This article is part of a series on Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG), particularly as it relates to cutting-edge computing technologies.

Previous articles (here and here) set out the starting point for this series, which is the idea that while the truth or nature of any construct may be questioned, the consequences of that construct’s existence should be considered independently of its other characteristics. In other words, beliefs have consequences and power independent of whether they are true, and games are an excellent example of powerful motivators which may be based on entirely and deliberately false beliefs. Furthermore, ARGs – which invariably use the internet as a kind of “binding medium” – can be thought of as computational systems or cybernetic organisms which can explore and adapt to their environments much as living beings do. ARGs are (or at least have the potential to be) distributed, intelligent computational systems operating across a number of different platforms and paradigms.

In this series, we will be exploring three broad types of ARG activity which might be envisaged as part of this cybernetic framework, which may be considered to correspond with Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Operating System / User Experience (OS/UX) technologies. VR tech maps on to the creation of environments of various types to explore, from narrative to set design to world-building. Within an ARG, VR activity may be considered as that in which an experiential space of some sort is created and offered for exploration. AI tech is also exploratory, but in a more outward-facing sense, being focused on developing networks and making connections external to the ARG’s initial resource pool. In other words, AI does not offer a pre-constructed space to explore as VR does, but is itself characterized by exploration and creation of new frontiers and possibilities. The Blockchain is a good example of AI mode technology because its defining feature is the growth of networks which can be used to manage resources and solve problems in previously unexplored or disconnected spaces.

Beyond these VR and AI modes (which is to say beyond the system’s capacity for directly managing its internal and external environments), there is a third type of ARG activity necessary to intelligently coordinate the system’s overall behavior. OS/UX mode is essentially an interpretive layer or subsystem which bridges the gap between the ARG’s hardware substrate and most fundamental resources on the one hand, and its intelligent subsystems (VR/AI modes) and other associated software on the other, just as an Operating System does for traditional computers. This third mode also bridges the gap between deep system resources and ARG participants (and software agents, and any/all other users) via User Experience (UX) designed interfaces of various types. For a quick, memorable summary of these ideas, imagine a very simple living creature – something like a jellyfish, perhaps – whose biological functions can be broadly grouped into three categories as follows:

1. Manage internal environment and resources.
2. Explore, manage, and reproduce in external environment/resources.
3. Mediate between the above systems on the one hand (i.e. resources and the organs which directly deal with them), and more complex and subtle subsystems within the organism – its higher cognitive functions, perhaps – on the other.

Example from the Zero State Alternate Reality Game (ZS-ARG)

Zero State (ZS) is an ARG, associated with The Foundation and Metric Media, based on the premise that Transhumans from the future are working to shape early 21st Century events to ensure human survival. The game is named after the future civilization those people come from, which is governed by a system of twelve AIs collectively called The Array. Each AI, when acting alone, acts as leader of a vast organization called a House – one of twelve, something like a cross between vast tribes and corporations.


*Sem- and *Bhu- are word roots from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language, more or less meaning “same” and “become”. Together, these roots suggest a process of convergence, and offer a possible origin for the name of the mythic city of Shamballah (Sambhal). The name Sem-Bhu reflects this House’s function within ZS (both the fictional future State and the real ARG), which is to bind ZS’ various elements together as a single functional whole, operating together effectively as an organism. House Sem-Bhu does that by maintaining three agencies (called Sections) which interact with the other Houses, organizing and facilitating their activities in ways that correspond to the three modes: VR (Section 5), AI (Section 6), OS/UX (Section 7).

Of course, these distinctions are not too strict – complex systems are fluid things – but they do offer a kind of guide by which the system is focused on the same basic environmental interactions that characterize intelligence and life. House Sem-Bhu is itself considered to be part of Section 7, a kind of “higher function” in the ZS organism, and the remaining articles in this series will discuss other cybernetic functions which can be instantiated in ARGs and similar meta-systems.

* hero image used from Adobe Stock