ARGs- Not Just For Pirates Anymore

ARGs, or alternative reality games, are the specialty game of Jane McGonigal.  They are fictional games played by interacting in reality, for example a massive hide-and-seek game coordinated through the internet where players earn fictional points through real life hide-and-seek games.  McGonigal’s games are meant to impact people in positive ways, whether they are for a greater good, such as raising awareness on our dependence on oil, or just making us feel better, such as the game Cruel2BKind.   But not all ARGs have this same message.  Many of them have been part of viral marketing campaigns for movies, such as the ARG for 2008’s The Dark Knight.  I really liked the concept of this game because it was a really innovative marketing scheme, it introduced the new characters fans would see in the film, and it appeals to both fans of the comic book and movie fans.  Plus there are lots of hidden bits for internet nerds to find, and thanks to my new-found HTML knowledge I got to find them too!

The plot of the game bridges between where Batman Begins left off and The Dark Knight begins, lasting a over year from March 2007 until the movie’s release in July 2008.  At the end of BB, Commissioner Gordon tells Batman of a new crime suspect, the Joker, and Gotham’s District Attorney has been killed.  Throughout the game, more about the joker’s insidious nature is revealed, as is Harvey Dent’s campaign for DA.  The game also lays the groundwork for Gotham’s problem with police/political corruption, which plays a large role in the plot line of TDK.

The first clue found was a number of defaced joker cards in a comic book store in southern California in May 2007, which led to the discovery of the first website,  People would submit their email addresses and once enough had been submitted, the first image of Heath Ledger as the Joker was posted on the website, the game’s first reward.

Then at San Diego Comic Con in July 2007, defaced $1 bills were found and led to which instructed participants to gather the next morning at 10 a.m.  A sky-written phone number led the joker’s new army on a scavenger hunt throughout the city, and after solving the clues, participants were given clown masks (used in the movie by the Joker’s accomplices) and a look the first teaser trailer for the movie.

In December 2007, revealed a nation-wide scavenger hunt where participants were sent to 22 locations to pick up a package, which turned out to be a cake with a cell phone hidden inside.  Texts from were sent to these phones at various points in the game, and their contracts were extended at various points in the game to let participants know the phones would still be important.

In March 2008, a Harvey Dent thread of the game was created, where participants signed up using their email address to participate in real-world campaigning for Dent.  In April a new joker scavenger hunt began, using to send participants to 26 locations to pick up another round of packages, which turned out to be green and purple bowling balls, and a new Joker cell phone.  Also in April, a Gotham Police Department thread of the game began, where participants were contacted by Commissioner Gordan via email and involved in a sting operation called ‘Operation Slipknot.’

In the two months before the movie’s release, the game led players to new trailers and posters for the movie, as well as episodes of Gotham Tonight (a fictional news show from the movie) announcing Harvey Dent’s election as DA and other updates.   The game culminated in the ‘jokerization’ of all the sites created for the game which was a puzzle that when solved, rewarded participants with tickets to a pre-release IMAX showing of the movie.  Participants who found cell phones received a text rewarding them with tickets to the IMAX even as well.

With such a complex story line, massive amounts of information, and dozens of websites being created, how did this games continue for so long?  Apart from the dedication of fans of the comic books who were excited for the movie, the levels of interactivity took part on multiple levels: websites, email, phone, online puzzles, and real-world scavenger hunts.

The websites were a major interactive feature in the game.  They were the platform for all the puzzles and games which led to the discovery of different story-lines and secret email addresses.  A number of “breaks” in the game came through looking at the source codes of the pages, or hidden messages on supposedly ‘dead’ pages.  For example, once was taken down,  and error message was displayed and hidden text reveals, “hahahahaha,” and the source code of has comments that read: .  Maniacal laughter is a calling card of the joker, and finding these hidden clues kept participants intrigued and looking for the next hidden message.

Phones were another major point of interaction.  Different websites would post numbers participants could call and listen to secret messages with the right extension.  At one point in November 2007, participants who entered their phone numbers online received a threatening phone call form a corrupt police officer, who revealed the location of a document for part of the game’s puzzle.  The cell phone scavenger hunt was not just another interactive feature of the game, but also was a teaser for the movie, because the joker planted cell phones on various police officers and characters in order to inform them of his actions.  Phones are our real-world connection to the cyber world since we use them for both calling and accessing the internet, so having a fictional character contact people while they are out in their normal day-to-day activities keeps the game in the player’s mind all the time.
The real-world events were done on a massive scale and had on-line events  so that people who  were unable to participate in could play along simultaneously.  At the end of each scavenger hunt, everyone was a winner outside of the game world because new information about the movie was released, whether it was a trailer or a poster for the online crowd, or memorabilia like the clown masks, newspapers, or cell phones for the real-world players.
A game of this length helps hype the movie for fans and shortens the wait between BB‘s release in 2005 and TDK‘s in 2008.  It also provides fans the missing information the movies couldn’t cover, an important aspect for hardcore fans of the comic book, which naturally the franchise wants to appease.  This was a really fun ARG to research, since the information is all kept in a wikia at, where fans who didn’t know about the game (like yours truly) can find out all the information.  Plus, most of the websites are still up, so fans can see in hindsight all of the hints the game revealed about TDK.  Luckily, the folks behind this ARG are at it again, and a viral campaign may already be going on for next summer’s The Dark Knight Rises.  A hidden image was revealed on after fans discovered a secret twitter hashtag- #thefirerises and that tweeting @thefirerises would add their picture to a larger mosaic, revealing a first look at the character Bane.  Now that I’ve found out so much about ARGs, I can say I’ll definitely be following any development of a TDKR ARG.