Alter your reality for the better


Madeline Tuckfield has always lamented her hometown’s lack of urban legends.

“I love Austin so much, it’s such a cool vibrant city, but we don’t have any monsters or ghosts,” said Tuckfield. “New York has all sorts of crocodiles-in-the-sewer type of legends, and I want that for Austin.”

This desire for ghost stories along Guadalupe led Tuckfield, along with UT students Lance Lowrie, a senior Radio-Television-Film major, and Stephen Robinson, a junior Radio-Television-Film major, to launch the alternate reality game (ARG) “Where is Alice?”

What are alternate reality games, exactly? The genre is new enough to be defined in a variety of ways, and if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the words “alternate reality game” may conjure up images like costumed “Dungeons and Dragons” players and pixelated families from “The Sims.” If you also thought of the dusty pages and plot lines of the make-your-own-mystery books from your elementary school library, you’d be closer to the truth.

ARGs are meant to be massive, multi-player “games” that begin in the real world but quickly jump to various media platforms like websites or television shows. They are supposed to maintain a certain “this is not a game” aesthetic, allowing players to suspend their disbelief and treat the game like real life. The largest (and most successful) ARGs are elaborate promotional stunts for movies and video games like “The Dark Knight” and “Halo 2.” But, in certain cases, they have the ability to be much more — and do much more good.

In the case of the “Halo 2” promotional ARG, called “ilovebees,” the game began when jars of honey from an unknown woman were inexplicably sent to members of the gaming community. This, paired with some crafty subliminal messaging in the “Halo 2” promotional commercials, led fans of the game to discover, which appeared to be an amateur beekeeping website that had been hacked by an unknown entity. Soon, details of the “hacking” (part of a pre-written fictional storyline) were leading fans of the video game to real-life payphones, where those fans were further unraveling the backstory by receiving anonymous calls. In the end, the clues led select participants to a movie theater, where they could play an advance copy of “Halo 2.”

“Where is Alice” is a decidedly humbler effort. You may have seen the posters around campus, which feature pictures of Alice underneath the bolded word “MISSING.” The posters might have led you to a Facebook page, where a link to the Wikipedia page for “alternate reality game” and a credit to Streetlight Entertainment LLC — Tuckfield, Lowrie and Robinson’s 2-week-old production company — serve as hints that Alice, whoever she is, is not actually missing. (The Alice of the promotional pictures is in reality a local Austin actress, but should you see her in real life and ask her about the game, she has been instructed to begin crying about the loss of her twin sister.)

Tuckfield said she had some reservations about staging a kidnapping as the basis for the game, which has since evolved into a narrative about the underground tunnels at UT and seems to be headed in a “there are supernatural monsters underground” direction. “The technical goal, yes, is to create a monster,” admitted Tuckfield. But she defends the kidnapping farce by pointing to the less-than-realistic aspects of the game — for instance, who hand-distributes “missing” posters for a person as if he or she were a lost puppy?

Admittedly, I have no plans to play “Where is Alice,” and I would have preferred a game that didn’t hinge on a fictional kidnapping. But I’m excited about the presence of an ARG on the UT campus, because I hope it will lead more students to think about the possibilities of ARGs, which can be so much more than fictional conspiracy theories.

As an example, Jane McGonigal, a game designer who worked on the “ilovebees” project and specializes in ARGs, has created a game called “superbetter” that uses the same ideas about crossing media platforms and community engagement to help people heal from problems like depression, anxiety and physical injury. Created by McGonigal as she struggled to recover from a concussion, the game sets small, real-life goals for players: look out a window, take a walk around the block, call an old friend. It involves friends and family as “allies” that help you increase your score.

Though “superbetter” may not be understood as an ARG in the same way as “ilovebees” or “Where is Alice?” it certainly relies on real-life events. And, unlike those games, it ultimately concerns not gameplay, but reality. Alice may not be missing, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have real problems to solve. Maybe we can start an ARG in which our football team is actually winning. Who knows — it might just spill over into reality.

Wright is a Plan II and biology junior from San Antonio.

Printed on Friday, December 6, 2012 as: Alter your reality for the better