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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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12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  

2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  

3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  

8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  

11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
iStock
iStock

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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