Games, Worlds, Simulacra, Virals: Part 1

Over the past few months two new projects by Hollywood producer J.J. Abrams have demonstrated the explosive growth in Alternate Reality Gaming, emphasised the power of viral marketing and highlighted the increasing convergence of media formats to create "transmedia" story lines. Specifically they underline the ways in which labyrinthine viral marketing campaigns, taking ARG form, are now a constituent part of the overall concept. Some background- In the summer of 2006 The Lost Experience was run with the aim of highlighting the legendary TV show and was by all accounts a great experience. As one of the first major ARGs it showed what was possible: players followed an easter egg hunt of clues, ranged over everything from websites to newspaper ads to solve the mystery of the shady Hanso organization.

In doing this Lost became more than it TV show, it became a game, but that game was more than a game, becoming part of the media fabric itself. Adverts in real newspapers started to impact upon the program as the four edges of the monitor became porous. Publicity was generated, hard core fans of the show were appeased and gamers were intrigued.

Henry Jenkins describes how this kind of transmedia storytelling was pioneered in the early years of the decade by the Wachowski brothers with their Matrix franchise. When the later two films were often attacked by critics and viewers as having little plot coherency what most people didn't realise was that the films were only part of the overall narrative. For example only members of the audience who had completed The Matrix Reloaded computer game could fully appreciate where certain characters were coming from. Obscure events in the film were explained by the gameplay. So as well as the main films the "plot" comprised anime shorts, comic books and computer games to form an integrated whole beyond the scope of a single medium. Beyond this it franchise self consciously gestured to wide ranging intellectual traditions, stretching its philosophical canvass from Buddhism to Baudrillard and Cornel West. Intertextuality of this density practically required the audience to reach beyond the film; the film itself was not the story.

Lost combined this transmedia element with interactivity of ARGs, already apparent in Microsoft's pioneering work The Beast (itself part of a transmedia project involving Stephen Spielberg's A.I.) to produce what might be termed a holistic mystery: unlike A.I., Lost was always known for its mystery, to the point where many viewers were becoming deeply annoyed and hence the ARG perfectly complemented the paranoid, conspiracy driven atmosphere of the show.

British developer Mind Candy showed how involved an ARG could be with the creativity and ingenuity of Perplex City an ARG that ran from April 2005 to February 2007. An ARG can never really be contained within a medium, it by necessity crawls and disseminates through, between and beyond media, becoming part of the world, to the extent that it bleeds into the physical and finds embodiment in real time happenings (puzzles hidden around cities for instance). However Perplex City is an example of what we might call a more ludic ARG: it is not involved with viral marketing nor transmedia storytelling as such. The game itself is the main event and not the interactions with other forms of entertainment in a related franchise.

What Perplex City has in common with other ARGs and ARG related viral marketing however is a commitment to simulacra, to blurring our concepts of where media and "the world" bisect. They are all involved with creating narratives and puzzles that transcend in some way the media in which they were initially conceived, or were initially conceived as a transmedia phenomenon.

In this model the boundaries between fiction and reality, marketing and product, creation and play, storytelling and story consuming have all crumbled. Traditional ontologies of entertainment and media are rendered obsolete in an environment of self conscious hyperreality, where the value of a website or ad hoarding may exist as much in its fictionality, in its pure and unanchored textuality, as in, say, its commercial viability.

Beyond the more abstract ramifications though this presents a new business model for media organisations. Or perhaps business question might be the more appropriate term: how can we get involved, how can we make this work?

In Part 2 I'll look at the evolution of J.J. Abrams Cloverfield and Find 815 viral marketing campaigns and discuss how major publishing franchises have already started to take on characteristics of an ARG.