It started with a flicker, a flash. A hidden URL tucked away at the end of a trailer for an upcoming video game pointed eagle-eyed viewers to the hacked website of an amateur beekeeper in San Francisco. Interspersed between the broken pixels and strange computer jargon was an ominous message: "Countdown to Wide Awake and Physical." The timer was quickly approaching zero, and curiosity was piqued. So began I Love Bees.
ILB was a complex alternate reality game (ARG) involving dozens of websites, hundreds of tasks, and millions of players by the time it concluded in the summer of 2004. What was ostensibly a mere prelude to the release Microsoft's Halo 2, a marketing campaign meant to generate buzz, became something more. With its success, the ARG demonstrated at a mass scale how new media allows storytellers to expand their universes outside of a single medium. By letting fictional narratives bleed into the real world, passive consumers become participants who actively create the story as they move through the game. As individuals' participatory capability continues to evolve with the proliferation of web-enabled devices, both storytellers and audiences can now create new narratives on new platforms that take advantage of reality's increasingly flexible nature.
The precise origins of the alternate reality game are difficult to pin down, but the rise of the concept is directly tied to the ubiquity of digital mass media. As network connections became more popular and powerful in the 1990s, creators began to experiment with the collective power of this previously non-existent web of like-minded individuals. Early ARG designs married public infrastructure, like payphones, to email addresses and other private communication points to test players' limits. Through experimentation, basic governing principles of the games were fleshed out.
Unlike traditional narratives, ARGs require the audience to both search for and share information. In doing so, participants must actively, and collectively, construct the narrative if it is to continue. This being the case, ARGs must be able to tell a complex and compelling story that does not rely on a prepackaged linear structure. Instead, ARGs treat storytelling as though it were an archeological expedition, seeding pieces of the narrative to the audience and letting the group determine how best they fit together. In this way, it is the the collective, rather than a narrator, that chooses to move the story forward. This approach strengthens the audience's relationship with the narrative, since the players are, themselves, now a part of the story.
In creating I Love Bees, Jane McGonigal, the lead community designer on the project, noted that the game was built not only to be a fun activity, but an exercise into collective intelligence. In a riveting paper published after the game's conclusion, McGonigal noted that I Love Bees, "sought to create a highly connected player-base dedicated to, and impressively capable of, defining and solving large-scale problems together." The game was also a test, not only of the players' fortitude and determination, but also of the dispersed digital media's ability to tell a compelling story for months at a time. By all accounts, it was a resounding success.
That was ten years ago. Since then, our technology has greatly expanded in scope and capability. Smartphones and tablets have redefined computing paradigms, and digital networks are now more robust than ever, allowing storytellers ever-greater freedom to cast their creations off the page and into our world. Indeed, we are already seeing this happen. Viral marketing campaigns are now a regular occurrence when promoting big budget films and video games. Ingress, a game developed inside Google, encourages players to visit city landmarks in the real world to battle an invading alien force with the digital world on their smartphones. Earlier this year, a mysterious ARG even invaded my alma mater. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the upcoming project by author James Frey, who is working with Twentieth Century Fox to create a massive multimedia ARG that will not only tie in with an upcoming novel, but actively build out portions of the narrative arc not found elsewhere.
Digital technologies have advanced to the point where fictional narratives can invade, and even overtake, reality. This allows for a new kind of storytelling, one that relies on the audience at a massive scale to collectively build a narrative experience wholly unique, unpredictable, unlike anything previously thought possible. With more people growing closer thanks to the ubiquitous connections new media platforms have to offer, the previous limitations of storytelling begin to fade. In their place, authors, writers, filmmakers and artists have the chance to transcend the literal to break out of the linear, and discover new meanings, and new stories, with the help of their audiences.