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Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming **---

Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming By John W. Gosney
Published July 2005
List Price: $29.99, Your Amazon.com Price: $29.99

Amazon.com Sales Rank: 2,612,498
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"Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming" serves as a comprehensive introduction to this fascinating topic. It covers various aspects of alternate reality gaming, including its history and development of an ARG game (e.g. the "puppet master" role). It also introduces components of ARG games, explaining to inexperienced players how to play an ARG and covers devices (such as GPS devices, etc.). You will get tips regarding ARG strategies and will be able to play your own sample game that is contained within the pages of the book.

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Aug 28 2007 04:31 AM
I had no idea what an "alternate reality game" was when Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming showed up on my doorstep. My first thoughts were toward "virtual reality", and I feared that the whole thing was yet another of those poorly-researched texts intended to cash in on a trendy trend but with no actual research beyond a few photos of VR gear. There is the problem, though, that the whole "put on some virtual reality goggles and immerse yourself in a fully rendered virtual world" shtick went away ten years ago, so it couldn't be that.

To quote Wikipedia, an "Alternate Reality Game" or ARG is "an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions". In the case of this book, it covers ARG games that use computers as all or part of the toolkit for the game. And while the genre is not that well defined, there are plenty of successful examples of such games, ranking from that very successful "I Love Bees" game to those "amazing race"-style reality shows where contestants web-search for clues (usually with gigantic banner-ads visible to TV viewers) to gain clues about solving puzzles in real-life locations.

Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming sticks with the computer-only versions of such games. The opening chapters cover the historical web-based examples of the genre (starting in 2001), proceeding to a written-out and screenshot-illustrated narrative of the author's personal ARG. And ending with a web-design tutorial tacked on at around page 190, showing how to make web pages with stuff like frames, CSS, and other HTML pieces that are much better covered elsewhere.

Honestly, I wish there was really more content in this book. ARG's can go in a hundred different directions and can embrace just about any technology that has programming hooks (Twitter-based ARG anyone?). The book treats the first ARG as the secret game that tied in with the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001, although I can think of plenty of historical examples in both non-computer ("Treasure of the Unicorn Gold", the plot to any book written by Umberto Eco or Dan Brown) and computer-only (the "Hacker" series games for Apple and Commodore) formats. ARG's really are about coming up with clever puzzles for people to solve, but the puzzle-solving aspects of ARG take a back seat to a discussion of the author's own personal ARG.

The author's personal Route-66-based ARG is a mite confusing. It's never very clear whether or not it's intended to exist only as a book-example or if it's an actual web-based ARG that never saw light. Early on, the book mentions that a quick Google search of a fictitious author and his book will take you to a mysterious login, but that search only takes you to pages describing Beyond Reality: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming. The author shows off a dozen or so screen-captures of browsers showing the site, but the address bar is always empty (except for one time when the browser showed the address "http://localhost/Blackford.htm" as the site's actual address). After a reading, it became clear that the game was intended to exist, but was never actually implemented beyond some screen mockups.

And that's another problem. The book describes a simple ARG that could be built with a fairly trivial web back-end (responding to HTML forms, sending emails and faxes), but the technical chapters at the end don't get any deeper than how to position text and graphics on an HTML page. Honestly, the technical bar is set fairly low with the author's ARG and the book could probably have shown how to cobble together some simple server-side scripts to actually implement the game, but it's not done.

And finally I don't mean to pile on, but the last problem I had with the book was the apparent laziness with which it was put together. Every single graphic in the book is a full screenshot of the author's computer screen (including Start-menu, taskbar, and several browser toolbars), even in places where screenshots aren't appropriate. For example, the author gives a quick overview of the real Route 66, complete with a labeled US map of the highway. Rather than including a readable US map, though, the author just took a screenshot of a browser session showing a small map of the US with Route 66 highlighted. Even though the graphic is labeled "Original Route 66 Path across the United States", only about 1/5 of the picture is the actual map. The rest is a collection of browser toolbars and Start-menu and taskbar and such. The labels on the map are unreadable.

The concept of ARGs as immersive games that break the fourth-wall into actual reality, but not in a stupid VR-helmet way, is a sound one. And it's a concept that's shown itself to be viable, both with computers and predating them. This book could have gone in two directions. It could have shown how to structure an ARG, how to implement an ARG, or both. It tries to do both, but it doesn't do either well. Both the ARG design chapters and the ARG implementation chapters are incomplete. In my opinion, you'd do better with a pile of Martin Gardner books and a tutorial on making server-side code.