One of my favorite new developments in gaming and entertainment in general is the idea of the alternate reality game, or ARG. An ARG is a game played in the real world that uses various forms of media such as e-mails, graffiti, or just the Game Masters’ voices to create a sense of realism and true player participation. The game generally changes based on player interaction rather than rigidly constructed scripts that are supervised by an AI, such as in online rpgs. An ARG can be a live-action role-playing game, but it can also involve regular people being their ordinary selves and testing their mettle in an extraordinary situation.
Anyone who’s been in college these past few years, especially in the US has a good chance of having encountered Humans vs. Zombies(HvZ), which is a very loose, short, and simple ARG set in a zombe apocalypse. Online geeks may have heard of the character Slenderman, which is often invoked in short-term ARG scenarios. Aficionados of speculative fiction might be familiar with This is Not a Game by Walter John Williams, Charlie Stross’ Halting State, or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.
Which segues us nicely into the other meaning for ARG: augmented reality game. This is a game also set in the real world and containing non-real-world elements, but rather than just suspending disbelief, this kind of game actually “changes” the real world. Using augmented reality technology, such as Google’s Goggles to overlay a virtual world onto the real one. To my mind there is significant overlap, either present or possible between these genres. In some ways, augmented reality is just taking alternate reality a step further. However, it does allow a game to treat the real world like another world entirely. A secondary world. Which is sci-fi and awesome.
I support alternate reality games as a gaming fan and someone who enjoys being outside and interacting with real people, and I support augmented reality as someone who enjoys culture and technology and the ways the interact. Several in-progress novels of mine, in various universes, possess a construct that I’ve taken to calling the ARSphere. It’s kind of like the Internet overlaid on real life. In my imagination, it covers the whole earth, thus the sphere, and it also comes in infinite “Layers”. After all, you can have as many different overlays on the real world as you want, activate them in many combinations, and basically have a worldwide version of any social networking community or (AR)game that you want.
A company called synapse software has already begun to apply this concept to the Internet itself, in the form of a single Layer overlay called Goggles. (Gosh doesn’t that name sound familiar?)
In my story worlds, of course, I can make all the rules, so p2p server networks host all the Layers, and there’s millions of them. For games, for graffiti, for leaving notes to friends or communities, even for advertising. I shamelessly stole the idea of ad-hacking from Vinge’s Rainbows End because thats totally what’s going to happen. The whole Earth is gonna be a giant damn billboard.
There’re a lot more things you could do with augmented reality. My favorite pet project being a working air violin. There’s also a lot of smartphone apps and such that let you see reviews based on a phone pic, or give you up-to-date subway schedules and the like. They’re pretty cool, but I would love to see some more artistic or interactive applications of the technology. Especially in the are of ARGs.
If you wanna see the current state of the genre, you can pop on over to ARGNet.
I currently have a novel planned which involves a slip-stream story line about an alternate reality game in the more literal sense, and how the the mundane ARG community gets tangled up in the creator’s fantastic world and the repercussions of a game that has outgrown its own creator.