[Note: Dave Szulborski will be a featured keynote speaker at Florida's upcoming Game Studies Conference in March 2007.]
If you're like me and you've been intrigued but somewhat daunted by Alternate Reality Gaming, Dave Szulborski's This Is Not A Game is a great place to start. Szulborski writes engaging prose with the authority of an expert puppetmaster, and the result should be required reading for anyone interested in ARG, whether casually, professionally or academically. Not only is TINAG a detailed introduction and overview of the genre, it is also a sustained argument about what ARGs are, and what they should be. As the title suggests, Szulborski is adamant that the TINAG philosophy should be word one for Alternate Reality Gaming, and even though some important and successful campaigns have clearly broadcasted their game-ness, Szulborski argues convincingly that even those games rely on a basic tension or suspension between reality and fiction and that for future games to succeed, they will need to exploit that ambivalence to its fullest extent.
For those of us involved with Game Studies, TINAG starts on familiar ground by attempting to outline a theory of ARGs that situates them in the context of ludology, narratology, and the problem of interactivity. Szulborski makes sure to introduce these ideas carefully so as not to lose any readers unfamiliar with the jargon, so I confess I found that the opening section, "Alternate Reality Games in Theory," moved a bit slow. In short, the author concludes that neither the ludological nor the narrativist model of game studies really accounts for the multiple facets of ARGs, and even the more open models of play from the likes of Huizinga and Caillois really fall short of capturing the essence of play in ARGs. I'd bracket that statement by arguing that the ludology/narratology dialectic really fails on its own, but ARGs clearly do seem to be something different with their emphasis on performance and their resistance to clear diegetic borders.
The most important point of this section, I think, is one that Szulborski makes almost in passing: that ARGs should be considered a sub-genre of video gaming. In one sense, this is a historical point since some prominent ARGs have been promotional vehicles for video games, and the early pay-for-play game, Majestic, was produced by EA. But as we try and work out how to define video gaming in terms of its medial constraints, it's helpful to include ARGs since although they may not even have any content delivered by video technology, they seem to be intuitively the same kind of thing. An alternative might be to consider ARGs a fictional form (SpaceBass of unfiction.com makes essentially this argument in a recent article, claiming the concept "Chaotic Fiction" as the context in which to define ARG), but including ARG within videogaming foregrounds some of the more intriguing problems we encounter when writing about gaming such as negotiating the relationship between participation and content.
The second section, "Alternate Reality Games in History," includes a series of chapters on prominent ARGs of the past few years. The list is not exhaustive, but Szulborski is able to provide privileged summaries of several of the games he has himself worked on, including Chasing the Wish and Urban Hunt (Art of the Heist, Catching the Wish, and Who is Benjamin Stove had not yet debuted when the book was completed). I think it is this behind-the-scenes commentary that makes this book so engaging. Through these narratives, Szulborski is able to convey some of the energy and intensity that these games create in their unfolding, and that plus the communal spirit these games engender is something that really is hard to convey to someone who hasn't experienced it.
The final section and appendix of TINAG take on a practical approach and constitute a kind of "best practices" guide for ARG creation. Much of this advice is practical (e.g., plan it all out in advance, get some help) but along with his argument about how best to theorize ARG, Szulborski is also arguing how best to make ARG and what constitutes quality in an ARG experience. This latter point is something of a contentious one, since a good deal of the meta-discussion on the unForums revolves around those kinds of questions ("Is this really an ARG or just spam?" "This is an ARG, but is it too real?", etc.) Szulborski's point is that the TINAG philosophy should be the guiding principle and theme, and though some might disagree with that priority, it is difficult to think of anyone in a more privileged position to make that kind of claim than the author.
Finally, the book concludes with a self-contained ARG of its own, which was also released as a promotion for the book itself prior to its launch. The book provides a step-by-step guide to each puzzle, but you can see it for yourself at ErrantMemory.com. Because it's self-contained and meant as a demo, the game doesn't really have much plot, but it does demonstrate some intriguing puzzles and actually includes some character interaction as well.
This is a good book, and I heartily recommend it for anyone studying videogames. If this review is the first time you've heard of ARGs, this book would be a thorough introduction. If you've dabbled in ARGs at all and are looking for a framework to discuss ARGs in relation to other gaming topics, this book has some great ideas.
[Note: This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming is available from Lulu.com.]