The Puppetmaster-Player Communication Dynamic in Alternate Reality Gaming and Chaotic Fiction

Related Article: Undefining ARG

In a previous article, I discussed Chaotic Fiction as a concept and as a context for a better understanding of Alternate Reality Gaming. This was intended more as an overview and did not address in detail the gaming dynamic, the process, or the chaotic play of Alternate Reality Gaming. How does it work? What engages an audience? Which elements are necessary to facilitate the growth of the audience, and which elements can be discarded? Why does there have to be a "curtain?"

Many discussions focus on only one of two aspects of the experience as being the primary drivers within the medium: (1) Dividing the audience into discrete groups and (2) defining types of "real-world" game interaction mechanisms. Because the process of Chaotic Play is so different from that of more traditional gaming and entertainment pursuits, I believe that the metaconversational space shared during the creation of a chaotic enterprise should be the focus of the perspective from which we describe the system.

Alternate Reality Gaming is about telling and producing a story while the audience interacts with it. In some cases, this means that audience members may converse with fictional characters. In other cases, it means that ideas produced by player brainstorming sessions might be incorporated into the plot. Direct interaction is not required to affect the narrative and this is why the metacommunication between the Audience and the Architects is so important. The real magic happens when the audience reaches a critical mass of participation, and the sort of organized chaos that ensues is anybody's business. The play really is the thing, as the experience is what matters most to the participants. In our context, the term "metacommunication" refers to an ambiguous conglomeration of discussion about the experience, as well as the conversation within the system framework that creates – and is – the experience.

Another important aspect to consider about ARG is that its rise as a genre has been due entirely to the community that has grown with it. This community, comprised of developers as well as audience members, has described, defined, and refined the collective knowledge base surrounding this still novel art form. Because the players far outnumber the puppetmasters in this collaborative population, their collective voice is louder. This is an interesting phenomenon in itself that I believe correlates directly with how the process of Chaotic Play works.

This discussion is also intended to be an overview of a "best-case" chaotic system that facilitates its own function as much as possible, in this case the function being the production of narrative within the definition of Alternate Reality Gaming. There is a delicate balance between the influence of the Players and the control of the Puppetmasters within the gamespace created, which must be maintained during an ARG. When the system is working well, this balancing act is extremely difficult due to constant flux of the system itself. This is why I consider Alternate Reality Gaming an art form because (in general) the Puppetmasters are the only group that can exercise any sort of control over the system as a whole, yet they lack absolute control. These artists require more than a bit of finesse to be successful, and the problem of keeping a productive balance between Audience and Architect should be considered and integrated into any campaign design.

One other concept I want to introduce is that both the Players and the Puppetmasters in Alternate Reality Gaming are actually Gaming, though in different ways. This can extend to other types of Chaotic Fiction, but is exemplified by ARGs. This may or may not satisfy those occasional queries I get about why I had to use the term "game" when first approaching the problem of creating a descriptive term that conveyed a new idea no one entirely understood. Note that for the purposes of this discussion, I will use terms interchangeably if they apply to both Chaotic Fiction and Alternate Reality Gaming.

I approach my description of this system of communication between the Architects and the Audience by concentrating on the primary purpose of the system, which is to create a work-experience of fiction. This is the system's purpose, not to be confused with the motivations of the Puppetmasters or the Players, but ideally it is at least complementary to their desires. I describe three "spheres" of influence on the system: The Potential (World) Sphere, the Audience/Player Sphere, and the Architect/ Puppetmaster Sphere. I also attach a concept to the core of the system itself, the Curtain.

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