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On Alternate Reality Game Realities: Philip Ehrenberg



Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game The Source continues with the perspective of Lab fellow Philip Ehrenberg. He writes about the realism and pervasive play that characterizes an ARG.


Week 3 of The Source saw the developers begin to flesh out the character and backstory of Adia’s father, Abe, the diegetic mastermind behind every game. At this time, the roughly 140 players knew Abe was around 46 years old. Based on the challenges of Week 1, Abe had clearly been a passionate and engaged engineer. He came to Chicago to start a family in the early 1990s.  He had a connection to, or was possibly from, Haiti. At some point, he’d become captivated by the prospect of building what he called The Center — a space for disadvantaged youth that would include a local art gallery, a community garden, health resources, and more. And as the players of Team Rhino informed us that week, he was presently residing in or around St. Louis, Missouri… and they’d sent him a message on Facebook.

This last bit caught us off-guard, but sure enough, the only thing separating our fictional character and a living, breathing person was one letter: the second “a” in Adawale. (Once again, I must assert that this resemblance is purely coincidental; all of our characters are fictitious.) We wish we could say we had planned and fabricated this, but indeed, real-life Abe’s existence was unknown to us, and through careful investigation our players had found him.

Such twists are part of the magic of alternate reality games. Rather than viewing moments like this as a hitch in our master plan, we run with it, incorporate it into our narrative, push against the players while encouraging them to continue, and most importantly embrace the players’ and developers’ respective paranoia. In this instance, our office increased the DEFCON-level and began exploring our options. Communicating with Team Rhino via texts as the game’s protagonist Adia, we pushed for more info while we set out to contact the man we had seemingly written into existence. We concocted a tale of identity theft that fit into our pre-established narrative almost too well. But we also celebrated. One intrepid team of players had taken our various puzzle pieces, questioned the assembled narrative, and done their own research.

As developers of an ARG, we act as worldbuilders. We concoct narrative points and media assets that seem just on the side of believability, components of a reality that was always extant but invisible to those who weren’t looking. Critically, however, our reality is dynamic rather than static. We engage with our players in-character through our main platform, social media, and even text messages. We allow their behaviors, interactions, interpretations to have a substantive effect on what becomes a collective reality.

This affords a certain amount of agency to our players in constructing the overall narrative and experience of The Source, while we developers must relinquish control at times and be more than willing to go along for the ride. We relish the opportunity. It means the players have accepted our invitation to engage in a more pervasive type of play. We hope to surprise them just as they constantly surprise us. And though we can walk through the halls of the Woodlawn Social Services Center and smile at overheard plans for Team Rhino’s latest inquisition, or debates amongst players as to whether Adia is telling everyone the whole truth through her Youtube vlogs, we can never rest on our laurels. We initiated an ongoing creative enterprise, and you never know what our players will turn up next.