This is not a game

Have you ever experienced an Alternate Reality Game or did you stumble upon an article of this genre? Then you probably heard of the term “This is not a game”. My first reaction was to frown upon the term. Nowadays I use the same words and it has become the subject of my graduation. What does it mean? Where does it come from? What is TINAG exactly?

At the end of the trailer for the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, the phrase “This Is Not A Game” flashed in red. Not a flaw; the trailer was the “Rabbit Hole” (entry point) into the massive online promotion that started the ARG hype. The game, now known as “the Beast”, took hundreds of thousands players into the ‘TINAG’ state of mind.

That was fourteen years ago, and things haven’t changed much. If you play ARG’s you will hear the term a lot. While many people don’t know for sure if players can play “not a game”, Jane McGonigal, mentions that it is the performance on the part of the players and that players are, essentially, playing at not playing a game.

Why players of Alternate Reality Games enjoy performing is not my thesis at the moment, but it does help explain why the community has chosen this term “This Is Not A Game”. It provides them a reminder that they are playing a game and are enjoying the experience of pretending that they’re not. The players are setting a wall between the real world and the imagined, alternate, world.

While “This Is Not A Game” is owned by the players, “TINAG” is owned by the puppetmasters. However, the distinction between the way that the phrase is used by the players (as a reminder) and the puppetmasters (as a philosophy) is frequently misunderstood.

TINAG was first laid out by Elan Lee, Lead Developer of the Beast (and I Love Bees). He tought three rules: don’t tell anyone, don’t define the game space, and, most importantly, don’t build a game. What is important and often forgotten is the audience for which these rules were intended: Game Developers.

Clarification on the concept was made by Lee during a personal interview with McGonigal, who joined him in creating I Love Bees.

[T]he immersive experience of the game was always intended to be reflective and conscious, enjoyed on a meta-level. “It was a delicate balancing act to make sure the game and the meta-game worked in synchronicity,” Lee said. Players were never meant to believe the “This is not a game” rhetoric, he explained, but rather to be baited by it. “It was obviously a game,” Lee said. “There was nothing we could do about that. What we could do was make it a game with an identity crisis. If I know it’s a game, and you know it’s a game, but IT doesn’t know it’s a game, then we’ve got a conflict. source

Simply, TINAG gives puppetmasters (ARG designers) with a philosophy to support their game design. By following the ‘rules’, puppetmasters are afforded the ability to build a full and complete world that believes that it is as real as our own.

The first rule of TINAG is “don’t tell anyone”. You need to work in the shadows for quite a while. It creates an air of mystery which will (hopefully) draw players and press. The players themselves can use this mystery to further support the illusion as well as their “This Is Not A Game” which delivers a greater level of immersion.

The second rule of TINAG is “don’t build a game space”. A game space is simply set area that reminds players that it is a game (like a table with monopoly). For example, had the Beast only occurred online and had popups containing texts with “This website is pure fictional”, a game space would have been built. Had a game space been built, the game would not have been able to fake as the real world with emails, phone calls, and live events. Furthermore, with such a rigid world and the constant reminders of the game, players would not have been able to play at not playing a game.

And the last rule of TINAG is “don’t build a game”. As game designers, puppetmasters are a unique breed in that they do not build games. They build experiences that are games that don’t know that they are games, they build experiences that need to look and feel real. To do that effectively, the game world has to be fully fleshed out and consistent. Every detail must have been thought off (The purpose of a website, people connected with it, hosting etc), all email addresses and phone numbers must be working and respond appropriately.

That is the TINAG philosophy taken to its most basic form. It is purely a design philosophy and the designers are giving players the ability to be fully immersed in their carefully tinkered storyworld.

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