Alternate Reality Games, Transmedia Textuality, and the Immaterial Archive

16 Jan in arghive, ARGs, mla11, transmedia

I recently traveled to the 2011 MLA Convention where I gave a presentation on some of my recent thinking on ARGs and the textual study thereof. Really, this presentation was the sequel to a blog entry that was to be the first in a series. I ran into some trouble with the software I wanted to discuss in step 2, but now that that software is working (Omeka’s Zotero Importer plugin), I’ve been able to experiment enough with it that I can offer some preliminary ideas about its use.

The text below is the presentation pretty much as I gave it. Looking over it again, I think I missed a few opportunities to go a bit more theoretical, and some of my finer points that could have been a paragraph are relegated to a pithy turn of phrase that may not have been as clever as I thought at the time I wrote it.

Still, I think it did go pretty well as far as getting my major points across, and it fit in nicely with my co-panelists Rita Raley and John Walsh.

Going forward, I think there could be potential for some kind of description framework or archival ontology for transmedia artifacts. I need to learn more about RDF, but I really think there’s some potential there, alongside a broader preservation effort along the lines of Preserving Virtual Worlds..

In any case, here’s the presentation, for what it is. I certainly welcome any comments or questions.


In this presentation, I will be talking about Alternate Reality Games and Transmedia Textuality. Specifically, I want to point out some obstacles facing the critical study of these things, and propose at least one method for dealing with those obstacles, namely, that there is a unique preservation challenge facing these texts, and that these challenges raise interesting questions about complex and rich narrative experiences.

Now, a presentation like this typically begins with a definition of the term Alternate Reality Game, and maybe provides an example or two, because these are hard things to explain. I can’t assume, that everyone in the audience here is familiar with ARGs, so a definition would probably help. Even if you’re already interested in what I have to say about ARGs, you’re probably waiting for a definition or two within or against which I’m going to be positioning my own, keen, insights. I will not, however, begin this presentation with a definition.

Because this is the first problem: The more we try to come up with nuanced and clever definitions for Alternate Reality Games (undefining ARG, for example; to say nothing of the many synonyms for these things), the more we use pithy analogies to place transmedia in the context of prior or future narrative phenomena, the less time we spend actually studying them, and doing the what of transmedia.

For example, to make an argument of the sort that Andrea Phillips advances in her SXSW talk, “ARGs and Women: Beyond the Hot Brunette,” one must deploy a broad and thorough knowledge of ARG content that moves well beyond interesting ideas about how ARGs work and the interesting or world-changing things that players can do while interacting with them.

Like other texts, ARGs have their favored tropes, their unique provocations, their master works and their mediocre efforts. The second problem I’m looking at here is a more critical one, the textual data which comprise these tropes, provocations and aesthetic valuations are ephemeral to the point of volatility. For instance, arguably the most well known large-scale ARG is The Beast, and its community, the cloudmakers, have organized an interesting and useful archive of the game’s many websites, including their own “walkthrough” site at cloudmakers.org.

Dave Szulborski’s Chasing the Wish, however, is not so fortunate. It has been called the most influential grassroots ARG, but this claim is difficult to assess, since majority of its contents have been lost to lapsed domain registration and expired hosting accounts. In several cases, character-created content was hosted on free platforms that have since gone the way of Geocities, leaving no organized archive in their wake. What traces do remain are in players’ personal archives or in the bits and pieces captured by the Wayback Machine, which is next to nothing in this case. The most coherent extant record of the game is at the unfiction.com messageboard, an archive which is useful in preserving the game’s having-been-played, but a look through these fora and sub-fora reveal a wasteland of broken links and brief summaries that point to a no longer available, “real” original thing.

Certainly, ARGs are not unique in posing challenges to those who would seek to preserve cultural artifacts, but there is an interesting sense in which obscurity plays a meaningful role in transmedia poetics: the idea that gameplay engages participants in increasingly esoteric tasks that eventually only a few players will complete before reporting back to lower tiers of players with their findings. In practical terms, this is, perhaps, why archive.org’s Wayback Machine is such a poor resource for post-mortem ARG research: robots, it seems, are not good at solving the kind of puzzles that ARGs tend to present.

More importantly, the corollary implication is that the wayback machine conceives of a web archive as a series of documents, when the interesting parts of ARG play particularly are those things which could only be captured by invoking specific states of a web server. Furthermore, there is a sense in which transmedia textuality involves enough of a procedural element, so a document-derived ontology isn’t necessarily appropriate. If the play is the thing, and play takes the shape of figuring out what to do with story information, then what needs to be preserved or emulated in some sense is the having-been-looked-for of an object.

So far, I’ve stated or hinted at three inter-related problems:

  1. ARG scholarship is perhaps too preoccuppied with defining its terms and issues.
  2. ARG content is difficult to explore and critique with methods adopted from literary studies or textual criticism specifically because
  3. ARGs are difficult to archive and preserve in a way that supports the premises of things like peer review.

Before going further into the interesting implications and lessons of the ARGhival dilemma, I want to first tell you what I’m trying to do about it. What we need are rapidly deployable, realtime, present-tense archives of ARGs, and one solution I’ve experimented with uses two sets of free, easy to use, open source software. Zotero is a browser plugin for FireFox that lets users manage research databases. The software reads and parses bibliographic metadata from a wide array of online sources and stores them locally and remotely insider a user’s collections. Zotero can store any computer file the user has access to (images, documents, sound files, video), and it can associate with that file whatever metadata the user can supply. In the absence of specific bibliographic information, Zotero can also save a complete “snapshot” of any web-based resource, which is where it becomes useful as an ad hoc archival system for ARGs.

Of course, an archive is only useful to the extent that it can be conveyed, which is where Omeka comes in. Omeka lives on a webserver and allows users to share research or library collections, by curating items in a configurable series of web pages. I like to say, if Zotero is a personal library, Omeka is a museum. It exists to convey archives.

Both Omeka and Zotero are developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason, and both are quite useful in their own right. But an Omeka plugin developed recently by Jim Safley unleashes even greater power by finally allowing Omeka and Zotero to work together. Now, as of about 3 weeks ago for the latest working version, a collection in Zotero can imported into an Omeka collection. With some simple configuration, a researcher simply directs Omeka to the Zotero collection of interest, and Omeka will pull in all of the item’s metadata as well as, crucially, attached files and notes.

So the ARGhival method I propose and that I’ve been experimenting with is quite simple:

  1. Use Zotero to capture or store ARG resources
  2. Organize and annotate
  3. Import to Omeka
  4. Organize and narrate

Here is an partial example of an in-game blog displayed on an exhibit page in Omeka. This is a website that was part of an ARG campaign called Monster Hunter Club or Unnatural Selection, which ran in early 2007 as a promotional tie-in for the US release of the Korean monster movie, The Host. The puppetmasters were led by Dave Szulborski, and it’s useful as an ARGhival test case because much of the content is still recoverable, thankfully. MHC is also noteworthy because it would be one of Szulborsky’s last projects.

In the process of working with this small archive I uncovered a few things that needed tweaking from my initial workflow. Most importantly, I needed the web-facing presence of each item (in this case, each blog entry is a separate item) to show up in a way that was easily conveyable through the web. When Zotero captures a “snapshot”, what it’s really doing is saving all of the files needed to display that page, and then storing those files in a folder. Omeka imports those files in a Zip archive, which users can download, but this isn’t very convenient for sharing on the web. So to augment this, I used the “Screenshot Pimp” firefox addon to create a PNG image of each page, which I then attached to that page’s item in Zotero. Omeka pulls these images in and automatically generates the thumbnails you see here.

All told, I spent about 3 hours preparing this particular exhibit page, which is not bad, considering the richness of what’s available now that the documents have a bibliographic representation and archival presence inside Omeka. That richness could also include other features of Omeka that I haven’t showcased here, like the integration of a Simile Timeline display for collections and (what I’m really excited about) the just barely released “relationships plugin,” which lets researchers use RDF relationship fields from Dublin Core or FOAF to group items into meaningful semantic partnerships.

But by far, the most important richness now available is the ability for narrativization. Zotero on its own is an adequate storage solution for ARG data, but Omeka allows and encourages researchers to really share the specific contextual significance of a given document. It is a step toward the task of interpretive criticism which, as I pointed out earlier, is really lacking so far within existing scholarship on ARGs.

I begin this presentation by declining to begin this presentation with a definition of Alternate Reality Games. I didn’t say, however, that I wouldn’t conclude with one.

The nomenclature of ARGs suggests two possible heritages, two vectors or modal contexts that are equally, potentially in play when determining what critical issues are at stake in their scholarship. On one hand, ARGs are GAMES, where play comprises solving puzzles, interacting with characters, and generally performing tasks just slightly outside of the normal scope of one’s daily activities. On the other hand, as the wikipedia user Phaedra helpfully signals in her pithy definition, ARGs are interactive NARRATIVES that use the real world as a platform, a kind of collaborative storytelling that unfolds in real time as players are guided by the game’s puppetmasters through the sequence of its plot.

Narrative features strongly in existing scholarly approaches to Alternate Reality Games and related transmedia phenomenon. Marie-Laure Ryan, for example, argues that narrative itself is already a transmedial phenomon, so specific cases of transmedia storytelling (the broad term popularized by Henry Jenkins) may indeed exhibit narrativity in ways similar to traditional, single-channel narrative texts. Christy Dena has made use of the term “Cross Media Entertainment” as an alternative to Jenkins’, and there is some merit in considering the nuances in the competing liminalities of the prefixes “trans” vs. “cross.” Embracing the latter, Marc Ruppel writes of “cross-sited narrative” that his term signifies “a specific mode or genre of narrative structuring, one where th einterplay between media platforms is unified through a sequential and causal distribution of story information.” In other words, it is not simply that a transmedia text or ARG is a narrative or, after Ryan, “has narrativity.” Rather, narrative “can be seen as both a cognitive process as well as a logic through which to organize meaning … [narrative] becomes more than just a means of organizing information — it becomes a conceptual technology unlike any other in use today.” This is the most important technology in the ARGhival agenda. The existing ARG archives that have the most value are those like the Project Mu archive which consist of a player tell the story of having played the game.

If ARGs are also games, then there are also some lessons to be learned from thinking of games as sites of meaning. Steven Jones writes of Halo 2 that is a “social text with a vengeance,” when considered among its various paratexts (or, perhaps, avant texts), including the Alternate Reality Game, ILoveBees (or Haunted Apiary). In this case, the “vengeance” with which the Ilovebees text attaches itself to the Halo 2 franchise is the urgency of players as they pieced together the audio recordings comprising the haunted apiary storyline. The fact that the most significant connection to Halo 2 was, arguably, that ILoveBees players were offered early access to Halo 2 as a reward, as opposed to any overly determined connections between the two story lines suggests that the transmedial forces uniting these players and otherwise disparate texts is something socially external to any specific narrative site, either IloveBees or Halo 2. The fact that players express competence in navigating these texts by sharing their own narratives (what Christy Dena calls “eureka discourse”) underscores the textual nature of transmedia phenomena.

Whether considered as games or narratives, ARGs clearly operate with tremendous textual resources. For transmedia studies (or whatever we want to call it) to move forward as an area of inquiry, we need to develop or embrace archival methods that capture and convey as much of that as possible. Based on my experiments, I think Zotero + Omeka offers a good approach.

Bibliography (Link to Zotero Collection)