At its roots the web is about information sharing. Talks such as those from Tim Berners-Lee about the semantic web, and keeping data raw for greater search-ability, inspire us to think in terms of information.
There is a lot of information out there freely available, syndicatable, and searchable. Such freedom of information has radically changed the way we learn/think by creating a whole new approach to being "informed".
If someone has a question, they can become an expert on it. Entire sub-cultures emerged from varying ways of attaining and sharing information (social networks, social media, etc...).
In a sense the web has become an alternate reality.
This alternate reality (the existing information, and ways of receiving it) can be used as a game mechanic, to blur the line between your fictional world (IP), and the "real" world.
The gaming platform is being turned into another way of syndicating information. Translating the internet reality as a game.
Alternate Reality Games
ARG's are great because they utilize an individual's online habits as a gaming platform.
It turns the web into a game where (for example) a user is sucked into an adventure game made out of directory structures. A .txt file describes where they are (youare.txt "You are standing before an old terminal and..."), then they are presented with a set of folders representing their options (smash_terminal, type_hello...), and those take them to their next state (folders making branches, and following the same theme that adventure games do). Finally the player finds their way to the end where another "clue" to the ARG as a whole is (such as a password that unlocks a password protected website).
The basic premise is to take everyday life online, and (knowing their online behavior patterns) guide people in certain directions using their browsing habits.
Play with information, and ways of getting it / translating it.
Concepts & Examples
The most recent ARG I designed, and built, was one for a video game company that wanted to lay the groundwork for their 3D game production in the form of an Alternate Reality Game. Players experienced the prequel to their game story, in a sense.
The basic synopsis was that you are using a satellite as an interdimensional detective to look into, and interact with, the past.
A series of websites was set up where, at the beginning, each player was assigned a "special word" pertaining to the game universe, and this word would be used to "unlock" ARG specific content across sites.
Content was scattered about these websites in the form of open directories (accessible by the special word), small console like interfaces, an ALICE AIML chatbot, etc...
For example, the directories served as mini side missions that pointed the players to a treasure hunt spread across external websites where "passwords" or small clues (I.P. addresses) where hidden that allowed for further content on the main sites to be unlocked.
Branching out the story in such a way served the function that the main story could be explored via the primary experience, and sub-stories where geared toward hard core ARG enthusiasts (detective work) as "branching out" from the main experience. This allowed for a variety of gamer types to be drawn in; dedicated, and casual.
Dedicated players are the ones that will go the extra mile to pick apart a puzzle, reverse engineer your files (hiding messages in source code is a great treat for these types), and post results on forums as a sort of bragging right. There is a type of player hierarchy that forms around solving, and helping newcomers along. Dedicated players become veterans, so to speak.
This strategy also bypassed the issue of presenting a classic timed "real world" ARG experience, that players might miss (a classic theme of ARGs). Events that happened only once happened in the proprietary story branches, the player needs to be at the computer for these (this also creates more die hard fans), and events that are important for the story occurred in the main timeline (the main timeline is permanent, and playable at one's own leisure).
The interdimensional ARG is also different from other ARGs because a player can play it at their own pace (late comers don't miss anything), it saves everything done (checkpoints, like a real game), so players can resume from wherever they left off, and has multiple outcomes depending on a player's choices.
Content was also random.
For example, a gimmick that I created involved "converting" scrambled documents in a game-like fashion where you had to chase down fragmented information to piece the document together. In areas like this the document would be randomly (and permanently) assigned to each player. Everybody got a different portion of story. This also stimulated more community participation because players started sharing what they got.
This was radically different from most ARGs since it treated the experience entirely like a re-playable community game.
The site supported a "clear all" feature where players could opt out to delete all their progress.
The strategy was that randomizing content would increase re-playability. It worked. Players frequently cleared all, and re-played the entire ARG.
Memes And The Humor Gimmick - Translating The Digital Age
Humor is a universal truth, although very regional in application. A basic example would be that an American will be less likely to understand German jokes, and vice versa.
The web, on the other-hand, has brought about an interesting phenomena in global humor (since all cultures practically merge into one). These are jokes that everyone globally created, and share. Aside from changing the way we learn, the internet has had a strong influence on what we laugh at.
Viral, and memes. I consider them template jokes that are applicable to a variety of situations. In themselves they are non-sensical, but they are funny when applied to your situation (an old example; o rly, ya srsly, etc...).
Humor is a defining characteristic of the web, much like it had been in computer games in the early days of gaming (Return To Monkey Island, Space Quest, Day Of The Tentacle, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, or Half Life 1 mods like Rocket Crowbar, etc...). Although gaming humor has largely died out as a game theme/focus (games like Bulletstorm, or Psychonauts are refreshing exceptions), the gamer community itself still retains that today, in multiplayer games, or game related media. Examples are Penny Arcade, or even older was Pure Pwnage.
The fascinating correlation here is that both games, and the web, are strongly social environments and (apparently) wherever a digital global crowd gathers humor is sure to follow. People are, at essence, very light-hearted, explorative, whimsical, and playful. Good games are ones that recognize these behavior characteristics.
Monitoring how people behave in games like Garry's Mod (one where complete creative independence is given) attest to the fact that if they are given a chance they will usually "goof off". Games like Left 4 Dead that focus on a basic game mechanic (essentially co-operation), and let the players "play it themselves" (no story that forces the player in a direction) often can develop into a humorous circus.
The observation here is that (if given a chance) people will gravitate toward humor, so why not use the fundamental principles underlying a successful meme as a gimmick?
Reading through comments like that from a recent Reddit article entitled "Are We Too Generous to Indie Games?" (about why indie games are getting more attention lately, and why people like indie more than AAA titles these days) assert that a successful product equals one boiled down to a simple game with one game mechanic that is rewarding (focus is placed on a core game-play element that is rarely flawed). Simple and rewarding.
If you take that strategy, and consider the success/popularity of the casual game scene, then it is also one that doesn't involve commitment.
With Tetrageddon Games I set out to translate the digital age (our fast paced online lifestyle), as a game mechanic primarily centered around the type of humor unique to today's online culture.
I find it to be an engaging challenge as it is different from the online entertainment, or ARG work I do.
Instead of utilizing the online lifestyle as a game (ARG's), they parody the online lifestyle as a game.
There's a lot of untapped power in the internet as a medium for creating games, entertainment, and art that's an entirely different mind blowing genre. When new themes like ARGs, or games-as-art, surface it inspires me to know that we're only at the beginning of inventing variations of art, and entertainment, that are so radically different it sets a new standard for what can be done.