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."
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."
It seems the six – who are actors hired for the game – are somehow tied to an ancient Olympic event lost to modernity. What it all means presumably won't be resolved until the game's end on Aug. 24.
Sloan marvels at the digital detectives. "I'd be refreshing that page, and every time I did, somebody would have tracked down a video somewhere, and then the next time [I hit refresh] it would be translated," says Sloan, who works at Current TV in San Francisco. "I've seen the results of collective intelligence in other places like Wikipedia, but to see it unfold in real time was amazing."
Such wisdom of the crowds has proven both wonderful and daunting for ARG designers. The 10-person team working on "The Beast" developed puzzles it thought would last a week, only to have the crowd chew through them in hours.
"The very few cannot entertain the very many for very long," quips Jordan Weisman, who headed up "The Beast" and founded an ARG development firm called 42 Entertainment. The writers wound up working 100-plus-hour weeks for months to keep ahead of players. No puzzle proved too arcane, including one that required knowledge of 13-century lute tablature.
McGonigal says her team has mapped out the six-month adventure but players will significantly reshape the experience. They have already built more websites for the game than her staff. This creative potential is one reason she envisions a day when a game designer will win a Nobel Prize.
"The problems we have in our personal lives and in global conflicts – a lot of those arise from the simple fact that people aren't playing the same game. People are either playing by different rules or are immersed in a different worldview," she says.
"[The Lost Ring] creates a context in which ordinary people can start to feel a part of something bigger, and start to see what they have in common with people from all over the world but in a very first-person, experiential way," says McGonigal. "There is going to be some intense bonding that's going to happen."
It's not the first ARG to express such ideals. A 33-day "What if" game called "World Without Oil" asked players to express – using words, video, cartoons, whatever – the impact of an oil shock on their daily lives. "Every day there was something [from the players] that made me go 'Wow, that's really true, what are we going to do about this?' " says Ken Eklund, the game's creator.
If nothing else, these games have brought strangers together – some to the altar. "We would joke that we should judge the success of ARGs based on how many marriage invitations we get," says Mr. Weisman.
One of McGonigal's earlier games sent people to wait for phone calls at booths across the US. She hints that "The Lost Ring" may also spill over to the offline world at the Beijing Olympics.
"Hopefully as we get to the Olympics we will find out what it means to bring back this lost sport," says McGonigal, coyly adding, "and maybe we'll see it in Beijing."