Source: The Institute movie.

Wordplay: A Case for ARX (Alternate Reality Experience)

Why I stopped calling ARGs, ARGs. A NoPro rant.

The other day a friend and colleague asked me if the term ARX (Alternate Reality Experience) was something that was catching on or something I came up with.

As is my dint I answered honestly: it was my coinage. A term I concocted while trying to find a fitting description for the interstitial parts of the episodic immersive theatre piece Have You Seen Jake?. The creators of that show had in an interview months prior, expressly rejected the term “game” when it came to describing what they were doing with the alternate reality elements.

Now if you’re not up on what Alternate Reality Games are, then this whole thing probably isn’t for you. But — in brief — an ARG is a kind of story that uses the real world as a canvas, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. It is done in a spirit of play, even if that play can sometimes have dark overtones.

For the longest time I didn’t have a problem with the term itself, even if I often found myself on the outside of ARGs looking in. Somewhat wishing that I had more time to crack into one, and other times being frustrated that the one I was interested in had passed me by. (coughDark Knightcough coughYear Zerocough)

Of late, however, I’d gotten a bit discomfited with the “G” in ARG.

Now what is and isn’t a game is a very lively debate. One I’ve taken part in, in private, in the past. One that has some philosophical ramifications. One of my favorite books, period, is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, wherein he posits that there are two types of games and that life itself can be viewed in these terms. It’s for this reason that I was fond of the term ARG for so long, and as a term of art I still have little animosity towards it.

However, in colloquial terms a “game” is a contest. The point of a “game” isn’t the kind of “infinite game” that Carse describes — that of continuing play — but that of a “finite game”: bringing about results. The end of play. More to the point, players can “win” this type of game. (The point of an infinite game? Read the book!)

I’m not really sure you could describe the end results of the recent episodic immersive production Have You Seen Jake? as “winning.” It was incredibly rewarding for many of the participants, but the conclusion of the cycle certainly didn’t feel like a victory. It ended in a wake, after all.

The same can be said of the immersive show that I unconsciously borrowed the “experience” part of Alternate Reality Experience from: The Tension Experience. This was an immersive show that was presaged by a months-long ARG which got under the skin of its most devoted participants. A seminal moment in the immersive scene in Southern California, and a case study that is going to hang around as long, perhaps, as The Jejune Institute has. (If you’re not familiar with Jejune I can recommend the documentary The Institute, which does some blurring of lines on its own.)

So here I had two examples, with Jejune a third, of games that weren’t very gamey.

Now the indie game loving part of myself is content to call them games; and I certainly think they should be discussed alongside games. Yet to the outside world games are more defined by competition than they are by experience, and how things are talked about in the marketplace are different from how they are spoken of in academia or inside a creative studio.

In short: when you’re trying to convince people to do something and you tell them it’s a game they instantly figure they can win. That if they’re not winning they are losing. That if they are losing either they suck or the game sucks. As someone who used to throw board games across the room when I was a kid — which caused my mom to stop playing The Real Ghostbusters game with me — I can speak with authority that it’s always the game that sucks.

Which means game is too loaded of a term to really fit in the mainstream. Hell, “alternate reality” is probably too weird for mainstream use. “Experience” is somewhat bloodless, but at least it is digestible: tell someone that something is an experience and they will either parse that as “it’s a trip, man” or “I don’t know how to describe this, here, smell.” One of which is good and one of which is bad. So: not ideal but more accurate.

So that’s how I got to “Alternate Reality Experience”: because a production that’s about grief, or about the myriad ways in which surveillance undermines our personal agency isn’t something you end up turning to a camera and saying “I’m going to Disneyland” afterward. (Unless you are an annual passholder. Then you’re just maximizing the value of your spend. But I digress.)

Why ARX and not ARE?

Look at them.

One has all the eXtreme cheesiness of Marvel in the 90’s and the other is a sound a pirate makes. Beyond that, there are some fun things you can do if you treat the “ARX” construction as a platform: Multiplayer Alternate Reality Experience reduces to MARX (or mARX if you want to go full-90’s on us). Which makes the participants in things like Tension Experience marx-ists. Given that the participants of these productions often wind up seizing control of the narrative the pun is as apt as it is silly.

At some point someone clever is going to come up with something better than Alternate Reality or even “immersive” to describe what these things are. That or we’re going to learn to recognize that a story is a story and the form it takes is less important to the audience than it is to the people who are making them/want to make them.

In the meantime we’re stuck with linguistic kludges. Better to mark out our own collective turf than to be backed into weird rhetorical corners by folks who just want the thrill of victory.