How Alternate Reality Gaming Works

An alternate reality game played a major role in marketing the film "AI: Artificial Intelligence" to a certain audience.
An alternate reality game played a major role in marketing the film "AI: Artificial Intelligence" to a certain audience.
Warner Bros.

April 2001. "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," the long awaited movie project started by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg, finally hit the theaters. For many, the film was a disappointment, but a few highly observant members of the audience who stayed to watch the credits roll noticed a strange listing among the best boys, the gaffers and lighting technicians. It read: Jeanine Salla, Sentient Machine Therapist. Clearly an odd little joke inserted for the fun of it. Or was it?

Soon after, somebody happened to notice something odd on the reverse sides of some of the movie's promotional posters. There were small letters, and some of them were circled in silver, others outlined in gold. Put together, the silver-circled letters spelled out the phrase, "Evan Chan was murdered." The ones in gold yield the sentence, "Jeanine is the key."

When people Googled Jeanine Salla, they stumbled across a series of highly detailed websites, which included Salla's biography, an organization promoting the humane treatment of robots and clues to the mystery of Evan Chan's death. Intrigued, those following the trail kept going even though it becomes increasingly clear that both Jeanine Salla and Evan Chan are invented characters and the trail of clues is all part of an elaborate ruse.

By the time it was all over, more than 7,000 people have joined the hunt for Evan Chan's killer, and alternate reality gaming had begun in earnest [source: Szulborski].

The Real Surreal

A.I.'s ARG marketing campaign was one of the first of its kind.
A.I.'s ARG marketing campaign was one of the first of its kind.
KMazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Most definitions of the word "game" refer to it as an activity played according to a set of rules. Alternate reality gaming (ARG) however, defies this common assumption and adheres to no particular rule book. How then can we define ARG? What is it and how do you play it?

ARGs have several features that make them distinct from other games. Central to ARGs is the concept known as "this is not a game" or TINAG. TINAG is fairly self-explanatory — the idea is simply that those involved in the game pretend that it isn't one.

The game that isn't a game begins with something known as a "rabbit hole." This is, of course, a reference to "Alice in Wonderland," in which Alice begins her adventures when she enters the aforementioned rabbit hole. Often there are multiple rabbit holes. In the case of the ARG mentioned in the introduction, the "AI: Artificial Intelligence" credit referring to Jeanine Salla was one rabbit hole, and the letters on the back of the promotional posters were another. A rabbit hole is simply an element placed in the real world, which draws the player into the fictive world of the ARG. Other rabbit holes can take the form of an email or a posting of some kind that lures players into the game.

The internet is another feature that makes ARGs distinct from similar types of immersive play, some of which can be considered precursors to ARGs (we'll talk about those on the next page). Often, a rabbit hole leads players to websites carefully designed to disguise the fact that their content is entirely fictional. These websites will introduce characters (like Jeanine Salla), mysteries (such as "who killed Evan Chan?") and puzzles of various kinds. A well-structured ARG adheres so closely to the immersive "this is not a game" concept that players might not realize at first that they're playing a game. However, common ARG etiquette calls for seeding the game with clues that reveal its fictional nature.

While the internet is central to ARGs, the games are also characterized by their multi-platform nature. Take our working example in which the first clues appeared in a movie and on posters, which in turn led to websites. These websites might then direct players to payphones where they could receive calls that give them further clues. In other words, although an ARG makes intensive use of the internet, it can take advantage of any form of communication available.

Those behind an ARG are known as the "Puppetmasters" because they control the puppets, or characters, in the game. Large, successful ARGs typically have a team of Puppetmasters hard at work creating and disseminating clues, often as part of a marketing device for products like "AI: Artificial Intelligence." The Puppetmasters typically monitor the ARG players as the game progresses. This allows them (the Puppetmasters) to alter the game's content in real time, enhancing certain aspects, editing out others and generally interacting with the game as it's played. This interactive feature of ARGs is one of the activity's most distinctive and original features [source: Szulborski].

Ancestral Irrealities

Perhaps creating a world through cave paintings was a prototype for today's alternate reality games.
Perhaps creating a world through cave paintings was a prototype for today's alternate reality games.
Frederic Soltan/Getty Images

Few activities bespeak the 21st century more convincingly than alternate reality gaming. Yet everything has an antecedent. Where did ARGs come from? Maybe the seeds of ARGs can be found at the very beginnings of humanity? Tens of thousands of years ago when Paleolithic artists created the paintings now found in caves in southern Europe, what they made could be called an alternate reality. Step inside the cave and you were in a different world.

More recently, some works of fiction like Laurence Sterne's discursive 18th-century novel "Tristram Shandy," James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," Jorge Luis Borges' "Garden of the Forking Paths" and Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch" have sought to fashion fictive environments that invite readers to interact with the text by reading them in nonlinear ways.

Advancing through the 20th century, Ray Bradbury's sci-fi story "Veldt" actually depicts the playing of a game that closely resembles an ARG. "Neuromancer" and other works by William Gibson also mine this vein.

But it's with Kit Williams' "Masquerade" that we see an actual proto-ARG in action. Published in 1979, "Masquerade" is an intricately wrought children's fable that contains clues to a hunt for a location in the real world, in which was hidden a beautiful, handmade golden rabbit. Whoever could decipher the clues contained in the book and find the treasure first, could keep it. Add the internet to this scenario, and you have a classic ARG.

Then comes "Ong's Hat: Incunabula." The online interactive mystery's roots go back to 1988, when it first began appearing in cyber-science fiction magazines before migrating to the growing medium of the internet.

In 1994, a game called "Publius Enigma" surfaced in association with the release of the Pink Floyd album "The Division Bell." Using online messaging and the lighting at Pink Floyd's concerts themselves as clues, the game had many of the hallmarks of an early ARG.

Finally, when the marketing campaign for "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" first began disseminating the ARG that became known as "The Beast" in 2001, alternate reality gaming was fully realized as new phenomenon [source: Szulborski].

An Exemplary ARG

Believe it or not, was tied to video game Halo 2.
Believe it or not, was tied to video game Halo 2.
Dragonclaws/Halo Wikia

While "The Beast" remains one of the earliest and best known alternate reality games, there have been a number of notable ARGs since. Perhaps one of the best examples is the game concocted to help launch the videogame "Halo 2."

Once again, it all started at the movies. Among the previews played for audiences in theaters during the summer of 2004 was a trailer for "Halo 2." Those paying attention noticed something weird about the website listed at the end of the trailer, which appeared to briefly spell out "" before reverting to a "Halo 2" web address.

At the same time, across the country administrators of popular gaming sites were getting strange packages in the mail. The packages contained jars of honey with letters suspended inside. The letters spelled out "I love bees." When the package recipients and curious audience members pursued these clues, they came across a website that seemed to have been hacked. Following a message there, they arrived at a blog run by a girl named Dana Awbrey.

In her blog, Awbrey explained she'd created the website for her Aunt Margaret but then it had been hacked. She asked if anyone could help out. The website, it turned out, had been possessed by an amnesiac artificial intelligence from the future. Eventually the ilovebees site included a countdown to an imminent invasion of Earth by a force called The Covenant. The invasion date was actually the launch date for "Halo 2."

On the "Links" page of the site, a series of GPS coordinates appeared. Following the coordinates, the players found themselves in front of payphones. On a specified date at a designated time, the payphones began ringing. Those who answered them heard a voice recording from the artificial intelligence, which asked them a series of questions about itself. Correct answers led to the next phases of the increasingly complex game [source: Halopedia].

At the end of the game, all players received invitations to attend a "training mission." This was, in fact, an opportunity to play "Halo 2" before its official release. From start to finish, "Halo 2" was both a successful ARG and a clever marketing ploy that is said to have engaged many thousands of players and, through them, advertised the product to roughly a million people [source: Szulborski].

Serious Games

Alternate reality games can help people imagine a scary future -- and how to avoid it.
Alternate reality games can help people imagine a scary future -- and how to avoid it.

So far we've talked about ARGs created to publicize films and video games. And while this is where the phenomenon got its start, fans of the new experience quickly realized that it could take other forms for other purposes. Some people, like Dave Szulborski, the author of "This is Not a Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming," have independently created ARGs for the sheer fun of it. Acting as Puppetmasters, they've successfully drawn players from around the world into their intriguing, interactive plots.

Others have seized on the educational potential of ARGs to create a subgenre known as "serious ARGs." One of the best examples of this is "World Without Oil" (WWO). WWO started April 30, 2007, with a news brief proclaiming the beginning of an oil crisis. Updated daily, the game simulated a worldwide oil crisis happening in real time, for 32 days, until it came to an end on June 1.

Commissioned by a not-for-profit San Francisco media company called ITVS, and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WWO established a "citizen nerve center" where players could read the day's "news," which provided a realistic version of what could happen on a large scale during a global oil shock. The site established the day's price of oil as demand steadily rose to 5 percent above available supply. The tagline of WWO was, "Play it before you live it."

To enter the game, players simply had to imagine what it would be like to live through the experience day-to-day and create stories, blog entries, social media posts, videos or how-to manuals and send them in. The Puppetmasters would then link to them, creating a networked account of the "crisis" on multiple platforms.

The basic idea behind WWO was to see whether the interactive and immersive qualities of ARGs could be harnessed to crowd-source solutions to imminent real-world problems. By the time WWO was over, it had amassed the imagined experiences of 1,500 people. In total, 68,000 users immersed themselves in the experience during the game period, and 110,000 viewed it by the end of 2007.

Many of the players reported that playing the game had changed their lives beyond the game. The process of immersing themselves in the experience made them think so deeply about what it would be like to live in a world without oil that they began the process of trying to reduce their dependency before such an event occurs [source: WWO]. Perhaps this innovative creation offers at least one way forward for the remarkable immersive and interactive experience known as Alternate Reality Gaming.

Author's Note: How Alternative Reality Gaming Works

I remember reading "The Most Dangerous Game" when I was about 12 and being completely taken in by it. A big-game hunter named Rainsford accidentally falls off a yacht and manages to swim to an island where he meets a Russian aristocrat who also happens to be a hunter. The bored Russian forces Rainsford to become his prey and gives him a three-hour head-start. If Rainsford can survive for three days, he wins. If caught, he'll be killed like every other prey. Now that's what I call an immersive alternate reality game!

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More Great Links


  • BBC News. "Internet game for victims of war." Sept. 29, 2008. (July 30, 2016)
  • Hallett, Steve and John Wright. "Imagining a world without oil." Washington Post. April 21, 2011. (July 30, 2016)
  • "i love bees." (July 30, 2016)
  • Manly, Lorne. "Running the Really Big Show: 'Lost' Inc." The New York Times. Oct. 1, 2006. (July 30, 2016)
  • Rojas, Peter. "A Conspiracy of Conspiracy Gamers." Wired. Sept. 19, 2001. (July 30, 2016)
  • Szulborski, Dave. "This is Not a Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming." New-Fiction Publishing. 2005. (July 28, 2016)
  • Wolk, Douglas. "Signs of Intelligent Life." Slate. May 15, 2001. (July 30, 2016)
  • World Without Oil. "About World Without Oil." (July 30, 2016)