When weird and wonderful become mainstream


WIRED:Alternate reality games (ARGs) look set to follow Twitter’s success at the SXSW festival

I’M SITTING in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Austin, Texas. Across from me, an antiseptic gift shop is selling tie- died T-shirts with “Keep Austin Weird” stencilled on them. Somebody mentions that they saw another T-shirt out on the streets. It said “Make Austin Normal”.

That’s the tension here at South-by-SouthWest, the festival better known by the initials SXSW. Will the weird innovations feted here (especially in the digital realm) become the “normal” practices of the future and when they do, will they lose some of their edge?

Part urban music festival, part film showcase and part high-tech (or “interactive“) convention, SXSW has a reputation for picking up the edgier works in those broad categories and hurling them into the mainstream.

It’s not a refined, elitist event; 10,000 attendees were expected for the interactive part of the programme alone. What is loved by a few thousand in Austin for its oddities can quickly become mass- market, as marketeers, company reps and Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley executives scout around.

This year, SXSW looked to be the long-awaited coming-out party for “alternate reality games” (or ARGs). ARGs have been a sleeper hit among the cognoscenti for many years now.

Introduced by small, barely noticeable clues in mainstream media, they are vast multiple- player games that cross between media and whose chief attribute is that they pretend not to be games at all. In an ARG, you may see a clue that leads to a phone number; you call the number and you overhear a murder.

Somewhere in the background is another clue, which leads you to a website full of other curious (and equally confused) participants, discussing what they have learned on a forum. Most of them are other players: some of them may be the secret puppet-masters, the real organisers of the game.

This year, SXSW gave its highest award, Best of Show, to We Tell Stories.

This is a Penguin-funded experiment that brings the ARG sensibility to literature, rewriting six classic novels as interactive fiction and allowing six new Penguin authors to create work in an ARG-like way, leading their readers along in a live and flexible storytelling that went beyond the traditional linear novel.

We Tell Stories was devised by Six to Start, a British start-up which represents the latest generation of ARG creators.

While the company received the plaudits at SXSW, though, will ARGs really become as mainstream as the novel?

Not every Austin cult hit can translate into a durable, everyday product: but the most surprising creations can, and do.

When Twitter, the micro- blogging site, launched at SXSW in 2007, it was the toast of the convention. That was largely because it worked as a co- ordinating system for the crowds juggling the dozens of free parties and gigs that play every night in the city.

Twitter looked perfect for SXSW and perhaps little else: but two years later, with Stephen Fry’s comments and members of Congress “twittering”, it seems to be well-established in the mainstream. Even in their earliest days, ARGs were already pulling in far more participants and media attention than SXSW could ever dream of.

An estimated three million viewers and players took part in the alternate reality game created to promote Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film, A.I., a monster success that took an average film and used it to spin a near-perfect online mystery experience.

Each of those participants heard of or noticed the tiny clues in the promotional media for the film. Some of them went on to devise their own ARGs, either as fan-created works or similar sponsored games based around later movies like the Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Adrian and Dan Hon, the founders of Six to Start, began their ARG careers as players in the A.I. game. Before working with Penguin, the two helped create Perplex City, an ARG that tied into a commercial collectable card business.

Perplex City was one of the first attempts to make a self-financing ARG, rather than depend on the promotional budget of another creative work. However, like so much of the digital revolution’s ventures, ARGs so far have mostly been free and not-for-profit or tied to the revenue streams of a more traditional medium.

Penguin paid for We Tell Stories, but made no money beyond the attention it attracted to their lines of books.

Alternate reality games might seem like a niche pursuit for those who have more time than they have current hobbies – but the one apparent flaw that their creators have been working on for years is scalability. Sooner or later, an ARG is going to do more than catch a few million curious players: it will catch the imagination like Big Brother or American Idol and suddenly ARGs will be mainstream, just as Twitter did.

The question that remains to be answered is: how will it make money? That’s still an unknown for Twitter and other micro- blogging sites. It may be that they will not make much money but continue to be fantastically popular regardless – and maybe that’s how they’ll stay indie, and yet mainstream, in the weirdly normal way of the web.