Digital Culture

Are ARGs Art? YouTube’s New Media Storytelling

Connie Blach

It’s 4am in America, a Tuesday in March 2016. In a haze, you notice something start to go wrong with the TV. It seems as though it’s picking up CCTV footage of a suburban family, preparing for a kid’s party while a teen lies silently on the floor – apparently sulking. 

She starts to sink through the floor. 

Alternate Reality Games (don’t worry – it was a show after all) were not anything new by this point. Since the mid-2000s, entertainment companies had been creating multi-platform immersive storytelling experiences to advertise tie-in media.

A key feature of those advertisements was the principle of ‘this-is-not-a-game’ storytelling, i.e. creating the impression of reality in the game’s interactive elements. You may remember, for example, that the advertising campaign for The Blair Witch Project included a website with information about the missing documentary-makers, to manufacture the potential audience’s belief in the ‘reality’ of the film’s events.

In that context, This House Has People In It, an eleven-minute short film first broadcast as part of the Infomercials series, represents a power shift in the ‘unfiction’ community. Once a means of creative marketing designed to create commercial investment, ARGs are now being made for ARGs’ sake. Their creators understand the value of immersive storytelling, and its potential to meaningfully engage a distractable audience.

The many facets of this experimental piece have been rigorously documented and archived by its fanbase. Countless months of research have been uploaded to the fan forums from the surveillance company’s ‘encrypted servers’- hours of CCTV footage, evidence of mysterious diseases, corporate surveillance records- and each piece of evidence has endless analyses, decryptions and theories.

What a testament to the devotion of ARG players. Fanbases like those are necessary for an ARG to succeed. Without their engagement, the two-way art form, built on mystery and investigation, would die on its feet. 

An immersive, daring new medium so it seems. But do ARGs actually have the potential to become a mainstream art form? There are obstacles: it takes enormous amounts of time and resources to create the sheer volume of content needed for a successful ARG, work that the majority of casual viewers will never see; Independent ARGs which drip-feed the narrative often don’t publish new material as quickly as the Internet’s superpowered hivemind demands, with long hiatuses putting off some participants. Multi-platform storytelling also, inevitably, requires a huge diversity in skillset. These conditions may make it difficult for individual (and indeed mainstream) creators to embrace the ARG medium.

And yet the thrills of this exploding medium are impossible to pull away from once you discover them. 2019 saw projects such as POSTcontent and DAD delight fans with satirical, genre-bending metacommentary and POPPY, the ‘AI’ popstar, is about to embark on her third North American headline tour. Interactive storytelling is on the rise, and ARGs might well have the key to its future development.

For a more in-depth history and explanation of ARGs, watch Night Mind’s video here.

Categories: Digital Culture, Gaming

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