Rennes-le-Chateau, revisited

Here’s a million dollar question: What is an ARG? I don’t know how much ink has been spilled or how much digital space has been used to describe what it is. So, did we figure out what it is yet? Well, sorta… kinda… not really… I wasn’t all that surprised when the link to Mariano Tomatis’s essay entitled “Rennes le Chateau” hit my inbox as one of the Google alerts for ARGs. I must say that his mission, that is, his attempt at connecting new genres and phenomena to its predecessors, long before these concepts were even born, is a close one to my heart. In my own research, I try to dissipate the aura of newness around emerging media and trace the continuities between these media and the traditional ones.

Indicating that he will provide a different analysis to the Rennes-le-Chateau phenomenon, Tomatis claims that many modern phenomena can be better interpreted as complex ARGs, created for economical purposes and/or personal pleasure.” I respectfully disagree. Even if we haven’t really settled on what an ARG is, we have identified some parameters for it. And, his case study, the Rennes le Chateau phenomenon, ain’t one of those.

A Brief History:

Rennes le Chateau phenomenon, as he explains it, relates to a Catholic priest, Berenger Sauniere, who lived in Rennes le Chateau in the late 19th century. His popularity mainly comes from being a central figure in many of the conspiracy theories surrounding Rennes-le-Château which emerged from the speculations based on several pseudohistorical documentaries. Many elements of these theories were later used by Dan Brown’s best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, in which the character Jacques Saunière is named after the priest. Legend has it that, while renovating his parish church in 1891, Saunière found ancient documents relating to a great historical secret. These theories suggest that, through his possession of these documents, Saunière was somehow able to gain much more wealth than would be expected of a parish priest. Following Saunière’s death in 1917, the priest’s source of wealth became an intriguing mystery that invited all kinds of speculations. He was said to be paid vast sums of money by the Catholic Church to buy his silence on a secret that would have seriously jeopardized the church’s standing, such as the claim that he had discovered the grave in which Christ had been buried, implying that Christ had not ascended to heaven after all. Tomatis explains that in the absence of solid documentation about any treasure found by the priest during the 20th century, a number of manufactured documents, artifacts, and apocrypha appeared. The most famous example is the false documents donated to the French National Library in Paris by Pierre Plantard (who claimed to have inherited them) and Philippe de Cherisey.

Tomatis suggests that the core reason for manufacturing of these “historical” artifacts and documents is to suggest “alternate” versions of history which was more romantic and “interesting” than the so-called “correct” version of the story accepted in the academic circles. In these versions, the priest, Sauniere, was described as a member of secret societies, a wizard of old Egyptian cults, and the area itself was full of hidden tombs, chests full of treasures and clues, all linked through complex geometries, anagrams, and mysterious inscriptions.

Explaining that an ARG is the idea of implanting false clues and documents in reality while pretending them to be real, Tomatis considers the Rennes le Chateau phenomenon to be one of the earlier ARGs, a precursor if you will. In fact, he successfully identifies the puppet master, rabbit hole, and curtain in the Rennes le Chateau phenomenon explained above. Moreover, he mentions that, since the false documents and made up artifacts were presented as “authentic,” the legend also upheld the famous ARG mantra,“This is not a game” (TINAG). In other words, it did not behave like a game or provide an overtly-designated play space or rule set to the players.

While I commend Tomatis’s efforts of searching for the roots of what we perceive as new phenomena, I consider the main premise of his argument to be flawed.

Although the games that mix reality and fiction have been (mis)labeled as “alternate” reality games, as Szulborski explains in This Is Not a Game, ARGs don’t attempt to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game. Szulborski further clarifies that instead of creating alternate realities, a successful ARG immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player: “The Alternate Reality Game does not really want the player to think of the game world as an alternate reality at all, but that the ultimate goal is to have the player believe that the events take place and characters exist in her world, not in an alternate reality at all, thereby effectively erasing the magic circle (31). Therefore, Tomatis’s claim that the legend is an ARG because it designed to create alternate versions of history is an incorrect conjecture.

What makes Tomatis’s argument untenable is that he bases most of his case on the representation of the fake documents as real. This assumption implies that the players, because the game claims not to be a game, believe that the game is indeed real. Jane McGonigal, in “A Real Little Game,” makes a pretty good case that players don’t really believe that the game presents reality of any sorts, but that they *perform* the belief that it is reality, or pretend that they believe it is reality. Thus, they make sure that reality surrounding the game isn’t breached despite the overwhelming evidence, as in the case of the Beast. The reason for this persistence is that, not because they are gullible, but that, as long as they all pretend to believe the game is real, the experience continues. So one might ask, then, did the people who were engaged in the legend surrounding Saunière willingly suspend their belief and pretend to believe that the world suggested by these manufactured documents were in fact real? Or, did they genuinely think that the legend was real which would ultimately make it a hoax? I submit that this is one of the reasons why Tomatis identifies all the elements of ARGs in these legends surrounding the priest except the players. Because, clearly, that there were none. People who were trying to solve the mystery surrounding Saunière were thinking that they were genuinely involved in uncovering the truth… not about a game, rather, about a real incident that happened decades ago.

Furthermore, ARGs present their clues as authentic only within the context of the game, not outside of it. In other words, ARG players never believe that the clues are authentic outside the magic circle that is successfully merged with daily life in pervasive games, such as ARGs, but that they choose to pretend so that the experience continues. In the phenomenon that Tomatis describes above, however, those who are actively engaged in solving the mystery assume that the clues are real.

A quick consideration of the points mentioned above, reveals that, while the Rennes-le-Chateau phenomenon is an intriguing case, it cannot be considered to be an ARG.

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