So, I’ve been clearly doing a lot of thinking lately on why it is I’m so hung up on alternate reality games. I think one of the interesting things I’ve stumbled upon (or rather, failed to stumble upon) is a body of work critiquing the origins of ARG in what amounts to the glorification of consumer culture. I want to preface this with the fact that my thoughts about this issue probably won’t change how I look at the work I’m doing in terms of its possible efficacy, but I do think making these considerations is of utmost importance.

First, a bit on the history of the ARG. The generally-accepted first “true” ARG was the promotional campaign run for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., otherwise known as The Beast. This game ran for three months during 2001 — and much of what came out of the game served as an infrastructure for future ARG projects, whether corporate or independent. 42 Entertainment, the group behind The Beast, went on to become its own independent company. They’ve produced ARG-style advertising campaigns for a number of major clients, including Microsoft and Activision. While fan-produced and independent ARGs have been run, by and large the campaigns have been designed by professionals working for corporations.

Which should give us reason to pause. A form that has been described as “scary” by people I know, used to reach out to an enormous number of people through a variety of media, and then change their behavior through storytelling and problem-solving should not get off scot-free because it’s innovative. In fact, that should give us a better reason to look at it critically. Given the way a number of big-name academics talk about phenomena like ARGs, I would have thought there’d be just as many thinkers waiting in the wings, not necessarily as naysayers, but who are willing to raise the warning flags about the form’s origins and possible future.

As a bit of a side note, it goes without saying that I don’t think fandom is an unadulterated good, and that I have deep misgivings about the appropriation of fan labor by the major players that not just allow but encourage fan production. While I think there is much to be said about how fandom stimulates creativity and community, I also think that, ultimately, the fan is doing free labor for what is often a corporate interest. As much as the fan might claim that ze is promoting the work of hir favorite director, writer, actor, or whatever, those creatives often work under the auspices of a corporate interest — like a major movie studio, a game or book publishing house, or a record label. Regardless of the size or ethical quality of the brand being promoted, fandom ultimately is the promotion of a brand. Moreover, the existence of die-hard fans is itself a desirable brand characteristic for some audiences.

So I set out to see if there was any critical scholarship on the topic. And there is. It’s a single paper by a Swedish journalism scholar who is now at Oxford. It raises some of the critical questions that I had, and Henrik tells me that this article by Christy Dena might be another step in my direction. But insofar as a body of work is concerned, well, there just isn’t one yet.

Now this boggles my mind. As excited as I was initially about ARG as a form unto itself rather than simply an advertising form (and there are many out there who also are!), and as convinced as I am that the ARG form can be adapted and used for massively scalable critical pedagogy, there is a sore lack of critical academic work on the origins of ARG, why we should care, and why we should be careful. Especially because I’m embarking on a project that involves re-appropriating a consumer cultural form to the project of individual and social liberation, I think we should be wary about it. We should address the form with a critical eye if we expect to make significant social change through this kind of re-appropriation.

If anybody has any other leads on this topic, please let me know. I’d love to see any other inroads people have made toward this end.