Alternate reality games, also known as immersive games, blend fantasy and reality in ways that blur the difference. We are not talking about virtual reality technology that require their users to don special helmets or use kinematic effectors, but games that embed their narratives and interact with players using everyday aspects of the the real world — Web sites, email, instant messages, phone calls, letters and billboards.
The genre has largely been used by conceptual artists, advertising agencies and marketeers. Here’s how Dave Szulborski describes it on his This is Not a Game site.
“Alternate Reality Gaming, sometimes also called Immersive Gaming, Viral Marketing, or Interactive Fiction, is a rapidly emerging genre of online gaming and is one of the first true art and entertainment forms that was developed from and exclusively for the Internet. Alternate Reality Games have been wildly successful when used for multimillion dollar marketing campaigns, such as the 2004 game I Love Bees, used by Microsoft to help launch the hugely anticipated X-Box video game Halo 2, and the game that started it all, the Beast, used to promote Steven Spielbergâ€™s science fiction epic A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in 2001.”
Wired has an article, Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games, that describes an a viral marketing campaign to promote Nine Inch Nails. Muhammad Saleem blogs about the online viral marketing campaign it used to promote the move The Dark Knight. Finally, ReadWriteWeb has an interesting post, Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them? that attempts to deconstruct ARGs.
Alternate reality gaming is definitely unusual, but it draws on many of the skills any student of gaming should be developing: the ability to construct a rich narrative, the capability to design an environment that reveals itself as players explore and gradually discover and solve underlying puzzles, and the skills to exploit the latest digital technologies.
Many of them are inherently social games as well, encouraging or even requiring groups of people to collaborate and share information to unravel the story.