Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are narrative puzzles that you play in both the virtual and the real world. They are stories scattered across spaces, a little like autumnal leaves across a playing field. You discover these stories by resolving the puzzles they pose. And, very often, you do this by working with others online.
This idea of a story that might be played has its roots in good old D&D, choose-your-own-adventure books and, later, computer text adventures.
A key feature is that they are stories you sort of, kind of play. And to those dedicated ARG players, they are the culmination of what a narrative/game really can be, and perhaps should be, if it is to exist (at least in part) in the digital world.
So why on earth would I ponder over whether Facebook, might be considered to be an ARG?
Stick with me.
Facebook is a game. Of this much I am certain. And this concept may be pretty well established to you, or you may be thinking that it isn’t a game, it’s a social media platform, and that I appear to have lost the plot.
Stick with me.
FB is an incredibly effective social media platform. And the reason it is so effective is because it uses the principles of game design to hook us, and to keep us playing.
Getting and giving likes – or the many emotional responses we are now able to give – are little pieces of feedback that make us feel good (not unlike gaining XP). Getting a comment is even better. Having some sort of comment-based exchange is great. And yes – these things play to our social selves – but they are also part of what makes us want to play. Feedback. We love feedback. We love feeling that our actions (clicking like or leaving a comment), have impact. It gives us a sense of agency.
Scroll through your feed and you’re playing the FB game. This time the feedback is that bubble Facebook places you within. The news and media bubble. You only tend to see the things you already like and agree with. Information filtered just for you, to make you feel good and want to keep on playing. Your views are brilliant – look, all of you newsfeed agrees with you. You must be amazing.
I’m not trying to suggest that FB is some sort of sinister machine. I just want to point out how very much like a game it is.
But why do I think it might be an ARG?
I’d say it’s a social game – we are the SIMS – and we are playing our social existence. We play this game in the real world – when we occasionally see some of those people with whom we are friends on FB. And we play this game, overwhelmingly, in the virtual. To gain satisfaction from the FB game, we do need to have some sort of recognition of our social interaction (likes, comments…)
And the story?
It’s our story, and we’re working it out as we go. There are lots of vignettes along the way: ‘look what he did now!’, ‘politics and that’, ‘I feel cross or something and wish to announce this publicly…’, and ‘look – a Kitten!’ However we choose to express ourselves in this game, we are essentially expressing a particular version of ourselves. A character or caricature if you will.
The thing is, it’s the sort of ARG that will never finish. It’s an Alternate Reality Game MMO. Like World of Warcraft. It will never end, not until you stop playing.
So we are playing Facebook. The shame is that the story isn’t really much of one. Don’t get me wrong – the stories of our lives are important. To us. They’re just not great literature. Well – not often.
So if Facebook is an ARG, it’s not a truly great one. But it is really, really good at getting us to play.