When Reality Is Too Dull: A Look At Alternate Reality Games

James Bruce 27-09-2012

alternate reality gameAlternate Reality Games are a curious subculture that attempts to bring the concepts of gaming into the real world. Does this mean running around an industrial complex with water pistols? Not quite. The game nomenclature is deceptive; they’re best thought of as a mix between role-play, puzzle-solving, team-building, immersive fiction and creative writing.


That’s quite a mouthful though, so we’ll simply refer to it as ARG. Read on to find out all about the ARG subculture.

The Basics

According to, an overarching wikipedia-like wealth of knowledge on all things ARG, a game typically consists of clues being passed to players through various media. Solving the puzzles often requires co-operation within a group. The Internet of course, is critical to all of this, for without webpages, emails and the global community, ARG simply wouldn’t be possible.


Though elements of ARG can be traced back to the early live-action roleplayers, the first true ARG is accepted to be have been in 2001 – known as The Beast – a moniker which led to the term “beasting” to be applied to all forms of Alternate Reality Games. The Beast was set in the fictional movie-inspired world of Artificial Intelligence, 40 years after the events of the movies, and was in fact an elaborate marketing ploy in the form of a murder mystery.

With a story written by science fiction / fantasy author Sean Stewart, the puzzle was played out across hundreds of websites, email messages, fake ads and voicemail messages. The game was a huge success with over 3 million active participants; unusually non-gender biased and spanning a wide age spectrum. Key members of the community went on to create websites supporting the hobby and further ARGs – both with and without corporate backing.

Serious Gaming & Into The Mainstream

ARG has taken a few divergent paths along the way, and some have even tried to turn the collective intelligence that’s so good at solving fictional problems – to real life problems, such as diminishing oil supplies and environmental breakdown. Some European schools have even applied the concepts to language learning.


I ran a similar program while teaching in a Japanese university, where students searched for clues in both the physical world, and the Internet; then communicated back to me via email as they played.

alternate reality game

There have also been numerous successful large-scale ARGs used to promote movies, TV shows, and videogames; so it’s safe to say it’s gone mainstream, even if people don’t realise it’s actual an ARG. You’ve probably played one yourself unwittingly at some point.

Perplex City

The most commercialised ARG yet, Perplex City [Broken URL Removed], was produced in 2005 and solved in 2007 (with a real life prize of $200,000). The plot involved a futuresque utopian city from which a supernatural cube is stolen; you are tasked with finding it. Clues were sold in retail outlets in the form of puzzle card packs; there were 256 cards in total, some far rarer than others.


Unlike other collectible card games, Perplex City cards could not be used to “battle” other players; they were merely puzzles to be solved – some even had ultraviolet or heat sensitive inks, lending an air of secrecy.

alternate reality

The cards only served as an introduction though; directing players to websites, emails, phone calls and SMS messages supposedly originating from Perplex City. Having solved a clue, you could enter your answer online for some points, and be added to the leaderboard.

Sadly, though the first wave of cards for “season 2” of Perplex City was released in March 2007, the rest of the plot has been on hold indefinitely; for whatever reason, this ARG died.


I Want To Play Too!

So you’d like to play a little ARG, eh? Where should you get started? The problem with some ARGs is that they generally finish; that is, they’re only running for a certain time. Therefore, participating in one requires you to keep up with events and be ready for it when one starts.

The more popular ARGs are more collaborative; they can carry on so long as someone is still creating content for them. The Alternate Realty Gaming Network is the best place to get started; you’ll find a “Now Playing” section on the sidebar which lists games in progress. Typically you’ll want to read the guide to events so far before jumping in.

alternate reality game

The Spiral [No Longer Available] looks to be a great starter – great production values with creative and interesting challenges that range from activism (help free Pussy Riot), creative production (blackout poetry), and even absurd outdoor challenges that have you filming a friend as you attempt to catch them within the 15 minutes time limit.


As far as I can see, alternate reality games have had their heyday but have none the less evolved significantly over the years; the communities are certainly still thriving, and many still hope to see Perplex resurrected someday. Are you now, or have you ever been active in an ARG? Tell us about your experiences, we’d love to hear from you.

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  1. Juan Carlos Espinosa Agudelo
    November 18, 2012 at 12:43 am

    Hey, not sure if you will read this, but does Ingress by Google count as an Alternate Reality Game?

    • Muo TechGuy
      November 22, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Absolutely, looks great. Are you playing it?