The Risks and Rewards of Transmedia Fiction and Alternate Reality Games

In English Language by Hannah Johnson

Alternate reality games are a great way to directly involve fans in storytelling…as long as you use your transmedia powers for good instead of evil.

By Hannah Johnson

AUSTIN: ARGs (alternate reality games) and transmedia have not only extended storytelling beyond the confines of any specific media, but they are also effective techniques for building interest and engagement among fans of a particular movie, television show, book or video game.

Scholastic Trackers video

Click to watch the trailer for Scholastic's Trackers

Alternate reality games are interactive narratives played out in the real world. They often include puzzles that players must solve using clues gathered from multiple media and real life sources. There are plenty of examples of ARGs in publishing that have served both to enhance a given story, as well as to promote the book and engage readers. Scholastic has done both the 39 Clues series as well as its new game based on Trackers by Patrick Carman. A game based on German bestseller Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek sent players on a global hunt for a missing psychologist. There are plenty of other examples.

In looking through many of the publishing examples of ARGs, the websites and associated content make it clear to users that this material is fictional, that these are just games. But what happens when a game is so real that people mistake it for reality? What happens when a game has real-life consequences?

At SXSW 2011, Andrea Phillips of Deus Ex Machinatio gave a talk called “Hoax or Transmedia? The Ethics of Pervasive Fiction” in which she spoke about some best practices for creating ARGs and how to avoid a “War of the Worlds” scenario that leads people to believe a fictional situation to be real.

In 2008, Phillips developed an ARG for the movie 2012 as a marketing campaign. In the movie, an astrophysicist discovers that a series of natural disasters will strike the earth in 2012. The game centered around the website of a fictional organization called The Institute for Human Continuity, and included a body of fictional information predicting the end of the world. According the Telegraph, the site’s information was so convincing that thousands of people wrote to NASA asking if this information was true.

institute for human continuity game

Other examples include Toyota’s prank marketing campaign and Dell’s fake hostage stunt.

Making the distinction between reality and fiction “is really, really nebulous on the internet,” said Phillips. There are sites with fictional information like The Onion, which can seem real to some people; then there are conspiracy theory sites and sites like Time Cube, whose authors are publishing information they believe to be true. If someone runs across a piece of content from an ARG that is out of context, will that person believe this content is real? Phillips told the audience, “we need to develop frames of context in transmedia.”

There are four questions, Phillips said, that ARG designers need to ask themselves:

  1. Is this so realistic that people will be fooled by it?
  2. What about people who only see one piece?
  3. What potential harm could I cause?
  4. Could this get me sued or arrested?

In the end, Phillips concluded that game designers should focus more on creating a compelling game world and story rather than making every element as realistic as possible. “We are trying to tell stories that feel true and authentic,” Phillips said. But, she said, that doesn’t mean we necessarily care how the underpaid characters on Friends could afford the rent for their huge NYC apartment, or how many construction workers were needed to build Batman’s Batcave.

DISCUSS: Which Transmedia Practices are Best Suited to Traditional Publishing?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.