Written by Isabella Morris

It is August 24, 2004, in Florida. Hurricane Frances is minutes away – a storm which would close schools, clock winds of 102 miles an hour and kill 50 people in the resulting floods. Already the palm trees are being gently pushed backwards in the wind, and a low-hanging wall of thick dark cloud is creeping across the state. The storm rapidly encroaching, clouds darkening around him second by second, a man is standing at a payphone calling a robot. This is one of the climactic moments of the ilovebees Alternate Reality Game: there are people standing at payphones across the East Coast of the US receiving similar calls, minus the hurricane. Each person at a payphone receives a few seconds of an audio drama and a fragment of code. Later, online, they will piece together the thirty fragments in sequence.

Logistical challenges like these, involving people in the real world communicating in order to progress and understand a story, are common in alternate reality games (or ARGs, for short). Usually these involve a number of real-world players working together to decipher a code or solve a puzzle which also exists within a fictional world. For example, if the world’s greatest detective needs a secret password to crack a case in a story, it might be distributed in the form of a code or cipher that players can really solve for themselves. Mass collaboration and organisation among players are usually involved, and there is usually a prominent online
element. You might have already seen one of these games in action, or even come across a clue: small to medium-scale games often coincide with a movie or video game’s release, as part of a viral marketing campaign to get people interested. Usually, ARGs are disguised as unassuming online sites or profiles; the best ones tend to be almost indistinguishable from a regular site, video or page – but with a puzzle or clue tucked away somewhere.

The teaser trailer for Halo 2, a hotly anticipated first-person shooter video game, drops in September of 2004; it is shown in cinemas across the US. In the final moments of the trailer, underneath the Xbox logo, the URL for the video game’s official site briefly morphs into “www.ilovebees.com”. When baffled fans of Halo visit that URL, they find a homemade-looking website promoting a small beekeeping business, which appears to have been hacked – the images and text are mysteriously glitched and scrambled, and there is a prominent countdown clock on the homepage. It reads in block capitals: COUNTDOWN TO WIDE AWAKE AND PHYSICAL. The ostensible owner of the site, Dana, asks players to help her find out what happened to it.

On the same day the trailer launches, some well-known players from previous ARGs receive clear jars of honey in the post. Suspended in the golden, translucent honey, they can see letters printed on scraps of paper. When they fish out the letters and put them in sequence, they too spell out “www.ilovebees.com”.

In her brilliant breakdown-cum-psych-paper-cum-textual-analysis of the ARG, Why I Love Bees: A Case Study In Collective Intelligence Gaming (it’s available online for free and is an excellent start for further reading), Dr Jane McGonigal explains the choice to marry the space opera story of Halo with a beekeeping hobby site. As she puts it, “Bees were chosen as a plot point by I Love Bees’ creators not because of a natural connection to the existing gameworld, but rather to evoke the game’s collective intelligence goals.” In other words, the players’ job was to become something of a hive themselves. A huge number of players – 600,000 is a best guess, though it’s hard to precisely count the number of people who engaged with the game in some way – soon organised themselves into teams, sharing expertise and delegating appropriately. Some had valuable experience in fields like computer science and cryptography, but many brought only their enthusiasm. Mass participation and real-time interactions between players and designers are two key elements in alternate reality games; usually as the story continues there will spring up discussion groups on platforms like Reddit and Twitter. Players needed to work together to solve puzzles that one person could not solve on their own.

Ilovebees is probably the most famous ARG that exists; but it is by no means the only one, or even the only famous-ish one. The game linked to The Dark Knight, designed to introduce players to Heath Ledger as the new Joker, involved fans at San Diego Comic-Con enacting glorious chaos via a scavenger hunt, clown-themed cakes with phones inside and even a plane writing a phone number in the sky. Go a little further down the rabbit hole and you will also find a thriving independent scene. Some of the most baffling, surreal and fascinating games with the most challenging puzzles have been created by creatives and collectives. Ambitious narratives can begin with someone you don’t recognise adding you on Facebook (as happened in the Junko Junsui game, an entirely original story spanning multiple professional-looking websites).

By August 2004, the players of Ilovebees have helped Dana (who is, of course, fictional) uncover the presence of a futuristic AI, called Melissa and nicknamed The Operator, in the code of Dana’s beekeeping site. Clues have spanned emails, blog posts, websites and over 40,000 mp3 files. Together, players have pieced together and collectively interpreted information fragments from poetry to programming languages. Meanwhile, the countdown to “wide awake and physical” is about to run down. Players have already deciphered a series of co-ordinates which lead them to locations across the States. At first they are confused – but, at last, they make a breakthrough: they realise that there are payphones visible from every location. They guess that Melissa, the AI, could call those phones at the time indicated by the countdown. So, on the day, hundreds of players gather around the payphones at each co-ordinate. And, as the countdown finally hits zero, they start to ring. The final puzzle is coming to a close.

Read more (if you’re interested):
Why I Love Bees: A Case Study In Collective Intelligence Gaming by Jane McGonigal, PhD.