As Comic-Con descends upon us this week, now would be
the perfect time to address that magical moment when games and movies
collide. And no, I’m not referring to the abominations that leak out of your
local retail game stores around the same time that a summer blockbuster hits the big
Imagine grabbing a poster of an upcoming movie and
finding a message on the back of it. You go online, type in a couple of search
terms, and websites from the future start to appear on your screen. Already
you’re in deep as you try to solve a murder, run from an Anti-Robot Militia,
and try to make sense of a mad artificial intelligence program. Fortunately,
you have millions of other people online trying to help you out and solve the
Back in 2001, this was the start of something big. A
small team of developers from Microsoft used what they learned about games to
create a world around the players in order to promote “A.I.: Artificial
Intelligence,” the Steven Spielberg movie about robots. Codenamed
“The Beast” since it had 666 assets for players to rummage through,
the game used video, web pages, video games, and even real life events to
create an immersive story around the player. The game took off with millions of
people playing around the globe.
While not every alternative reality game (ARG) will reach
such epic potentials, you can learn about them and get a little taste of what
it takes to participate in one. Here are the three main ingredients you need
for an ARG.
1. A Story to Pull You In
What’s going to get you to run in sweltering 90 degree
weather? Forget that fitness stuff. I bet you would pump those legs in the fate
of humanity rested on your shoulders. To get you warmed-up with the idea of
ARG, here’s title that lets you take on the world, one step at a time.
Zombie, Run” puts you into the sweaty
tennis shoes of Runner 5 as you try to pick up supplies lying around the
remains of civilization. When zombies inhabit every corner of the world, small
clusters of humanity rely on runners to search for supplies and get back before
they become a snack. The difference between this mobile game and other zombie
titles you might play is that you are really running around your neighborhood.
As you make your lap around the block, the game keeps track of where you’re
going and how fast you are getting there. Slow down and you might find yourself
in the middle of a surprise zombie attack. Once you get back home, you get to
dole out the virtual goods you obtain on your run to your slice of humanity.
But what keeps you strapping on those tennis shoes is not
that runner’s high. There’s a story to follow every time you hit the ground as
you track the survivors as they struggle against the coming horde and even
each other. The radio drama plays out as you try to keep pace with the music on
your phone. With every run, the world opens up just a little bit for you to
check out. Sometimes a good story requires you to work; this one needs you to
sweat. “Run, Zombie, Run” is already on its third season of stories,
but I would advise against binge running.
2. People to Shape the Story
Film school isn’t easy. There’s a lot to learn and little
time for fun and games – or maybe not. A phone call, a secluded location,
mysterious figures; while this has all the trappings of the next “Scream” movie, it’s only the beginning of an alternative reality game that will bring
students together for competition and collaboration. “Reality Ends Here” started
only a couple of years ago at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, but it’s
already making waves with its use of game design to encourage creativity in the
Each student gets a random pack of color-coded cards.
Green cards tell the students what they have to make, but they can use other
modifying cards in the pack to add points to the project as well as difficulty.
Weekly prizes such as mentorships or visits to the set are given to the
students at the top of the leaderboard. Students are allowed to trade cards
with other students, work together on a project, or solve puzzles to obtain
additional cards. Putting the
cards together creates deals which can range from film to live performances to
comics and games you create.
While you could simply be happy working through the cards
given to you, it’s the people in the game along with you that help to shape
what’s going to happen next. You may find yourself on opposing teams staring at
each other from across the cafeteria. Otherwise, everyone may just come
together for one big deal where everyone makes it to the top for the big prize.
Being a part of the story, you as well as everyone else participating, shape the
game in a variety of ways from the events that happen to the way the narrative comes to a close.
3. The Right Setting
With thousands of fans running around, stars from all
across the spectrum, and practically everything you can imagine under the sun,
this next bit of advice is going to sound utterly ridiculous: keep an eye out for something
strange. San Diego Comic-Con may be the epicenter of nerd culture this week, but
it is also a breeding ground for some of the biggest alternative reality games in
In 2007, eagle-eyed visitors caught on to the defamed one dollar
bills with the grinning clown on the front of it. Participants logged
on to a website that took them on a wild hunt around the convention to find
clues and solve puzzles. Those who followed the trail got a chance to see the
first trailer for “The Dark Knight” before anyone else. The game continued by taking fans
of the franchise through the story of the rise of the Joker, the election of
Harvey Dent, and finally to a free IMAX screening of the movie. Other movies, including “Cloverfield” and “The Avengers,” have pulled
similar stunts where playing along can get you an exclusive reward.
For these games to work, you need a place to hold them.
While cyberspace might suffice for some, there’s nothing like interacting with the
real world to give both the game and the story a sense of weight. You can use
places like phone booths or graveyards to give the game a foot in the real
world. Other games like the Lovecraft ARG happening now in the San
Diego Library or the Art Hunters
at the Springfield Museum of Art look to bring in people through story and
clues. Both games turn information into keys to help players delve deeper into
So while you’re at Comic-Con, keep your eyes out for
those “Jurassic World” pamphlets, talk to
everyone you see, pick up anything that looks funny on the floor, download
every app from every movie there, and bring plenty of deodorant. That last one
won’t help you with the game, but it will certainly help you out in the real world — and that place matters, too.