Internet Evolution - Michael Mascioni - How Alternate Reality Games Affect Real Life
Alternate reality games (ARGs) are gaining greater popularity, as entertainment increasingly shifts toward the fusion of real and virtual content and draws on the social experiences of its audiences. Given these trends, it’s unsurprising that ARGs are resonating with broader audiences and influencing culture as well as the world of online games.
New research on ARGs is highlighting their relevance and impact across groups. For example, research studies conducted with players of ARGs and MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) underline the realistic social experiences afforded by these games.
One researcher, Priscilla Haring, who works at the Center for Advanced Media Research at VU University, Amsterdam, conducted interviews and an online survey as part of her master’s thesis in media psychology, with 81 participants, 45 of whom were ARG players and 36 of whom were MMORPG players. The participants were drawn from MMOPRG forums, World of Warcraft players, ARG chat channels, and the ARG Unfunction forum.
Haring found that "ARG players experience a higher perceived reality while in-game compared with MMORPG players," and she attributes this to the "fact that physical reality is already incorporated in ARGs," and to the idea that "players themselves act as platforms, bringing all their experiences and expectations into the games."
To clarify, she defines "perceived reality" as "the degree to which a gaming environment or medium is experienced or has the effect of a real world." She defines "social presence" as "the extent to which players in the gaming environment experience the presence of other players."
The rise of serious ARGs has also acclimated game players to the greater realism ARGs can offer, particularly since those ARGs explicitly invite greater player participation in real-world issues. This is vividly demonstrated by such ARGs as Urgent Evoke, which calls on players to implement change in Africa through entrepreneurial efforts.
Another distinctive element of ARGs is their facility for engendering more social experiences. This could be partially explained by what Haring calls "the collaborative nature of ARG gameplay” and the fact that ARG players can’t “hide behind avatars."
One of the most striking elements of her research concerned the impact both ARGs and MMORPGs have on players’ lives. The research found a "high degree of transference of in-game experiences to real life among both ARG and MMOPRG players."
The combination of an ARGs' "perceived realism" and their capacity to afford transference of in-game experiences to real life make them a very effective "social learning tool," according to Haring.
Clearly, Haring’s research needs to be kept in perspective, as it is based on a small sample. But the results generally correlate well with larger-scale research studies and the track records of major ARGs. It’s becoming increasingly evident that ARGs have significant implications for the future of games and culture, especially with their ability to project their influence further into real life.
— Michael Mascioni is a market research consultant in digital media.