“You had to be there” – ARGs and Multiple Durational Temporalities

Stephanie Janes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter intends to explore the varied and complex temporalities which can be seen to co-exist within one particular promotional paratext: Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and their potential implications for both media producers and consumers when they are utilised within contemporary media marketing campaigns.

Often placed in the category of ‘viral’ marketing strategies, ARGs have been used since around 2001 to promote a number of films including A.I: Artificial Intelligence (USA, Steven Spielberg, 2001). and The Dark Knight (USA, Christopher Nolan, 2008). They create a narrative mystery set in the world of the film which is then broken down and scattered across the internet. Players work collaboratively in online communities to reconstruct that narrative using everyday media channels such as email, websites, phone calls, voicemails, and larger scale live events, like scavenger hunts.
Current literature often discusses ARGS in terms of narrative extension or their role as paratext in relation to a primary text (Gray, 2010; Ornebring, 2007). In less text-focused analyses they are discussed as sites for participatory culture and consumer empowerment (Jenkins, 2006). Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the strategies and techniques of such collaborative play can prompt players to attempt real-world problem solving, and the implications of such collective intelligence for various aspects of social life (McGonigal, 2008). Rarely does the focus turn to the temporal dimensions of this rather unique piece of promotional material, despite that fact that real-time gameplay is one of the genre’s defining elements and a fundamental part of the gameplay experience.
Grainge notes a tension in many ephemeral media texts, arguing for ‘a dual movement towards speed and storage, immediacy and archiving’ (Grainge, 2011:3), which is exemplified in YouTube. Grainge also points out that, whilst some scholars such as Schneider and Foot, have identified this as a tension inherent in the web itself, Mary Ann Doane traces this even further back in her work on cinema and temporality in late modernity, describing a ‘tension between a desire for instaneity and an archival aspiration.’ (Doane, 2002: 29) This relationship between media technology, the ephemeral and the impulse to archive and record the present is therefore not entirely new.

Elizabeth Evans locates a similar tension in web-dramas, describing them as involving ‘modes of engagement that are both anti- ephemeral and hyper ephemeral’. (Evans, 2011:156). This essay proposes to use this as a framework when discussing elements of ARGs, most of which can also be seen to fit into either of these two categories. However, rather than there being a tension between them, the two seem to co-exist comfortably, each offering different advantages for media producers and marketers trying to survive in a perceived ‘attention economy’ (Lanham, 2006).
A number of elements of ARGs appear to lean more towards the ‘hyper ephemeral’. The real-time nature of the games means that they are fundamentally based on a present-ness of experience, particularly in their incorporation of live events such as scavenger hunts or flashmobs. Due to this experiential nature they cannot be re-rerun or replayed – you literally had to be there at the time in order to have the game experience. Even in-game websites are rarely accessible in their original formats due to consistent in-game updating.

Their status as marketing also restricts the lifespan of the text and therefore the duration of the gameplay experience. As far as the marketing team are concerned, the ARG exists primarily to promote another media text and ends with the release of that primary text. In effect, the ARG comes out of circulation, and therefore existence, as soon as the film comes into circulation.
Yet, despite having an apparently commercially determined life-span, ARGs tend to linger in some forms beyond the built-in recommended use-by date. Remnants of complete puzzles and websites will continue to float around the web. Even more persistent are the community forums which allow us to trace back through a game via player discussion. These communities will linger and perhaps even reconvene at a later date to follow another game.
Whilst these varying temporalities have a number of potential advantages for film marketers, they also highlight a number of broader issues facing consumers of digital media. There is a strong archival tendency in ARG communities, who are aware of the fleeting nature of the games they are so passionately committed to, and who are driven in an attempt to make permanent that which is ephemeral. Such a drive also reflects a tension which is often considered symptomatic of the internet as a digital medium itself, at once a space of ‘archival promise’ and yet possessing a shifting temporality which is ‘emergent and continuous’, a ‘continuous networked present’ (Hoskins, 2012: 100). As communities collectively reconstruct their experiences of the games they participate in the production of what Hoskins might describe as ‘digital network memory’, wherein data is highly transferable and accessible, but also eminently erasable.

In contrast to the, arguably less stable, digital content produced by both players and producers of ARGs, Many games also involve the distribution of material objects and promotional materials, or ‘swag’ as they are known on the forums. This can range from posters and window stickers to replica props or collectibles associated with the film or the game. It is possible that, as Hoskins also suggests, the ephemerality of the digital side of the games affords the ‘material objects… of cultural memory… greater significance’ (Hoskins, 2012: 103). Possession of swag becomes not only a more permanent reminder of the games, free from the prospect of digital deletion, but also a form of cultural capital amongst players. ARGs therefore can therefore be seen as a site where this tension between temporalities is actively negotiated by media consumers, and some of Hoskins’ predictions for the implications of the ‘digital network memory’ can potentially be seen playing out.

Playing an ARG involves experiencing various temporalities, often on a very personal level. By outlining these differing and apparently contradictory temporalities, this article hopes to shed more light on the experience of a complex, under-discussed and strongly temporally defined media paratext. Whilst the hyper ephemeral and the anti-ephemeral seem to co-exist productively for media marketers, the combination may prove more problematic for media consumers looking to preserve what can be an intensely emotional and affective media experience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Politics of Ephemeral Digital Media
Subtitle of host publicationPermanence and Obsolescence in Paratexts
EditorsSara Pesce, Paolo Noto
Publication statusIn preparation - 2015

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