feels that presenting in-game information as factual is stepping way out of bounds. So who's right?

This is a tough nut to crack, and it's probably a question the community will be examining for a long time to come. Are profiles for characters on a dating site OK? Is it OK for a character to "sell" something on Craigslist? What about a restaurant site that lets you make online reservations? What about staging the "kidnapping" of a player?

I'd think that part of the answer lies in how inconvenienced a non-player would be by trying to interact with an in-game component as though it were really real. If somebody tries to hook up with Laia Salla from her profile on Match.com and she doesn't answer the email, that's not a huge loss. That fictional restaurant, though, could be a whopping inconvenience.

But another part relies on not abusing the goodwill of Internet culture in general, and of free and open resources in particular. Wikipedia exists because many thousands of people have in good faith created a priceless common resource, and that's why people are hopping mad about it. Putting in-game information in as though it were real is an act that undermines the integrity of the entire system.

Now, I'm not saying that I blame the BBC for doing it; I think it was a clever idea, and the line is a pretty foggy one to begin with. It's not like nobody's ever put a joke entry in before. It's easy to say I wouldn't have chosen to cross that line, but hindsight is pretty damn sharp.

So for you guys out there: What should be the criteria used in immersive fiction for determining exactly how real to make something, or to try to make it? Do you think there's such a thing as too real? (Hint: I bet your local authorities wouldn't be too keen on real kidnappings.) How real does it need to be before it's real enough?

We did eventually find the restaurant, by the way. Whew.