Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story (Part Two)

Second panel: ARG: This is Not a Game. But is it Always a Promotion?

This panel interrogated to what extent the ARG, a gaming genre primarily born out of promotional initiatives, could be considered to be an art form. On the one side, the panel had Jordan Weisman, the creator of the Beast, the first ARG that was born as a marketing campaign for Spielberg’s AI. Considered to be the first of its kind, it left a lasting impact on its players. There were also folks from the established entertainment companies, such as 42 Entertainment (Susan Bond & Alex Lieu) and Big Spaceship (Ivan Askwith), in addition to relatively young, yet vibrant, companies such as No Mimes Media, including  Steve Peters, and Maureen McHugh. Will Booker, as an Associate Professor at Kingston University, was the sole representative of the academic hallways. As such, he was strategically situated between these two groups in terms of seating.

As expected, the conversation was *lively.* The excitement and passionate conversation during the course of the panel was highly indicative of the relatively unsettled situation of ARGs. As a burgeoning field, ARG presents quite a challenge in terms of its definition, rules, and purpose. More important, the contentiousness of the term became even more apparent as established companies and relatively young companies joined the discussion in making a meaning out of this unusual *beast* (pun intended). Here are some key ideas that came up during the discussion:
Global audiences are asked to collaborate on solving conspiracy theories as these theories are integral to ARGs. The goal of these audiences, therefore, is to reveal the intricacies of such mysteries. One of the key things to remember, again, is to remain “authentic” to the world and the story you’re trying to tell. ARGs need to target people in different ways and in multiple engagement levels because not everyone has the same amount of time and resources to invest in the game. It is important to keep in mind that in ARGs the real world becomes a platform in and of itself. In addition to being promotional initiatives for introducing movies, games, cars into the market, ARGs are used for educational purposes, in museums, and in travel. Sometimes, they are not about a story, but about exploring space and experience.

Jordan Weisman

Even though Jordan Weisman noted that there are no definite hallmarks for ARGs, a few have been noted:
• Narrative pieces only add up to a story in its entirety
• A giant collaborative audience is necessary otherwise it is a transmedia experience, but not necessarily an ARG.
• It has to be in real time, because it loses something in replay. The meat of ARGs is the living audience.

ARGs are usually used to tell the back story of the franchise or fill in the gap between releases. What is most important is to establish an emotional connection between the players and the characters so much so that the players care deeply about what happens to the characters.
Without a doubt, the distinction between art and marketing is blurred in ARGs, however, it would be erroneous to consider the ARG space as merely a promotional space. This space is also a space where the art can live. This is where the discussion got a bit heated between the 42 Entertainment folks and those who saw ARGs as more of an art form. When explaining the deep-rooted ties of ARGs to the promotional spaces, Jordan Weiss explained that this connection came out of necessity, not by choice. At the time of The Beast, the only place Weisman and his team could find funding from Microsoft was from the marketing department. This initial move gave the impression that the gaming genre was mostly an alternative promotional venture.

Maureen McHugh, from No Mimes Media, who started out as a writer who is primarily focusing on print fiction, emphasized the value of ARGs as an art form. Because she sensed that this unusual emerging genre could provide a new platform upon which to write new forms of fiction, she was eager to work in these spaces. She also noted that the ability of ARGs to play across different platforms, gives them the opportunity to address the needs of the audiences in a very unique way. Because the players are able to connect with the story through venues that they are most familiar/comfortable with, ARGs help establish strong emotional connections with the characters. In addition, McHugh noted that ARGs were performance based.

Maureen McHugh on the far right

42 Entertainment team was a bit inconsistent in describing how they saw this gaming genre. They used the words “art,” “story,” and “ROI” in the same breath, an inconsistency that caused somewhat of a tension between the panelists. The main claim of 42 Entertainment folks was that if they (entertainers) don’t figure out how to charge for the ARGs, they didn’t have an art form. This concern, of course, echoes a larger concern that is relevant to anyone who is producing content online: “How do you monetize good content on the Internet?” Ultimately one of the folks in the audience stated, rather idealistically, that “If you’re talking about ROI, it isn’t art.”

The panelists also expressed concern towards referring to these experiences as “games” as they fit almost none of the characteristics of games. A game in the traditional sense exhibits a defined set of rules understood by the players, has a set of win and loss scenarios based on these rules, creates a space in which the game is played, and embodies pieces and components, the mechanical elements of the game that facilitate the play but also make it identifiable as a game. The implicit premise of an ARG, however, that it is indeed not a game, challenges these components. It does not have a set of rules, no win-or-lose scenario, no pieces or components, or no specific play space. Jordan Weisman claimed that it was not them, as the designers of these experiences, but rather, the players who came out with this term. Interestingly enough, the players responsible for this misnomer were actually the players of The Beast, such as Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh, who later on formed their own cross-media companies and became game designers on their own right.

The panelists with Denise Mann

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