“Do you know what Brian Cain and his SxSW panel want to do to your child’s mind?!? Do you want your tax dollars to fund advertisement?!? Do you want to let the advertisers tell you what to think?!?? The SxSW panel in room 6 is going to decide the fate of how your tax dollars are spend. We need to stop them!!!! Go to stopTARParg.com right now!!!! And keep your children safe from Brian Cain and his alternate reality. Stop this illicit campaign of mental warfare on the innocent and young!!!! Call 866-397-7406 to hear the leader’s manifesto! Follow us on Twitter: StopTarpARG”
This encrypted message was written on the fliers that were placed on the seats when I walked into the “You’re Living in Your Own Private Branded Entertainment Experience” panel in room 6. Of course, I hadn’t just picked the panel randomly, nor was I surprised by this encrypted message. Over the past year, I had done research on Alternate Reality Gaming and wrote a chapter on Art of the H3ist created by a team of five script writers, Gregg Hale, Michael Monello (Campfire), Brian Clark (GMD Studios), Steve Wax, and Matt Fischvogt, who were hired by McKinney Silver, the advertisement agency which was, in turn, hired by Audi to create some kind of an interactive advertisement experience for the new A3 models that were about to be introduced into the US market. During my research I interviewed Brian Clark, Mike Monello, and other puppetmasters along with some of the AotH players. The SxSW schedule noted that the panel speakers were Brian Cain (Campfire), Brian Clark (gmdstudios.com), Dee Cook (addlepated.net), Steve Peters (stevepeters.org), and Lance Weiler (seizethemedia.com). I knew all of these people from unfiction.com, ARGNet podcasts, and various other ARG sites. Lance Weiler was the director of a horror movie called Head Trauma that also had an ARG component. From what I heard in one of the ARGNet podcasts, audience who came to the movie showing were actually followed home by some creepy individuals! He also (if I remember correctly) started the Workbook Project that gathered those who were interested in experimental filmmaking. I was ecstatic to finally meet him and the others in person. The panelists had regularly been meeting every night to get ready for their presentation. While this seemed a bit unusual for SxSW (I had been to a lot of panels that weren’t well organized or executed and most started with half an hour of what is referred to as *fluff* by SxSW attendees), I knew that Brian was serious about his work to not let that happen. Good for him. Although the fliers did not surprise me, what came after it did. Of course, it wouldn’t have if I had not been so darn busy trying to get a completed draft of my dissertation before leaving for Austin and, instead, had been keeping up with the ARGnet news site.
The message on the fliers was quite meaningful on numerous levels, at least for me… It was a mockery of society’s fears against things that are new, unknown, or labeled as “weird.” We’ve seen this kind of attitude towards television, videogames, and the Internet. Alternate Reality Games, being the most unusual form of entertainment these days, was an appropriate candidate for this fear. These fliers were a mockery of some of the previous media theories, such as the hypodermic needle theory of mass communication, which argued that audience members were isolated from one another and were vulnerable targets easily influenced my mass communication messages. Of course, the group that is most susceptible for the negative side effects of new media and entertainment forms is our children. We have to protect them because they haven’t yet developed the literacy required to handle these unusual forms of media in a critical fashion, and thus, allegedly accept whatever is presented to them. Of course by arguing this we are dismissing A) the critical appreciation of our children B) that these new media forms have something to teach us or they can be mobilized for educational purposes.
Given the assumed power of media, it is not unusual that they would be used by the government to manipulate the masses. It is this notion that lies in the heart of every conspiracy theory: Manipulating the masses through the use of media propaganda. In this sense, the choice of logo, “Government ARGs are Propaganda,” was quite telling… but also ironic. Even today, as I was shopping for shoes in one of the stores, the lady at the register, seeing the TARP ARG propaganda button on my messenger bag, started chuckling, explaining that her sister was really into that kind of stuff. Of course, she meant her sister was interested in exposing government propaganda, not that she was following/playing ARGs. If anyone knows anything about ARGs, however, is that the audience never really consumes any kind of message unquestioningly, but rather, pushes the story to unexpected directions. The panel’s site openly declares in the first sentence: “Never underestimate your audience.” Every puppetmaster learns this lesson one way or another.
On another level, the flier was also playing on the reaction against the recently-passed stimulus package at the end of the Bush administration.
When I dialed the number on the flier, I got this funny message that more or less said “Brian Cain and his ARG is nothing less than the destruction of the society’s moral values. This advertising is a direct threat of our way of life. It is a vision of mindless decay of what is to come in the future. They eat into our children’s brains and is trying to shape what is and isn’t reality. And the worst part of it is, that it is sponsored by the government. Don’t be a fool. These ARG advertisers will do anything to get into your pocket. In the future the toilet will analyze the urine.”
Earlier that day, I had seen some buttons about this government sponsored ARG on the convention floor that spelled out the words “stop Brian Cain” or something to that effect. I saw some images on my Twitter feed from @gmdclark, didn’t think much of it. But the interesting part was that Brian Cain was no where to be seen when the panel started. His seat was empty. Steve Peters and Brian Clark opened up the panel as to be expected, Dee Cook joined in, Lance Weiler was sitting in the corner with his laptop engaged in something. Shortly after Brian started talking, couple of *punks* (for lack of a better term) in the audience launched a direct attack towards the panelists. Brian told them to shut up, they didn’t. Brian complained about the fact that these guys had been following them throughout the festival harassing them. Brian and Steve called the security in to remove these disruptive audience members. When they were reluctant to leave, others joined in and told them to shut up so the panel could begin. In this chaos, some audience members got frustrated and left. The security removed the obnoxious audience members as they shouted to the panelists: “Fuck You!!!”
Seeing others leave in frustration, Brian suggested to Steve that maybe they should explain what had happened and why it happened so that the audience members didn’t misunderstand the motivations of the panelists. Steve objected by claiming that they had lost enough time and that they should get started if they were to finish on time. And gave the audience their first task: To tell a random person in the room one of your deepest secrets. I looked around and said to myself, “oh boy, this is going to be good.” When everyone had done this they were to tell that secret to someone else. Done.
Then Brian went around and started openly asking about the secrets that people ended up being told. The forth person that was asked said “The secret that was told to me was ‘You didn’t get rid of all of us in the room.'” Silence… The panelists started expressing more frustration and somebody pointed out the Twitter URL that was posted on the fliers, StopTarpARG . The twitter account was opened up on the big screen. And voila: last update on the Twitter account: @gmdclark is a fool (@gmdclark being Brian Clark). Brian retorted “They have my Twitter address???” At which point he frantically screamed: “OK nobody Twitter! We can see who Twitters from up here!!! If you Twitter, we know it’s you!” Right… you tell a room full of SxSW attendees NOT to Twitter and what would they do??? Twitter… Myself and fifty other folks were frantically Twittering the happenings in this unusual panel. I was twittering to Brian: “@gmdclark this is genius, good job.” But the twitters from the StopTarpARG account continued. Allegedly, the security had taken the pictures of those who had twittered and the pictures were fired up on the giant screen. Somehow, through the phone message that was left, a puzzle was discovered. StopTarpARG Twitter account continued to chatter: “They can’t solve my simple little puzzle, these fools! StopTarpARG.com” and “Look at your leader! He’s like Carrie only fatter. HAHAHAHA StopTarpARG.com #sxsw” referring to Steve. Some audience members took out pieces of paper and, with the help of the panelists, who went from one Wikipedia entry to another, they solved to puzzle, which led them to a YouTube video of Brian Cain getting splashed with a bucket of *blood* by a group of hostiles and a phone number that had a message.
Those who got caught Twittering were pulled out of their seats and asked to repeat the voice message to verify a voice match. In came Brian Cain into the room all rugged and dirty. It was obvious that he’d been beaten by these anti-Tarpists. The cell phones of those who had actually dialed the number on the flier rang and those who actually answered were told to throw their shoes at Brian Cain. Shoes flew left and right (mostly from the panelists because the audience was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on). And Brian Clark said that this was all a game.
Well played puppetmasters, in deed well played. A truly performative explanation of what an ARG was. Here’s a compilation of the happenings of the panel .