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 a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

4 thoughts on “Zona Incerta and using ARGs for activism”

  1. 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 !!!

  2. 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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