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Find The Lost Ring (ARG)

Research Report by Lindsay Brandon Hunter
(created 8/13/08; version 1.0)

Related Categories: Alternative Interfaces | Collective Reading

Original Object for Study description

Summary: The Lost Ring is an alternate reality game developed by Jane McGonigal and San Francisco-based advertising agency AKQA in partnership with the International Olympics Coalition and the McDonald’s Corporation. Developed both to celebrate and to advertise the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the game is a massively multi-player, multi-national, intensely collaborative adventure in which players engage with a fictional game mythology through puzzle-solving and “real world” experiences.

Description: The game went public in March of 2008, when boxes of clues (also known as rabbitholes or trailheads) were sent to approximately 50 known ARG players/enthusiasts worldwide. The boxes contained Olympic-themed posters, postcards inscribed with messages, and balls of yarn. The postcards in the boxes were inscribed with the messages “Find her . . .”, “Find the others . . .”, “Find him . . .”, “Find the secret . . .” and “Save the world.”

The balls of yarn could be unraveled to find hidden slips of paper at their centers, on which were printed the web address “findthelostring.com.” At the time, the website showed nothing but a message for someone named “Ariadne” from someone named “Kai,” explaining that the site was under construction and should be up soon. (Note: what follows is a simplified description of the game so far; certain details and subplots have been omitted the interest of a concise synopsis.)

Find her: When the website went live, it became apparent that it was the blog of a woman named Ariadne, who described waking up alone and with no memory in the center of a corn maze in Johannesburg, South Africa, dressed in athletic gear and with a tattoo on her forearm reading “Trovu la ringon perditan” (“Find the lost ring,” in Esperanto). Doctors at a local hospital can tell her nothing except that she has a rare form of amnesia and that she has the body of an Olympic athlete. While at the hospital, Ariadne meets Kai, an American programmer/web designer, and he gives her money for a month’s rent, a laptop, and the promise that he will design a website to help her find her home. Ariadne’s blog eventually contains video diary entries, calls for help from the general populace, and descriptions of her strange recurring dreams.

Find the others: Once Ariadne is “found,” it becomes apparent that there are others like her. Five other amnesiac, tattooed athletes are discovered by players, each having awoken somewhere near a labyrinth or something like it: Diego (Buenos Aires), Lucie (Brittany), Markus (York), Meihui (Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province), and Noriko (Okayama). Markus is found via a photo on flickr that references his tattoo, which leads to his profile; Meihui via a truveo video; Noriko via a youtube video linked to her blog, etc.

Find him
: Spurred by a suggestion on Ariadne’s blog, players investigate the official Olympic Games site, and find a link to a podcast series–”The Lost Games, Ancient Olympic Mysteries”–given by Eli Hunt. The podcasts shed light on a possible “lost sport” of ancient Olympiads: a blindfolded race run inside a labyrinth. Hunt is contacted by players, but refuses to engage with them, hinting that the mystery they’ve stumbled on is dangerous. Hunt does allude to the location of one of his upcoming lectures to a player via email, and Ariadne confronts him there–the meeting is shown in one of the five theatrical trailers for the game, available on the game’s main site.

Find the secret: Hunt shares with Ariadne–and with the game community, via a new hidden podcast–the story of a secret artifact, and the existence of a secret website. The website shows a rotating sphere made of dots of light. Though no directions are present, it is discovered that pressing a key makes a prompt appear, and trial and error yield a number of working commands. The tool–dubbed “the omphaputer”–leads players to the real-world locations of artifacts via an ancient system of navigation described in Eli Hunt’s podcasts.

Among the artifacts are sections of an old codex, a narrative authored by a previous group of six amnesiac “travelers” who found themselves in a similar situation in 1918. The mission of the current six is the same one the previous group failed to accomplish: to “synchronize” multiple worlds by running labyrinths. The codex explains that for every choice made in our world, a parallel universe exists in which other choices were made. The running of labyrinths in multiple worlds simultaneously synchronizes the multiverse, re-integrating parallel worlds and checking their exponential growth. The overarching mission of the players becomes clear: to facilitate this synchronization–and in doing so, save the world(s).

An entity named “Theo” (later revealed to stand for “TheO,” “The O” or “The Opposition”) is later introduced as an antagonist, and attempts to thwart the mission.

Research Context: Like a typical ARG, the game involves collective intelligence facilitated through social networking, constituting players as authors, explorers and practitioners, and yields a partially-planned, performative game-story in which there is no single, authoritative access point for the narrative, though there are multiple hubs (wikis, player forums, character blogs, Google docs, etc). Game content is found and created via multiple media, making ARGs potentially interesting as sites of media convergence.

Technical Analysis: The Lost Ring is typical of ARGs in that the narrative it spins has no real home; it is pieced together on blogs provided and maintained by the game masters, but also via networking tools/services like Twitter (“micro-blogging”), Flickr (image sharing) and Vimeo (video sharing). A player-produced Wiki catalogues known information and provides a repository for the created/recorded narrative. Players may communicate individually with game characters–as well as with each other—via email, text messaging, chat and IM, and share their knowledge publicly via bulletin-board threads on the Unfiction site (which provides forum space for the discussion of most major ARGs). The redundancy and collectivity involved in tracking and playing the game means that no one technology or tool is absolutely necessary, although access to the internet itself and the ability to share digital images are key. In this particular game, GPS devices called tracksticks, along with video records, have also been important tools for verifying the location of various player-created labyrinth runs in key cities on multiple continents. The GPS data from the events is uploaded to Seero, a “geo-broadcasting platform” that combines video sharing and mapping abilities, and is then accessible by the game masters and other players.

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic: The de-centralized nature of ARGs can be a point of attraction and frustration for players; those new to play may feel that the experience has no intuitive entry point or logical organization (see this poor review of the game:), while those comfortable within the genre may consider this element of mystery and uncertainty a main source of the games’ appeal, especially since it presents almost limitless potential for gamers to insert themselves into the game-story/game experience. Since the narrative is first plotted by the game masters and then uncovered and performed (sometimes in unpredictable ways) by the gamers, authorship is largely up for grabs, and not only player involvement but the social structure of the game can be decided by players themselves, who may also choose to express or store the resulting narrative(s) in various ways (the wiki, end-of-game montage DVDs or photosets, personal narrative or even fan fiction). Player-produced content involves a fair amount of reflection on the game experience itself–a sort of meta-commentary that runs parallel to the game-story/game experience itself and cannot be effectively separated from it. Players track media stories about the game, critique it, catalogue and share their experiences in the midst of play.

There are, however, a variety of ways to experience the game. While hardcore ARG players may devote serious time and resources to the game’s objectives–along the way generating content and creating/performing the game-story–it is possible to engage with The Lost Ring more or less as a spectator, keeping track of the story but not explicitly working to move it forward. The Lost Ring specifically aims at mass appeal, and as such presents a sort of “groomed” ARG experience; while “how to play” or “the story so far” primers are hardly unusual content in ARGs generally, The Lost Ring is arguably more new-user-friendly–more generally visible, more overtly presented–than many recent games (World Without Oil, The Dark Knight), right down to its elegant, self-referential main website and multiple cinematic trailers (in which portions of the narrative appear as highly-produced mini-movies, not unlike cut scenes in video games). In March, when an article in Wired noted that “In a sign that alternate-reality games have finally hit the mainstream, McDonald’s appears to be sponsoring what could be the biggest, most ambitious such campaign to date,” a commenter joked that “hitting the mainstream” was code for “jumping the shark.” To the extent that ARGs trade on mystery and a kind of subterranean existence for their allure, the unprecedentedly “mainstream” look, feel and promotion of The Lost Ring stands somewhat in contrast to its genre as previously defined.

It is also unusual in its explicitly multi-national scope and ostensibly “global” theme (though Africa seems largely absent from the game), which makes translation (by players and through automated translators like Babelfish) a significant part of the experience and the material produced. The game’s stated mission of “synchronization” between worlds and its pointed use of Esperanto in key texts foreground issues of translation and diversity, which resonate with ARGs’ general reliance on player-forged and de-centralized networks: the game is not confined to a single language, just as there is no single story, author, or means of participation.

While the presence of sponsors McDonald’s Corporation and the IOC has not been emphasized by either the game masters nor the players, some players report glimpsing McDonald’s logos in the game trailers. The use of ARGs as marketing tools is certainly not new (popular ARGs have promoted ABC’s television series Lost and the Warner Brothers film The Dark Knight), but in this case, the game being sponsored is not specifically designed to promote the sponsor’s product(s), making it unclear what McDonalds’ “sponsorship” might mean in terms of game content. No game characters video blog while eating McNuggets–at least not yet–but the company’s association with troubling aspects of globalization make an interesting counterpoint to the game’s attempt at global embrace. Player concern (at least publicly expressed) that the sponsor’s involvement will adversely affect the ARG experience, however, seems low.

Resources for Further Study:

The Lost Ring website

The Lost Ring players’ wiki

  Lindsay Brandon Hunter, 08.13.08

One Response to Find The Lost Ring (ARG)

  1. Johir says:

    Thanks a lot to Jane McGonigal and San Francisco. The Lost Ring is a very interesting game and undoubtedly you did a great job.