If you happen to subscribe to my Flickr photostream you maybe remember some seemingly random images of television static a bit ago. While I do think they’re pretty to look at in their own right, I didn’t upload them for everyone’s enjoyment. There was a greater purpose. These are individual frames from an animated gif that was found on the website voicesinthestatic.com. If you click through you’ll notice that there’s no animated gif on this page right now. Just a creepy image and a short, odd, noise. The page has been taken over by something called “Distortion” but the story is complicated and I’m getting way ahead of myself. You see, Voices in the Static is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). I split apart that gif looking for clues and uploaded the results so that others could scour the static as well. (Nothing came of it.)
 
This is the first ARG I’ve taken the time to play and I’m finding it quite difficult to write about what it is like. Central to the whole thing is a story being told, but it is being told in a way very different than the way books and movies tell stories. The best I can do to describe the narrative flow in terms of books would be a Choose Your Own Adventure, but that doesn’t come close to capturing the level of interactivity involved. For example, players of the game were given pretty much no story to begin with. We’ve had to piece together most of it by finding clues and determining their meeting.
 
There are some aspects of game I want to highlight:

  • The whole thing is about defining information problems, using appropriate strategies to find information, discussing and analyzing the information with others, and acting on it. This process should sound very familiar. For more on ARGs and information literacy, see the post Alternate Reality Games and Information Literacy that Chad Haefele posted while I was in the middle of writing this. (great minds)
  • To get some more information about a character and place in the game some people used their local and university libraries. Someone was even so motivated that they used microfilm. Voluntarily.
  • The story spilled over into real life when we figured out that one of us had to snail mail letters – written in hexadecimal code mind you – to a development company and community group in Pennsylvania. (I looked at it as some sort of Dada prank, sent the letter, took a photo, emailed it to the game’s main character and in the process solved the first puzzle of the game. I was a little proud when the main character told everyone “The Librarian has saved.”)
  • Clues have come in the form of craigslist ads, images that need to be examined with photoshop, mp3s that need to be run through filters and edited in audacity, emails in English, Morse code (text and sound) and hexadecimal code, astronomical events, a recorded voice mail message a few phone calls too.
  • The story is unfolding at a glacial pace and people don’t seem to be impatient, in part because they’re playing many different ARGs at the same time.
  • One of the reasons why I think the story is being told slowly is because of unforeseen input by someone playing the game. One of the players had the clever thought to align himself with the story’s antagonist. Instead of working against this character, on a whim he started helping him. While this is slightly frustrating in-game because we were making good progress, out-of-game I’m fascinated at how the story can adapt to the players’ actions.

If you’d like to check out where people are reporting about and discussing the game, go to the Voices in the Static portion on unforum. And if you’re inspired you can register an account and join in, though you’ll have a decent amount of reading to do to catch up on the story. You could catch up by checking out the Voices in the Static wiki.

The potential for libraries using ARGs to teach media skills and for outreach/advertising is limited only by our imaginations and is something I’m going to be mulling over the next little while.