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Bees, ARGs, and the birth of the collective detective.

Steve Peters was home with his wife in Las Vegas last year when the Federal Express delivery truck brought a sticky envelope to his door.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was addressed to ARGN--the Alternate Reality Gaming Network of Web sites that Peters had helped found not long before. "A new game," he thought. More than one would-be "puppet master" had started a game by sending him cryptic mail. He brought the bulky envelope inside and tore it open. Inside was a plastic bear-shaped jar of honey. It had leaked in transit and was warm from the July afternoon heat.

He showed it to his wife, and they both noticed the bits of black suspended inside the honey. A clue to something? They strained the honey through a colander and found black letters left behind. A few minutes spent rearranging them as an anagram revealed no obvious message: EVIL something. SLEEVE ...

"What about 'I love bees'?" his wife suggested.

They tried going to Ilovebees.com. The site was transparently amateurish, apparently dedicated to a young woman's beekeeping hobby.

"My wife said, 'I don't think this is it,'" Peters remembered later. "Then the black box came up, and she said, 'Steve, I think you better take a look at this.'"

That black box, the first contact with what purported to be an artificial intelligence taking over the beekeeping site, was the beginning of a months-long "Alternate Reality Game" (ARG) culminating in the release of Microsoft's Halo 2 video game. Before it ended, it would draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people into its mix of puzzle-solving, fractured storytelling, and collective detective work, and it would set a milestone in a new genre of online gaming.

Peters and his wife immediately got online and asked other people whether they had gotten their own honey bears. Nobody in the small ARG community had. He posted pictures and began studying the "I Love Bees" Web site. Other messages emerged: text encoded subtly inside pictures and source code for the site that was far too sophisticated for the amateur or "grassroots" project he had initially anticipated. Something big was at work.

A week later came the rumors. Somebody had seen the Ilovebees.com address flashed at the end of a theater advertisement for Halo 2. New people started finding their way to the ARGN "Unfiction" bulletin boards where Peters's community was already discussing the "Haunted Apiary." Finally, the video game's trailer was posted online, and it was confirmed. Microsoft was behind this one, which meant money, sophistication, and very likely the team that had created The Beast, the original ARG associated with Stephen Spielberg's movie A.I.

The game was on.

TRANSFORMING REALITY, OR UNRAVELING TRUTH?

Games have always been about altering reality in some small, adventurous way. Chess is simulated warfare; baseball an escape into a society where explosive glory is possible with the swing of a bat; Halo 2 a sci-fi epic that lets players join in saving the world.

ARGs take these adventures and let them bleed out of living rooms, off the television screen, and into everyday life. They are built around puzzles found online or in your local newspaper's classified section, and they might make you answer your phone in the middle of the night to unlock a new clue.

They are a blend of improvisational theater, storytelling, and old-fashioned detective work. At their best they create a seductive sense of paranoia that makes virtually everything--every Web site, every license plate on a passing car, every chance encounter on a London street corner--a potential part of the game.

An ARG is a modern version of a role-playing game that has dispensed with knights and elves and instead asks players to play themselves--as if they were suddenly transported into a time and dimension where the game's story was truth.

And like most video games, they trace their roots back to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, the game that introduced role-playing to a generation of kids coming of age just as the computer industry was taking off.

This confluence of events in the early 1970s set an unmistakable stamp on early electronic gaming. The first computer networks were riddled with games called Dungeon, Oubliette (French for dungeon), and the like, often written by players for fun and distributed for free. The first online multiplayer game was written in England and dubbed the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD. All were written by committed D & D players and wore their influence on their sleeves.

The 1980s saw an explosion of computer games on the Apple II and other platforms as a commercial medium, and many of the top sellers were role-playing-based games such as Richard Garriot's Ultima. In the 1990s, a new fast-paced type of shooter game, exemplified by the nightmarish worlds of id Software's Doom and Quake, took off. But these too were created by dedicated D & D players John Carmack and John Romero. Indeed, Quake is named after a character in the developer's long-running D & D game.

The biggest movement in the late 1990s, which continues today, was the massively multiplayer online game, where tens of thousands of players might simultaneously play in virtual worlds that exist whether or not an individual player is online. The most popular worlds have developed full-fledged economies, mythologies, and communities that are uniquely their own.

ARGs draw on all of these predecessors without being identical to any of them. Much of their organization has been drawn from video games--a puzzle is solved or a task is completed to progress to the next stage. Instead of points, players are rewarded with another segment of story or another puzzle to solve.

What is unique to the medium is the sense of community participation--the "collective detective" made up of anywhere from a few stalwarts to thousands of people collaborating to figure out what is happening. In a very real sense, the players, who are connected by Internet Relay Chats (IRC), Web-site bulletin boards, Short Message Service (SMS) messages, and midnight cell phone calls are themselves the medium of these games.

"The Internet basically is about searching for things and gossiping, and we invented a way to tell stories that are about searching for things and gossiping," said Sean Stewart, the novelist who, along with director Elan Lee, created I Love Bees and its predecessor game, The Beast.

PLAYING WELL WITH OTHERS

For the hardest of the hardcore players--and do not be mistaken, these people can be anyone you know--solving the problems posed by these games nearly becomes an obsession. But it cannot be done alone--that is the point of the games.

Jason Barbacovi, a Seattle-based writer, was one of the early Bees players, who collectively dubbed themselves the "Beekeepers." In early August of 2004, 220 numbers labeled as "axons" appeared on the "I Love Bees" Web site, and like other players, Jason instantly began trying to find meaning in the list. Within minutes, they had figured out that these were Global Positioning System (GPS) codes, and just a few minutes after that, Excel spreadsheets appeared online with locations plotted around the United States.

Meanwhile, a new countdown on the site had begun that simply said, "Axons go hot."

Players--including Barbacovi, who found four locations near his home and work--began scouting the locations looking for clues as to what made those particular places special. After some fine-tuning by the puppet masters, gamers figured out that the GPS locations pointed to pay phones, a move that started one of the most interesting, and obsession-inducing, parts of the game.

When the axons went hot (dubbed "enhottenating" by players), the phones began ringing. At first, players simply had to respond to the phone calls with words of the day. The tense Beekeepers sometimes clashed with outsiders who were trying to use the phone for more ordinary purposes. Barbacovi remembers one moment when the word of the day was "Apocalypso." "There was a guy loitering by the payphone with me, and when it rang, I grabbed it like I was waiting for a call (which I was) and mumbled what probably sounded like 'Apocalypse' into the receiver," said Barbacovi. "He gave me a really funny look, and for a second I was worried he was going to go get a cop or something."

Eventually, the "Axons Go Hot" game segment became a study in extraordinarily efficient decentralized communications. Once players found their way to the phones, they were asked to do increasingly more-difficult things. Initially, one person would show up at the phone, receive a call, and listen to a riddle (which was read by live actors). The players would have forty-five minutes to solve that riddle and have the answer ready, sometimes at another pay phone thousands of miles away, to unlock the successive elements of the story that moved the game forward.

As the game wore on, that time dropped to a seemingly near-impossible forty-five seconds. To do that, players had to set up an intricate communication network with strangers.

The chain typically would be one person manning the pay phone and using a cell phone to contact another player sitting in front of a computer ready to transcribe the riddle. The riddle would then be sent to a chat room filled with other players. Once the message was sent down the line, it would need to be solved and sent back up the line to the computer operator, who would then give the original player the correct answer, which needed to be repeated to the actor on the other end of the phone.

The phone calls and riddles were deeply integrated into the complicated plot of time travel, conspiracy, and damaged artificial intelligences and could only be finished and solved through the players' actions.

THE ORIGIN OF THE ARG

It was early in 2001 that these games were born. I Love Bees director Lee remembers sitting in the Microsoft office of another long-time game maker, Jordan Weisman, when the phone rang. "What if that was the game calling you?" Weisman said.

The two had been struggling to find a way to create a new kind of gaming experience, something that could immerse thousands of people in a collective scavenger hunt. They looked to the Michael Douglas movie, The Game, for inspiration and even back to the "Paul is Dead" theories, which led people to scour the Beatles' albums for clues to the assumed conspiracy to hide Paul McCartney's death.

They got their chance when Dreamworks Pictures called. The studio wanted a unique promotion to go along with Spielberg's A.I. Weisman and Lee suggested an online mystery that filled in the movie's back story, and they hired novelist Stewart to write the story.

The result was The Beast. It was comprised of hundreds of Web sites with thousands of pages, containing puzzles that required knowledge of everything from sixteenth-century lute tablature to microbiology. They hid clues in the most unlikely places, figuring that someone would stumble on them eventually.

"We were placing a bet that we could put an ad in newspaper in Uzbekistan, and some kid in Iowa will be analyzing it that afternoon," Stewart said. "That's what the Internet means."

In every case, the players delivered. Indeed, the power of the "collective detective" caught the creators off-guard. They had started The Beast with what they expected to be three months' worth of puzzles and story. The players solved it all in a day. What emerged was improvisational storytelling on the run, with Stewart and Lee drawing elements from the players' discussions and theories and integrating them into the game, always just one small step ahead of the players themselves.

I Love Bees was their next venture after leaving Microsoft and starting a new company called 42 Entertainment dedicated to the work. Microsoft wanted a game based around the Halo 2 world, and they were happy to deliver. Others tried similar projects, but with less success. Game giant Electronic Arts launched its own ARG in mid-2001 called Majestic, but because its plot revolved heavily around terrorist activity, it was canceled post-9/11.

STILL IN THE HORSELESS-CARRIAGE STAGE

It is an open question whether ARGs can develop into a long-lasting medium. Stewart and Lee are searching for a format that is not so heavily puzzle-based. Simply sending people though varying sets of obscure cryptographic-decoding exercises is not enough to sustain peoples' interest forever, they think.

The community of players itself is helping to expand and sustain the genre, however. In between Stewart and Lee's efforts have come a number of "grassroots" games, developed and played by the ARG players, as well as a handful of smaller games funded by corporations.

As with any amateur productions, these have been met with mixed reviews. But they are getting better. In early 2005, a new, well-funded effort called Perplex City launched, run by some of the original players in The Beast and funded by venture capitalists as well as other initially unknown business partners. The idea of the game was to be self-sustaining financially rather than serving as a marketing device, its authors said.

"If they succeed, we're going to be very happy for them. And completely envious," Stewart said.

To the players, the marketing aspect of the games has been largely moot, however--OOG, or "out of game," and thus to be evaluated separately. If a well-written story of a rogue artificial intelligence just happens to be associated with an Xbox game, well, so be it. Many of the players believe that they are not the ones being marketed to in the first place, that the games are really designed to win publicity for the associated products, rather than to sell the products to the players.

"Bees was not just a typical marketing ploy; it was a game in and of itself, a very high-quality, fulfilling experience with excellent writing," Peters said. "I never got the feeling that I was just being manipulated into buying a product because they never mentioned the product. If they had mentioned it, it would have driven people away in droves."

That's not to say there is not crossover. Salt Lake City "Beekeeper" Matthew Freestone says that his Halo 2 clan--a team that plays and practices together--was drawn in large part from people who met playing I Love Bees. He said that Bees appealed to a wider audience than did ordinary video games, but that the two games shared some attractions.

"I Love Bees seemed to attract people who weren't even gamers," Freestone said. But the community aspect of Bees did carry over to the Halo game. "It has been my experience that with team games it is far more important for people to work together than to be good players," he said.

For now, ARG progenitors Lee and Stewart are still digesting the lessons of their first two big games and watching the development of Perplex City and others. They see ARGs as being at a turning point, ready to break through to a larger audience and to evolve into a genuinely new blend of art and gaming. What ARGs will look like five years from now, they are not sure.

"I really believe that we are in the equivalent of the film industry of 1903," Stewart said. "We'll look back and see this as the horseless-carriage stage."

"We have no idea what the answers are," Lee added. "We're in a wonderful situation."

John Borland and Brad King are co-authors of Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Gaming Culture from Geek to Chic, published by McGraw Hill/Osborne Media. Borland is a senior writer at Cnet News.com; King is editor of MIT's Technology Review Web site.
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Title Annotation:Alternate Reality Game
Author:Borland, John; King, Brad
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:2614
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