Games People Play

Life invades games, and vice versa


Fans across England are mourning the death of Jamie Kane, the scandal-tinged veteran of the boy band Boy*d Upp whose solo career was, to quote Wikipedia, "mildly successful." He was killed in a helicopter crash en route to a video shoot; the BBC's Top of the Pops website reported that his aircraft "experienced some technical difficulties on the flight, and crashed into the sea some miles from its destination." Some suspect foul play.

Nearly everything in the previous paragraph is untrue. There never was a boy band called Boy*d Upp, there never was a pop star named Jamie Kane, he never had fans, he never faced a scandal, and he never died. The BBC did report his death, though, and an outline of his alleged career did surface briefly in Wikipedia, the popular online reference that relies on its readers for its content. Above all, the whiff of foul play is undeniably in the air.

Jamie Kane is a character in an alternate reality game, or ARG, the most immersive form of fiction since religion. (Not your religion, dear reader. That one's the unvarnished truth. I'm referring to all the others.) The most famous ARG is The Beast, an elaborate puzzle that was created to promote the Steven Spielberg movie A.I., was widely regarded as far superior to the film it advertised, and set the template for the genre by inverting the classic concept of virtual reality. In "'This Is Not a Game': Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play," a paper for the 2003 Digital Arts & Culture Conference, the Berkeley-based game designer Jane McGonigal contrasts "immersive artworks that try to create realistic sensory experiences and meaningful interactivity in an artificial setting" with The Beast's approach, which "sought to use natural settings as the immersive framework. Rather than creating virtual environments that were (hopefully) realistic and engaging, the Beast's producers co-opted real environments to enable a virtual engagement with reality." Among other things, that meant thousands of Web pages planted throughout the Internet, clues dropped unannounced into newspaper and TV ads, real-world phone calls and faxes to players, packages in the mail, even carefully placed bathroom graffiti. "The Beast recognized no game boundaries," McGonigal writes; "the players were always playing, so long as they were connected to one of their main everyday networks." Its slogan: "This Is Not A Game."

It sounds a bit like The Game, the David Fincher film in which a middle-aged man signs up for a mysterious "consumer recreation" and soon has trouble distinguishing real life from gameplay, or perhaps John Fowles' The Magus, a novel to which The Game owed a considerable debt. (That's a figurative debt, not a literal one, though Fowles reportedly considered a lawsuit after he saw the movie.) There are parallels as well with mobile "pervasive" games that intersect with the real world but do not blur the boundaries between life and play, with role-playing games that do blur those boundaries but do not take the same advantage of the Internet, even with old-fashioned scavenger hunts; there's also a long tradition of high art that explores the same psychic territory, such as the "walking tours" of the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, in which her audience moves through a city wearing earphones, listening to fictional intrusions into a real landscape. (Reviewing one of her tours, Artfocus commented that "it feels…like Cardiff has stage-managed all of reality and the world itself has become a huge theatrical production, filled with ambient sounds and a loose narrative.")

In the case of The Beast, the lines became so blurry that when terrorists took down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a forum dedicated to solving the game's puzzles began to buzz with plans to "solve" 9/11 as well. According to McGonigal's paper, one typical post argued that "this sort of thing is sorta our MO. Picking things apart and figuring them out." Eventually, the founders of the group felt obliged to intervene, pointing out the difference between "clues hidden that were gauged for us" and the clues left in the wake of the attacks.

At least the would-be terror sleuths knew that 9/11 really wasn't a game: Because ARGs are frequently launched unannounced, with tempting trails left waiting for players to stumble into their mysteries, fans spend a lot of time combing the Internet for contests that might not exist, sometimes insisting they've uncovered a game even as their hapless discoveries insist they haven't. It's a fine line between clue, coincidence, and synchronicity—something the rest of us learned in the aftermath of the same attacks, as a rap album cover, a folded $20 bill, and some font wingdings seemed to offer unanticipated echoes of the atrocities. The difference—one difference—is that the Beast player deliberately seeks a state of paranoia, of searching for hidden patterns left by a shadowy cabal, while the rest of us had that state of mind thrust upon us.

In the case of Jamie Kane, the boundaries were ruptured from the other direction. Rather than players trying to pull the real world into the boundaries of their game, a game's puppetmasters dropped pieces of their puzzle in places that were supposedly off-limits to play. If you Googled "Jamie Kane," you could land not just at a fake fan site complete with girl-friendly publicity stills or a fake official site complete with samples of Kane's music, but at the aforementioned Top of the Pops report of his death; he also appeared in a Radio 1 directory that otherwise excluded deliberate fictions. When the blog BoingBoing revealed that people had placed fake entries for Kane and Boy*d Upp in Wikipedia, it produced such an uproar that the BBC was forced to deny it was responsible for the posts; it blamed them on two fans acting independently, one of whom "happens to work for the BBC" but had posted his disinformation "without the knowledge of anyone in the Jamie Kane Team or BBC Marketing." That might be true and it might be false; and it might be a deeper sort of deceit. There is, after all, a subspecies of marketer who believes that all buzz is good buzz. In the words of Bryan Alexander of the Center for Educational Technology, who studies online narratives: "Did the Beeb just turn BoingBoing into part of the game?"

At mid-century several psychologists and psychiatrists, notably Eric Berne and the pre-psychedelic Timothy Leary, pioneered the theory of transactional analysis, which treated social roles as gameplay and social behavior as a series of games. Leary took this further than most: Profiled in The Realist in 1964, he referred casually to Harvard's "verbal game," his guests' "visiting game," and his countrymen's "nationality game"; describing his first trip on magic mushrooms, he declared: "The space game came to an end, then the time game came to an end, and then the Timothy Leary game came to an end." This summer the Jamie Kane game, aimed at telling a story and attracting public attention, came into conflict with the Wikipedia game, theoretically aimed at presenting truths rather than fictions; it also laid bare a tension within the BBC game, which has departments devoted both to news and to entertainment.

It also exposed the viral marketing game, a form of advertising that declares This Is Not An Ad as defiantly as an ARG announces This Is Not A Game. As the furor gained momentum, an anonymous reader wrote to BoingBoing: "I can't say who I am, but I do work at a company that uses Wikipedia as a key part of online marketing strategies. That includes planting of viral information in entries, modification of entries to point to new promotional sites or 'leaks' embedded in entries to test diffusion of information." If you think you see a similarity between the way a game's puppetmasters scatter clues, a viral marketer scatters buzz, and an intelligence agency scatters disinformation, you're not alone.

When Beast players try to solve the real-life murder of 3,000 people with the same techniques they used to decipher a high-tech narrative, you might start to worry that they've confused their pastime with the much more byzantine complex of games that constitute human society. But at their best, ARGs might push us in a different direction: toward a more self-conscious awareness of the games we play in real life.