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For more than 16 weeks, some half a million players engaged in a kind of informational scavenger hunt, sometimes working in smaller teams, sometimes working together as a mass problem solving community.

The game required players to congregate together in both real and cyber space to collectively solve problems using information obtained online and then delivered to certain locations in the physical world. One puzzle required them to decrypt GPS location data, send participants at various times to hundreds of phone booths scattered across the continental United States, and respond within a matter of seconds to unanticipated questions delivered by a live actor. To give proper answers, each person had to trust an ad hoc group of strangers to instantly provide the information they needed.

The game’s unlikely name is ilovebees, which was the website for a fictional honey company that served as the “rabbit hole” or jumping off point for their activities. But the real twist behind the game was that it was created as a viral marketing ploy by 4orty2wo Entertainment for the Microsoft Xbox game, Halo 2.

Elan Lee and Sean Stewart, the founders of 4orty2wo Entertainment, are veterans of “The Beast,” a similar game created to generate interest in the Steven Spielberg film, Artificial Intelligence: A.I. The pair has pioneered a genre they describe as “search operas” but which the fans more often call “alternative reality games” (ARGs).

For hardcore players, these games can be so much more than viral marketing. These ARGs teach participants how to navigate complex information environments and how to pool their knowledge to solve problems.

Jane McGonigal, the primary community leader for ilovebees and Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that ARGs are generating “players who feel more capable, more confident, more expressive, more engaged and more connected in their everyday lives.”

Alternative reality gaming could be seen as a 21st century equivalent of a much older literary form – epistolary fiction. Many early novels, including Pamela (1740) Les Liaisons Dangereuse ( 1782 ) or The Sorrows of Young Werther (1815), consisted of fictional letters, journals, diaries, and newspaper accounts, which were presented by their authors with little acknowledgement of their fictional status. The authors often claimed to have found the materials in an old trunk or to have received them anonymously in the mail.

By comparison, consider how Stewart described the design of “The Beast” on his home page:

“Create an entire self-contained world on the (W)eb, say a thousand pages deep, and then tell a story through it, advancing the plot with weekly updates, concealing each new piece of narrative in such a way that it would take clever teamwork to dig it out.

“Create a vast array of assets – custom photos, movies, audio recordings, scripts, corporate blurbage, logos, graphic treatments, web sites, flash movies – and deploy them through a net of (untraceable) websites, phone calls, fax systems, leaks, press releases, phony newspaper ads, and so on ad infinitum.”

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