May 17, 2017

Watchworthy Wednesday: Playing with Realities

Category: New Trends
alternate reality game

The new Bloomsbury book, “Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay,” prompted its editors Antero Garcia and Greg Niemeyer to offer a symposium about augmented reality games and how they shape communities.

Called “If You Weren’t,” the free symposium takes place May 23 at Stanford University. Details are available online. Presented by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the symposium is a “daylong academic symposium related to alternate and augmented reality gaming as well as a series of playtests and opportunities for collaboration,” Garcia said.

“Greg Niemeyer and I envisioned If You Weren’t as a space for academics, game designers, and educators to convene,” he added. “The morning is academic interrogation about how gaming and alternate reality contexts of play are shaping society — particularly in the political moment. The second half of the day involves several gaming opportunities that may or may not involve getting lost in a local art museum. The day concludes with a conversation with noted game designer and author Jane McGonigal.”

But, Garcia stressed, the event is not only for researchers. “We are hoping that If You Weren’t caters to participants interested in playful approaches to learning, conversations on social engagement in an era of augmented reality like Pokémon Go, or who may be willing to follow a local rabbit hole to its unknown conclusion.”

After designing and implementing the Black Cloud Game in his high school English classroom, Garcia and Niemeyer have been pushing for increased scholarship about how alternate reality games (ARGs) are shifting contexts of design, play, and learning. “Alternate Reality Games at the Cusp of Digital Gameplay” is a collection of some of the leading scholarly voices within the ARG community, Garcia said. “From specific case studies to theoretical grounding for future researchers, we’re flattered with the thoughtfulness and insights our volume’s contributors make throughout the volume.”

Book coverThe following is an excerpt from the book’s opening pages:

If you weren’t reading this book, it would still exist.
 However, a game only exists when it is played. This is especially true for alternate reality games (hereafter ARGs) because they are co-created by players with every move that is made. Players augment their autonomy in the game as they push the boundaries set up by puppet masters, and deeply enmesh themselves in the network of the game. While this book sets out to define and analyze them as games and a broader genre, ARGs resist definition because their essence only exists when they are played, and there really is very little to hold on to at the end of the game, save for the transformative experiences of the players.
 Over the course of this introduction, we attempt to more fully illuminate the dimensions underpinning the question: What is an ARG? In doing so, we also question:

  • How are ARGs powerful?
  • Who plays ARGs and why?
  • What do the origins of ARGs mean for a genre currently in flux?
  • And, ultimately, how do ARGs transform both players and culture at large?

Reflecting on designing and running the ARG I Love Bees ten years after its completion, designer Sean Stewart placed the creation of ARGs not on any specific technology or even on a personal whim for specific kinds of interaction. Instead, he suggests that ARGs and the modes of play, learning, and communication that come along with them are simply “the way the twenty-first century wants to tell stories” (Story Forward, 2014). Considering the “participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006) in which we interact today, such a claim is worth exploring. We are not telling stories via ARGs or playing games in this distributed social setting just because of technological advances, we are doing so because they are a reflection of the sociological milieu through which we interact today. With networked society shifting relationships both online and off (Castells, 2009; Jenkins et al., 2013; Rainie and Wellman, 2014), with the deluge of information pressed upon us daily increasing, and with transmedia storytelling becoming a clearer pathway for narrative development, ARGs are situated as a primary reflection of how the real world and imaginary narratives intersect.

Considering the work of Michel de Certeau (1984), we can identify the city as the myth, and the game as reality. De Certeau writes, “The city serves as a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socio-economic and political strategies.” Seen from physical altitudes of helicopters and satellites, or from the computational altitudes of the smart city, we encounter a fictional image of seamless optimization; the city becomes visible, logical, and readable. But, again de Certeau notes, “The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins.” Walking is a potentially subversive practice. “Practitioners of the city” carve out a path through the logic of the city that matches their needs, not the plan. From walking we get to graffiti, the mnemonic subversion of the practitioners’ history in the ahistorical context of the anonymous city. From graffiti, we get to ARG games, which are an embodied performance of a counter-narrative to the urban plan. In that performance, a community formed spontaneously by individuals becomes a real figure against the mythical backdrop of the planned city, against the cold hard urban metabolism. In that performance, players retrieve their role as citizens with a voice, and as members of a community that can hear them. Even if an ARG itself has no political content at all, the act of inscribing one’s body in an alternate myth, the chord struck between game and place, reclaims players as autonomous citizens capable of forming a community of their own.

Banner image credit: TORLEY 

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to