So everybody and their dog wants an ARG. Seriously. If you are wondering what an ARG is then I suggest you check out the detailed Wikipedia entry on them. Basically they are Alternate Reality Games, games which tend to pull in all sorts of media including online, TV, radio, books, mobile, real world events… You get the picture.
Now in the past there have been some big hits in the world of ARG’s. I Love Bees was an ARG for the computer game Halo 2 and according to Christy Denas stats 3/4 million people took part with 2.5 million of them just casual participants. Now stats are always questionable and in this case there seems to be some discrepancies between 42 Entertainments stats and those of Jane McGonigal (who says here that there were 600,000 serious players), but which ever way you look at it, this shows that there can be serious numbers involved when people chose to jump on board and get into something like an ARG. Of course ‘I Love Bees’ is an example of an ARG that attracted a large audience, many of the other well known ARG’s failed to achieve anywhere near those numbers, rarely getting above the 50/100,000 participant mark. I think it is fair to say that the higher the amount of interactivity demanded from the user, the lower the figure will be for participation.
Earlier this year the BBC made ‘Frozen Indigo Angel’. It is seen as a success story in the way it managed to cross so many platforms including Youtube, radio, real world events (Radio 1’s Big Weekend) and managed to get some great press coverage to boot. Whilst the project managed to break boundaries within the walls of the BBC, it still didn’t gain the sort of audiences that I believe TV producers want to eventually be reaching. It did make giant steps towards harnessing opportunities in the multiplatform world and it is with this transmedia storytelling approach (taking users from web to radio to real world event) continuing the experience beyond a single media, that the net widens and the opportunities to find an audience increase.
There is also a middle zone where projects such as Lonelygirl15 & KateModern exist, which, whilst being considered to be ARG’s, in comparison, demanded a lot less interactivity from the audience. This potentially is the reason why they both managed to gain a larger audience than other examples of the genre, with KateModern getting over 2.3 million viewers according to one of its creators Miles Beckett.
What I now find interesting is watching the industry try and harness the evolution of the ARG genre. Stats for ARG’s such as ‘I Love Bees’ & ‘The Beast’ show high participation, but looking at other examples in the genre this isn’t always the case. When you also look at the cost for bringing media rich ARG’s to market, the figures don’t always add up.How do producers manage to find a larger audience, keep them focused and also give them an incentive to interact and continue to interact?
The more I think about it, the more I come to conclusion that a lot of it has to do with bottlenecking. Let the users go out, explore and share the experience with others and then bring it all back in (the bottleneck) so that this information can be filtered back to the lower level participants. This way incentives can be spread out across an experience with new users being collected at the bottlenecks and then let out again to play. These bottlenecks could be real world events such as Radio 1’s Big Weekend, they could be TV programmes, books even radio programmes. Instead of there being just one big pay off at the end of the ARG, have many smaller events scattered throughout so that there are more ‘kicks at the can’ so to speak, more bottlenecks to create focus for the players. The broader the appeal of these bottlenecks the more likely they will be to attract a casual audience and therefore have a broader range of players. It may be that ARG’s just don’t and won’t scale well and that there will be a slider scale stating that the more we ask the audience to have to do, the less of them will want to take part. Maybe projects such as Lonelygirl15 and KateModern represent the mainstream (for now) and with baby steps the audiences will be pushed towards more and more interactivity?
I personally think there could be a bright future for ARG’s in that they offer a way to interact with material that other forms of interactivity don’t. They build communities around brands and offer a great way for a brand to live on beyond the purpose it was created for. There has been an ongoing discussion around the fact that ARG’s work best if audiences find them on their own, if they are in some way hidden from the mainstream so as to feel secret and unique. I think there needs to be a balance between this and the fact that secret and hidden does not always lead to mass participation. People need to know that something exciting is going on, they need to be wound up and let go. Marketing & PR will have to play a large part if ARG’s want to gain a larger audience and become a realistic opportunity for large scale projects.
That being said it is great to see that the interest seems to be there for ARG’s to be investigated by producers who may not have been attracted by the genre in the past. Perhaps with the appetite for new and innovative ideas to break through the current broadcasting arena there will be some ground breaking projects that truly tap into the broader audience and introduce them to the world of Alternate Reality Gaming.