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Alternate Reality Gaming 101

By Joyce Schwarz

Do you recall the scene in "The Matrix" when Morpheus says to Neo, "I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole."? As fans know, if Neo takes the red pill, he stays in Wonderland and Morpheus shows him how deep that rabbit hole goes.

In an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), the rabbit hole is the first puzzle-piece or event signaling the beginning. ARGs are becoming increasingly popular as platforms today for "alt-marketing" gurus. Major brands such as Microsoft, Hasbro, Jet Blue, American Express, Sharp, Audi, Song Airlines and Stella Artois beer are staking out space in the ARG arena.

Alternate Reality Branding (ARB)

Many more agencies and brands are starting to adapt ARG tactics of stealth marketing, microsites, big stakes contests and real world special events in a hybrid campaign to capture the cache of [Alternate] Reality Branding and encourage pull tactics that encourage players to tell the story to other players versus outdated "push" campaigns.

This is NOT a game!

During the adventure, avid followers and often innocent lookers are swept away on wild chases and quests across convincingly "real" but actually "faux" websites and real life (RL) locales. A multimedia mix of emails, microsites, text messages, IM, billboards, print and electronic ads draw the player into a fictional universe and virtual community. The crucial precept in Alternate Reality Games is the perception that "this is not a game." You don't want to tell the story; you want the players to tell it to each other.

Dissect an ARG, and you'll find elements of immersive gaming, viral marketing, interactive fiction, social communities, virtual worlds and real-life publicity stunts that would make P.T. Barnum blush. Agency and brand budgets for online and new media continue to grow, but there is no source chronicling the rise of ARG advertising and sponsorship because the funds are often dispersed across such silos as special events, promotion, guerilla marketing and sweepstakes budgets. One indicator that there is plenty of opportunity for growth in the ARG space and evolving spin-offs is the growth of experience marketing. According to the Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship surveys, North American companies spent an estimated $5 billion of their $11.1 billion events budget on experiential marketing in 2004 with a projected 25 percent increase forecast annually beginning last year.

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