Alternate reality games (ARGs) continue to develop, and rapidly. This week an ARG crashed into the mainstream - twice, by invoking the BBC and the Wikipedia. And three forms of cyberspatial collaboration collided in full Web 2.0 splendor; ARG, wiki, and blogosphere.
To begin: after a year of preparation, the Beeb launched an alternate reality game called Jamie Kane, centered on the mysterious death of a pop star. ARGs usually prepare many web sites before gameplay begins, and typically without any signs that they are part of a game - this is called the "This is Not a Game" approach. For example, the BBC mentioned Kane as a real pop musician in its Radio1 news directory without mentioning or linking to the game (and nicely leveraging its own assets to boot).
Also in the game's Web site seeding strategy was creating two Wikipedia entries, one for Kane himself, the dead pop singer, and another for his boy band. So we see another step in ARG development, extending game web components to the Web's great collaborative information wiki project.
Then BoingBoing noticed, about a week later, and rather ticked:
BBC punks Wikipedia in game marketing ploy?
Someone has apparently abused collaborative reference site Wikipedia in a viral marketing campaign...
Being a widely read blog, this crit circulated well through the web and blogosphere. Presumably the game's reputation took a hit, and its profile soared. The Wikipedia, true to form, moved quickly to self-correct, which meant changing the entry's contents. The item, which was originally in full This is Not a Game mode, now obtained an explanatory layer, wrecking the ARG/viral marketing approach. This also led rapidly to a discussion about deleting the entry outright.
Within twenty-four hours the BBC responded. Interestingly, the reaction came not through a web posting from one of the game sites, but via email aimed at the blogospheric point of controversy: BoingBoing. Read the email's text carefully - the author explains what happens, and assigns responsibility to two game fans, not to deliberate acts of the production team.
The first posting was simply a case of a fan of the game getting into the spirit of alternative reality a little too much. The follow up posting was made by a fan of the game who happens to work for the BBC and was made without the knowledge of anyone in the Jamie Kane Team or BBC Marketing.
A reader might well ask: is this true, or blame-shifting? An ARG player would add: or is it part of the game, like Majestic's ill-fated fake game company, or the Cloudmaker posts by purported puppetmasters? Did the Beeb just turn BoingBoing into part of the game?
- This is a Web 2.0 story. Every piece of this is social microcontent - blogs, wikis, ARGs. It's all past the Web 1.0 single-document mode. And the controversy over the BBC's use of the Wikipedia feels like the kind of microcontent/service argument we'll be seeing more of.
- There's another twist on the ARG genre: Jamie Kane is another case of a game riding on another medium (previously, we've seen film and nonARG games), but using pop music this time. Sounds like a different demographic being marketed. Speaking of which...
- This ARG is aimed at a new audience for the genre, teen pop fans, presumably female. It would be useful to study how play unfolds.
- As Brooke Thompson notes, we see the return of the old internet information trust issue. And there's the usual spins on marketing: fear of marketing, theorizing new marketing. But the social web is where information is vetted, considered, accreted, and shared. In this case the Wikipedia responded very quickly, demonstrating a healthy reflex for information vetting. As FutureoftheBook observes, the technology supports maintaining both the original and the revisions in a dynamically historical mode.
- The role of BoingBoing is a sign of the growing importance of blogs within the ARG world. Project Mu included some well-written blogs in its later stage (2003). Perplex City, currently being played, has several blogs running.
- It's also worth noting that we're seeing a major media player enter the ARG game. The Beeb is of course a giant of the olden broadcasting days, energetically reinventing itself through the digital eras. Jamie Kane is part of their latest strategizing.