Between the giant banners advertising the D-9 alternate reality game (ARG) with anti-alien slogans, beyond the Dharma Initiative recruitment booth, there was a little stack of postcards at Comic-Con that read "You are being deceived — www.youarebeingdeceived.com." It was the calling card for an ARG that nobody saw. How do I know? Because io9 built the You Are Being Deceived ARG, complete with a phone number you can call and two mysterious linked URLs, as an experiment in marketing and mass deception. What happens when you try to deceive people but your lies are drowned out by better-funded lies? Allow me to recount our strange tale.
We had grown sick of all the ARG marketing schemes for movies like The Dark Knight, which try to drum up fan support and brand recognition for forthcoming franchises with semi-mysterious websites and phone numbers and instructions on where to buy a cake that has an iPhone in it. Profoundly uncreative, the Batman ARG had done little more than inspire a lot of people to wear Joker makeup. While other ARGs are more fun and thought-provoking, we felt that in general ARG-making had become so bland that you could practically never tell what the games were about. They're little more than walk-in ads.
So we schemed, and said to ourselves, "Well what if we came up with an ARG that was so generic that people would think it was related to practically every movie coming out next year?" Seemed like a sure win — people would see the ARG and start guessing "Oh it's for GI Joe," or "It's for Watchmen." But we wanted our super-generic ARG to be a commentary on the super-generic nature of ARGs too, which is a rather tall order.
You Are Being Deceived was carefully crafted to seem as if it could be about Watchmen, G.I. Joe, or Heroes. Well, carefully crafted might be too strong a phrase — perhaps "slapped together in a caffeine-induced frenzy" would be more accurate. We put together the basic ingredients of every generic ARG: a "personal blog" written by somebody who has gotten into a huge conspiracy they don't understand and is telling you all about it; a corporate website from the conspiracy-manufacturing company (why do all ARGs include fake corporations?), and a phone number you can call (listed on the blog) to get more clues about the conspiracy.
We even invented a back story about how an evil corporation is controlling superheroes and the populace via a chemically-enhanced television signal. On the You Are Being Deceived blog, you'll see the main character, code-named Sheep Snake, who discovers that all her paranoid theories about chemtrails are nothing compared to the mind-control plot hatched by her employer Elegiac International. Using superheroes (like, say, the ones in Heroes or Watchmen), they're selling this thing called RapidEnhance that's already being used on soldiers (like, say, the ones in G.I. Joe). When Sheep Snake discovers the plot, then gets a FedEx package with her friend's severed arm in it, she goes on the run with a plan to stop Elegiac from turning the whole world into TV-watching, mind-controlled drones.
So why didn't anybody call Sheep Snake's voice mail, or send us e-mails, or even look at our ARG? You can claim it's because the ARG was lame, and that wouldn't be entirely inaccurate. But was it really lamer than the Batman ARG, which was just a website with a few messages telling people to dress up like the Joker to see some footage?
What's more likely is that nobody saw our ARG because we didn't have tens of thousands of dollars to promote it. We printed out 1000 postcards, and thought we'd just hand them out to people — even if only a few saw it, they might blog about it and it could spread via word-of-mouth. We even enlisted the extremely non-devious-looking Gina Trapani from Lifehacker to hand out our cards so nobody would guess it was the io9 crew behind it. She tried handing them out in the Expo, and was promptly kicked out for handing out postcards without having a booth. Without a ton of cash to pay for giant signs, a booth, or to hire people to hand out millions of cards outside the Convention Center, there was no way we could get our ARG started. We wound up handing the cards out surreptitiously, but mostly we left them out on the "freebies" table where they disappeared (but to where?).
Ah, you say with a cynical smile, you are so naive. Did you really think you puny creatures with your 1000 cheap postcards printed with a URL could put even a tiny dent in the promotional juggernaut that is Comic-Con? The simple answer is yes, we really did. I think that's partly because we'd actually fallen for the ARG hype, despite the fact that we'd criticized it and should have known better. We imagined that ARGs really could be kind of grassroots and DiY, and that people would want to go to a cool URL like YouAreBeingDeceived. We thought our snarky little ARG might stir up some shit. But we deceived ourselves.
ARGs are not grassroots. They are not about community, or word-of-mouth. They really are about saturating the market with brands in order to generate interest in something, just the way old-fashioned advertising is. I don't mean to disparage the cleverness of ARGs — a lot of them are terrifically fun. But the ARGs that get noticed at a media event like Comic-Con are always going to be the ones with lots of resources behind them. To create a "grassroots feeling," you need to have a top-down corporation with wads of cash. So when you play an ARG associated with a commercial property, you are in some sense being deceived. You're being made to feel as if you've discovered something, as if you're part of a community spontaneously coming together to play at something, when in fact you've been targeted by an extremely well-funded marketing campaign.
Or maybe it's a plot by Elegiac International to control your minds and corrupt your heroes. Yeah, I like that version of the story better.