ARGs, Archives, and Digital Scholarship

May 19th, 2010 |

You know how when you have an assignment for students to post regularly to a blog throughout the semester, there’s always a couple who wait until the last minute to post a bunch of comments to make it look like they’ve been posting all along? Apparently, I am that student. I’ve spent most of the day reading everyone else’s proposals, trying to find the best way to frame my own proposal within that context, so here goes:

I’m interested in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), and lately I’ve been especially interested in saying things about ARGs in scholarly and pedagogical contexts that do more than explain what ARGs are and why anyone should care. As a textual scholar (technically), I’m trying to find ways to stabilize and document an ARG as a text; this is difficult because the artifacts which comprise an ARG experience might be as diverse as an email, a twitter update, TV commercial, or a personal conversation with someone who turns out to be a character in a fictional universe. For most of these things, Zotero is pretty good at capturing the data and metadata, and in a recent semester, I had students build ARGHives as Zotero collections. This worked pretty well on the input side, but not so great on the output side, wherein lies the problem I’m trying to get at. Since ARGs are temporally constrained, a Zotero-powered ARGHive is useful only for those who were in the right place at the right time to have experienced it. ARGHives aren’t good at conveying the text of an ARG to everyone else, and this is a problem for ARG scholarship. (The imaginary ideal for an ARGhive would have to be some kind of reality emulator, and that doesn’t make sense.)

When I write some deep, scholarly thoughts about a novel or a videogame, I address that to a community that can assess the value of my deep thoughts by reading them against the text in question. Not so with ARGs, where the textuality that matters comes to bear within the diverse experiences of a specific community of players.

Lest it sound too much like I’m just crowdsourcing my own research project for public, I should clarify that this problem has implications, I think, for many of the threads already emerging in session proposals. When Rob Nelson writes about arguing digitally, when Alex Jarvis looks to whatever comes after paper as a design problem, and when Dave Parry implies that collaboration is a key characteristic of digital sophistication (both for pedagogy and scholarship), it occurs to me that what’s at stake in all of these is the terms through which we negotiate digital authority. (And I’d probably add a number of other posts into this mix, especially.)

Now, by raising the question of authority (and, implicitly, identity), I don’t necessarily want to go all ontological. (“Less yak,” after all.) Rather, I want to suggest that ARGs are a good case study in textuality because participation in an ARG consistents (usually) in players’ negotiating textual authority through examining various texts to determine what’s significant and what’s ephemeral. So if we can have a conversation about best practices in transmedia scholarship (and in that conversation, I’d probably argue that such scholarship should itself probably be at least transmodal in some way), we’d be dealing with an automatically self-reflective archive that makes meaning in an inherently digital way — by identifying differences between randomness and pattern.

This also hints at what I think a truly digital scholarship might start to look like. In my own digital-scholarly project,, I’m so far just putting a dissertation (which is comprised of words, images, and some animation) onto a website. The only thing “digital” about it is that it’s stored in a MySQL database, hosted on a web server somewhere, and that I access it through my computer thanks to the magic of a series of protocols.

This post is already way too long, so I’ll just close by acknowledging that many (if not all) of the hurdles I’m raising here about ARGs are likely well-trodden by my fellow campers who identify themselves as digital historians. That is, from an archival point of view, creating a historical narrative by putting an event into context is different than putting a document into that context — I’m sure that’s a conversation that already exists, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out in the weirdly textual realm of ARGs.

TL:DRARGs are neat. I want to have a session hashing out how to deal with them in scholarly ways. This has interesting implications for what we mean by terms like “digital scholarship.” Alternatively, I’d be very happy bringing an ARG/transmedia angle to any number of sessions already proposed.

Also, Drupal.

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8 Responses to “ARGs, Archives, and Digital Scholarship”

  1. Alex Says:

    I would love to attend this panel. I’ve long been interested in ARGs, specifically for the sort of reality-line-blurring involved.

    Also, I’m fascinated by your idea of a Reality Emulator. Holodeck, anyone?

  2. Mark Sample Says:

    You’ve nailed the problem with talking about ARGs in a critical way: “ARGHives [in whatever form they currently take] aren’t good at conveying the text of an ARG to everyone else, and this is a problem for ARG scholarship.” Every conference presentation I’ve seen on an ARG spends so much of its time explaining the premise and the setup and the logistics of the ARG, that no energy is spent analyzing it either as a performance or a kind of text.

    Failing the creation of an emulator to reproduce the unfolding of a fake reality, I wonder what we can learn from the world of digital storytelling. There are several “lifestreaming” platforms (including a few open source ones) and I wonder if these could be used to recapture the narrative unfolding of an ARG.

    Also, depending on the format of the ARG, maybe Google Maps makes sense as a narrative platform for recreating the events and documents of an ARG across space and time. I’m thinking, for example, Charles Cumming’s The 21 Steps might be an instructive model.

    In any case, this session sounds great, and fits in with my own interest in geolocation and locative media.

  3. Zach Whalen Says:

    @tjowens – That’s my question as well, but I suppose it’s a way of displacing an answer to your implied question, What do we mean by “the ARG itself?” Is the ARG the experience of a community of players, or is it a set of artifacts which document the experience of a group of players and how they relate to some artifacts? This is the kind of question that could lead is straight into some ludology/narratology formalisms, so I’m (at least for now) trying to focus on the practical. But you’re right, that’s the big question, and ethnography is in important disciplinary angle I haven’t given enough thought to.

    @Mark Sample – I’m glad you brought up 21 Steps because I’ve been meaning to ask — has it stopped working, or is it just me? I can’t get it to finish loading, and I’ve tried with multiple OS’s. (Could be a Flash versioning problem?)

    Anyway, the geospatial aspect of an archive would be important to many ARGhives, I’m sure, so I’m interested to learn more about things like the new map plugin for Zotero and Neatline.

    @Alex – The “reality emulator” was kind of a throwaway line, but if you like it, let’s run with it! Wouldn’t the Holodeck be a reality simulator, though? For us to emulate reality, we’d have to uncover the foundational processes of reality (as a system), and then find a way to execute those on some other platform than reality — which to me sounds like a hard thing to do. :)

    More seriously, though, I’ve been trying to make something of oft-repeated definition of ARGs as “games that use the real world as a platform” (as opposed to, say, Heavy Rain, which uses a PS3 as its platform). If we think of that definition as more than a clever turn of phrase, it’s interesting to imagine a platform study of reality.

  4. tjowens Says:

    Sounds fun. My first thought is to question if archiving is what we should be striving for. Does it make more sense to think about these experiences from an anthropological perspective? Ethnographers don’t try to preserve cultures, they try to record experiences. Does it make more sense to record experiences of ARGs, preserve those recorded experiences, and then focus ways of analyzing and preserving them instead of the ARG itself.

  5. Mark Sample Says:

    @Zach Whalen – Oh, man, you’re right about “The 21 Steps”! I hope it’s broken only temporarily, because it’s such a great model for using maps as a narrative platform.

    @tjowens – Indeed, there are some heavy epistemological questions hanging over the heads of scholars studying ARGs! Is an ARG a text? A game? A performance? A community? A platform?

    An ethnographic approach (with interviews of participants, observations of key convergences in the physical world, etc.) should certainly be critical to a fuller understanding of ARGs, their implications, and the investments of the people who play them. It sounds like Zach’s idea of the ARGHive wouldn’t exclude the ethnographic side of things. I don’t think the ARGHive necessarily preserves an ARG so much as it gives a latecomer an approximation of how the ARG went down. Participating in World without Oil back when it was live was one thing; reading the blog archives and lesson plans now is quite another (an impoverished experience, I can tell you); but an ARGHive might be somewhere in between.

  6. Zach Whalen Says:

    @Mark Sample – Yeah, I’ve thought of that too. What would be awesome is a straightfroward Zotero->Omeka export, since the beauty of Zotero is its ease in capturing web resource.

    So as a hacking project, some kind of Omeka-as-ARGhive process would be cool, or even just a conversation about an Omeka-fied workflow for ARG play.

  7. Mark Sample Says:

    I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier, but Omeka as an ARGHive platform is worth investigating. It’d be possible to collect all sorts of items and documents, and then every student/scholar could curate their own path through the ARGHive that reflects their experience with the ARG.

  8. Alex Leavitt Says:

    Hey Zach,

    Just looking over some post-THATcamp documents (I was set to go but had to pull out last minute). I’ve had some similar thoughts ( if you’re interested in reading.



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