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Alternate Reality Games – Playing with Marketing

I was fortunate enough to attend 42 Entertainment’s brilliant and inspiring VIDFEST presentation which centered around the conception and execution of their Alternate Reality Game for the Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero” album.
Having read Frank Rose’s piece in Wired about this phenomenal project months ago, I felt like a total fangirl – utterly excited about what they’d have to say, and hopefully, show us.  Indeed, it was completely enthralling. I love marketing, mysteries, film/online media and the concept of collaboration, and so ARGs are as exciting as anything I’ve come across yet (be sure to listen to the audio on the Wired piece for proof).

So here’s a brief overview of Alternate Reality Games, and why I think I said “Wow…” just about 25 times during 42 Entertainment’s presentation.

Basically, an Alternate Reality Game is a highly interactive and immersive “adventure designed to be played in the real world”.  ARGs are generally linked to a product/promotion – though the coloration is often very subtle.
One of the key reasons it’s so involving for the audience is because the adventure involves them – literally.  No longer merely passive viewers, the genre blurs the line between fact and fiction, inviting the audience in… necessitating their participation and collaboration to solve a mystery…

One night, years ago, I dragged my then-boyfriend to see “The Ring”.  The film was eerie enough, but, as a die-hard thriller-fan, I wasn’t quite aware of its impact, until later…  At 2am, his cell phone rang.  We awakened, with a start, and he grappled for the phone.  There was no one there.  It was hard to get back to sleep, as the movie, with its ominous phone call theme, replayed through my mind. And I had to use a groggy logic to convince myself that the phone call had no relation to the film, that the character in the film could not, in all reality, simply contact us.

But what if it could?    What would happen if all reality was no longer that, and a film or game did actually reach out and touch you…?   Sure it would be frightening – but it would most certainly be memorable, and downright engaging…
“These games are intensely complicated series of puzzles involving coded Web sites, real-world clues like the newspaper advertisements, phone calls in the middle of the night from game characters and more. That blend of real-world activities and a dramatic storyline has proven irresistible to many.”  “The instant you click on a link, your phone should start to ring, your car should only drive in reverse, and none of your friends should remember your name."

And it’s that possibility of something coming through from the fictional world (aside from being the basis of many Stephen King tale) which forms the appeal of ARGs.  The internet and it’s consistently evolving ability to link people of similar interests has been pivotal in the progression of these games and how they work.  “The internet supplied the medium–a place where you could deliver a ton of content, and be assured that players would talk about it with one another." 

And marketers are discovering that there is potential and value of associating a product with something that engages, in a time when audiences are oversaturated by, and generally disengaged from, traditional forms of advertising.  "There was a shift from a push-based marketing system to a pull-based marketing system" “They integrate facets of viral marketing, buzz-building, PR, word-of-mouth generation, and brand immersion into true experiences that pull players in and don’t let them go.”

"When other people are missionaries for your brand, you’ve got something special," said Jordan Fisher, director of brand planning at Perceive, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. "The brand becomes something much bigger, has a purpose rather than being just another product on the shelf." “Rather than 30 seconds of exposure to a brand, they generate stickiness” and “draw in users and encourage them to bring other players into the ‘game’." The ARG for Beast’s had "three million participants” and when the "frenzy created by this ARG” brought them mainstream media press coverage the “three million people created over 300 million impressions for the film".

ARGs are no small feat, to make or to solve, and the level of detail and sophistication can be impressive.  Further, it assumes audience sophistication… The Year Zero promotion was astounding – everything from T-shirts to the video for the song “Survivalism”  were virtual treasures trove for participants – albeit with hidden treasures.  The video itself went way beyond a cool concept and music: it contained “surveillance footage”, on which some of the video time codes were designed to alternate from a number to a letter, and those letters, put together, provided further clues to the eerie big brother storyline.  And, appropriately enough, the video even culminated with a raid…

These types of clues peek curiosity and invite collaboration.   “Instead of the simulated worlds of computer games, Big Games transform the physical space around us into a shared gameworld, brought to life by the choices, actions, and experiences of the players.”   And the participants collaboration is a benefit to players as well as marketers: “Interactions become more meaningful when they connect individuals from their local environment to a larger community.”  And in fact, “[t]he task is too complicated for any one person, but the Web enables a collective intelligence to emerge to assemble the pieces, solve the mysteries, and in the process, tell and retell the story online. The narrative is shaped — and ultimately owned — by the audience in ways that other forms of storytelling cannot match. No longer passive consumers, the players live out the story.”  Participants shape the game and often even create for the game: “Our experiences are designed to proliferate across the web. The community took many of the ideas we created and ran with them: producing their own videos, comic books, etc.”

You may already realized that the future of entertainment involves you. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re also the future of marketing.

Are you game?


A few ARG examples:  Year Zero, World Without Oil, The Lost Ring, The Beast, Cathy’s Book, Chasing the Wish, Perplex City, I Love Bees

Some ARG companies:   42 Entertainment, Area/Code, Fourth Wall, Xenophile Media

Bibliography and further information bookmarked on

Picture Credits:


  1. Duane Brown
    Duane Brown May 27, 2008

    I Love Bees is the best example and one ARG that most people tend to know about. I’m enjoying the current one for Dark Knight, but its no I Love Bees.
    Should be interesting to see if the 360 guys do an ARG for Halo Wars. That would be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

  2. Carol Isaza
    Carol Isaza May 28, 2008

    Very interesting Monica! It’s definitely exciting to learn about concepts of collaboration in the media world, and how it keeps being pushed forward in really engaging and subtle- but powerful strategies… I’m game!

  3. Bruce Byfield
    Bruce Byfield May 28, 2008

    An interesting topic, but one that chills me a bit.
    In your recent blog post, you talked about the importance of play — a concept with which I strongly agree. So, while I thing the concept of such games interesting, something in my feels distinctly uneasy about marketing concerns creeping into play. I can’t help thinking that the marketing will sooner or later subvert the meaning of play.
    Of course, I also felt something of the same about Darren’s Tubetastic concept; I kept thinking that such effort and creativity would be better put towards something that wasn’t about marketing.
    But, then, as an ex-marketer, perhaps I’m over-eager to disavow my dark past.

  4. Alan Steinberg
    Alan Steinberg June 10, 2008

    Ironic, I just blogged about this topic too…
    Perhaps we’re both playing the same game that requires us to do so? =D

  5. One Degree
    One Degree October 8, 2008

    Immersive Marketing… Alternative Realities or Plain Old Delusions?
    I was in Montreal yesterday watching the presentations at the IAB MIXX Conference. There were some interesting speakers and I had an opportunity to catch up with some of them at the show. One of the presentations peaking my interest

  6. Evelyn So
    Evelyn So January 15, 2009

    I worked with Xenophile Media on ARGs. I definitely think ARG is still a largely untapped method of attracting and engaging customers. It delivers a very sticky (read: addictive) experience thanks to a strong storyline and the collaborative nature of the game, all mobilized via multiple channels over a period of time.
    You are right that it is no small feat, as ARG requires on-demand monitoring and adjustments as the game moves along.
    We have also learned how to design the experience for non-hard-core-gamers, which is key in gaining mass adoption.
    I am not a gamer, ARG or others, which gives me a clear and necessary perspective re: bringing this into the mass market.
    ARG is not alike Wii Fit which taps into the non-hard-core market…with lots of success.
    Am excited about this post and look forward to seeing more convos in this area. Thanks for sharing!!

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