Turn Me On, Dead Man: Why Urban Legends Make the Best ARGs

In 1969, whispers of a strange rumor began spreading through college newspapers and radio stations across North America. Students in Iowa and Michigan had been tracking clues that pointed towards a sinister conspiracy dating back three years, that if true would suggest one of the most disturbing hoaxes ever staged. Though the mainstream media refused to take their claims seriously, they put their word out in broadcasts, reviews and books, in the hopes of spreading the news and letting everyone in the world know the terrible truth of an entire generation’s greatest heroes. Though that information is still widely written off, it is known in every corner of the earth today by three infamous words:

Paul is dead.”

Was it true? Oh, of course not (after all, he was the Walrus– more on that later). But if you’ve ever followed the Beatles, you can’t tell me you don’t know about it. No matter which one of them is your favorite, no matter which album you’ve worn the vinyl out on from listening to it so many times, you know about the whole “Paul is dead” thing, and even if you’ve never taken it seriously, I can bet you’ve thought about it just the same. There’s a sheer audacity of the idea that remains infectiously, perversely attractive– that Paul McCartney died in a fatal car-crash on November 9, 1966, that the Beatles hired a look-alike in a contest to hide his death, and that from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on each and every album contains clues and hints informing the faithful of the truth.

See how Paul has his back turned on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album? It means he’s dead, man. See how John, George and Ringo are wearing red carnations during the Your Mother Should Know dance sequence from the Magical Mystery Tour movie, but Paul is wearing a black one? It means he’s dead, man. See how Paul’s walking out of step and in bare feet on the Abbey Road cover? It means he’s dead, man, and wait ’till you listen to the songs.

However, more interesting than the mere narrative of the legend is the fact that it’s been actively perpetrated over the years. Like ancient myth, it is handed down from generation to generation, with little more than printed scraps from conspiracy theories and oral tradition to back it up. References to it have sprung up in as weirdly diverse pop-cultural outposts as The Simpsons and Sleepless in Seattle. Furthermore, it belongs to a whole legion of musical urban legends from the 60’s and 70’s that are backed up by audio-visual trickery– just as fans of the Fab Four could play the White Album backwards or look for telltale clues on the cover of Abbey Road, Pink Floyd-fans could try to synch up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz and Elvis-fans could trade sightings and stories of the once and future king.

When people indulge in these kinds of activities, they’re usually written off as either obsessive-compulsively over-attentive, drug addled or desperately clinging to the hope and dream that rock-n-roll shall never die, respectively. Lennon even made fun of this sort of thing in “Glass Onion”, turning most of what we might generously refer to as Beatles-canon on its head (seriously, which one of them was the Walrus, damnit?). But really, there’s something much simpler at the heart of this kind of participatory myth-building, something that speaks to the best parts of any long-term real-world interactive experience. The people who keep urban legends alive are playing pretend, and therefore playing a game. It’s not quite as easy to see as fanboys trekking across cities in a scavenger hunt, trolling online forums at the whims of some distant puppetmaster, or donning several pounds of artificial armor and padded weaponry to participate in a massive imaginary battle, but large-scale stories that Paul McCartney is dead or that Elvis Priestly is alive have a hint of what people experience in Big Games and LARPs.

No matter if you believe the story or not, if you buy into the notion that “Paul is dead”, you’re subscribing to an alternate-reality, and the longer and deeper you explore that territory, the more you find yourself playing an ARG.

Of course, this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to pop-cultural or musical artifacts. Urban legends come of every size, shape and degree of participatory involvement– whenever children dare one another to sneak inside an abandoned house that everybody claims is haunted, whenever girls shut off the lights in front of a bathroom mirror and whisper “Bloody Mary”, whenever anybody avoids walking underneath a ladder, knocks on wood or indulges in any other such cliche superstition, a degree of play is involved. Granted, I don’t mean to subscribe to the siren song of the skeptic and label all such myths and theories as mere instruments of modern-day folklore (there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, and it wasn’t just to stage an elaborate downhill race), but these kinds of whispered experiences that everyone plays at some point or another feel like an ideal model for how to design a real-world, low-scale alternate reality game.

Take, say, The Ring, in any of its literary or cinematic incarnations– the premise it offers is so simple, so practical in its nature that it’s almost hard to believe there’s never been an attempt to build an ARG around it, except for the fact that its story is too well-known, by now, to effectively surprise anybody. But before Hollywood spoiled the fun for us game designers, imagine how it might’ve worked: you discover a video-tape in a friend’s house, and are warned not to watch it. Of course, you do anyway, and afterwards the phone rings. Over the phone, a hushed voice says you have seven days until you die, and can only be cured of the curse if you expose somebody else to the tape, at which point the cycle repeats itself.

There’s another pattern, you might notice– almost all the examples I’ve pointed out, from “Paul is dead” to my hypothetical Ringu ARG all revolve around death, ghosts and supernatural dread. They’re all horror stories, and to a certain extent horror is the best genre to exploit through an ARG. Our imaginations always get the better of us whenever we’re frightened by something. As children, how many of us could’ve sworn we heard something make a noise in our closets at night? How many of us thought we saw the movement of a strange shadow of unfamiliar shape across the wall? How many of us shone a flashlight underneath our beds just in case whatever was spooking us might’ve been spooked by the light?

Chain letters and prank phone calls often can carry a tinge of ghostly dread to them, or else at the very least a bitter taste of malicious manipulation. Yet at the same time they’re tools for the puppet-master of an ARG, so long as they’re responsible and crafty. The more practical, primal and pop-cultural a game designer gets, the closer they verge towards the goal of turning the whole wide world into their own private haunted house.

The best way to scare people isn’t to put on a mask and jump out at them from behind a willow tree planted on the sidewalk by a crooked avenue– instead, the deepest, most lingering scares we get are the ones when we learn something new, a terrible truth we immediately argue but can’t help but believe in. It’s the beat your heart skips when you look at the unfinished pyramid and all-seeing eye on the one-dollar bill, when you catch a glimpse of those feet dangling at the top of the screen when Dorothy and Toto follow the yellow-brick road, or listen to a song played backwards and heard a message from Satan himself– urban legends are how we process the fear we all have of everything around us in the world at large, and ARG’s can be a way of facing that fear, head-on.

So, the next time anybody’s going to work on a Big Game of some kind, keep this in mind– it’s easier to make people buy into an alternate reality when the reality you’re asking everyone to purchase more closely resembles the one they live in already, rather than anything found in fantasy. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and wrangling it can keep everything simple as long as you stick to the lessons you learned the fiftieth time you listened to Revolution #9. Whether you build an ARG on-top of an already existing piece of pop-cultural folklore or decide to manufacture your own, envision your role less as an all-mighty puppetmaster and more as a miniature devil on the player’s shoulder, whispering suggestions of doubt and fear that will flourish and blossom into terrible, adrenaline soaked paranoias and persecution-complexes.

ARG’s don’t usually interest me, but they can when they’re slipped in under the radar, like a story heard ’round the campfire, or a tale told on Halloween night. When creating an urban legend of your own, imagine yourself as a gardener– planting seeds that will one-day grow into mighty, twisted trees. Until next time, pleasant dreamers, here’s another clue for you all: I say, let Pete Best be the Walrus…