The Shredded Curtain

I like to make a joke about ARG developers being descended from underpants gnomes. This is a joke that works on two levels, and one of them is on my mind a lot lately, so please bear with me while I deconstruct it and render it completely unfunny.

The first level is pretty easy. For those of you who run ARG studios, the business model of the South Park underpants gnome may seem uncannily familiar:

1: Collect underpants

2: ???

3: Profit!

And sometimes that's exactly what it feels like we're doing, right? We're building awesome things and hoping that eventually, we'll work out how to make a living that way.

But the other thing underpants gnomes and ARG developers share, and the thing I'm here to talk about today, is secrecy. More specifically, that idea of puppetmasters hiding behind a curtain.

Secrecy has been a constant companion since the giddy days of the Cloudmakers, when we didn't know what the heck was going on, didn't know who was doing it, and loved every delicious minute of that uncertainty. Part of the fun for us was trying to catch the people behind this game-that-wasn't-a-game!

But this had a lot of pretty terrible side effects, from the actor at a live event who was followed into his off-duty life, clear to the internal strife over whether looking at packing slips for a return address was in the bounds and the spirit of the game... or not. It was exciting, I'll give you that. It was mysterious.

But it has to stop.

As alternate reality gaming reaches an increasing level of maturity and sophistication, not to mention pop-culture notoriety, there are a few incredibly compelling reasons that the habit and tradition of secrecy, of hiding the development team behind a curtain, is no longer sustainable. I'll even go further: That tradition has reached a point where it actively works against the interests of the genre, not to mention against the interests of any specific game.

Here's a prime example. There's a familiar song I see in comment threads about ARGs on places like io9 or BoingBoing, or in private chats, or in emails from friends. "I'd love to play an ARG," the lyrics go, "but I've got no idea how to find one."

It should go without saying that finding an audience is one of the top goals of an ARG. If you don't have an audience... well, you're just spitting into the wind, aren't you? So why has the convention persisted of not actually telling a potential audience that you're going to make something awesome and hey, you might want to pay attention, y'all?

Because it breaks the curtain? Because it's alien to our viral-marketing heritage? Because it admits there's a game? Shh... I have a secret for you. They already know it's a game. There aren't legions of wide-eyed innocents out there who think they're really finding kidnapping victims, infiltrating secret societies, or collaring insane artificial intelligences. No, really! There have even been games -- sequels and serials like Chasing and Catching the Wish and the Eldritch Errors series spring to mind -- where the players already know who's behind the game, and it doesn't seem to have hurt anything.

And here's another consideration, too, for those of us who are trying to build reputations, careers, and if I may be so bold, fan followings. If somebody is dying to see your next work, absolutely slobbering over the chance to participate in your next creative act -- go on, tell them what it is. You don't get bonus points for hewing to some pure ideal about rabbit holes and organic discovery of the experience. You just get a smaller audience to start with, and you risk the chance that a lot of people who'd love to play your game -- if only they knew it was your game -- are going to miss out.

There's one more consideration, too. If you can be open about who you are and what your work is, when catastrophe strikes (as it always does), you can open a channel of communication to deal with it. You can provide technical support for a Flash interface that isn't performing as well as it tested. You can apologize because your ISP was struck by lightning and you're having to rebuild three days of data. You can tell everybody that the live event scheduled for tomorrow is going to have to be pushed back a week because, sorry guys, but I have to go to my grandma's funeral, and anyway the actor you were going to meet, that you've seen on video fifty times already, has broken both legs and is in traction for the foreseeable future.

It's more elegant to write these things into the game. That should always be the first tactic. But some things really just won't work in the context of the story you're trying to tell... and that's totally OK. My experience is that your audience is going to be a lot easier on you than you ever will be on yourself. So cut yourself a break.

Am I saying that everything about an ARG has to be broadcast far and wide before play begins? No, of course not. That's ridiculous. Movie studios keep production details under lock and key, even while promoting the names of the stars, the directors, the screenwriters. Video games announce release dates far in advance, allowing the players to budget their purchasing decisions (and for some dedicated gamers, time off work). There's not a lot of reason for ARGs to have a different standard, and a lot of reason not to.

The good news, of course, is that secrecy in ARGs is increasingly going out of fashion, anyway. I'm making a big show of calling out the practice, but the battle's already been won -- so much so, in fact, that I can easily name several instances where the cat's been out of the bag during the run, or even before, from the last few weeks alone. Obviously Six to Start announced The Shadow War ahead of time. True Blood had an article outing them in the New York Times. Luce's Lover's Eye, mere days after its ARGfest trailhead, was profiled by ABC News as being an effort by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Alpha Agency is experimenting with blogging about the run, during the run.

Now we just have to overcome that underpants-gnome-like business model...

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