When Push Becomes Shove in ARG Player Production


A common method of critically examining media is to approach the study through the dichotomy of production and consumption. With the turn from the pre-industrial, artisanal mode of media production—represented in textual production by the scribal system and in image production by the painter—to mechanized production and reproduction—represented in part by the printing press and the lithograph—the scale of this production and consumption grew exponentially. More recently, digital networked technology has also increased the sophistication of media production and, sometimes, increased the accessibility and speed of media distribution. Marxist media theorists from Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Guy Debord have focused on the mass production and consumption of media and culture, a condition precipitated by the production technologies of Fordism and industrial capitalism. In a very broad view, these approaches have largely considered production and consumption as functions of separate spheres of society: production is set by the bourgeoisie by means of the labor of the proletariat; those who have power produce, those who lack power consume. Thus, as Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle, this contemporary media, especially mass media, is “essentially one-way” (19, emphasis original).

Recent approaches to media studies, however, seek to complicate this simple dichotomy of production and consumption as being mutually exclusive categories. One of the common threads to these studies has been the importance of digital networked technology. Henry Jenkins, in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, explores fan production as a complicating factor in this dichotomy. Examples of fan production, or consumer production, cover a wide range of examples: vidding—creating video mashups of favorite scenes in tribute to a favorite television show or movie; machinima—using video game graphic engines, such as those of the Halo and Grand Theft Auto franchises, to create narrative movies, with the game world as the backdrop and the players’ avatars as the actors; writing fan fiction (fanfic) that creatively extends characters from mass media produced narratives into new—and sometimes transgressive—contexts, such as “slash” fiction for the Harry Potter narrative world; fans of films and television series flocking to message boards where they exchange theories, interpretations, knowledge, and experiences and build community in order to appreciate, critique, and celebrate their enjoyment of a particular narrative.

While these are all ways of viewing production by individuals we might traditionally view as consumers—the purchasers of video games and novels, viewers of television and movies—most of these productions do not require a community, per se. An individual can make a machinima, write a fanfic, or edit a fan vid on their own and choose or not choose to share it with others. It’s produced in isolation and doesn’t necessarily meet a community or even an audience. In this manner, then, these examples of production might complicate the “one-way” claim of Debord; they do not, however, address another of Debord’s central claims:

The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn…” (22)

This isolation is not necessarily overcome through many of the types of production about which Jenkins writes. Fan communities centered on the narratives produced by mass media corporations do exhibit shared production, however, and do so in a manner that resists Debord’s claim that technology is only an agent of isolation. This specific type of production can be understood through Pierre Levy’s concept of collective intelligence (or CI). CI seeks to understand collaborative production enabled by the proliferation of digital networked technologies, such as the internet. Levy argues that the exchange of information and ideas through global digital networks should “mobilize and coordinate the intelligence, experience, skills, wisdom, and imagination of humanity” (qtd. in “Why I Love Bees” 199). It is important, though, to also view productive fan communities within the “reigning economic system” of today—which, of course, is not unaltered from the time of Debord’s writing in 1967. In one sense, the CI production of the aforementioned engaged fan communities is in reaction to the content produced by the dominant forces (or the administrators of society, as Debord might state); as a reaction, it is dictated by what the entertainment industry chooses to produce. Another way of approaching this distinction between production and consumption in CI communities is through Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s notion of a “socialist strategy” for using contemporary media to undermine and resist the power of bourgeois society through collective production and manipulation of media (Enzensberger 267).

For this paper, I will explore one specific genre of CI-infused media: the alternate reality game (ARG). Through this exploration, I will seek to show how ARGs problematize the distinction between producer and consumer that Debord enacts, that Enzensberger seeks to reverse, and that Baudrillard, in “Requiem for the Media,” seeks to transgress. In order to show this blurring of producer/consumer, I will examine the effect and agency that players—who are a type of collective intelligence community or communities—exhibit in controlling not only the outcome but the development of ARGs. In a sense, players collaborate with the game designers (or puppet masters [PMs]) in order to create the game as it unfolds. To show this, I will examine a discrete set of ARGs: The Beast; Push, Nevada; World Without Oil. This examination will be, in part, carried out through published player and PM reflections.

Furthermore, I will explore how ARGs operate within the current economic reality in order to closely examine the degree to which strategies of resistance to the dominant system are available and affected. For instance, if most ARGs are produced as marketing for the products of the entertainment industry, how transgressive or revolutionary might these sanctioned forms of CI be? One way I hope to approach this specific question is to study ARGs through the lens of digital networked technology’s (DNT) and ubiquitous computing’s (ubicomp) effect on our experience of reality. I will argue that it is, in part, the ascendance of DNT and ubicomp that aligns the ARG with the conditions of fast capitalism, which the New London Group (among others) see as a major influence on the literacies required to be active citizens in a networked world. The CI structures of ARGs also provide potential to resist and shape these economic conditions and power structures through the power of the collective. As Mitchell and Hansen argue, ubicomp and DNT change time and space—which are, in combination with communicative media, the components of collaboration (Mitchell and Hansen).

What Are ARGs—and Why ARGs Are Important

When discussing any genre, definitions can be very difficult to fix in space, time, and meaning; Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are no exception to this. The reasons for this are both manifold and informative to the questions raised in this paper. As a relatively new phenomenon, PMs and players are still negotiating what it is that makes this genre unique. Initially, a large aesthetic marker of ARGs was an ani-definition: ARGs asserted themselves as being neither fictional nor games—one of the basic reasons for their namesake, being both part of an alternate reality. Furthermore, the multimedia nature of ARGs allows for a variety of experiences in literacy, communication, meaning-making, and collaboration, ensuring that ARGs can both appear and be structured very differently from instance to instance. Thus, by taking a brief venture into a definitional exercise, I intend to both better illustrate what ARGs are for the reader and to foreground the context and importance of analyzing ARGs in terms of contemporary issues in media production and consumption.
For the sake of clarity, let me first reproduce one detailed definition of ARGs:

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) tell stories through narrative elements that are distributed across various platforms. These game variables are carefully concealed from players until appropriate moments determined by the game designer(s). Game play involves players working collaboratively through email, phone/sms contact, real-time interactions and extensive online engagement. Players generally react to narrative cues that are projected across numerous forms of media. These include media technologies that are not traditionally associated with games that, unlike ARGs, rely on a single platform for communication (eg console games). In doing so, ARGs make players step outside the restrictions of mono-genre game boundaries.
Instead of requiring the player to enter a fictional game world, ARG designers attempt to enmesh the game within the fabric of the player’s real world by harnessing as many media technologies and interfaces as possible. By doing so, ARGs expand the frame for the game beyond the computer monitor or television screen, effectively making the entire world the “game board.” (“What is an ARG?”)

ARGs, when discussed under that definition, have a history dating to 1996, with two records of ARGs before the year 2000, according to ARGology.org’s listing of ARGs and related links sponsored in conjunction with the International Game Designers Association Alternate Reality Games Special Interest Group (IGDA ARG SIG). The “first” ARG, as considered by this source, is the San Francisco Chronicle’s 1996 web game, Dreadnot, an online mystery narrative that asked players to solve it by finding and interpreting various web-based media clues and through interacting with real world resources, such as email and voicemail (Dreadnot). The marketing for the film The Blair Witch Project also ascribes to the qualifications for an ARG. To promote the film, which used a cinéma vérité aesthetic to create the illusion of documentary truth for this fictional horror mystery, fake websites, small posters, and a post-film release book were used to blur the line between the fiction of the characters and film and the real world of the viewer. These multimedia artifacts presented the disappearance of the film’s characters (themselves student filmmakers) as truth—or, more appropriately here, as an alternate reality.

Another barrier to a single definition is the large iterations of complexities and variations offered by the relatively simple structure of the ARG and the multi-modality of its narrative/gameplay environment: interactive web-based technologies, DIY publishing, remix and the co-option of popular narratives and artifacts. In exploring the relationship between knowing and the senses, Caroline Jones writes of, in terms of analyzing the role of sight in Plato’s allegorical philosopher’s cave, that senses mediate our perception and understanding of reality, as well as the layering of reality through multiple media, which become even more relevant in considering role of ARGs in contemporary media contexts (89). As the specific mediation of the game determines the experience, the variety of mediations between ARGs leads to a variety of experiences based on the structure of an individual game. For instance, an ARG might more heavily rely on static visual and textual artifacts, such as public billboards and posters, or more dynamic modes of the same, such as animations or clues embedded in a web page’s source code. Or, it may employ audio clues embedded in ARGs or videos that contain hidden clues or explicit calls for action on the part of players. Thus, the act of participating in an ARG can be a vastly different sensory experience from one instance to another.

But this barrier to definition is also the context for what makes player engagement and production in ARGs particularly to contemporary society. In the introductory chapter to their 2000 book “Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures,” the New London Group calls for a multimodal literacy pedagogy that addresses the “burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” in order “to account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalised socieities” (9). We can imagine that the New London Group may have had the expanding forms of what we commonly think of as “new media” in mind, as they specifically link this growth to the digital technologies of our contemporary media ecology. When it comes to ARGs, the distribution of artifacts through multiple media, especially the heavy reliance on the web, which is itself primarily textual and visual, this importance of expanding literacies becomes important. This is particularly evident when we consider the New London Group’s focus on a multiliteracy pedagogy that calls for on an “understanding and competent control of representational forms that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word” (9).
The rationale for the necessity of this multiliteracy pedagogy is based on the New London Group’s view of education’s “fundamental purpose [to] ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life” (9). These are, appropriately, high stakes, taking into consideration how we are able to access, through participation, those spheres of life. These lives are shaped by several factors. According to the New London Group, our work lives are newly shaped by “fast capitalism,” wherein the Fordist “vertical chains of command are replaced by the horizontal relationships of teamwork” (11). Many of our work lives are shaped by “markets centered on change, flexibility, quality, and distinctive niches” (10). Similar, related forces shape our public and community lives. The technologies and structures that enable and are created by our changing economic lives shape a public life in which:
Local diversity and global connectedness… mean that the most important skill students need to learn is to negotiate regional, ethnic, or class-based dialectics; variations in register that occur according to social context; hybrid cross-cultural discourses; the code switching often to be found within a text among different languages, dialects, or registers; different visual and iconic meanings; and variations in the gestural relationship among people, language, and material objects” (14).
Similar to Levy’s CI, the New London Group’s focus is on the emergence of a collaborative force that is flexible and shifting in how it encounters rapid and evolving problems. The individual members must also learn to negotiate the contexts, ethics, and rules of the community. All of these traits are, as I will argue shortly, particular to the production of ARG player communities.

Immersion—and Production
Finally, a major factor in the genre’s resistance to definition stems from the immersive quality of ARGs. One convergence between individual examples of ARGs is what Jane McGonigal refers to as the “this is not a game” (or “TING”) aesthetic (“This Is Not a Game” 3-4). As McGonigal shows through her chronicling of The Beast, one of the primary factors in creating the immersive environment of an ARG is the lack of official pronouncement that an ARG is, in fact, a fictional game. Great pains are taken to create the immersive alternate reality as “real”; an explicit acknowledgement of the narrative world as fictional or fake would effectively undermine the structure of the game. As mentioned in the (long) definition above, ARGs attempt to “enmesh the game within the fabric of the player’s real world” by using “concealed” artifacts and “real-time interactions” (“What is an ARG?”). Therefore, in order to maintain this central feature, standards and rules are tacit, at best.

This implicitness of rules provides an important role for the player-as-consumer and -producer in ARGs. As there are no published rules for either ARGs, in general, or for many specific ARGs, the players themselves are left to negotiate and determine their individual and collective actions. Returning to Debord’s notion of the spectacle as a monodirectional media phenomenon, we can perhaps begin to see some resistance to this claim in the agency of the players in determining the structure or the game.
In his memoir of playing The Beast, Jay Bushman describes one useful version of the inner workings of the Cloudmakers, an online group of players formed to play the game. One particular instance that brings into question some of Debord’s assumptions of media spectacle as one-way is what Bushman refers to as the “Zartman Incident,” in which players, attempting to find answers to this opaque and cryptic game, cyber-stalked a game designer, Dough Zartman, who had registered one of the game’s numerous websites with his own name (10). While Zartman eventually begged the group to halt its constant investigation of the details of his everyday life, Bushman cites this instance as “a catalyst for a wide-ranging conversation about the ethics of playing the game and what could be defined as cheating”—a conversation that could only be self-assembled by the players, as ‘[t]he game itself published no rules” (10). This is significant in at least two ways. First, it shows that the players of The Beast had the agency to determine the rules of this media. In Debord’s view of the power structure of mass media spectacle, it is the producers who have this role, which, in this case, would be some combination of the designers at Microsoft who had created the game and the filmmakers, marketers, producers, and executives at Warner Brothers who created A.I. However, as Bushman illustrates, it is, to a large extent, the players themselves who decided on how they would interact with the game, not Microsoft and Warner Brothers. The players determined the ethics of what was allowable and what was verboten. Rather than following the structures and preferences of the industry producers, the players determined the ethics of their actions in terms of what mattered to them.

Among these concerns was respect for the PMs. By setting ethical boundaries for the community, a similar incident was avoided when a repeat wave of mass intrusion was avoided when a second PM was discovered through an artifact’s metadata (Bushman 11). The other major concern of the community’s enacting of their own ad-hoc rule system was a preservation of their own utility. Rather than being overtly concerned with the aims of what was, in a primary essence, an elaborate marketing campaign for a summer Hollywood blockbuster, the Cloudmakers wanted to maintain their entertainment value. As Bushman writes, the “players agreed that in order to get the maximum enjoyment out the experience it was important to stay in front” of the “dividing line” between player and PM, between the game’s manifestation in the world and the processes of game creation, “since this dividing line was invisible, it was up to the players to decide where” that line was drawn (10-11). Thus, as a result of the immersive, TING aesthetic of ARGs, the players have the agency to determine the boundaries of their individual and collective experiences.

Additionally, the complexities of ethics require negotiation, similar to the way that the New London Group describes above. To achieve a consensus, the collective must engage in elaborate communication: through both synchronous chats and asynchronous message posting that collects the voices of players from around the globe. In this act, we can begin to see the significance of how CI communities might begin to enact a more equitable exchange of communication than Debord’s model allows. An understanding of this particular exchange is better illuminated through Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” In this essay, Hans Magnus Enzensberger posits how those without the imprimatur of capitalism might begin to resist imposed power structures through contemporary digital multimedia production. He writes that:

“[a]ny socialist strategy for the media for the media must….strive to end the isolation of the individual from the social learning and production process,” as “the proper use of the media demands organization and makes it possible.” (267, emphasis added)

While the resistance to capitalism was likely outside the defined scope of the Cloudmakers interests, Enzensberger’s theory is applicable in pointing out both the significance of CI communities and the deficiency of Debord’s spectacle as applied to ARGs.

The first concern is isolation. Debord, as stated above, argues that the predominant economic system is both built upon the isolation of individuals and seeks to produce that same isolation. To Debord, it is technology that enables this isolation. In the case of ARGs, however, and the Cloudmakers specifically, we can see digital networked technology being employed in an apparently opposite manner, just as Enzensberger allows. As The Beast is told through various digital networked technologies—websites and source code, databases, digital text documents, online movie trailers, email addresses—it places its players in a similar environment. As the players consume the digital clues, they seek to use the same media and networks in order to organize themselves into a CI community. Or, secondly, as an application of what Enzensberger argues, the ARG demands an organized player community and the media through which it is experienced provides the tools that make organization possible. As a complex narrative game without rules and based on the aesthetics of concealment and opacity, the interpretation of artifacts and progression of the narrative is reliant on the specialized skills of individual members of the community, skills use to make obscure connections and solve highly technical puzzles (“This Is Not a Game” 2). Therefore, the Cloudmakers, who viewed themselves “as a hive-mind, a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of individuals,” throw off this isolation and use media to organize and shape the outcome of their own experiences (Bushman 13). As the extensive definition of an ARG claims, the organization of online CI communities is a central feature, exhibiting the genre’s ability to encourage organization.

We must further complicate this distinction between Debord and Enzensberger, however, to ask, more specifically, what type of communication is taking place between players and PMs and between members of the CI community. In The Beast, the players responded to the artifacts released by the PMs by negotiating their meaning within their community structures of communication: mailing lists and message boards. On the surface, these two types of communications (players reacting to PMs, players negotiating between themselves) offer a useful type of distinction. In “Requiem for the Media,” Jean Baudrillard critiques Enzensberger’s characterization of resistance through media, as it fails to discard model of communication (transmitter-message-receiver) that upholds simple categories of producer and consumer, or “the dialectic itself which has reached the moment of deadlock” (286). For Baudrillard, it is not the simple reversal of this common model that is worth seeking, but rather an upheaval: “an original form of exchange… neither transmitters, nor receivers” (286, emphasis original). As pertains to The Beast, the negotiation between players would seem to constitute this transgressing of the standard model. To interpret the artifacts, players most combine their knowledge and collaborate to build understandings of individual events within the game. There is no single voice that manipulates players’ interpretation as a group, as the necessary knowledges are distributed.

While the interaction between players and PMs might seem to be the opposite of this, it is perhaps too hasty and simplistic to make this assumption. As noted at the beginning, we can see many types of engaged fan communities as participating in reaction to the production of the industry. This type of communication would fall into the standard model of communication: a response to a message. In this model, as Baudrillard argues, the response is largely unheard—or, more appropriately, not in turn responded to—by the industry. Stephanie Meyer did not change the outcome of her books based on trends of Twilight fanfic. Or, as Barthes eloquently writes, the reader or viewer “is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum” (qtd. in Baudrillard 281). With ARGs, however, this non-response—or non-interactivity—is not always the case.

Yet again, The Beast offers a useful example of interactivity. The PMs for The Beast created a three-month schedule of puzzles that they categorized with varying degrees of difficulty—and they were all solved on the first day by the Cloudmakers (“This Is Not a Game” 2-3). This lead to the PMs designing challenges in response to the skills of their players, such as releasing partial bits of artifacts simultaneously at separate physical locations, which required the players to coordinate in an advanced manner to collect and interpret those clues. The actions of the players determined how the game was played in a manner more directly affecting the PMs than negotiating player ethics.

The interactivity between PMs and players can also be seen in the goals of another ARG: World Without Oil, designed, in part, by Jane McGonigal. In World Without Oil (WWO), players were asked to participate in a crowdsourced forecasting game that created an alternate reality of global oil demand exceeding production. Their participation took the form of multimedia reflections based on the rough parameter of daily fictional news updates of how oil shortages are affecting the globe (Reality Is Broken 302-305). Rather than being a marketing tool for a product, WWO is a tool for collaborative forecasting of individual and community reactions to a hypothetical, yet very tangible, reality. In this instance, the game designers/PMs themselves attempts to structure the game in a manner that resists the traditional model that Enzensberger seeks to reverse; they are not telling the players to consume a commodity, but are instead interested in promoting dialogue between individuals in order to achieve understanding of the various interpretations of both challenges of and solutions for a global oil shortage. Furthermore, the PMs specifically were concerned with marketing ideology and commodifying player experience. The “Goals and Methods” page of WWO website makes a point of declaring that “[t]he game did not push a point of view” and that WWO

“did not dictate points of view of outcomes to the players… The WWO team established realistic macroparameters of the oil shock (such as the price and availability of fuel on any given week) but relied on the players to successfully imagine how those macroparameters would change everyday life.”

And the players produced: over one hundred thousand digital artifacts over a six week period, both individually and in conversation with their multiple, non-exclusive self-formed communities (Reality Is Broken 308-310).

Finally, Push, Nevada offers an anomalous example of player production and agency at an extreme; it also embodies an interesting potential for interactive narrative in a communication model other than the transmitter-messagae-receiver. As part of their fall 2002 television series Push, Nevada, ABC incorporated an ARG that asked players to collect and solve clues in order to win a single, large cash prize. Like the short-lived series, however, the game ended in an abbreviated fashion; so disappointing was the resolution of the game, that a group of players, calling themselves “Shove,” decided to hijack the game and continue to extend it through their own production for the benefit of their community (“This Is Not a Game” 6). In this example, the relationship between traditional producers and consumers is both reversed and transgressed. Unhappy with what was created by the industry, the players took control of the means of production and wrote the game as a collaboration within their own community of players.

ARGs, despite their nuances and dissimilarities between individual aims and goals, offer their players the opportunity to produce at multiple levels. Players are ceded the agency to determine how to interpret artifacts and how to establish the rules and ethics of play that guide their communal interpretation. Their production can also influence the pace and direction of the unfolding of the game narrative. In this way, they embody the socialist strategy of media resistance espoused by Enzensberger, as well as through using the same media they use for production to organize. However, the collaborative communications within CI communities are better understood in terms of the transgression of the transmitter-message-receiver model, as detailed by Baudrillard. Through these multivalent opportunities for production, there is a potential for developing an interactive mode of storytelling and game-play that relies less on the virtual reality immersive interface of three-dimensional computer-generated imagery and more on the alternate reality immersion accessed through the hidden interface of everyday media technologies that is ubiquitous in many of our everyday lives.

Works Cited
Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media.” The New Media Reader. Noah Waldrip-
Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Bushman, Jay. “Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A.I. Game.” Well-Played 2.0. Drew
Davidson, et al., eds. ETC Press, 2010.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. New York: Zone
Books, 1995.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” The New Media
Reader. Noah Waldrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press,

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006.

Jones, Caroline. “Senses.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. WJT Mitchell and Mark BN
Hansen, eds. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2010.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken. New York: Penguin, 2011.

McGonigal, Jane. “’This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play.”
Conference Paper. Melbourne DAC, 2003.

McGonigal, Jane. “Why I Love Bees.” The Ecology of Play. Katie Salen, ed. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2008.

Mitchell, WJT and Mark BN Hansen. “Time and Space.” Critical Terms for Media
Studies. WJT Mitchell and Mark BN Hansen, eds. Chicago: U Chicago Press,

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” Multiliteracies. Ed. Bill Cope and
Mary Kalantzis. London: Routledge, 2000. 9-37.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.