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A Beginner's Guide to Alternate Reality Games

In the credits on a poster for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. was a mysterious job title: "Sentient Machine Therapist - Jeanine Salla." Some curious folks did a web search for this woman and found themselves involved in a murder mystery that included messages hidden in movie trailers, bizarre websites, strange phone numbers, and angry emails from fictional people. It was all part of a revolutionary marketing scheme that has since become known as an Alternate Reality Game, or "ARG." While there are a few ARGs that weren't designed to market a new product, most are conceived to blur the line between our world and the fictional world of the movie, TV show, video game, record album or book that is being promoted. Some ARGs are purely online affairs, but the most exciting ones bleed over into the real world, providing players with a genuine adventure experience.

For example, in the ARG for The Dark Knight, a few lucky players visited participating bakeries and bought cakes that had been reserved for "Robin Banks." Written in the icing was a phone number. When the player dialed the number, a cell phone hidden inside the cake began to ring. As the campaign went on, these players received text messages, recorded voice messages, and were instructed to call numbers to gain further access to the game's many puzzles.

How do I get in the game?

This all sounds like a lot of fun, but getting in on Alternate Reality Games is not always easy. Often they are underground campaigns launched without a press release, adding to the intrigue and making players feel like they're in on a secret. Therefore, one of the first hurdles is finding what are called "trailheads"—websites that lead the player "down the rabbit hole" and into the ARG world.

Like the A.I. game, one of the most common ways to find ARGs is to look closely at promotional materials like posters or TV commercials to find repeated phrases or hidden messages. But it's much easier to let someone else do that and simply monitor sites where fans of the show, band or movie congregate. For example, it was on a Nine Inch Nails forum that a fan first told of finding a USB flash drive in the bathroom at a concert. On the drive was a new track from the band and a message to check out a special web address.

What if I get stuck?

Once you've found a trail, the game producers, or "puppetmasters," present puzzles that you will have to solve to reach the next level of the game. But figuring out each step is where things really start to get difficult. If you get stuck, you'll be happy to know there are websites dedicated to ARGs, including argn.com, despoiler.org, wikibruce.com, and unforum.net, where player groups, or "collective detectives," gather to hash out the latest riddles. This brings a wide variety of skills together to solve a common problem, forcing game producers to be more inventive in creating complex, exciting, and engaging puzzles.

What are some games going on right now?

1. topsecretconspiracy.com

If you head over to topsecretconspiracy.com, you'll see poorly made videos of aliens starting California wildfires, fake alien coins created by the U.S. Mint and video from a science fiction convention where fans are interviewed about the government's alien conspiracy. That all sounds like pretty typical stuff for a UFO site, right? But look closely at the paperbacks for sale at this sci-fi convention and you'll notice that the some of the book covers feature the stars of the upcoming animated film Monsters vs. Aliens. Did I mention that the website is owned by Pacific Data Images, which is part of Dreamworks Animation, the company behind the film?

2. The 39 Clues
A new ARG has emerged that's tied to a kids' book series, The 39 Clues. The books, written by some of the top names in young adult literature, include trading cards with unique identification numbers that readers can enter into an accompanying website and gain valuable clues to solve the mystery plot at the center of the 10-book series. To help young sleuths gather clues, additional trading cards are sold separately. With a $10,000 prize going to the first person to solve the mystery, even non-readers might pick up a book or two, which is never a bad thing.

3. Stop the International
stopinternational_money.jpg

If you're interested in grand theatricals, Stop the International is a tie-in game for an upcoming film starring Clive Owen. Players can go to the website and enter the serial number of any paper money in their pockets to learn the bill's sordid history in the hands of international drug dealers and money launderers. But by following clues on the site, some players have already met with real people in public places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where the mysterious contact tells them the hidden location of special $2 bills whose serial numbers lead to a special section of the website. It's rumored the game is being run by 42 Entertainment, the puppetmasters behind many influential ARGs (including the Dark Knight game), so if you want to get in on a major ARG, this might be the one.

4. Coraline
As mentioned before, most ARGs are released with barely a whisper. Other times, though, they'll start with a bang. Such is the case with an ARG surrounding the soon-to-be-released film Coraline. The stop-motion film from the people who brought you The Nightmare Before Christmas is coming to theaters this February, but the marketing campaign recently began with the delivery of gorgeous handmade boxes to various people around the world. Inside each box are items that look like they belong in the world of the haunting film, as well as an old fashioned key with a small note attached by a string. By visiting the movie's official website and typing in the keyphrase written on the note, players are able to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film. Fifty of these boxes are being sent out and the passwords are being collected at various ARG sites, most notably Evil Buttons.

5. Traces of Hope
tracesofhope.jpg

For the most part, ARGs are all fun and games, but "Traces of Hope" is an ARG designed by the British Red Cross that is hoping to change that. While the game is fun, it's also meant to shed some light on the real-life struggles of those in war-torn regions of the world. You play the role of humanitarian Alan Hackston as he attempts to help Joseph—a survivor of war in Northern Uganda who is wandering around a Red Cross refugee camp in search of his mother. He has been given a satellite phone that you can use to track his location around the camp and direct him to various Red Cross services. Many interactions with Joseph are handled via an instant messenger feature, but you will also receive emails and video messages, and you can visit websites like LinkedIn and Flickr to gain additional information to aid him in his quest. It's a game with a message and might very well be the next stage in the evolution of the ARG.

6. StreetWars
If the notion of hidden messages on movie posters and cell phones planted in cakes is all just a little too unrealistic for you, StreetWars is a slightly different take on ARGs. Rather than play the game online, it gives people the chance to live out their wildest dreams as hired assassins stalking their prey through the streets of New York, London, San Franciso, and a handful of other cities worldwide. Once a person has joined the game they are given an envelope containing a photo and contact information for their target. From there, the assassins begin the hunt, "killing" one another with a blast from water pistols, usually when the target least expects it. As hitmen make their kills, they take on the intended targets of their victims, narrowing down the playing field until only one assassin remains. And that's when the big guns come in "“ the masterminds of the StreetWars game come to town and attempt to take out the last man standing. The next game starts in June.
* * *
While ARGs are undoubtedly an exciting new tool in a marketing company's bag o' tricks, many question if the advertising message is really getting through to the consumer, or if this is all just a waste of resources that could better be used on other, more effective media outlets. Only time will tell the viability of ARGs. But for now, get involved and have some fun playing in another world for a little while.

Rob Lammle is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. You can read more of his work on his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.

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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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entertainment
15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
Universal Home Video
Universal Home Video

Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


Universal Home Video

Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


Universal Home Video

De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
Universal Home Video

In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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