Poaching LG15: ARG-style…

Decided to post the ARG section of my chapter on Lonelygirl15 here on my blog. I am considering presenting this section at the next MIT conference this April:

As a community-based show partially influenced by its audience, one which elicited many stories that emerged as grassroots initiatives that complemented the primary storyline and encouraged collaboration among its fan base, LG15 gave birth to several fan-created Alternate Reality Games(ARGs), a gaming genre that surfaced as an alternative advertising endeavor in 2001 with the appearance of Steven Spielberg’s movie AI. This gaming genre and its effects on story-telling will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter. However, since ARG-like elements became an integral component of LG15, delivering the much-desired interactive experience to the fans, but more importantly, becoming a tool with which the main story of LG15 is poached, this section will discuss the role of the fan-created ARGs on LG15 and discuss why it should be considered as an interactive show, rather than an ARG. Because ARG creators, or puppetmasters, and players were not concerned about generating YouTube views for their spinoffs to get into the LG15 canon, they had the liberty to poach the main plot in unexpected ways and even introduce new characters into the Breeniverse. Being somewhat outside of the control of the LG15 franchise, fan-created ARGs posed a destabilizing threat that needed to be neutralized in some fashion.

As Adam Lloyd Brackin defines in his dissertation, the Alternate Reality Game genre is a relatively new form of online interactive entertainment born from alternative advertising endeavors that focus heavily on realistic immersion using real-world elements, fictional story elements, group problem solving dynamics, and collective thinking through the medium of the Internet. Because it requires a lot of time and effort on the part of the player, who actively has to solve puzzles and go to real-life locations to retrieve drops that the puppetmasters may have planted, ARGs have a relatively small, but very dedicated, group of followers. In this respect, it is no surprise that ARGs in LG15 were a grassroots initiative.

Although LG15 did not initially start as an ARG, nor ever was one in the strict sense of the term, because its creators shot the videos to pique the maximum amount of curiosity, it inevitably led to a puzzle-solving mentality among its fan base. In fact, the show’s founding premise, “whether or not Bree was real,” was a puzzle that the fans collaborated to solve. While fans caught on as early as the seventh video that they are supposed to be looking “for hidden meanings, undertones and keywords or phrases” and that it was not merely an Internet teen drama, it was not until Bree started talking about her mysterious religion in episode 15 (“Me, Religion, and Daniel”), her past in episode 17 (“Mysteries of My Past… REVEALED!!!”), and the religious ceremony that her parents want her to partake in in episode 23 (“A Change in My Life”) that the fans realized that they were involved in some kind of game. They instantly began speculating about what her religion might be, and they assumed it to be some kind of satanic cult related to Alaister Crowley due to some pictures found in her bedroom. They also tried to pinpoint her accent to guess where she may originally be from, and, more importantly, wondered what the ceremony might be, ultimately assuming it was some kind of virgin sacrifice due to the importance given to the purity bond of those girls selected for the ceremony. In the 22nd video, (“Bree the Cookie Monster”), where Bree and Daniel have a cookie recipe contest (allegedly submitted by the fans) and Purple Monkey (Bree’s favorite toy) rates each cookie, the fans noticed that the numbers that Purple Monkey give to the cookies coincides to Alaister Crowley’s birthday. In the 28th video, a fan named Viral Marketing surmised that a horror movie will be released based on this alternate reality game/viral marketing scheme. By the 35th video fans expected it (and even wanted it) to eventually develop into an ARG. Not surprisingly, fans created their own ARGs before the creators even knew what an ARG was. Although numerous ARGs emerged within LG15, such as cassieiswatching, opAphid, Maddison Atkins, and Redearth, only the first two had plot connections with LG15 while the others mainly shared LG15’s community.

It all started on August 30, 2006 with the episode entitled “Swimming!,” mentioned earlier, where the fans perceived an attraction between Bree and Daniel. As the creators were playing with their fans, who were going through every single detail in the videos, trying to figure out whether Bree was real or not, what her religion was, or whether or not this was viral marketing, every little word and action of Bree and Daniel, every item in Bree’s room, and every possible theory no matter how ridiculous, was being endlessly dissected. So naturally, when Bree asked Daniel half way through the video, “Whatever happened to that girl Cassie?,” speculation went haywire. Although Daniel did not seem to remember her, fans speculated that she may have been in Daniel’s class at some point. One thing that Bree did remember about her was that everyone was mean to her. Speculation ran rampant among fans, some of whom at that very same time were trying to capture LG15’s IP address to track her down, having botanists look at plants in the video to determine the filming locations, and even were scouring for clues MySpace page of the band called Jane Does, whose song “Junkie” was featured in the video. Among the more outlandish early Cassie theories was one that referenced a Cassie killed at Columbine, and a stealth marketing campaign for R&B singer and P. Diddy protégé “Cassie.”

A few days later, Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times TV critic, who took an interest in LG15, stated on September 5, 2006 that she had received a cryptic message from Cassie, possibly the same Cassie mentioned in Bree’s video. The message read “careful. take nobody at face value. there is more than one girl. that’s just unconscious knowledge.” Additionally, she also posted a very weird and mostly unintellible voice message supposedly from this same Cassie. No one was sure what it said. Milowent, an LG15 fan, notes that on September 11, Heffernan surmised that Cassie would be branching out into video:

And soon we might see two plots diverge. Two lonelygirl15’s? Look for a renegade plot to show up in videos on YouTube, using much of the lg15 mise-en-scene. Including the swimming hole! Will fans follow the new plot? Can a new plotline restore some of the sheen of verisimilitude, which was the beauty of the original, before it overnight came to seem all overthought and agented?

Cassie was using the e-mail address cassiestruggles18 to e-mail Heffernon and others which mirrored the one used by Bree at the time, which was breesnuggles15. The next day, on September 12, 2006, a new YouTube channel was opened under the username cassieiswatching (CiW) and a video entitled “This Is My Story now” was posted. Shot in the same location as Bree’s “Swimming!” video, and tagged with three words “Bree,” “tells,” and “lies,” the video consists of footage showing where Bree walked to the swimming hole, shots of the swimming hole itself and some mysterious bag falling into the swimming hole. The video started with a whisper that said “I was here,” and ended with “Come and get it,” an apparent invitation to come get whatever was dropped into the water. Milowent remembers that “[a] number of fans who first saw the video joked that the bag was the head of cassie, since Bree had joked in Swimming! that Daniel was actually taking her to the woods to hack her up into pieces.” Cassie, within a few hours of uploading the video, updated the video description to include a link to Google Maps, showing the presumed location of the swimming hole. Most people believed that filming at the location of a recent Bree video was a substantial proof that CiW was connected to the creators of LG15. But Milowent notes that at least a few fans had already publicly posted the correct location of the swimming hole. In other words, it is possible that CiW would have known the location without being connected to the creators. But in the first day of the video release, no one was able to locate the bag, so Cassie sent messages to some of the players with additional clues.

Pictures sent by cassieiswatching about the location of the dropped bag

Pictures sent by cassieiswatching about the location of the dropped bag

On September 15, 2008, Cu Roi claimed to have found the bag and posted a video showing how the location resembles those shown on the pictures sent by Cassie, as well as showing what he found in the bag. In the box he found a Tarot card.

Cu Roi finding the box that dropped in the swimming hole

Cu Roi finding the box that dropped in the swimming hole

CiW soon posted a disclaimer on YouTube saying, “TOO SLOW I DON’T PLAY CARDS YOU ALL FAILED I HATE YOU.” Apparently, someone else had gotten to the box first and “gamejacked” the clue to interfere with Cassie’s game. Due to the large audience base of LG15, the gamejacking of CiW was a common recurrence. Soon enough, fake accounts appeared on MySpace and eBay, which were discredited by the YouTube Cassie. These fake accounts were parodied in another YouTube video posted by pcxl entitled “Cassieiswatching: an INFINITE CASSIE CRISIS awaits?” Players discovered a number that they were supposed to call and leave voice messages for Cassie. Shortly thereafter, the voicemail message left by Cassie was gamejacked by Glen Rubenstein, the fan who later created the opAphid ARG. According to Greg Gallows, Rubenstein called the number and dialed the default password (1234#). Once he realized that the creator of CiW had not changed the password, he changed the voicemail and took over the game. In many ways CiW inspired opAphid.

On September 14, 2006, Bree posted another video outside her room called in “In the Park,” in which she and Daniel walk around a park before they go to a bowling alley, where they are to meet Daniel’s friends, Paul and Andrea. Somehow, Cassie had learned that this was La Cienega Park in Beverly Hills, and posted on YouTube her second video entitled “When I Get To The Bottom Where I Stop.” The title not only referenced the lyrics of the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” but also Charles Manson. A picture of a Manson murder scene is also included among the blur of images that appear in the video. Fans Cu Roi and scdgoofy (who was the first person to discover that the creators had trademarked the term Lonelygirl15 via Greg Goodfried’s father Kenneth), found the park, as well as, a note left by Cassie and posted a video entitled “Re: When I Get To The Bottom Where I Stop,” documenting their discovery of the location. The Manson murder imagery, because it exhibited a stark clash between older LG15 fans who had fallen in love with the sweet, innocent Bree, and new fans who were enjoying Cassie’s dark mystery and did not care much for Bree, marked a distinct segregation between fans. Worried about the effects of this ARG which appeared to be too dark for most of its fan base, the creators posted a statement in the LG15 Forums before the end of that day distancing themselves from CiW and disavowing any connection to it:

Cassieiswatching is NOT Official. Cassieiswatching is an independent fan creation. We are really excited to see fans creating their own storylines and riffing on our characters and our Universe. Although we encourage creativity and storytelling by our fans, we cannot be responsible for the outcome of the Cassieiswatching story or its content and imagery. Watch it if you like, but know that it is not official, nor is it guided by our team or a “splinter group.”
We have plans to incorporate more ARG elements into LG15 so we are excited to see such a vigorous investigative response to Cassieiswatching despite the fact that the subject matter is darker than we would like.
We will leave the Cassieiswatching and related forums open so you can discuss it if you like. The most important thing is to have fun!

As Milowent remembers, after this statement, other LG15-related forums like Anchor Cove, which had been recently founded as an independent LG15 forum, shied away and went so far as to ban all discussion of CiW. The primary concern was the fear that Cassie would displace Bree. The fear was substantiated with the claims of the creators, who announced that they would be incorporating “ARG elements” into their story, even though they had never heard of ARGs prior to CiW (but more importantly, neither had Bree’s fans). Milowent observes that Anchor Cove’s concerns proved to be true. The LG15 Forums quickly became dominated by Cassie fans. Since that time, within weeks of Cassie’s debut, over 66% of all posts at the official forum were about Cassie, it appeared as if CiW had gamejacked LG15.

Cassie’s next three videos, however, “Revelations 1, 2, & 3,” which contained elaborate clues and puzzles, were not filmed where Bree had been. While “Revelation 1” had the comment “Frank is waking,” “Revelation 2” noted that “Frank told lies.” The puppetmaster of CiW created a blog by someone called Frank, who claimed that he had heard strange voices. The emergence of Frank led to the belief that Cassie was a figment of his imagination. Then, on October 10, 2006, Frank was reported dead on the blog by his wife, Kaye. “Revelation 3,” which depicted Cassie in the popular virtual world, Second Life, was captioned with the encrypted message “It’s the emptiness that follows you down.” Cassie’s fans went to Second Life and followed her to Gothinger church. Although Cassie did not seem to do much, the fans had fun holding the infamous “dancing cows” party. CiW died shortly after that, leaving its last anagram puzzle unsolved. Similarly, no one knows who its puppetmaster was to this day.

As Milowent notes, the lasting influence of CiW on the storyline of LG15 cannot be understated because it generated a wave of Cassie’s fanfiction and spoofs, including one from the creators who posted a video on YouTube on October 13, 2006, the day after the ceremony under the username “Breeiswaiting.” Jaded by the abundance of gamejacking that occured during CiW, fans did not take this video very seriously. Although the creators never openly acknowledged that they made this video, Nikki Bower, a character created by Amanda Goodfried, later cited this video as the one that directed her to the location where she found the box with the watcher symbol on it.

Glenn Rubenstein, who mocked the early Cassie videos and gamejacked Cassie’s voicemail message, rearranged his own ARG ideas that he had been working on to fit into the CiW and LG15 storylines. Posting under the username opAphid (Operation Analysis Protect Hinder Infiltrate and Destroy), Rubenstein started an independent fan-based ARG whose first connections to LG15 was made on the fifth video of the opAphid series, “You Made the Right Choice, Bree!” posted as a response to Bree’s “My Difficult Choice” (40th episode) on September 26, 2006. The OpAphid ARG gained a fair amount of Cassie’s audience, and quickly drew the attention of the LG15 team. Having failed at their own, quickly done ARG attempt, the creators of LG15, on November 21, 2006, announced that they would be integrating opAphid into the canon. OpAphid was made the official ARG of LG15 for the next four months until they parted ways. But during that time, Rubenstein used Gemma, a character who was destined to be discarded, to bring his own set of characters, such as OpAphid, Tachyon, and Brother, into the main storyline of LG15. Consequently, ARG puzzles were worked directly into the show. For example, when Daniel gets rejected by Bree he goes to a bowling alley called Pins and Pints and gets drunk, losing his fake ID in the process. A puzzle about a cell phone triangulation leads one of the fans, ladron121, to the location of the fake ID, which he promptly videos to prove that he indeed solved the puzzle. On April 12, 2007, however, the creators announced in the forums that, due to some internal conflict, they decided to part ways with Glen Rubenstein and that there will no longer be a standalone ARG that is separate from LG15. In need of someone to add interactivity into the show in order to make it more appealing, the creators hired Jan Libby, a veteran ARG creator known for her ARG Sammeeeees.

Observing that Rubenstein’s work had been an ARG more than anything else, Libby notes that the creators did not want to go down that road; rather, they merely wanted an interactive show. Rubenstein, however, as a fan of the show, had created a really rich ARG based on the Breeniverse. It was so successful among the fans that the creators brought him in and included it the LG15 canon. Viewing Rubenstein’s work as an ARG, Libby defines the distinction between the two as follows:

And the reason that I would call it an ARG is that, you know, he had interacted with his audience, they actually could step in and out of the fiction, uhm and it had that sort of… there’s something special in it. An ARG… the difference between an ARG and interactive show is that an ARG, when you touch it, it touches you back, You’ll see ripple effect from you or from somebody in your audience pack, you know, in the player pack. But in the interactive show, it really gives you a place to meet and to talk about it and to interact with the characters but you don’t impact the story and you never really step into the story either.

An interactive show, in Libby’s view, is more of an exhibition rather than a chaotic fiction, which (as the next chapter discusses in greater detail), is the soul of ARGs. In this sense, it provides a more controlled environment. But, in essence, the difference boils down to the level of interactivity. As Libby notes, since the creators did not know much about ARGs in the beginning, they sincerely thought what they were doing was interactive enough.

Although fans were offered opportunities to affect the direction of the story through their interactions, interactivity was presented in a much more controlled manner, one less threatening to the integrity of the main series. When there was an important decision to be made about the storyline, fans got the impression that the creators somehow made sure that the desired outcome was presented as what the fans wanted, either by carefully selecting the fans who made the decisions regarding the issue at hand by creating fake fan accounts. At the same time, however, because the goal of the creators was to make it a new and attractive type of story-telling within the participatory culture they integrated interactivity into the show in a controlled setting. Some of the fan ideas were incorporated. For example, the idea that the season finale should be a series of twelve videos posted by the hour was a fan suggestion. The LG15 team facilitated IRC gatherings with the characters of the show, posted clues online for the fans to decode, and announced contests to determine the outcome of the events, such as the show’s finale. For the most part, interactivity evolved around the clues that the characters found in the story, which were immediately posted on the forums where the fans would be asked to figure out what they might mean, thereby potentially determining what the next move would be for the TAAG. There were also numerous video competitions announced on the fan site and the winner would be posted along with the rest of the LG15 videos, but these videos rarely affected the plot, but rather presented a marginalized interaction. Fans, for example, were asked to re-edit Daniel’s film school project, which, in and of itself, had no affect on the plot, but which undoubtedly, increased the views of that particular fan, since he or she was the contest winner.

Noting that she and Beckett invented the concept of the Hymn of One, Libby says that the Hymn of One meet-up had been her first interactive initiative in the show. Announcing that the Hymn of One was looking for new recruits, the organization invited fans in California to join Bree’s cult. They posted a survey online and whoever lived in the region and was over eighteen years of age (a restriction put in place to clear the legal issues that might arise during the event) was invited to attend the Hymn of One Seminar put on by the characters of the show. The video of the live event, entitled “It’s A Cult,” was posted on the LG15 site as the two-hundred-and-sixth episode of the show. In this video, the TAAG asked questions about the Hymn of One to those who participated in the event in the hopes of gathering information about Bree’s cult. One fan had even snuck a camera in and offered his footage of the event to the characters. As Libby recalls, although the creators were really nervous at first, the success of the event made them aware of the innovative story-telling techniques of an alternate reality.

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