alternate reality games conferences education

ARGs in Charity and Education – Channel 4

Alice Taylor, Channel 4

From the ARGs in Charity and Education conference last week. Alice was forthcoming on real data – and, more importantly, C4’s outlook/perspective – on a bunch of issues. Very useful stuff.

As ever, errors and ommissions my own, and my commentary [in square brackets].


Until 2008 C4 education had a budget of £6m to spend on TV shows. We had a morning slot around 9:30, target audience british 114-19 year olds. All great telly, but 14-19 year olds are either at school, work, or college, so we were merely getting the odd ill one and practically no others.

So we started thinking about where they really were, physically, and go to them.

So this year we’re spending all that money on x-platform projects. Combination of:
– straight-up TV
– games on the web
– new platforms (we’ve never done anythong on before) such as mobile or XBLA etc


Two of the projects for 2009 are … sort-of … ARGs

Projects we really liked that we saw: Perplex City (PXC), World Without Oil (WWO), Jamie Kane (JK), Lonely Girl 15 (LG15)

LG15 people thought was an ARG, but wasn’t.

PXC you can think of as an ARG, but it wasn’t entirely. [ADAM: Ha!]

If you define ARGs as a realtime mystery to solve using lots of tech, it becomes too narrowly defined. But we love narrative and cross-media content and live events etc.

We put out a call for “broad appeal” + “something ARG-like for 14-19 year olds” to see what we’d get.


We dont work to the curriculum per se, we go for the softer stuff that they need help finding their way through – sex drugs alcohol relationships etc

We’re doing x-platform games, some single-platform games, it has to be free-to-play (we have to make this F2P because its Education as PSB).

WWO: the great thing was that it was such a serious topic, and yet also had a really high impact.

  • Want to avoid scaring people senseless (c.f google: Wonderland ARG weird)
  • Want to attract wide range of people, dont want to alienate the main audience
  • Giant audience who dont want to do much interaction

Channel 4’s ARGs

First game: genomics, genetics, evolution, etc. Scientific core that would appeal to teenagers, introduce teenagers to privacy of genetic material etc. Trying to balance spicing up without dumbing down. There are flash games with DNA themes – trying to get attention, very easy to play flash games. Going to distribute those across miniclip, yahoo games, etc – try to bring people in, get them to watch videos on the side, get them even more engaged, and then finally get them into the ARG stuff.

[ADAM: immediately brings to mind Xenophile Media‘s reGenesis ARG that was run explicitly as a TV show + web ARG a couple of times in Canada. Assuming this isn’t just a syndication of the original RG, it will be interesting to see what parallels (if any) there are between these]

Second game: privacy, security, personal security – and what happens with social networking. Lots of msitakes by kids, eg 12 year olds, discovering the hard way how dangerous it is. We’re going to get them to experience eg cyber-bullying both as victim and perpetrator, so that when they really experiece it they’re a bit better prepared to handle it.

How will we measure success?

We have to compete wth the broadcast TV part of Channel 4, which means competing with “millions of people overnight”. We’ve been asking: how can people play these games if they stumble over it a year later on the web?

Well, we have to hit UK people, young especially. Doing a hell of a lot of research, especially on PR – how to seed it, when to seed it, etc. We will probably publish a whole load of data afterwards to say “this is what happened”


Q: are the games standalone, separate from C4’s brand / TV channels?

One of them has a sponsor/partner (Wellcome Trust). They loved the game theme so they provided us with real scientists and look at all the data we put in the game and vet it for accuracy.

Do we use the rest of C4 to help this along? Yes.

With the first game we’re having a large launch event at C4 head office. C4 Edu does get some TV slot between programmer at peak time – so we’ll put URLs in between adverts for e.g. Hollyoaks.

Bow Street Runner was done to complement a post-watershed show (City of Vice). You could push from the TV to the game, but we weren’t allowed to go backwayrds becuase the game was designed for teenagers.

We found that having an advert on the telly does create a spike, but talking to the target audience direclty works much better – e.g. seeding on gaming blogs was much more effective. TV definitely useful, but definitely not the overwhelming promotion thing.

Q: is 3 months the optimum time for a game? (both the C4 ARGs for 2009 are coincidentally that)

Dont know. Maybe its because we’re a broadcaster and they’ve targetted it to us as what we’re used to for TV dramas etc.

Q: do you have to play the 3 months simulcast?

Out of 3 args we looked at:

  • One was: live theatre stuff, if you miss it all you can do is watch the videos after
  • The other two were: turn up play through anytime

Q: can you syndicate an ARG experience?

I really think you can. Where they work is where they have post-finish value. WWO is being repackaged as a teaching tool now, for instance.

They can be localized relatively easily.

At C4 we own buy the rights to the specific game, we never take the tech or format rights, so it’s easy for people to re-sell as re-skinned elsewhere

Q : [ADAM: … 3 questions at once … I didn’t hear them at all … ]

14-19 yo if you go for the full bracket yo uhave to be appealling to a wide variety already, so it will often hit 12 years too, but definitely we’re expecting to hit people a lot older than 19.

There are 4m 14-19 in the UK. We check whether the amount it costs us is worht it for the number of people we get it. 15 minutes a month is the benchmark for getting a single viewer on TV, so games are way higher than that normally, and TV is also extremely expensive compared to games stuff. We get 50% of viewers as overseas, so attracting non UK people as well is fine too.

[ADAM: what about forging international-relationships between people – is this not covered by PSB? That’s a bit sad if not]

It would be a problem if the game appealled only to, say, Australian OAPs, so missed our target competely.

Q: is there competition in the games?

There will be prizes to be won, there will be status tracking, but no overall winner. We are not aiming to have a “win point” for the game.

Q: if going for younger audience how does privacy about taking peoples details affect you, how does it affect community if you limit talking?

If you introduce registartion, the will to play drops off massively. Even asking for email address maybe 50% of people will remain. Adding another field gets rid of another 40%, so you end up losing 90%.

[ADAM: pet peeve here – while the basic point is very true and very important, this is something that a lot of people doing their first online game have no idea what they’re doing, and screw up – but it’s well-understood and well-researched if you go and do your homework. ARG’s are not *that* much different from signup for casual games, MMOG’s, etc, and I don’t consider the 50% figure a reasonable estimate except for alpha and/or low quality implementations, and while 90% can happen, it’s so far from what you should see if you do any pre-planning that it’s not worth talking about, IMHO. Also, I wonder if Alice’s figure is an overall drop rate (?) and doesn’t take into account those people who were going to leave anyway, which would inflate it anywhere from “a bit” to “a heck of a lot” depending on what your traffic sources are. e.g. make sure you run A/B tests to establish a baseline drop rate]

Sometimes you have to – e.g. when running live events for legal reasons you need to.