Undefining ARG

I prefer to present these three key elements of chaotic fiction as three linear graphs. The first graph consists of the authors (or, as we know them in alternate reality gaming, the puppetmasters) on one end and the audience, or players, on the other. This defines who has more control over the development of the fiction, the people who produce it or those who engage with it.

Authorship metric

If we were to take a given campaign (ARG or not) such as the Daughters of Freya episodic email story and place it somewhere on the graph, most of us could agree it would find itself toward the author end of the spectrum, with the audience having little to no effect on the outcome. A game such as I Love Bees might be in the middle of the spectrum, as players were able to affect events within the game, but a majority of the plot and assets used were still premade. Finally, we could easily consider the Uncyclopedia as a chaotic fictional construct that would appear far to the audience end of the spectrum on this graph, being as it is largely anarchical in creation but still subject to certain rules imposed by the site creators.

ARGs at the author end of the line would be most expository and give rise to very little player speculation about deeper meaning or motive, while games on the opposite end would offer clues as to the story but little in the way of explanation, leaving the story to be built almost wholly by the audience, as if a grand-scale Rorschach test. Where a given campaign might fall on the graph is more easily determined after it has completed, by simply looking at the fictional construct and determining the source of its bulk. Did the audience create more content or did the authors, to make up the whole? Regardless of the answer, it was necessary for them to do it together, in order to satisfy this element of the definition of chaotic fiction.

I like graphs like this because they don't necessarily force you to define discrete boundaries. One game might be about there for you but more over here for me. Or one might say it falls somewhere within a range of values, rather than at a single point.

The second key element is the ruleset. This describes how many restrictions are imposed upon the process of creation at the outset of or during the production. At one end sits total organization, a fixed and rigid framework, and at the other lies complete chaos, no holds barred, anything allowed.

Ruleset metric

Now, I know you're going to say that there are no rules in ARGs, but those aren't the kind of rules I'm talking about here. What I refer to are the restrictions the authors impose upon the framework in which they present their campaign and the amount of the campaign itself that has been planned in advance. We might place a game with set rules and tangible goals like Last Call Poker at the more organized end of the graph, and we could consider the San-Francisco-based, almost entirely audience-run, game SF0 at the opposite end from LCP. How does the game play out, by what process is the fiction created? Organization or chaos?

In some respects, this element is similar to the previous in that adjustments to it might allow more or less author or audience control over the development of the story. However, I think it is important to keep it as a separate metric.

The third element is coherence. This refers to the amount of plot exhibited in the fictional construct. For instance, both SF0 and Uncyclopedia are largely plot-less, yet they may exhibit themes on a meta-scale, while what we consider traditional alternate reality games generally have quite distinct and in many cases linear, if mutable, plotlines. Yet both types of campaign can easily be said to exist somewhere on this spectrum. In some cases, the plot might be indeterminable during play, only interpreted in retrospect after the completion of the campaign. Again, this harks back to the previous metric, in that the amount or lack of plot may allow more or less audience or author control over the production of the fictional construct.

Coherence metric

Now before you get all irate, I'm not really trying to categorize Uncyclopedia as an ARG. Remember, we are talking about chaotic fiction here. The above defines the context in which ARGs exist. I like to visualize the three graphs as three-dimensional axes. In each axis, it seems acceptable to say that the halfway point could describe an ARG, so that in it the audience and authors would have equal control over construction of the fiction, the construction was defined by a given ruleset but had equal latitude for change during play, and it had a decent, if not absolutely delineated, plot. Would that sound like an acceptable ARG? It should, because "definitely ARG" tends to sit right dead center of that three axis graph. How far out in each direction it extends may be up for debate, but we ought to be able to agree together on "around there somewhere." ARG then exists on that 3D graph as an amorphous cloud made up of the aggregate of everyone's individual – but hopefully informed – opinions about where things ought to be.

And that's where it should begin to become clear why I said I couldn't define alternate reality gaming, because the definition is both mutable in time and dependent upon the current, collective opinions of all of its participants.

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