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How the worldwide gaming phenomenon of ARGs died without fanfare.

Let me set the scene: the year is 2004. In the UK, The X Factor finds its first winner in Steve Brookstein (I had to look him up, too). In Florida, a man flirts with death by waiting for a call at a payphone while Hurricane Frances evacuates the town around him. Not for a good reason, either - he is hoping that someone he doesn’t know will call that specific payphone at that specific time to reveal to him the next piece of a puzzle for a video game called I Love Bees.

You see, this Florida man has been deeply invested in I Love Bees for months, to the point where it’s become his life. It is an alternate reality game (ARG), which is a bit of a misnomer - ARGs like I Love Bees are more akin to a multimedia, multiplatform scavenger hunt. I Love Bees began as a URL that flashed on screen for a split second in theatrical Halo 2 adverts, which led curious fans to a beekeeping appreciation blog. As time went on, random sentence fragments and cryptic messages began to appear throughout the site, leading thousands of players on an internet-wide goose chase to discover who - or what - was trying to communicate through this unfortunate beekeeper’s server. Gameplay included deciphering encrypted files, solving puzzles using jpegs from the site, and, at one point, decoding a series of numbers to reveal the coordinates for 210 payphones and the time at which they’d ring.  

Other titles were similarly far-reaching: The Beast, an ARG developed by Microsoft in 2001 to advertise the Steven Speilberg film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, involved over 3 million active players. This large and active player base attracted more and more publishers to develop ARGs to promote upcoming products. First, for other video games: I Love Bees for Halo 2, PotatoFoolsDay for Portal 2, Last Call Poker for Neversoft’s Gun. As time went on, other corporations developed their own - Audi, the American Art Museum, and even the British Red Cross had made their own ARGs by 2008. Gaming and marketing publications alike raved about the “new future” of video games, predicting that ARGs would come to define the next few decades of gaming and marketing.

And yet, ARGs’ relevance faded as the 2000s turned into the 2010s. At the time of writing, the only ARGs left are indie puzzles with a small but devoted cult following. How could such a widespread phenomenon live so fast and die so young? Is there simply no more interest in these games?

Part of the appeal of ARGs was the “this is not a game” (TINAG) aesthetic, in which the “magic circle” of the game becomes so porous that any experience a player has in real life could potentially be part of the game, á la The Matrix. These players, then, form a community of people bound by a secret reality only they know about. As ARGs rose in popularity, more and more people wanted the opportunity to opt-in to these games, undermining the TINAG aesthetic; traditionally, one would start playing an ARG by accident, as a reward for being particularly curious or meticulous. Without that reward, ARGs are simply an overly complex logic puzzle.

These games also cost an absurd amount of money and manpower to make and are usually free to play. Financially, it only made sense to use ARGs as an elaborate marketing tool, but there was an issue: the products these ARGs were made to promote were consistently underwhelming their audiences. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence wasn’t nearly as interesting as The Beast; Halo 2 was fine at best; Gun remains far less relevant than the ARG that preceded it. For these companies, it became unviable to make ARGs - and as they’re so expensive to make, ARGs cannot survive on their own*. 

Despite ARGs’ stumble into obscurity, however, there’s still a lot for developers and gamers alike to learn from them. Aspects of ARGs went on to find their way into the most popular games of the decade - Pokémon Go proved beyond a doubt that a porous “magic circle” is still sought after. Ultimately, ARGs illustrate humanity’s unique ability to solve any problem, no matter how complex, when working together. Even if it means risking your life for Halo 2.

*Brief shoutout to Perplex City (dev. Mind Candy, 2005), the only indie ARG to have hit half a million players. Also developed by the same team behind Moshi Monsters


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