Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Bees, ARGs, and the Birth of the Collective Detective

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Bees, ARGs, and the Birth of the Collective Detective

Article excerpt

Steve Peters was home with his wife in Las Vegas last year when the Federal Express delivery truck brought a sticky envelope to his door.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was addressed to ARGN--the Alternate Reality Gaming Network of Web sites that Peters had helped found not long before. "A new game," he thought. More than one would-be "puppet master" had started a game by sending him cryptic mail. He brought the bulky envelope inside and tore it open. Inside was a plastic bear-shaped jar of honey. It had leaked in transit and was warm from the July afternoon heat.

He showed it to his wife, and they both noticed the bits of black suspended inside the honey. A clue to something? They strained the honey through a colander and found black letters left behind. A few minutes spent rearranging them as an anagram revealed no obvious message: EVIL something. SLEEVE ...

"What about 'I love bees'?" his wife suggested.

They tried going to Ilovebees.com. The site was transparently amateurish, apparently dedicated to a young woman's beekeeping hobby.

"My wife said, 'I don't think this is it,'" Peters remembered later. "Then the black box came up, and she said, 'Steve, I think you better take a look at this.'"

That black box, the first contact with what purported to be an artificial intelligence taking over the beekeeping site, was the beginning of a months-long "Alternate Reality Game" (ARG) culminating in the release of Microsoft's Halo 2 video game. Before it ended, it would draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people into its mix of puzzle-solving, fractured storytelling, and collective detective work, and it would set a milestone in a new genre of online gaming.

Peters and his wife immediately got online and asked other people whether they had gotten their own honey bears. Nobody in the small ARG community had. He posted pictures and began studying the "I Love Bees" Web site. Other messages emerged: text encoded subtly inside pictures and source code for the site that was far too sophisticated for the amateur or "grassroots" project he had initially anticipated. Something big was at work.

A week later came the rumors. Somebody had seen the Ilovebees.com address flashed at the end of a theater advertisement for Halo 2. New people started finding their way to the ARGN "Unfiction" bulletin boards where Peters's community was already discussing the "Haunted Apiary." Finally, the video game's trailer was posted online, and it was confirmed. Microsoft was behind this one, which meant money, sophistication, and very likely the team that had created The Beast, the original ARG associated with Stephen Spielberg's movie A.I.

The game was on.

TRANSFORMING REALITY, OR UNRAVELING TRUTH?

Games have always been about altering reality in some small, adventurous way. Chess is simulated warfare; baseball an escape into a society where explosive glory is possible with the swing of a bat; Halo 2 a sci-fi epic that lets players join in saving the world.

ARGs take these adventures and let them bleed out of living rooms, off the television screen, and into everyday life. They are built around puzzles found online or in your local newspaper's classified section, and they might make you answer your phone in the middle of the night to unlock a new clue.

They are a blend of improvisational theater, storytelling, and old-fashioned detective work. At their best they create a seductive sense of paranoia that makes virtually everything--every Web site, every license plate on a passing car, every chance encounter on a London street corner--a potential part of the game.

An ARG is a modern version of a role-playing game that has dispensed with knights and elves and instead asks players to play themselves--as if they were suddenly transported into a time and dimension where the game's story was truth.

And like most video games, they trace their roots back to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, the game that introduced role-playing to a generation of kids coming of age just as the computer industry was taking off. …

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