Bull in a china shop: Alternate reality games and transgressive fan play in social media franchises

Burcu S. Bakioğlu

Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In this article I examine the role of fan ARGs in Lonelygirl15 (LG15), a video blog that became one of the first social media franchises of YouTube. Eager to explore the narrative possibilities of Internet technologies, its creators set out to provide community-based storytelling that embodied the general spirit of coauthorship. To ensure viral distribution, the videos were shot to evoke the maximum amount of curiosity, teasing their viewers with a seemingly simple plot laden with clues that promised a deeper mystery. While fan creativity was encouraged, the concerns over creating a commercially viable story led to careful management of fan activities and strict definition of the boundaries of the LG15 canon. Intrigued by the mysterious beginnings of the show, some fans created ARG spin-offs to deliver a more engaging experience than the show initially offered. I argue that early fan ARGs became tactics through which fans engaged in transgressive play and negotiated a more meaningful role within the franchise.

[0.2] Keywords—ARG; Digi-Gratis; Drillable media; Fandom; Lonelygirl15; Paratext; Spreadable media; YouTube

Bakioğlu, Burcu S. 2014. "Bull in a China Shop: Alternate Reality Games and Transgressive Fan Play in Social Media Franchises." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The economic success of Lonelygirl15 (hereafter LG15), a video blog (vlog) that became an overnight sensation on YouTube in 2006, could be considered a breakthrough for the video-sharing site. The issue of building a revenue model around audiences has always been front and center for YouTube, especially since its acquisition by Google in 2006 (Wasko and Erickson 2009, 373; McDonald 2009, 391; Andrejevic 2009, 409). Despite their challenges, the creators of LG15, Milles Beckett, Mesh Flinders, and Greg Goodfried, not only generated a robust community around the show but also leveraged it to build one of YouTube's first social media franchises, defined by Derek Johnson as "the shared exchange of content resources across multiple industrial sites and contexts of production operating in collaborative but contested ways through networked relation to one another" (2013, 7). The creators were able to transform their videos into spreadable as well as drillable media through the rhetoric of collaborative storytelling that encouraged ludic participation.

[1.2] LG15 (2006–8) starts as a vlog of a frustrated 16-year-old girl named Bree who makes brief videos about her life, her best friend, Daniel, and her conflicts with her parents. Underneath this seemingly innocuous story line, however, a full-blown conspiracy waits to be unveiled. A dangerous cult called the Order is using a fictional secretive religion called the Hymn of One to recruit girls with trait-positive blood types to participate in a mysterious ceremony suspected to be a virgin sacrifice. Seemingly getting cues from the fans, Daniel and Bree decide to run away to save Bree. The three seasons of LG15—the first in which Bree dies in the ceremony and the subsequent seasons entitled Bloodlines and Revelations—all relate the stories of these trait-positive girls who are perpetually on the run. Within months of the first video, dozens of fan spin-offs emerged, some of which were alternate reality games (ARGs).

[1.3] ARGs are immersive games that blur the lines between reality and fiction by conveying a hybrid gaming experience through online and off-line mechanisms. The gameplay consists of solving complex puzzles that unlock various stages of the game, retrieving clues scattered across the Web or in real-world locations, receiving and making phone calls, and even participating in live events. Their effectiveness in building communities around stories through play is what makes them so powerful as games. For this reason, ARGs have frequently been deployed as a form of viral marketing for shows like Lost (2004–10) and Heroes (2006–10) that have used these games to build a robust following.

[1.4] Contrary to how these games have been traditionally deployed by the media industries, that is, to maintain interest in and expand on the franchises during their off-seasons, early fan ARGs of LG15 played a disruptive role in the development of the show. To be sure, ARGs expanded the dedicated audience that the franchise had built, but they also fostered a niche group of fans who developed different expectations from the show. This group was particularly fond of solving mysteries, a trait intentionally cultivated by the creators of the show to trigger viral marketing. But the group members also had a taste for darker themes, mysteries, and thrillers that were characteristically ARGish. Soon, another plot emerged within the LG15 universe with its own heroine, Cassie, who gathered her own dedicated following that temporarily overshadowed the popularity of the main character of the original videos, Bree.

[1.5] This renegade story line that went by the name Cassie Is Watching (CiW) (named after the YouTube account that posted its videos) offered real-life interactions through phone calls, dead drops, and mysterious e-mails to the fans and the press. Its videos boasted a freakish voice-over, a psychedelic soundtrack, and creepy editing that included scenes from the Charles Manson murders and seemingly unrelated images shot in a mysterious playground. The first video ended with a bag being dropped in a swimming hole in which Bree had once swum, and the narrative line invited fans to "come and get it." With this invitation, a cat and mouse game began. The response was staggering. Rumors swirled around who was behind these videos. The community was torn asunder as a result of this odd spin-off. While ARG veterans rejoiced at the new direction that the story seemed to be taking, other fans were terrified that Cassie would replace Bree. This was partially a valid concern. If the number of Cassie-related posts in the LG15 forums were any indication, Cassie had executed a hostile takeover of their beloved story.

[1.6] What made LG15 so appealing was that it began as a community-led collaborative storytelling initiative that relied on active and committed consumers. For the LG15 team, this was a strategy that allowed them to cut through the noise in an overcrowded media marketplace, a maneuver that is becoming increasingly common for the media industry (Jenkins 2006; Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013; Caldwell 2008). At the same time, Jenkins claims, the media industry is "terrified of what happens if this consumer power gets out of control" (2006, 134). The LG15 team experienced similar anxieties as they built their videos into a social media franchise. The pressure to build a commercially sustainable show led the team to carefully manage fan activities and regulate the boundaries of the LG15 canon.

[1.7] The following is an analysis of how some of the fans pushed back through transgressive play that became a tactic through which they negotiated a more meaningful role within the franchise. Espen Aarseth (2007) defines transgressive play as a sign of rebellion against the tyranny of the game wherein the player plays the game in a unique, unpredictable way, thereby asserting her own identity as a player. While LG15 was not specifically a game, the ludic engagement that its videos cultivated in the audience led to them being perceived as such. Intrigued by the mysterious beginnings of LG15, fans created ARG spin-offs to deliver a more engaging experience than what was originally available in the show. The significant following that the ARGs gathered within the LG15 community allowed these spin-offs to open up the official LG15 canon and introduce fan-created content into the main show.

[1.8] I open this article with a discussion of how the LG15 team transformed their show into a social media franchise by implementing a ludic narrative structure that mobilized the participatory culture that flourishes on YouTube. Within a matter of months, dozens of fan spin-offs, including ARGs, emerged within the LG15 universe that consisted of all possible worlds linked to LG15 by a relation of accessibility (Ryan 1991). In the subsequent sections, I consider fan spin-offs to be paratexts that recontextualized the show in dramatic ways, and I develop a theoretical framework in which ARGs could be considered as games that cultivate transgressive play. Finally, I turn to LG15 to demonstrate that the early ARGs temporarily destabilized the show through transgressive play and opened up the official canon to fan-generated content.

[1.9] The bulk of my research was conducted in 2006–7 when the show was at its peak in terms of its popularity and fan participation. I examined hundreds of videos and thousands of comments to identify key fans and community interactions. In addition to content analysis of various LG15 sites and forums, I conducted interviews through Skype, Gchat, Internet Relay Chat, and in person with some of the fans and a few people who worked for the creative team. Unfortunately, the site and the fan-created LGPedia were taken down entirely after the company was purchased by Everyday Health in 2012. Consequently, a good portion of the content has disappeared from the Internet.

2. Building the china shop

[2.1] As a Web-based grassroots project, LG15's economic viability was suspect right from the beginning. The production of the videos was initially financed with savings, credit cards, and some help from the parents of the creative team (note 1). They were seeking a stable revenue model built around audiences, but to do so, they needed to get noticed, and this required creative ways to cut through the noise of thousands of videos uploaded daily. In the absence of a dedicated budget, the team had no choice but to rely on viral distribution of their videos. With that in mind, they linked their videos to other popular videos to attract views and shot their videos to pique the maximum amount of curiosity. The goal was to tease their viewers with a seemingly simple plot laden with clues that shrouded the videos with mystery yet promised something deeper underneath the surface.

[2.2] The techniques used by the LG15 team were standard viral marketing techniques, to be sure, but they were also able to transform these videos into spreadable media by tapping into the participatory culture native to YouTube. Viral marketing is a type of advertisement wherein the audience distributes content through word of mouth, viral videos, e-mail forwards, and link exchanges. The limitation of this model is that it assumes a passive audience who merely acts as an agent of distribution (Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013, 20). By contrast spreadable media, in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green's (2013) formulation, emphasize the role of the networked communities that undergird viral marketing. Such media embrace a hybrid model of circulation "where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces determine how material is shared across and among cultures in far more participatory (and messier) ways" (1). In this latter model, consumers are no longer the distributers of preconstructed messages but are actively shaping the media flows by reframing, remixing, and sharing media content. This form of advertisement facilitates a deeper engagement, but it also gets complicated as audiences share content sometimes with the permission of the rights holders, at other times in unauthorized ways and in unapproved forms. Ultimately, this mode of engagement became the reason why fans stuck with LG15 long after the mystery was gone.

[2.3] Paul Booth coined the term Digi-Gratis to describe the type of digital economy that spreadable media generates (2010, 24). For Booth, the concept comprises the hybrid economic arrangements in which networked communities engage (2010, 24). In these arrangements, a market economy and a gift economy coexist not just in conflict with each other, but also in symbiosis. As a form of free advertisement, this economic model serves the interests of the media companies; its driving engine is the gift economy that relies on audiences to exchange links and videos and to remix content freely without pay. Jenkins, Ford, and Green explain that "it is precisely the hybrid nature of these exchanges, the fluidity with which digital content moves among different kinds of transactions, sometimes functioning as a gift and sometimes as an advertisement for commercial gain or social advancement that makes it so hard to determine the value, worth, and meaning of such materials" (2013, 91). In Booth's formulation, ARGs exemplify the Digi-Gratis economy because these games are born out of commercial interests but are mobilized through a community freely collaborating to overcome the most challenging hurdles (2010, 24–25). Consequently, these games have been frequently deployed as a part of marketing campaigns both for entertainment franchises and new products introduced into the market.

[2.4] Although LG15 did not start as an ARG, the creators' decision to shoot videos to pique the maximum amount of curiosity inevitably led to a puzzle-solving mentality among its fan base. In fact, the videos' founding premise before they were exposed as a show (i.e., whether or not Bree was real) was a puzzle that the fans collaborated on in order to solve. Perhaps to strengthen their identification with the participatory culture flourishing on YouTube and not appear to have corporate ambitions, the LG15 team hid behind the aura of amateurism, neither accepting nor denying the fictional status of their videos. According to Rushfield and Hoffman, this ambiguity ensured viral distribution of the videos in the earlier stages (Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2006).

[2.5] Almost overnight, Bree's videos caught the attention of thousands, some offering heartfelt advice, while others questioned their authenticity. As early as the third video, some followers surmised that this was a marketing scheme initiated by Hollywood for a movie in the vein of The Blair Witch Project (1999). While Hollywood was not behind it, the team did have plans for a movie to be distributed through iTunes. Greg Goodfried, in an interview conducted by Catherine Morris, explained that the team changed their movie idea once they realized that there was a new, fast-growing market that no one had truly broken into yet (2009, 26). It took only a few months to expose the videos as fake, but by then the original series of LG15 had received over 50 million combined views (Bebo, April 13, 2007), a feat that captured the attention of such big media outlets as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, MTV, Yahoo!, and Wired, all of which gave extensive coverage to the show.

[2.6] Like the early television fandom who utilized novelty technologies such as the VCR and online discussion boards to crack the mysteries of Twin Peaks (1990–91) (Jenkins 2006), so too did the LG15 fans deploy the affordances of the Internet to solve the mystery behind Bree's videos. Naturally, the witch hunt-style investigation that aimed to expose the videos as a commercial venture translated into deeper audience engagement and amplified the hype around the show. One fan discovered that the domain name of a phony fan site was registered prior to the first video posted on YouTube, a discovery that unquestionably undermined the authenticity of the vlogs. Another fan noted that the site was registered on the same day that Bree's MySpace page and Yahoo! e-mail addresses were created (on March 12). In August 2006, yet another fan discovered and posted the trademark application by Goodfried, which suggested that these videos were at least in part a commercial venture. Then, in September 2006, three tech-savvy fans, working together, set up a sting on the e-mail address that was being used by Bree; the operation netted them the Internet address of a computer at Creative Artists Agency, the Beverly Hills talent agency that represented the team (Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2006). A few days later, Matt Foremski, while searching Google's cache of online sites, found the original MySpace page of the actress who played Bree and revealed her identity as Jessica Lee Rose (Silicon Valley Watcher, September 12, 2006).

[2.7] While the fictional status of Bree had long been suspected, the confirmed fictional status of the videos elicited much outrage among some of the fan base and almost threatened to end the show (Brooke 2006). Some were ready to accept it for what it was, as good entertainment, but others felt cheated and betrayed because they took Bree's plight for real and offered their heartfelt advice to someone they believed to be a young girl in distress. Comments accusing her of being fake lasted for months, and some fans even posted their own videos on YouTube expressing their anger and disappointment at being treated like idiots. The incident opened up discussions regarding authenticity and deception on YouTube. Through these debates, the YouTube community developed a more sophisticated approach to the possibilities of its platform. One could argue that YouTube grew up with LG15 in more ways than one. The backlash was substantial, but it only added to the hype around the show.

[2.8] In the end, the show weathered the raucous debates that flooded the comment boards, forums, and YouTube. Once these videos were discovered to be a show, its creative team clarified that their intention was not to trick the audience but rather to explore the narrative possibilities of Internet technologies. Ultimately, they explained, their goal was to create a community-based storytelling that embodied the general spirit of coauthorship (MTV, September 14, 2006). They explained that they wanted their fans to help them usher in an "era of interactive storytelling where the line between 'fan' and 'star' has been removed, and dedicated fans…are paid for their efforts" (Brooke 2006). True to their promise, they developed a loose narrative structure that enabled them to steer the story according to the feedback they received from the audience. Fans who stuck around wanted to be a part of the show with the understanding that LG15 opened the doors to a new form of storytelling. With the personal encouragement of the creators, dozens of spin-offs emerged around the official videos. This conceptual stand, however, proved impossible to implement in the long term as the show grew into a franchise too big to incorporate any meaningful interactivity, and legal concerns forced the team to draw a distinct line between fan and official content.

[2.9] Although LG15 started on YouTube as a series of videos, the creative team's long-term ambitions to build an economically sustainable storytelling initiative using social media sites pushed them to look into ways to expand their project outside of YouTube. To do so, they considered ways to harness the creative labor of networked audiences as well as form lucrative business partnerships that allowed them to tap into audiences that had not yet been reached. Despite the democratic discourse surrounding user-generated content sites, Johnson postulates that the inclusion of the use and reuse of content by networked users does not imply a "utopian aura of empowerment or emancipation, but instead a more ambivalent recognition of the contradictory positions offered to and taken up by consumers with the institutions of media franchising" (Johnson 2013, 199). The LG15 team maximized this potential by pitching their show to audiences as a collaborative storytelling project once they were exposed.

[2.10] In order to generate revenue, the team started selling LG15 merchandise, receiving fan donations, and posting their videos on Revver because the site placed advertisements on videos and shared the revenue with the video owners. Once the show received a steady viewership (1.5 million views per week, or 300,000 to 400,000 per episode), the team began accepting product placements such as Hershey Icebreaker Sours and Neutrogena and formed partnerships with other media companies (note 2). Its partnership with Bebo led to a cobranded spin-off, KateModern (2007–8), in England. After KateModern came to a close and LG15 was about to wrap up, EQAL licensed the franchise to Poland and produced N1ckola (2009) with two other companies, Agora and A2 Multimedia. As a final step, the creators opened up the franchise to the fans with their contest The Show Is Yours where fans created pilots for a fan spin-off that was to be showcased on the official LG15 site (note 3).

[2.11] The initial mystery regarding the authenticity of the videos set the tone for how the show was to be watched. Underneath the ranting of a 16-year-old teen, dozens of clues embedded within the videos suggested a mysterious world ready to be discovered. Right from the start, the show appropriated a ludic narrative logic designed to cultivate a puzzle-solving mentality in its audience. Jason Mittell, an avid Lost fan who actively participated in the show's ARG, Lost Experience, explained that this form of storytelling "promotes a model of 'forensic fandom,' a mode of television engagement encouraging research, collaboration, analysis, and interpretation" (Mittell 2009a, 128–30; Mittell 2009b, ¶2.3). According to Mittell, to be a Lost fan is to embrace a detective mentality to seek out clues, patterns, and information that lead to the formulation of theories about the show. Forensic fandom, however, encourages a different mode of engagement than does spreadable media. Calling this form of engagement drillable media, Mittell explains that it invites viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story. Conceptualizing spreadable and drillable media to be opposing vectors of cultural engagement, he elaborates: "Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement. Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but they occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text's complexities" (Mittell n.d.). ARG players, armed with a keen forensic sensibility, constituted this type of fandom within the larger LG15 community.

[2.12] The LG15 fans caught on as early as the seventh video that they were supposed to be looking "for hidden meanings, undertones and keywords or phrases" and that this was not merely an Internet teen drama. When Bree started talking about her mysterious religion in episode 15 ("Me, Religion, and Daniel" posted to YouTube on August 10, 2006), her past in episode 17 ("Mysteries of My Past…REVEALED!!!" posted to YouTube on August 18, 2006), and the religious ceremony in which her parents wanted her to participate in episode 23 ("A Change in My Life" posted to YouTube on September 3, 2006) fans were sure that this was some kind of a game. Forums flooded with speculations about her parents' mysterious religion. From the clues hidden in Bree's bedroom, fans suspected that their religion was some kind of a satanic cult connected to Aleister Crowley, an influential English occultist, astrologer, mystic, and ceremonial magician who founded the religious philosophy of Thelema. As the show progressed, they surmised that the ceremony was some kind of a virgin sacrifice for which only girls with the purity bond were selected. The nature of this bond was a bit unclear. What was remarkable was that the show responded to how fans interpreted clues, a tendency that became more obvious as the show progressed. In this fashion, LG15 was able to benefit from both ends of the spectrum of media engagement. It was spreadable as well as drillable, with both types of activities reinforcing each other.

[2.13] Soon enough, however, some of the game-savvy fans expected the show (and wanted it) to develop into an ARG. But that didn't happen. In fact, much to their dismay, these fans found out later that the creative team did not know what an ARG was until they read about it through the fan message boards. Even so, the ludic narrative logic that started LG15, along with the idea of a community-based storytelling initiative, generated quite a buzz that resulted in the team receiving $5 million in venture capital to expand its offerings (Hendrickson 2008). As the views climbed up to millions, different fans cultivated different expectations for the show. Some of them were intrigued by the mysteries embedded in the show, while others were attracted by the idea of a storytelling experiment that included their contributions. In the absence of any systematically designed ARG experience, those who were interested in the gamelike attributes of the show took it upon themselves to create their own ARGs. The introduction of these games was to become a turning point for the franchise.

3. Paratextual considerations

[3.1] What made LG15 a YouTube hit, even after its exposure, was that it was a storytelling experiment that used the affordances of emerging technologies and the Internet. In order to do so, the creators subtly modeled fan behavior and openly solicited participation. For example, the show's characters were initially introduced as fans responding to the LG15 characters, giving the real fans a false sense of hope that if they interacted with the characters, they too might become a part of the show. In case the message wasn't clear, the creators also sent fans messages through the forums encouraging them to create their own characters, hinting that in the future some of these could be integrated into the show (note 4). Within a matter of months, dozens of fan spin-offs emerged around the LG15 universe, otherwise known as Breeniverse. Marie-Laure Ryan explains that a narrative universe comprises a plurality of distinct worlds, or possible worlds, structured by their relation to the actual world situated in the center. For a world to be a possible world, it must be linked to the actual world "by a relation of accessibility" (1991, 16–21). Although fan content could be considered as possible worlds, the team carefully defined the boundaries of the LG15 canon by making sure fan videos were framed as secondary content not essential to the understanding of the main show in any way.

[3.2] To be sure, the spin-offs, fan videos, and the commentary that emerged around the creator-delimited Breeniverse functioned as paratexts, or ancillary materials, but scholars have advanced the idea that such artifacts recontextualize main content in substantial ways. Gérard Genette (1987) is one of the early scholars to consider the importance of these secondary elements. His examination of things like tables of contents, titles, and reviews reveals that such materials help shape the reader's experience and give meaning to the act of reading. Media scholars like Mia Consalvo (2007) and Jonathan Gray (2010) bring to focus the value of subsidiary artifacts within the media industry. Looking at the game industry, Consalvo examines the role of external elements like game magazines, strategy guides, and discussion boards; she postulates that they facilitate speedy advancement in the game and thus play an integral role in shaping the game experience. Gray examines elements like promos, trailers, and posters, and observes that these texts, which are merely designed to generate hype, act as filters through which the primary text acquires meaning. By all accounts, then, paratexts play a central role in the meaning-making process of the primary text.

[3.3] What is different in the case of LG15 is that the paratextual materials, including promotional materials for the show, have largely been produced by fans. As they collaborated to make sense of the clues hidden in the videos and speculated on the theories of how the plot was to unfold, they created a lot of content projecting these speculations, remixing and reperforming some of the scenes. This content formed the basis of the show's paratexts, and these paratexts in turn recontextualized the show's meaning for others. Scholars have long since considered texts, literary or otherwise, to be formations rather than static artifacts as they view reading as a process that requires the performance of a range of acts (Barthes 1977; Lavagnino 1995; Gunder 2001). Roland Barthes, for instance, distinguishes between work and text and argues that while the former is the physical object that can be held in the hand, the latter is "experienced only in an activity of production" (1977, 157). The text, Barthes observes, gathers the work up as play, activity, production, and/or practice by asking from its reader a practical collaboration (1977, 162–63). In the case of LG15, collaboration was quite literal as the fans reframed the official content in a range of diverse contexts (note 5).

[3.4] Through parodies, extensions, and role-playing games, the early spin-offs playfully extended the main show in various directions. No doubt these paratexts required the performance of a range of meaning-making activities and recontextualized the main show, but they did so within parameters defined by the creators. Significant to note here is that these activities came about only after some of the riddles in the show had been solved by a group of fans. This group of fans constituted the core of the forensic fandom that Mittell observes in Lost. For them, at least in the beginning, LG15 was interesting primarily because of the puzzles it presented and because through solving these puzzles, they partook in advancing the plot.

[3.5] This group of fans wanted more than just a story. They preferred an experience that was more immediate, more interactive. Frequently, the interactivity in LG15 felt staged to the point that fans eventually dubbed it as interfaketivity. For them, LG15 was falling short of exploring the narrative possibilities that the Web afforded. In an interview conducted on April 20, 2009, Jeromy Barber, the puppetmaster of the fan ARG Maddison Atkins, describes the fakeness of the interactivity in LG15 as if someone had "decorated [his] house with furniture made of cardboard and rented it out as fully furnished." He explains that even though he did not enjoy the show much, it was the idea of Web distribution, interactive narrative, and immediate feedback from the audience that attracted him. It was when he experienced Cassie Is Watching (CiW), the first fan ARG, that he recognized the startling possibilities of the Internet medium. Those who were interested in this sort of engagement then set out to create paratexts of a different kind. In addition to CiW, numerous fan ARGs emerged within the LG15 universe, including opAphid, Maddison Atkins, and Redearth, all of which were independent projects that aimed to expand and refurnish the LG15 universe.

[3.6] As paratexts, ARGs took LG15 in a different direction. They had darker themes that promised to open up the doors to more mysteries within the LG15 universe, but these themes may not have been appropriate for an initiative that was trying to attract advertisers. Still they presented a much more engaging form of experience, and because of that, they garnered a surprisingly significant following. Fans were divided as to how to react to this new development. The creator of CiW was unknown (and still is), so fans weren't sure whether or not the LG15 team was behind it. After all, LG15 also began with questions regarding its authenticity. If it were an official part of the canon, it presented another problem, at least for some of the fans. Some of the hard-core Bree followers were decidedly worried that these new themes and characters might steal the show. This group did not find the gamelike qualities of the show all that appealing and they were worried that this was the new direction that the show was going to take. In other words, CiW created a schism amongst fans. In the next section, I elaborate on the characteristics of ARGs to demonstrate how their open-ended game structure could evolve into a transgressive play style that created this unrest within the LG15 universe.

4. ARGs as transgressive play

[4.1] The term alternate is a misleading characterization of the nature of ARGs. Unlike what the term alternate reality may seem to imply, these games do not submerge the player within an alternative world, but rather integrate the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player herself. Therefore, the ultimate goal is to have the player believe that the events and characters exist in her life world, not in an alternative reality at all (Szulborski 2005). According to the ARG scholar and game designer Jane McGonigal (2005), alternate realities should be understood as real worlds that use games as metaphors. Alternative realities, on the other hand, are realities one chooses between, such as when one logs onto a virtual world, a computer-generated 3D environment like Second Life or World of Warcraft, in which all events occur within the confines of that reality and have no bearing on any other reality outside of it. The ARG player is not faced with such a choice. When participating in alternate reality games, she experiences both worlds, the real world and the game world, concurrently. To state this point more concretely, fictional characters in an ARG might very well reach out to the player using the player's home phone number or send mail to her home address, or a player could participate in real-world events where she interacts with the characters as if they existed in real life.

[4.2] To an outsider, ARGs do not appear to be games at all. In fact, if the genre's oft-cited principle "This Is Not a Game" is any indication, an ARG must deny that it is a game, and instead, demand to be recognized as real, even as the players are acutely aware that they are playing a game. Elan Lee, one of the leading designers of the first ARG, The Beast, says that they intentionally nurtured this dubious attitude in their game, noting that their goal was to create a game with an identity crisis (quoted in McGonigal 2003). The players are not duped into taking the realness of the game at face value, but display a performance of belief in the game's reality and actively work to erase all the markers of gameness that they may encounter along the way (McGonigal 2003).

[4.3] One could argue that ARGs' intentional refusal of gameness is transgressive by nature, giving the gamers permission to disregard all the traditional characteristics that are associated with games. For starters, ARGs do not have a predefined game space, or what Johan Huizinga (1950) refers to as a magic circle. Instead, through strategy and make-believe, they transform everyday spaces into playgrounds. Nor do they use specific pieces or assets that mark them as games. Rather, they implement tools and methods that are already integrated into players' daily lives, such as phones, e-mail, SMS, and Web sites. The only interfaces in ARGs are the same ones regularly used to communicate in the real world. Their lack of a predefined rule set or a win-or-loss scenario is counterintuitive, but puppetmasters (or game designers) make up for this by generating a sort of rulebook as the game progresses. They monitor the gameplay diligently, and through their responses, they reward correct actions while discouraging incorrect ones (Szulborski 2005, 6–15; Dena 2007, 238–41).

[4.4] From the beginning, one could argue that LG15 displayed a similar identity crisis. It insisted that it was not a show, nor did it admit to being a game. But at the same time, it integrated a ludic narrative structure to lure audiences into its world. That mysterious world was to become the reality against which the fan ARGs built their alternate realities. The first ARG, CiW, went to extreme efforts to create an ambiguity around whether or not the game was created by the LG15 team. Being affiliated with the LG15 team meant that the world it created would be officially in the LG15 canon and thus would be a part of the show or a part of the reality constructed by the show. For some fans, the game's ambiguous beginnings were all the confirmation they needed to assume that the game was indeed official. After all, LG15 also had started amidst similar ambiguities. CiW went further, however. Not only did it toy around with its own authenticity, but it also acted like an unruly child rebelling against its parent, LG15. In that respect, it perpetuated a transgressive play style within the LG15 universe.

[4.5] Game scholars have noted that transgressive play is inherent in all games to a certain extent, mostly as a result of the unpredictability of the user agent. In fact, one could argue that it is essentially a form of meaningful play described by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004) as emerging from the interaction between players and the game as well as from the context in which the game is played. In this sense, "an action a player takes in a game results in the creation of new meanings within the system" (33–34) and it could be argued that transgressive play is just that, new unpredicted meanings. The default mode of play in ARGs is typically transgressive. This is mainly because of the identity crisis that has defined the gaming genre right from the get-go: a rule-breaking game cultivates rule-breaking players. Espen Aarseth defines transgressive play as the struggle against the game's ideal player, a concept that emerges from his own formulation of the implied player (1997, 127; 2007, 132). He repurposes the term from Wolfgang Iser (1978) who, as a part of his formulation of a theory of the act of reading, uses it to refer to the fictional construct that the text addresses. The implied reader, according to Iser, is a hypothetical construct that embodies all the predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect. It follows that the implied player, as articulated by Aarseth, "can be seen as a role made for the player by the game, a set of expectations that the player must fulfill for the game to 'exercise its effect'" (Aarseth 2007, 132). But as Aarseth observes, real players do unexpected things "often just because these actions are not explicitly forbidden" (2007, 132), and in some cases, because they are explicitly forbidden. Transgressive play, then, "is a symbolic gesture of rebellion against the tyranny of the game, a (perhaps illusory) way for the played subject to regain their sense of identity and uniqueness through the mechanisms of the game itself" (Aarseth 2007, 132). Given its origins, it is not much of a stretch to consider that the implied players of ARGs are those who adopt transgressive play. Even though the modus operandi of an ARG is transgressive, when framed within the boundaries of an entertainment franchise, it bears the possibility to become disruptive unless carefully regulated.

[4.6] In an ARG, unpredictability is exactly what is necessary to bring the electronic world to life. A "Do Not Enter" sign is a direct invitation for an ARG player to figure out ways to get past the restriction. Anything could happen depending on how players choose to interact with the game, leading the outcome to be anybody's guess. Sean C. Stacey (2006), the founder of the popular forums where ARG players convene, explains in his blog post "Undefining ARG" that ARGs yield chaotic play. He further explains that an ARG "begins with a set of ideas and ends wherever the performance or play may take it. The authors may set it in motion but they must work together with their audience to see its conclusion for the first time themselves. By its nature, it is improvisational in its production" (Stacey 2006). What is left over in the aftermath of chaotic play—things like forum posts, e-mails, chatlogs, Web sites, guides, trails, wikis, and databases—are what Stacey characterizes as chaotic fiction, but this is not finalized until the game comes to a close (Stacey 2007).

[4.7] In the case of CiW, chaotic play set forth by the puppetmaster became the disrupting force that destabilized the LG15 universe. Players who engaged in the game were not engaging in transgressive play against CiW, but their mere participation in the game became a transgressive act inside of the main story world. It was transgressive mainly because it accomplished what LG15 had initially set out to do in a much better way. It delivered genuine interactivity in an immersive environment.

5. The bull

[5.1] It all started on August 30, 2006, with the episode entitled "Swimming!" in which Daniel took Bree to a swimming hole for an outing away from her strict parents (video 1). As with the rest of the videos, every second of the footage, every object shown, every word uttered was analyzed and discussed in the forums. So naturally, halfway through the video, when Bree asked Daniel "Whatever happened to that girl Cassie?" speculation went haywire. Although Daniel did not seem to remember her, fans thought that she may have been in Daniel's class at some point. One thing that Bree did remember about Cassie, however, was that everyone was mean to her.

Video 1. Lonelygirl15. "Swimming!" YouTube, August 29, 2006.

[5.2] Later, Virginia Heffernan, a New York Times TV critic who took an interest in LG15, stated that she received a cryptic message from Cassie—possibly the same Cassie mentioned in Bree's video. The message read: "Careful. Take nobody at face value. There is more than one girl. That's just unconscious knowledge" (New York Times, September 5, 2006). Heffernan also posted a cryptic voice message that she received supposedly from Cassie. No one was sure what it meant. Heffernan surmised that Cassie would be branching out into a separate story line, perhaps a more engaging one than what LG15 delivered: "And soon we might see two plots diverge. Two lonelygirl15's? Look for a renegade plot to show up in videos on YouTube, using much of the LG15 mise-en-scène. Including the swimming hole! Will fans follow the new plot? Can a new plotline restore some of the sheen of verisimilitude, which was the beauty of the original, before it overnight came to seem all overthought and agented?" (New York Times, September 11, 2006).

[5.3] Cassie's e-mail address, cassiestruggles18, bore a close resemblance to the one used by Bree at the time, breesnuggles15. Shortly after, a new YouTube channel appeared under the username cassieiswatching and a video entitled "This Is My Story Now" was posted. Shot in the same location as Bree's "Swimming!" video and tagged with three words, Bree, tells, and lies, the video consisted of the footage of the trail where Bree had walked to the swimming hole and showed a mysterious bag falling into the swimming hole. The video that started with a whisper that said "I was here" ended with "Come and get it," an apparent invitation to retrieve whatever had been dropped into the water ( The next couple of videos also used the locations that the original series used. The second video, "When I Get to the Bottom Where I Stop," alluded to the lyrics from the Beatles song "Helter Skelter," a known favorite of the mass murderer, Charles Manson, and included a picture of the Manson murder scene (

[5.4] As with other spin-offs and videos, discussions erupted almost instantly around whether or not this was an official part of the story. Fueling the discussions around these videos was the fact that they were all shot in the locations in which the LG15 videos had been shot, strongly suggesting that whoever was running the game knew the production details of the show. However, Milowent, one of the fans, discovered that at least a few others had already publicly posted the correct location of the swimming hole. In other words, it was possible that the puppetmaster of CiW would have known the location without being connected to the creators. Almost instantaneously, the forums, message boards, and other spaces that typically housed LG15 content were inundated instead with discussions about the game. The CiW videos were posted on YouTube as well, where LG15 had first started. The interfaces for the game were the same ones that the fans used to interact with the LG15 world. All of these factors allowed the fans to experience CiW while occupying the LG15 universe even if they were not actively participating in the game. One could argue that the puppetmaster had successfully submerged the game's alternate world within the reality of the LG15 universe.

[5.5] Cassie, within a few hours of uploading the first video, updated the video description to include a link to Google Maps, disclosing the presumed location of the swimming hole. Following a series of unsuccessful attempts at retrieving the bag, Cassie sent aggravated messages to some of the players but sent additional clues too (figure 1).

Overlapping photos of wilderness areas with a red x marking a location on each of them.

Figure 1. Clues sent to a few of the fans. [View larger image.]

[5.6] On September 15, 2008, theAAshow claimed to have found the bag and posted a video showing its contents: a Tarot card in a box (video 2).

Video 2. theAAshow. "Casket of Tears." YouTube, September 15, 2008.

[5.7] CiW soon posted a disclaimer on YouTube saying, "TOO SLOW I DON'T PLAY CARDS YOU ALL FAILED I HATE YOU." It became clear to the fans that someone else had gotten to the box first and gamejacked the clue in order to interfere with Cassie's game. Gamejacking occurs when a player takes control of a game and takes it into a different direction than was initially intended.

[5.8] Meanwhile, the media and public who had heard about the hype around LG15 visited the official Web site only to find the forums were flooded with posts not about Bree but about a girl named Cassie. Fans of Bree were taken aback by this unexpected turn of events. Those who liked Bree and the story as is, and who did not want to be bothered with solving puzzles and mysteries, were quite concerned about the new direction that the story seemed to be taking. Independent LG15 forums like Anchor Cove, which no longer exists, went so far as to ban all discussion of CiW for fear of Cassie displacing Bree. Within days of Cassie's debut, over 66 percent of all posts at the official LG15 forums were about Cassie. The LG15 universe had effectively been taken over by Cassie. Worried about the effects of this ARG that appeared to be too dark for most of its fan base, the LG15 team hastily posted a disclaimer in the forums distancing themselves from CiW and disavowing any connection to it. But having seen the power of these games, they announced that they too would include ARG elements into the show.

[5.9] The life of CiW was short and its end came swiftly. It was unexpectedly gamejacked by yet another fan ARG, opAphid (, created by Glen Rubenstein. The players of CiW had discovered a phone number that they were to call to leave voice messages for Cassie. Shortly thereafter, a voice mail message left by Cassie was altered by Rubenstein who successfully took control of the voice mail by typing the default password. After having gamejacked CiW, Rubenstein rearranged his own ARG ideas that he had been working on to fit into the story lines of both CiW and LG15. Having failed at their own quickly done ARG attempt, the LG15 team announced on November 21, 2006, that they would be integrating opAphid into the canon. Their collaboration only lasted for 4 months when Rubenstein and the LG15 team parted ways following the unsubstantiated claims that Rubenstein was sending out clues for favors (ARGNet, March 15, 2007). However, during that time, Rubenstein introduced a slew of new characters into the canon.

[5.10] What attracted some of the fans to CiW and later to other fan ARGs was that these games told their respective stories in a truly interactive fashion. In other words, they put into practice what LG15 had set out to accomplish but had failed to do. Dave Szulborski (2005), a renowned ARG designer, identifies interactive authoring to be a game's distinguishing characteristic whereby authoring becomes an ongoing negotiation among all of the participants, players and designers alike. Unlike other games, ARG creators are able to watch the players in real time as they experience the game and react to what players are doing or experiencing almost immediately. It is this responsiveness that allows ARG writers to create a convincingly realistic and immersive experience (Szulborski 2005, 60). For the LG15 fans, interactivity as executed in the show fell dramatically short of their expectations. Soon, other ARGs emerged, including Maddison Atkins, Redearth, and Coalition, all of which created worlds that were somehow connected to the LG15 universe and to one another.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] What sets early fan ARGs of LG15 apart from Aarseth's (1997, 2007) model of transgressive play is that, unlike in his model, the disruptive game play is not executed against the game itself but rather is working against the reality within which the game is submerged, the LG15 universe. The gameplay of CiW requires the implied player to follow the story of Cassie at the expense of Bree's. At the same time, however, since Cassie's world permeated the LG15 universe, fans other than those interested in the game felt compelled to follow Cassie if for no other reason than to uncover the mystery surrounding its authenticity. After all, the LG15 videos exhibited both spreadable and drillable tendencies that ensured their viral distribution while simultaneously demanding a deeper engagement with the franchise. In other words, the type of meaning-making activities in which the audience had been asked to engage since the beginning of the show paralleled those that were necessary to understand fan-generated ARGs.

[6.2] In many ways, CiW became a turning point for LG15. As a paratext, Cassie's playful takeover of the story blindsided its creators and temporarily destabilized the LG15 universe. The hiring of Rubenstein was a strategic move on the creators' part that allowed them to regain control by integrating these initial fan ARGs into the main show. Even if this was an attempt to subdue renegade story lines, this decision also allowed fans to open up the canon to introduce fan-created characters and themes into the official repertoire of LG15. As a result, early fan ARGs became a form of transgressive play that allowed fans a meaningful albeit temporary role in the development of the story. It was a moment in which fans usurped control from the producers of the show and demonstrated that they themselves could be legitimate collaborators in creating a truly meaningful interactive fiction that goes beyond merely staging collaborative storytelling.

[6.3] Such negotiations between the LG15 team and the fans of the show demonstrate that ARG paratexts are more than fan fiction or ancillary content; they hold the possibility to become tactical tools within the larger media game in which bottom-up consumer-driven processes carve out a meaningful role in the field of cultural production. The LG15 team appropriated the affordances of the Internet and emerging technologies outside of the mechanisms created by Hollywood to mobilize the culture of ludism and break into the extra-Hollywood entertainment industry. Similarly the playful activities that emerged within the media fandom they themselves created became a force that was to be used to negotiate the boundaries around their franchise as a newly emerging entertainment company. These and similar negotiations indicate that in practice the economic and cultural arrangements of the Digi-Gratis economy are as disruptive as they may be potentially advantageous for the media industry.

7. Acknowledgement

[7.1] My thanks to Paul Booth for reviewing earlier drafts of this article.

8. Notes

1. After LG15 was exposed as a show, the team openly conveyed their financial instability to their fan base through forums and message boards. In the beginning, since they didn't start as a show, everything about the videos was executed in a do-it-yourself style where the creators' friends pitched in. Bree's room, where the initial videos were shot, was decorated with the things salvaged from the thrift store (Davis 2006). When the show was at risk of shutting down, fans insisted that the team put a tip jar on the site so they could donate money to the cause. When the show became popular, the team began product placement to monetize the show, but they did so with fans' permission. The first product placement was Hershey Icebreakers (EQAL, March 17, 2007); then a fictional scientist from Neutrogena was written into the plot as part of a promotional partnership with Neutrogena to finance their second season. The third season of LG15, Revelations, was sponsored by News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox who hired LG15 Studios to launch a viral marketing campaign within the show for their upcoming movie, Jumper, released in February 2008. Specifically, News Corp. paid the LG15 producers to integrate the plot of Jumper into the Web show (EQAL, January 26, 2008).

2. LG15's partnership with Hershey Icebreaker Sours yielded an estimated revenue of $10,000 per show, per sponsor (EQAL, March 17, 2007). While financing the show was mostly a matter of trial and error during the first season of the franchise, the increasing popularity of the videos allowed them to use product placement in creative ways. Two years after its launch, LG15 Studios became EQAL in April 2008, with receipt of $5 million in venture capital to expand their offerings (Hendrickson 2008). Around the same time, EQAL entered a partnership with Bebo to finance and advertise their show as they expanded their franchise to England (BrandRepublic, April 16, 2007). The cobranded new spin-off, named KateModern, targeted a slightly older audience and proved to be equally successful. The first season alone received over 57 million views (Guardian, May 12, 2008). Bebo brought on Orange Mobile, P&G, Disney Buena Vista International UK, and Microsoft to sponsor the series, promising deep brand integration (NewTeeWee, November 29, 2007). Ultimately, KateModern was able to attract 60 different companies and brands that produced adequate revenue for the company, although it is not clear how much Bebo's cut was. They also increased brand exposure by selling KateModern merchandise. After KateModern came to an end and LG15 was about to wrap up, EQAL licensed the franchise to Poland and produced N1ckola with two other companies, Agora and A2 Multimedia. To date, according to the number of YouTube views available at the time of writing, the three seasons of LG15 have had approximately 273,932,897 views, KateModern about 1,749,464 views, and the rest of the ancillary spin-offs close to one million views

3. As fans later found out, this was not really a contest because of legal issues. The call solicited fans to submit a 5-minute pilot and 8-week treatment for a social show derivative of the LG15 universe. The show produced by the winner, they announced, would have an opportunity to post their videos on the LG15 Web site. Having been disappointed by the lack of interest displayed towards their creations, fans were now cynical about the creators' efforts to include their creations in the show. The results of this competition perpetuated the previously established patterns in the show that emerged from a lack of transparency on the part of the creators. The competition was won by Jenni Powell and Logan Rapp, both of whom had been fans, but both of whom had also worked professionally for the LG15 team. Aside from their production experience, they had access to the original actors, two of whom they brought back in their pilot, The Misfits. Because the LG15 team had insisted that this was not a contest, even though it involved a competition, fans erroneously assumed that they were going to get paid as employees, that is, as professional producers. EQAL, on the other hand, never made any efforts to disabuse them of their belief (NewTeeWee, February 6, 2009). Powell and Rapp backed out of the project once they found out that EQAL had no intentions of financing the production of the series, but instead was expecting them to produce a month's worth of videos for a small stipend.

4. This information came up in the interviews that I conducted with some of the fans: Xeniph on July 31, 2008, Greg Gallows on August 4, 2008, and Jenni Powell on August 5, 2008.

5. Most LG15 fan spin-offs extended the existing plot. The videos of Paul and Andrea, for example, were one of the rare occasions that were later acknowledged in the show. These characters, who were briefly mentioned in the episode entitled "House Arrest" posted to YouTube on September 10, 2006, are Daniel's good friends who meet Bree at a party that she attends with Daniel. Posting under the handle Paulmark18, a couple of fans created a series of parody videos of the original series on YouTube, on September 16, 2006. Another fan, Aaronbeast, claimed to be Daniel's brother and started a short-lived spin-off where he expressed his concern for Daniel. -R- and Marbella created a role-playing game known as the Hymn of One Boarding School (HOOBS) where fans enacted the role of the students in a boarding school that prepared trait-positive girls for the Ceremony. Another series was born out of the "New Girl" challenge started by a fan who used the moniker immortal1. Seeking the stories of other trait-positive girls, the challenge ultimately aimed to introduce more fan-created characters into the story, an initiative that eventually developed into its own spin-off series called The Flock. This information was gathered from LGForums, since removed from the Internet, and from LGPedia, (, recently put back online by fans.

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