Zona Incerta and using ARGs for activism

(Following some recent overly long posts, here’s an attempt to stay under 500 words.)

For a while now, I have been lurking on the mailing list of the Alternate Reality Games IGDA SIG. ARGs are games that use the real world as their platform. They usually revolve around a mystery to be unraveled. I find ARGs interesting for the way they clash with the game design notion of the magic circle. The magic circle can be defined as the time and space within which a game is played. With traditional games, players are aware of the magic circle and enter it willingly. Not so with ARGs, as the following example I found on the list shows:1

The producers of Zona Incerta, a Brazilian ARG, published a video on YouTube. In it the ‘senior marketing director’ of Arkhos Biotechnology asks viewers to help them buy the Amazon rainforest and reminds them “the Amazon belongs to no country, it belongs to the world”:

The video was mistaken by many as real–including two senators and one governor. On the list, André Sirangelo, the game’s writer, says:

“It wasn’t long until some journalists connected the dots and found out the company didn’t exist. That’s when it really exploded – after all, there are lots of companies that actually do want to buy the rainforest, but it’s not every day a powerful senator makes a speech about one that doesn’t really exist.”

Because the game was sponsored, they had to come out and offer a public apology. Some people took it in a good way, others were less amused:

“They wanted to sue and maybe even arrest us for making a video that was against the nation’s sovereignty and all that. It was all BS though, because there wasn’t really a crime. We never published fake news, we just put the video on YouTube and some people tought it was real. Not our fault! :)”

Clearly, the ambiguous nature of ARGs is key to what makes them fun. Knowing that people might mistake things for real is thrilling to ARG developers. Players are challenged to recognize the content that is part of an ARG—rewarding them with the feeling that they are part of a secret society.

So far, the genre remains a niche.2 But what if ARGs take off in a big way? What if the mediascape is flooded by ARG content?

Will we, similar to what is now being proposed for ubicomp, need recognizable iconography that tells people: “warning, alternate reality content”?

Proposed icon for objects that have invisible qualities by the Touch research project

I wonder what would make a good image. Perhaps the March Hare?

Illustration of the March Hare by John Tenniel

Zona Incerta‘s aim was to entertain. Despite this, they raised awareness for the Amazon’s plight. Would the format of ARGs be useful to people with another agenda? What if activists start using them to make the future they want to avert—or desire to bring about—tangible to the public?

Image credits: Icon by Touch research project, March Hare by John Tenniel taken from WikiFur.

Updated with a YouTube embed that validates.

  1. For more about ARGs and the magic circle also see my Reboot 9.0 presentation Mobile Social Play. []
  2. Here are statistics of some prominent past ARGs. []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.

  • Never mind

    Look I really do not like this. I am Brazilian and I do not want anybody to practice deception. There are a lot of people wanting to destroy, buy, burn the Amazon, and there are plenty of problems in the Amazon, towards the amazon and the Indians, and in particular because of the American NGOs. So if this is a joke it is a very Bad One and it is not funny !!!

  • Kars

    I can see your point, although as I pointed out, the creators of this ARG did not intend to make fun of the problems in the Amazon, nor did they aim to create a hoax of these proportions. In fact I think they’re as concerned about the issues as you are.

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