A few years ago, in the midst of my first draft of a trail for Lockjaw, an early alternate reality game, I came up with that very term (yes, I am that particular idiot), for the lack of any better way to quickly convey a feeling for what might be involved in the information that followed, catalogued on that page in excruciating detail. That same impetus to try to categorize a nascent genre, to distill a definition into a more memorable soundbite, drove me to create the Unfiction site, mainly because I realized that I could not define the genre so easily as I might have wished. This site became my surrogate definition; instead of repeatedly explaining at length what these "things" were, the idea went, I could just point people to the site instead. As has been readily apparent to those active in the ARG community, however, there has never been any collectively agreeable, concrete description of alternate reality games.
So here's where where I tell you that I have a way to define alternate reality gaming in such a fashion as to prove to you that I cannot in fact define it at all. While the previous statement may seem nonsensical, I encourage you to bear with me. The following is written with the assumption that the reader has some passing familiarity with the history, mechanics, and gameplay of ARGs.
My first observation in considering the debates about what qualities define an alternate reality game was that different people tended to focus on different elements of the games. For some people, the principal attraction is the things they can do within the game, such as interacting by chat or email with characters, or solving puzzles to unlock information. For others, their focus centered more on the fictional construct being delivered by the game, the plot and theme, the characters and their development over time, or in reaction to the players. Both of these elements are important in alternate reality games but in entirely different ways. The former group is an example of the experience of playing the game itself, while the latter is an example of the fictional construct that is created by the game. These elements are intertwined but should be considered separately.
Now, when I use the term "fictional construct" what I mean to say is a tangible embodiment of a created fiction. And when I say that, I'm just being fancy about saying it's like a book, or a movie, or a poem. Each of these things has at least a semi-permanent existence. A play viewed in a theatre might be considered a fictional construct as well, but for the fact that it does not (in most cases) continue to exist after the curtain falls, except perhaps in the minds of those who attended or performed. So a fictional construct is a created story that endures for a time. The term is also used independently of the media with which the fiction is delivered, and can be confined to a single medium or span many.
The second thing I noticed about trying to define alternate reality gaming was that everyone pretty much had a different idea of what it really was. It is curious, but not altogether unexpected, that so many people can participate together in these games and yet come away with such differing ideas of what they had experienced. Those opinions diverged not only on how to categorize whether or not a particular campaign were or were not an 'ARG' but also even more aggressively on how to define the categories themselves which make up an alternate reality game.
My final observation was that, in trying to define alternate reality gaming, we generally did so with the premise that it was a discrete universe without a greater context. There are numerous attempts to define campaigns as either 'ARG' or 'Not,' but again it seems impossible to agree on a set of parameters with which to make such judgments. This appears to me to be due to the fact that we lack a way to better define the concept-space in which alternate reality games exist.
This part is where I start throwing new terms around, which I'll try to define as I go. This is also where I start working backwards through my previously observed problems in an attempt to solve them. Because of this disorder, you will immediately question the following but trust me, I'll give you the fix later on.
First, we need to place alternate reality games in a greater context. This context is comprised of what I consider to be the key elements not of ARGs themselves, but of the fictional constructs that they produce. I see no reason not to continue to refer to those fictional constructs, the embodiments of the histories of ARGs gone by (composed of forum posts and emails and chatlogs and websites and guides and trails and wikis and databases and so on), as their ARG names in the past tense, but for the purposes of this part of the discussion I want to be clear that I mean all those tangible things that are left over in the aftermath. Those concrete things are the embodiment of a fictional construct that I call Chaotic Fiction.
I define chaotic fiction as a fictional construct that begins with a set of rules, uses those rules to run its scenario through an organic "computer" comprised of audience and author, and ends with a finite body of work that was not predetermined. This is to say that, though the authors (those who set the rules and started the production of the fiction in motion) may have been able to predict with some measure of certainty what they might end up with upon completion of the product, since they did not have complete control during production of every element of creation, they could not say with absolute certainty beforehand exactly what would be created by the process.
Why chaotic fiction? Well, the chaotic part describes the fact that the final product is not predetermined but rather unpredictable. And the fiction part is because what is being created isn't real, it's imagined. Chaotic fiction is produced in tandem between the authors or performers and the audience or players, and requires input from both sides. It begins with a set of ideas and ends wherever the performance or play may take it. The authors may set it in motion but they must work together with their audience to see its conclusion for the first time themselves. By its nature, it is improvisational in its production.
Okay, I know that may not seem to make a lot of sense, which is again not unexpected. So let's continue with a description of the three key elements of chaotic fiction; they should present a clearer idea of what I am attempting to describe.