Monday, March 2, 2009

ARG - are we ready for it?

Tonight I came across a great post on Edward Boches’ blog, Creativity_Unbound, about an idea for an interactive, ARG-like campaign to promote a new Discovery Channel show, Most Evil. The video explains far better; but essentially, via an open wi-fi network unsuspecting users will find their browser opens to a stranger’s e-mail account. This stranger, users will learn if they poke about, is a serial killer. After several horrifying minutes the screen fades to an ad for the show, informing users that none of it was real. I gues it'd be like being in one of those Pizza Hut bate and switch commercials except rather than eating subpar pasta with friends you'd probably be alone and afrayed you're going to die.

As I commented on his post, this idea immediately reminded me of two computer games from a few years back with a strikingly similar innovative concept. Both Majestic (2001) and Missing: Since January (2004) – along with its sequel Evidence: The Last Ritual (2006) – expanded game play beyond traditional boundaries to interact with players in their real lives.**

Further, in terms of marketing, the most successful crossover of this concept that I’m familiar with is the campaign for Halo 2 (Viral with Value).

These are still pretty new ideas and for the most part people have no idea that experiences like this even exist. Moreover, the Discovery campaign, unlike the above mentioned games or Halo 2 campaign, does not give users the choice to enter false reality, but thrusts it upon them. I suppose that is what makes the concept so interesting, but with little to no prior ARG literacy I worry that users might not easily reconcile the experience afterward.

In fact, I think that new media literacy may be one of the biggest problems we face as advertisers as we seek to innovate online. People are not learning and adopting new technology (even when readily available, e.g. Twitter) half as quickly as it continues to grow. As a result, I wonder if we may find ourselves stuck in some odd limbo between old and new technology, attempting to appeal to both early adopters and and old-tech hold outs at the same time. An awkward place to be for sure.

But still, returning to Discovery's potential campaign, I really love the idea. And, it seems that innovation is often about breaking the rules - they just needs to be broken in the right way. In my opinion it's a great concept that, like Majestic and Missing, may be too far ahead of its time to work as well as it deserves to. But, with some minor changes I think it could be a great success today.

Mr. Boches was kind enough to respond to the comment I left on his post (very similar to above), writing: "this execution actually begs the question as to whether it's about the show, the creative idea that advertises it, or the viewers willingness to be part of the experience. Says something about where we'll go and what we'll do in the digital space." I wonder if we'll look back on these games and campaigns in a few years and think this is when things really started to change? I suspect the answer is yes.

Majestic, the first of the ‘faux reality/thriller subgenre,’ was a bit of a flop, but it was innovative in that it took advantage of the wealth of interactive opportunities presented by the web. Its IGN review states, “A game that relies on all of the unique facets of the Internet, while feeling familiar to anyone who's touched any of today's popular media.” Through e-mail, phone and IM the game presents the player with various puzzles (and clues) that require online research to for necessary information to solve them.

Missing and Evidence (or Missing 2) refined the ideas tried out in Majestic. Throughout the game you are on the trail of a serial killer called "The Phoenix," and game play progresses through frequent e-mails sent to you from your partners and the killer himself. Similarly, puzzle solving requires online research (a task more interesting than it sounds).


Lisa Hickey said...

The question of whether we are ready for a "new media literacy" is a fascinating one. Will the lines be divided along age, or social class, or intelligence? Or, even odder, could the rise in unemployment spur a new set of early adopters, because they see no other way out than through social media?
I'm also fascinated to see where the trend of "digital experience" will take us. I saw the spot you described, and was immediately sucked into the altered reality of what was going on. How far can this be taken? A bit mind-boggling, if it's thought through. Thank you for the thought-provoking post.