The Truth about ARGs: Tales from the Masters

How does a huge, monolithic and somewhat old-fashioned public broadcaster get the attention of a generation that gets its TV moments via YouTube and BitTorrent? How about a big conspiracy, completely with allegations that the broadcaster is manipulating the public and possibly cooperating with a powerful secret society? That’s exactly what unfolded in Sweden when the publicly-owned SVT network started its participatory drama The Truth About Marika in the fall of ’07. Marika producer Christopher Sandberg stopped by the American Film Institute’s Digifest in Hollywood this week and shared some rare insights into the drama that received the International Interactive Emmy for being the best interactive TV service earlier this year.

The Truth About Marika was only one example presented at Digifest that merged new media with oldteevee through alternate reality games or similar approaches that transform viewers into participants. Former Heroes producer Jesse Alexander talked about his experience with online storytelling, and the alternate reality game specialists from 42 Entertainment explained how Trent Reznor has used their services to promote his music. The common thread of these presentations: Letting your audience become part of the story has its dangers, but it can also be very rewarding.

The premise of The Truth About Marika was simple: SVT launched a drama about a woman who disappeared, leaving behind a husband and many questions. But then an outside character appeared and accused SVT of stealing and exploiting the true story of her friend, whose mysterious disappearance she had tracked on a blog. Viewers were driven to help the blogger figure out the mystery and question the “official” SVT version. They started to unlock websites, collect clues and spread mysterious bar codes all around Sweden.

Sandberg explained that SVT made it very clear from the beginning that all of this was a game. Mock TV debates between the TV show’s producers and the blogger were always accompanied by disclaimers. Still, the story took a life of its own. Said Sandberg: “People started to think: What are they covering up with these disclaimers?” A yet-to-be-published study shows that up to 25 percent of the show’s audience still believe it was real, he told the Digifest audience. Still, there were no hard feelings after the show ended. “People don’t want to be fooled, but they are willing to be swept away into fantasy,” he concluded.

42 Entertainment’s ARG Year Zero consisted of a particularly disturbing fantasy. Fans of Trent Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails were given clues that lead them to unlock websites that in turn offered a window into a future dominated by military dictatorship, mass-scale drug manipulations and the suppression of critical culture. One promising aspect of the game was that it had many different layers directed at hard-core fans and people with less time on their hands alike. Reznor used the gamers to spread leaked tracks of his album that contained further clues – and thus made sure that music fans far beyond the game players became aware of the music.

The game, unfortunately, had some unexpected side effects. Trent Reznor’s label Interscope apparently wasn’t in on the action and started to send cease and desist notices to bloggers that hosted the very tracks 42 Entertainment tried to spread. 42 Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer Alex Lieu didn’t want to comment on Interscope’s actions, but told me that he oftentimes disagreed with the way media companies handled online piracy issues. “What you really should be doing is [asking yourself]: How are you gonna make this work for you?” said Lieu.

Jesse Alexander seemed to agree. Heroes‘ TV audience may be shrinking, but the show’s online audience is still growing rapidly, according to Alexander. Part of the reason for that is the way Heroes is connecting the show’s story with additional plots laid out as part of the Heroes 360 online experience. This technique of what he calls transmedial story telling could also be a great way to survive in a world dominated by BitTorrent and other unauthorized distribution methods. “Transmedial experiences are very successful at mitigating the effects of piracy”, Alexander said.

Hear more of Alexander’s thoughts at our NewTeeVee Live conference in San Francisco on Thursday, where he is speaking.