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Are You Ready for an Alternate Reality?

The following is excerpted from one of the best alternate reality gaming Web sites, http://www.unfiction.com:

After a long day of surfing the web, you crash hard and sleep soundly. But suddenly you are awakened by the persistent ringing of your phone. You answer it, and the voice at the other end speaks sinisterly, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll back off. You don’t want this, you really don’t.”

You’re sitting in the dark at 3:00 a.m., staring at the now-dead phone, thinking to yourself, “What have I gotten into?” Then you remember the strange web site you signed up for earlier that evening on a lark. You realize that whoever they are, they already know a lot more about you than you do about them.

You’d better get cracking.

Welcome to the world of Alternate Reality Gaming.

Sound interesting? Well then, let me tell you a little story.

I was introduced to alternate reality gaming as I was driving home from work one Friday afternoon. Since driving can often lead to its own unique state of alternate reality as the miles open your thoughts to extended reverie, it’s not surprising that I would have become so fascinated with this topic at first while behind the wheel. I have a one-way work commute of about forty miles, so I depend on my radio to help pass the time. More specifically, and when I’m not listening to a favorite CD, I have the radio tuned to the local National Public Radio station because there is always something interesting being discussed.

As it so happened on this particular Friday afternoon, the program I was listening to was doing a story on “number stations,” and the intrigue and mystery that has built up around them. Number stations are shortwave radio broadcasts that have mysterious voices reading off non sequiturs as their only content, followed by long listings of numbers. A typical broadcast might consist of something like, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot... Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” followed by a few electronic beeps and blurbs, and then a long listing of numbers. These numbers don’t appear to have any recognizable meaning, nor do the words and phrases that precede them. Some of the broadcasts occur at the same time each evening, while others are more random. And to make these broadcasts even more perplexing, the voice reading off the numbers is often of a different gender and accent, and sometimes the voices are even children.

Again, it was a Friday afternoon as I was listening to this story, and all I really wanted to do was get home and relax with a favorite beverage after a long week of work. I was about to turn off the station when the narrator of the story mentioned two things that really piqued my interest. First, that someone—a Mr. Akin Fernandez—had actually been cataloging and recording these broadcasts for several years, and had released them as a boxed set of recordings. And second, that one of my favorite bands, Wilco, had taken the title of one of their recent CDs, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from one of these shortwave broadcasts. The story went on to say that the Wilco CD actually contained short snippets of these broadcasts, mixed in with (for that band) the sometimes atonal, cacophonic transitions between songs.

This was a CD I had owned for two years and had listened to repeatedly. How could I have never noticed these mysterious “number station” excerpts? Probably because it never occurred to me that there was a hidden or otherwise larger meaning to these strange sounds; I was just waiting on them to be over and the next typically catchy song to begin.

Arriving at home, I immediately went to my computer and did a search on the term “Conet Project,” which is the name of the audio boxed set of number station broadcasts that Mr. Fernandez had compiled and released. To my surprise, there were several links on the Web related to this topic, and the issue of “number stations” in general. One link in particular was a link to an August 2004 story in the Washington Post, which described Mr. Fernandez’s interest and research with number stations, and more specific background (and interesting controversy) on the release of “The Conet Project.”

As mentioned in the story:

“Conet” gives off a whiff of the vaguely forbidden: Maybe the government doesn’t want you to hear this. And your parents won’t get it. And if you listen today, in the age of Code Orange, it actually sounds a little sinister, with echoes of the “chatter” the Bush administration is always warning us about. What could be more frightening than “chatter”?

“Conet,” in other words, delivers a couple of the slightly subversive thrills that rock could once deliver without breaking a sweat. It feels new, a little dangerous, a ticket into a subculture of sorts. That’s an experience you don’t find in record stores much anymore, in part because rock has been around for 50 years—and can anything that old really feel dangerous?—and in part because corporate America long ago figured out there’s gold in the underground, and now mines and mass-produces it faster every year. In a way, “Conet” is a measure of just how fringeward you need to head these days to find something that delivers the frisson of the margins.

(Excerpted from, “The Shortwave and the Calling.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35647-2004Aug2.html)


If you can’t load the story from the link provided here, you might want to first visit http://www.washingtonpost.com and (freely) register to the site.

You can probably guess from my reference to Wilco that I am a music fan. Actually, I am a music junkie, and am dedicated to all genres of music. Rock, jazz, country, classical—music is my thing. In reading the Post story, I was intrigued by the idea that “The Conet Project” might represent a new direction in music, and I absolutely loved the idea that it might be something “slightly subversive,” which translates to me as truly innovative and exciting. The fact that it also carried with it a sense of intrigue and perhaps something forbidden only made me want to learn more about it.


For more information on the Conet Project, as well as other links to and information about number stations, see http://www.irdial.com/conet.htm. I will talk more about the Conet Project and its potential ARG implications in later chapters, so stay “tuned in” for more!

Enter Alternate Reality Gaming

Later that evening, after the usual Friday night pizza and movies with the family, and after everyone else had gone to bed, I decided to do some more searching around the Web and see what else I could find about number stations. And at some point that night, as my interest in the mystery of number stations and what they might represent was at a fever pitch, I happened to click on a link that presented me, for the first time, with the term “alternate reality gaming,” or ARG for short.

I recall that at first I didn’t think much of it. Actually, I assumed that it was just a reference to the use of digital avatars, in such games as The Sims, or on Web sites like the virtual tropic paradise there.com. But it was late at night, and I was in that wonderful trance of discovery and wonder that “free-form” Web surfing can often induce, when the magic of hyperlinked texts leads you in directions you never imagined. So I went ahead and clicked on the link, and I was taken to the Web site for the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, or www.argn.com, which is highlighted in the figure below, and also happens to be the most definitive, comprehensive resource for alternate reality gaming on the Web.

Intro 1. The home page for the Alternate Reality Gaming Network (ARGN) Web site.

In looking at the definition of ARG, the argn.com site had posted the CNET definition, which is as follows:

[An ARG] is an obsession-inspiring genre that blends real-life treasure hunting, interactive storytelling, video games and online community.... These games are an intensely complicated series of puzzles involving coded Web sites, real-world clues like the newspaper advertisements, phone calls in the middle of the night from game characters, and more. That blend of real-world activities and a dramatic storyline has proven irresistible to many.”

Obviously, I was instantly fascinated by that definition, since it seemed to imply something that was mysterious, subversive, intellectual, and challenging, just like the number station topic I discovered earlier that afternoon on my drive home from work. Most of all, it all sounded like a great deal of fun.

In further exploring the site, I quickly came to two conclusions:

  • Alternate reality gaming had been around for much longer than I thought, and its origins came from a very unexpected source. As you will discover in this book, ARGing first really came into existence as part of the 2001 Steven Spielberg film, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). While that film is still only a few years old, I had not originally anticipated that ARGs were anything that had been around for more than just a few months.

  • I was immediately and absolutely fascinated by the concept of ARGing and wanted to learn as much as I could about this truly original genre of computer gaming. If players had somehow managed to cross the line between the virtual and physical worlds as they played the games, that to me implied all kinds of interesting things to consider, not the least of which was the question: Is there a “danger” in blurring the line between the real and the imagined?

If my memory serves me right (I wish I had kept a record of my discoveries that evening...), I stayed up for most of the night reading about ARGing. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that others had started writing on the larger intellectual ramifications of ARGing. Given that I work in higher education, I had already begun to think about applying the concept of alternate reality gaming in the classroom, so the articles I found by other researchers immediately caught my attention (a few of these researchers will be discussed within the pages of this book).

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here, as all of these issues will be explored and discussed throughout the pages of this book. But the point I’d like to make for now is that ARGing is a multifaceted genre of computer gaming, and one that has the potential to blow the doors off the way we define computer gaming, as well as our current views of the Web as a tool for communication and collaboration. And like the description of number stations from the Washington Post story, those currently engaged with ARGing are very much on the “frisson of the margins” in terms of the thing they are interested in and the incredibly provocative and fascinating direction this “thing” might take them.

What This Book Is About

If you just read that previous section and are concerned this is going to be some kind of dry, boring academic discourse, let me assure you that this is most certainly not the case! Not that I have anything against dry, boring academic discourses (I mentioned I work in higher education, right?), but I realize that they are not something that most people tend to pick up to read, especially those who are interested in computing gaming. And I’m assuming (of course!) that you are interested in computer gaming, and by picking up this book you want to learn more about one of the most exciting recent developments in this area.

So, that said, the focus of this book is not to prepare you to write an academic thesis on what an ARG means to the future of Western civilization. Rather, what this book is about is discovering what alternate reality gaming is all about, considering the very interesting implications (e.g., blurring of lines between real world and virtual) that can arise from this discovery, and of course learning how to play and enjoy ARGing, thus the focus on the phrase, “A Guide To” in the book’s title.

As you read through its pages, you’ll be presented with all of the following:

  • What is ARGing and what are its origins? Again, don’t worry about this history being presented as dry facts. Rather, the (relatively brief) history of ARGing is as interesting a topic as anything on computer gaming, or anything technology-related, to be quite honest. Understanding the development of ARGing is essential to becoming a better player and useful in becoming more involved in the larger ARG phenomenon.

  • Learning how to play. As you now know, I first was introduced to ARGs through a radio story about number stations. Perhaps your first introduction to ARGs will be this book (which would be great). The question of how you learn to play an ARG is nearly as interesting as the games themselves. Ultimately, to be a successful ARG player, the key skill you need to acquire is how to think critically: despite the difficult (boring?) overtone of that phrase, you will be pleased to discover that you are already a critical thinker, and that you just need to see how you can focus your critical thinking skills (and your other interests) into an ARG context. You will see examples of this through a review of how an actual ARG was played out (Chapters 3 and 4), as well as by playing an ARG simulation yourself (Chapters 57).

  • An ARG example. As you read in the CNET definition above, the most developed ARGs blend fact with fantasy, and include (as you will soon discover) players receiving actual phone calls, e-mails, faxes, etc., Chapters 57 of the book will give you a taste for what ARGing is all about. And, as you will soon discover, new ARGs are coming online every day, so there’s plenty of opportunity to play for those who are interested.

How This Book Is Arranged

This book is divided into four general sections:

  • Chapters 12: These chapters lay the groundwork for defining what alternate reality gaming is all about, as well as strategies and techniques for learning to play and otherwise becoming involved in the genre.

  • Chapters 34: These chapters present a summary of how the granddaddy of all ARGs—the game developed to help promote the film A.I.—was played and eventually solved by a group of individuals who dubbed themselves the Cloudmakers. These two chapters will present not only the unfolding of the game’s fascinating story line, but also highlight the unprecedented (and perhaps unexpected) level of collaboration and “collective intelligence” that was utilized by the Cloudmakers to solve the mystery of the game.

  • Chapters 58: In these chapters, you’ll get a chance to participate in a simulated ARG (Route 66), which will allow you to experience some of the flavor and fun of being involved in an ARG. While the ARG presented here is primarily contained within the pages of this book, you will nevertheless have a chance to interact with actual Web sites, and—as your interest dictates—perform a great deal of your own self-exploration and discovery, as you seek to answer the meaning of the statement, “The old road is the new road.” Your “virtual ARG” will take you from the steps of the Monument to Westward Expansion (the “Arch”) in St. Louis, through the desert Southwest, and finally to the beaches of Southern California.

  • Chapters 910: To quote from a famous e-mail (which you will learn about) in “ARG history,” these two chapters will give you a peek behind the curtain as you learn about ideas and techniques for developing your own ARG-related story lines and Web pages, if you want to consider designing your own game at some point in your ARG discoveries.

I would stress that these chapter divisions are very informal, and that I will take liberties in mixing different topics from one section of the book to the next. Actually, you can really view this book as being organized under one big section with a title, “Learn About the Fascinating World of Alternate Reality Gaming!” So don’t get hung up on these chapter divisions—I’ve mentioned them here just to give you a general idea of how the book is organized and arranged.

Who Should Read This Book?

This book has three potential audiences, and none of them with the possible exception of the third (although that is debatable), assume you have any prior ARG experience. They are as follows:

  • Those readers who aren’t computer gamers, but who are interested in alternate reality gaming. The question of whether or not alternate reality gaming can even be considered “computer gaming” is an interesting one, and will be explored in more detail in Chapter 1. However, if you don’t consider yourself a computer gamer in the traditional sense of that term, don’t worry, because your enjoyment and interest in ARGing is not dependent on you being on the Halo 2 mailing list.

  • Those readers who are experienced computer gamers and who are intrigued by how alternate reality gaming might be a radical new extension of the computer gaming genre. For those of you who have been involved with computer gaming for some time, you will find much to be interested in with alternate reality gaming. As you will see throughout the book, there are many similarities between how an ARG is played and, for example, live-action, role-playing games (discussed in Chapter 1) and role-playing games in general.

  • Those readers who are interested in designing their own ARG storylines and Web sites. The term “puppetmaster” is often used to describe those people who are behind-the-scenes or “behind the curtain” and develop the story lines of an ARG and various components of it. While this book is primarily aimed at players and especially those who are new to ARGing, there is specific material in Chapters 9 and 10, as well as general tips, techniques, and strategies throughout the other chapters of the book that will be of interest to aspiring puppetmasters.

Special Elements Used in This Book

The following special elements are typical of what you’d find in any computer gaming/technology book. All of them have been designed to provide you with supplementary (and sometimes critical) related information to the topic at hand.

A brief description of these special elements follows here:


Tips provide helpful shortcuts and tricks to assist you with the topic at hand.


Notes provide you with additional information about the product or technology being discussed.


Cautions provide you with warnings of potential pitfalls/problems you might encounter along the way.


Sidebars contain additional information that is not only directly relevant to the chapter but which you might find interesting or helpful during your learning process.

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