WTF is an ARG? 2009 Edition

It's about that time again, boys and girls. The seasonal "What is an ARG?" discussion has flared up on the ARG SIG mailing list. This is the variant strain: What was the first ARG? Which of course leads to a lot of semantic acrobatics as people try to work out what it is we're describing when we say A-R-G, and then work out whether it's the same thing anybody else is talking about. 

  There's a lot of sense in these discussions, if not a lot of consensus; and there have been some really excellent and perceptive comments in the thread. I'd do some more specific sharing and attribution, but I'm reluctant to cite quotes from a semi-private space; so please, if I'm parroting an idea you said first, forgive me. (And if you'd like to be privy to these conversations in which very many erudite and clever people say very many erudite and clever things, then please, join the list.)

But if all of these clever people can agree so broadly on so many things, why does the topic keep coming up at all? Why can't we reach a consensus on what an ARG is, and what an ARG isn't? Why do we return home, like swallows to Capistrano, to that question: What IS an ARG? 

This is my attempt to wrestle with this knotty topic, and offer up a few opinions.

Once Upon A Time...

...I was but an innocent lass, and I thought I knew what an ARG was. See that beautiful triangle where story, gameplay, and community overlap? That's an ARG, right there.


But there are other things that offer story, gameplay, and community. MMOs and MUDs do (or can, anyway). LARPs do. If you squint your eyes just a little bit, American Idol fits the bill, and so does a fan site for Bioshock. Hmm. That can't possibly be right, can it?

The Plot Thickens

The semantics only get murkier from here.


Let's ignore the problem of other, non-ARG stuff sharing the center for a while.

There are some other works that primarily and by design fall into the intersection of only two of those three circles. Some people would call some of them ARGs, and some people... wouldn't. Is Cathy's Book an ARG? I'd say yes, but I know others would disagree with me. What about Lonelygirl15? Yeah, it's been called an ARG, and I'd agree. (For my purposes I'm excluding LG15 from the gameplay circle based on the initial experience offered; I believe the series incorporated more gameplay elements as time went on.)

Then there are community play experiences like Jane McGonigal's fun new thing, The Secret Dance Off. It's awesome, and interesting, but I'm pretty sure nobody, least of all Jane herself, will be calling that an ARG. So why do some things feel ARG-like to some people when they meet two out of these three criteria, while many others don't?

The conclusion I reach is that these criteria are fundamentally flawed. We're looking for a name for all of the cool stuff that falls into that white circle in the center, which seem to ring our bells in a lot of the same ways. That white circle... that's what I'm interested in making. It's definitely bigger and more diffuse than that classic-ARG triangle, story + gameplay + community. I've been guilty of trying to expand 'ARG' to mean all of that stuff, but that's ultimately a bad idea, because people think they know what an ARG is... and it isn't that, not quite. 

Lately I'm reduced to calling it "Cool stuff on the internet." And that's why we keep going in circles about what an ARG is. We sort of know -- it's the stuff in the very center, but not all of the stuff in the center -- but we don't yet have a good name for whatever ARGs are a subset of. Digital culture? Guided pervasive experiences? It may be, in the fullness of time, that we need several names to accurately describe what the heck we mean.

My New Theory

So here's my new operating theory on what an ARG is... sort of. An ARG is something that rings all of these bells:


Let me offer up a few definitions.

Story Archaeology: The audience assembles a working model of the story based on multiple sources and fragmented pieces of narrative.

Real Time: Story/experience timeline and real-world timeline are the same

Real World: Using physical objects or venues that actually exist.

Interactive Cast and/or World: You can reach out to the story world and get a reaction (often via real-world communication methods such as email, phone, IM).

Audience Volition: The audience are an active participant in the experience and have some power over the outcome.

If you find something that hits every single one of these criteria, odds are there's not going to be a lot of argument that it's an ARG. You can take away one or two of them, and still find consensus that yeah, that there thing is an ARG. When you get to four or fewer of these elements, you start to see less and less consensus. A lot of this is very personal, and relies on what an individual sees as the Platonic ideal of an ARG. There are some people who will insist that if there are no puzzles, it can't be an ARG. There will be people who insist that if it is single-player, it can't be an ARG. I'll stick with this: any five or all six of these is definitely an ARG; four or fewer is a close cousin. 

Some of us are actively working on stripping out some of these elements to see where it leads us, as we search for the Promised Land where we have recurring revenue. There's a lot of interest particularly in removing the real-time and multiplayer elements.

The First ARG

Let's turn our attention back to the things that only jangle a few of these bells.


Just as intense as the "What is an ARG?" debate is the "What was the ur-ARG?" debate. You see a lot of the same few things offered up as 'first ARGs.' Some of them are most like puzzle hunts, like Masquerade or Publius Enigma, which both lacked elements of story archaeology and an interactive story world. Some of them are just-plain-games, like LARPs. You see Blair Witch Project cited -- I've cited it myself -- which didn't really offer audience volition or puzzles. 

There are lots of things that are quite a lot like ARGs in one fashion or another, some going back hundreds of years. More than I could possibly hope to catalog, even if I were to base an academic career around it. Were they ARGs? Well... they were cool, anyway. They fit into that white circle of stuff-we-want-to-be-talking-about. Blair Withc and Publius Enigma were definitely cool-things-on-the-internet. Who cares if they were an ARG?

They might not have been classic Beast-style ARGs, not quite the same kind of experience that launched Unfiction. Very definitely ancestors; very definitely inspiring what came after. But the thing that the Beast gave us was this: It taught us that we needed a name so we could start having a conversation. So we started using a name. Hey, we had to start somewhere, didn't we?

But we also say Christopher Columbus discovered America -- which is named after Amerigo Vespucci -- and when Leif Ericson came to North America, it was already populated. So who discovered America? What does discovering America really mean, in this context? Should we be lobbying to change Columbus Day? Should we be lobbying to change the continents to North and South Ericsonia? Wouldn't that be justice?

It's a noble ideal to give credit where credit is due. But we have that name, for good or ill, and we have a canonical first example, no matter how many close relatives there may be.

On Wankery

At the end of the day, the only reason achieving a consensus definition is relevant is to help us signal to potentially interested parties, "Hey, there's something here you might want to pay attention to." Nobody is going to come around and write you up if you call your experimental-lit project an ARG. Nobody is going to slap you in handcuffs for calling a scavenger hunt with a little role-play an ARG. Nobody is going to cry foul and blacklist you because you're sending txt messages from the characters of your TV show and calling that an ARG. (OK, maybe somebody will... but it won't be me.)

Do you need permission? Fine! Email me, I'll make you a certificate. But -- psst -- you don't need anybody's endorsement.

I've spent hours of my life working out how I feel about all of this. I'm not even that sure that I'll still agree with myself when I wake up in the morning, and who knows? I might get the thrill of waking up to a bee's nest of angry commenters. But there is one thing I feel, passionately, deeply, truly.

All of this is just wanking.

I don't care whether any given experience is an ARG or not. I care about whether it's fun.

I don't care whether anything I make is an ARG or not. I care about whether it's awesome (and fun for somebody else.)

So please... can we talk more about making cool stuff on the internet now? And stop arguing about what an ARG is and isn't? Every second we spend talking about it is one less second we can get on with making cool stuff.

Thank you, and good night.

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