There is a great deal of debate surrounding the characteristics by which the term "alternate reality game" should be defined. Sean Stacey, founder of the website Unfiction, has suggested that the best way to define the genre was not to define it, and instead locate each game on three axes (ruleset, authorship and coherence) in a sphere of "chaotic fiction" that would include works such as the Uncyclopedia and street games like SF0 as well.
Several experts, though, point to the use of transmedia, "the aggregate effect of multiple texts/media artifacts," as the defining attribute of ARGs. This prompts the unique collaboration emanating from ARGs as well; Sean Stewart, founder of 42 Entertainment, which has produced various successful ARGs, speaks to how this occurs, noting that "the key thing about an ARG is the way it jumps off of all those platforms. It's a game that's social and comes at you across all the different ways that you connect to the world around you."
Among the terms essential to understand discussions about ARGs are:
- Puppet-master – A puppet-master or "PM" is an individual involved in designing and/or running an ARG. Puppet-masters are simultaneously allies and adversaries to the player base, creating obstacles and providing resources for overcoming them in the course of telling the game's story. Puppet-masters generally remain behind the curtain while a game is running. The real identity of puppet masters may or may not be known ahead of time.
- The Curtain – The curtain, drawing from the phrase, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," is generally a metaphor for the separation between the puppetmasters and the players. This can take the traditional form of absolute secrecy regarding the puppetmasters' identities and involvement with the production, or refer merely to the convention that puppet-masters do not communicate directly with players through the game, interacting instead through the characters and the game's design.
- Rabbit-hole/Trailhead – A rabbit-hole, or trailhead, marks the first media artifact, be it a website, contact, or puzzle, that draws in players. Most ARGs employ a number of trailheads in several media to maximize the probability of people discovering the game. Typically, the rabbit-hole is a website, the most easily updated, cost-effective option.
- This Is Not A Game (TINAG) – Setting the ARG form apart from other games is the This Is Not A Game sentiment popularized by the players themselves. It is the belief that "one of the main goals of the ARG is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all."
Similarities to and differences from other forms of entertainment
- Computer/console/video games. While ARGs generally use the internet as a central binding medium, they are not played exclusively on a computer and usually do not require the use of special software or interfaces. Non-player characters in ARGs are controlled in real time by the puppetmasters, not computer AI.
- Role-playing games (RPGs) and Live action role-playing games (LARPs). The role of the puppetmaster in creating ARG narratives and the puppetmaster's relationship with an ARG's players bears a great deal of similarity to the role of a game master or referee in a role-playing game. However, the role of the players is quite different. Most ARGs do not have any fixed rules—players discover the rules and the boundaries of the game through trial and error—and do not require players to assume fictional identities or roleplay beyond feigning belief in the reality of the characters they interact with (even if games where players play 'themselves' are a long-standing variant on the genre). Also, the This Is Not A Game aesthetic is distinctive to ARGs, not being present in the RPGs or LARPs.
- Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). As outlined above with computer games and traditional role-playing games, non-player characters in ARGs are controlled by real people in real time, not by computer AI; ARGs do not generally require special software or interfaces to play; the games do not require players to roleplay or create characters or avatars; and ARGs generally use multiple media and real life in addition to the internet to distribute their narratives.
- Viral marketing/internet hoaxes. While ARGs are often used as a type of viral marketing, they diverge sharply from the philosophy behind "sponsored consumers" or other viral marketing practices that attempt to trick consumers into believing that planted shills for a product are other independent consumers. Similarly, they also diverge from sites or narratives that genuinely try to convince visitors that they are what they claim to be. Puppetmasters generally leave both subtle and overt clues to the game's fictional nature and boundaries where players can find them (e.g. through clearly fictional names on site registrations) and many ARGs openly flaunt obviously fictional plots. The puppetmasters of the genre's seminal example, the Beast,(see below) made it a point of pride never to pretend to be players in order to solicit publicity or nudge players along, and the Terms of Service of Unfiction, a community site for the ARG genre, strictly prohibit individuals involved in creating games from posting about them without disclosing their involvement.
Influences and precursors
Due to factors like the curtain, attempts to begin games with "stealth launches" to fulfill the TINAG aesthetic, and the restrictive non-disclosure agreements governing how much information may be revealed by the puppetmasters of promotional games, the design process for many ARGs is often shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to discern the extent to which they have been influenced by other works. In addition, the cross-media nature of the form allows ARGs to incorporate elements of so many other art forms and works that attempting to identify them all would be a nearly impossible task.
Possible inspirations from fiction and other art forms
G. K. Chesterton's 1905 short story "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" (part of a collection entitled The Club of Queer Trades) seems to predict the ARG concept, as does John Fowles' 1965 novel The Magus. The combination board and card game, Vlet, that many of the main characters in Delany's science fiction novel Triton (published in 1976) play throughout his novel appears to be a type of ARG. (The game's name was borrowed from a similar game in short story by Russ entitled "A Game of Vlet".) Ludic texts such as the popular Choose Your Own Adventure children's novels may also have provided some inspiration. Reader-influenced online fiction such as AOL's QuantumLink Serial provides a model that incorporates audience influence into the storytelling in a manner similar to that of ARGs, as do promotional online games like Wizards of the Coast's Webrunner games. Other possible antecedents include performance art and other theatrical forms that attempt to directly engage the audience.
The One Game, a British television drama serial screened in 1988, was entirely based on the premise of the protagonist being forced to play an ARG (referred to as a "reality game" in the script).
Due to the influence the Beast exerted over the form of later ARGs and the willingness of its creators to talk about its development, its sources of inspiration are both particularly relevant to the evolution of the modern ARG and somewhat more verifiable than other possible antecedents. Elan Lee, one of its creative principals, cites the 1997 movie The Game as an inspiration, as well as the Beatles' "Paul is dead" phenomenon. Sean Stewart, another of the three principal designers, notes that designing and running an ARG bears some similarities to running an RPG, and the influence of that particular game form is further suggested by the fact that Jordan Weisman, the game's third main designer, was also the founder of leading RPG company FASA. Stewart also noted that the sort of "creative, collaborative, enthusiastic scavengering behavior" upon which the Beast depended has its antecedents outside the arts: the Beast just "accidentally re-invented Science as pop culture entertainment."
The conspiracy in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 may be an ARG set up by Pierce Inverarity to bedevil Oedipa Maas, as may be the hallucinatory Turkish frontier across which A.W. Hill's Stephan Raszer tracks his quarry in the current literary thriller Nowhere-Land.