Wisdom of the crowd triumphs in alternate reality games
'The Lost Ring,' a game tied to the 2008 Olympics, depends on collective sleuthing by players around the world.
It was a regular Friday at the office for Web strategist Robin Sloan when the front desk called to say he had a package. The box bore a return address, "TLRing, San Francisco," and scrawled in black marker was: "Unravel the mystery."Skip to next paragraph
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Inside, he found postcards, a poster from past Olympic Games, a list of future dates, and a ball of yarn.
"It was thrilling because it was just so 'Da Vinci Code,' " says Mr. Sloan.
He chronicled the mystery on his blog and soon a visitor solved the first riddle: unravel the yarn. The ball held a scrap of paper pointing him to a website for "The Lost Ring" – a new "alternate reality game" (ARG) tied to the 2008 Olympics.
Part scavenger hunt, part group storytelling, ARGs are collective experiences that usually combine online and offline elements and have no winners or losers. "The Lost Ring" could become the breakthrough event for a genre its enthusiasts describe as everything from the next-generation movie to a mechanism for saving the world.
"This is just how the 21st century wants to tell stories," says Sean Stewart, cofounder of Fourth Wall Studios, a game design firm. "It's no longer based on the broadcast paradigm. People want to participate in some manner."
ARGs have been around since 2001, when a team at Microsoft including Mr. Stewart launched a game called "The Beast." Scores of major games have since emerged, drawing millions of casual ARG participants and hundreds of thousands of highly committed players, estimates Christy Dena at the University of Sydney.
Players come from a wide age range, and split 50-50 women and men, she adds.
A viral marketing tool
"The Lost Ring," a joint effort of McDonald's, the International Olympic Committee, and ad firm AKQA, hopes to be the most ambitious yet. The designers say they ultimately envision millions of players globally interacting across language barriers before the game ends with the close of the Olympics. And unlike many previous ARGs that served as viral marketing for movies, TV shows, and video games, Mcdonald's is apparently willing to sponsor the game without product tie-ins.
"They've been thinking about what the future of youth culture is going to be like," says "Lost Ring" director Jane McGonigal. "They decided they wanted to be the company that took this genre seriously." McDonald's involvement in "The Lost Ring" has irked some in the ARG community, says Geoff May, owner of wikibruce.com, but he and other veteran players tamped down the concerns because Dr. McGonigal is widely respected.
The game began late last month by sending initial clues to experienced players. Sloan, however, was an ARG newbie, and over the next four days, he watched transfixed as dozens of other box recipients converged online and began sleuthing.
A story quickly emerged. Six Olympic athletes, speaking different languages, have awakened in labyrinths across the world. Each has amnesia and a tattoo in Esperanto saying, "Find the lost ring."