Alternative Reality Games Explorations

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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Alternative Reality Games Explorations1
Peter Zackariasson
Gothenburg Research Institute
Gothenburg University
SE405 30 Gothenburg
Sweden
[email protected]
Timothy L. Wilson
Umeå School of Business
Umeå University
SE901 87 Umeå
Sweden
[email protected]
Acknowledgement: We would like to thank the Royal Swedish Academy of Science for
supporting this research project.
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Alternative Reality Games Explorations
Abstract
We extend our interest in video games to make some exploratory observations on opportunities
attendant Alternative Reality Games (ARGs). This sector is a genre of interactive narratives
where the physical world is used as a platform, frequently involving other media, to encourage
gamers to collectively solve puzzles. An analogy is made with the experience one reads about in
the popular novel, The Da Vinci Code. The Beast, I Love Bees and The Art of the Heist are cited
as examples of usage. Reflections are made along the lines of the one-time nature of ARGs, the
segment they reach, the possible disassociation with purchases, expense and the potential failure
of approaches. They are a cross between advertising and sales promotion because they bear a
direct expense to the organization responsible for their commissioning. Their impact, however,
has been along the lines of what one would expect from a publicity effort.
Key Words: Entrepreneurial Marketing, Alternative Reality Games (ARGs), Video Games,
Collective Problem Solving
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Introduction
We have been concerned with the video game industry for some time (Walfisz,
Zackariasson and Wilson, 2006; Zackariasson, Wåhlin and Wilson, 2010; Zackariasson and
Wilson, 2010; Zackariasson and Wilson, 2009; Zackariasson, Walfisz and Wilson, 2006;
Zackariasson, Styhre and Wilson, 2006; Zackariasson and Wilson, 2004). It has been a
fascinating coverage because the industry includes elements of rapid growth, individual efforts
and entrepreneurship, technological development, international focus and a whimsical appeal of
a youthful market. Our approach somewhat paralleled the two main production sectors of the
market. That is, a substantial portion of our studies have been associated with the production and
marketing of “conventional” games of the strategy variety (Walfisz, Zackariasson and Wilson,
2006; Zackariasson and Wilson, 2009; Zackariasson, Walfisz and Wilson, 2006; Zackariasson,
Styhre and Wilson, 2006). There, the marketing concern was primarily along the lines of an
internal pitch with subsequent development and afterward as the marketing of a consumer nondurable (Zackariasson and Wilson, 2009). Early on, however, interest was directed toward
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Initially our focus was on what these games
really were. At that time, there was no consensus in that matter so when it was suggested that
they might be services of an activity tourism type (Zackariasson and Wilson, 2004), there was
some discussion of that approach. More recently, our speculation about the opportunities
attendant marketing in these games has been described (Zackariasson, Wåhlin and Wilson,
2010). Clearly, this opportunity may carry marketing implications because marketers are given
the opportunity to consider potential customers as they might like to be and also reach segments
that they might otherwise not.
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
In this paper we would like to make some exploratory observations on opportunities
attendant Alternative Reality Games (ARG). This sector is a genre of interactive narratives
where the physical world is used as a platform, frequently also involving other media, to
encourage gamers to collectively solve puzzles. Fans must piece together the narrative on their
own; that is the “alternate reality” (Ruberg, 2009). In contrast to a traditional video game, an
ARG is a real-time experience where the participants may, more or less, affect the plot of the
game depending on their actions. These games have been, and are being, used to promote
products and services. In the last three or four years, the number of ARGs going on at any one
time has gone from a handful to around 30 (Waite, quoted in Ruberg, 2009). The topic thus
appears appropriate for discussion and coverage at a Euram conference.
Background
The nature of ARGs
In 2003 Doubleday published the popular novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003). It
subsequently went on to sell 80 million copies worldwide and be translated into 44 different
languages. Subsequently, it was made into a movie three years later, which was directed by Ron
Howard and starring Tom Hanks. It grossed over $75 million the first weekend and over $750
million worldwide.2 Because of its popularity, the story line is familiar. Robert Langdon, a
symbolist and assisted by Sophie Neveu, follows a series of clues that not only leads to the
solution of a murder in the Louvre, but also uncovers the secret of the Holy Grail.
If one considers oneself as Robert Langdon, assisted by a number of Sophie Nevers, then one
gets the idea of what an Alternative Reality Game (ARG) is about. An ARG is a genre in which
participants are collectively encouraged to solve puzzles. They do have similarities with other
2
Statistics come from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Da_Vinci_Code#Film - Downloaded 2009-10-14.
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
video game genres. Just like any other game, in the production of an ARG the developer plans in
detail the different parts of the game and its plot. When the game goes live though, “puppet
masters” direct the events as they unfold. Actors many times also interact in real-time with
participants to increase the realism of the ARG. The goal of a successful ARG is the blurring of
boundary between what is part of the game and what is not part of the game; somewhat similar to
what Michael Douglas’ character experienced in the film The Game (distributed by PolyGram
and Buena Vista International 1997).
Most commonly the elements of the ARG are dispersed throughout both the physical and
digital worlds. Also among these elements are active agents, in the sense of initiating interaction
with the gamer. Physical elements serve as clues and can be locations or objects. GPS, for
example, many times is used to direct attention to a specific location. Objects such as phones,
faxes, newspapers, ads or scribbling on a subway wall can also be used as elements of the game.
Digital elements are mostly on the web where web pages can be used to hide challenges, but
technology such as SMS and GPS also find their way into the action. Although the internet can
be used in other ways, web pages, fake databases, web cameras, or other media based on internet
technology find their way into the mix.
Some relevant examples
Although there were early examples of productions that could be called ARGs, the first of
significance was The Beast (Handy 2005, McGonigal, 2003). In 1999 the film AI: Artificial
Intelligence (distributed by Warner Bros. and DreamWorks 2001) was under production. When
marketing this film Warner Bros. was forced to take extraordinary measures because, as the story
goes, Steven Spielberg, the director, was refusing to share the production with anyone outside of
his “inner circle”. The project to market the film landed at the desk of Jordan Weisman and Elan
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Lee at Microsoft Game Studios. Although video games have had a close relationship with films
for a long time, both Weisman and Lee had the ambition of reinventing this relationship. The
initial spark for this reinvention came with the suggestion that the game itself would take a more
active role in the lives of the gamers. “Wouldn’t it be cool, …if this was the game calling me? …
Yeah, and someone on the other end instructs you to go meet a guy on the corner out there and
give him a scrap of the menu!” (Handy 2005, 5)
Over the next few months, Weisman and Lee developed a game consisting of a large number
of puzzles that were to be buried in web sites, phony ads, faxes, e-mails and outgoing voicemail
messages. They also involved Sean Stewart, a fantasy writer, as “wordsmith”. Stewart said that:
“The point was initially to market the film and to create a world big enough for later video games
to make sense in” (Handy 2005, 6). Chronologically, The Beast was designed to take place from
modern days up until where the film starts, in the mid 22nd century.
When the game later was launched there were somewhere between one million (McGonigal
2003) and three million (Handy 2005) people who involved themselves in these puzzles.
Together they searched for information in the digital, as well as the physical world, aggregated
information making it possible to collaborate, and broke down information into smaller pieces in
order to find solutions – they worked as a “hive mind”, a collective intelligence (Lévy 1997) as it
were in order to find solutions.
Weisman and Lee explained at the 2002 Game Development Conference:
“We created strings of puzzles that no single person could solve on their own, and we
found to our delight it was working. The audience was forming teams, sharing ideas,
writing applications, posting theories, arranging group meetings, programming
distributed-client password crackers, creating art…” (cited in McGonigal 2003, 2)
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
While doing this they also involved themselves in the world and storyline of the forthcoming
film AI. In 2001 when the film AI was launched the worldwide revenues of the film was about
$236 million. This was considered a modest success, recouping only about twice its $100 million
budget3.
In 2004 the ARG, The Haunted Apiary or I Love Bees (McGonigal 2007), was launched
from the same originators – this time as the company 42 Entertainment. This ARG was targeted
toward marketing the video game Halo 2 that was released later that same year. Learning from
their previous ARG this one was more elaborate and incorporated more physical puzzles to
solve, as well as pre-recorded and live messages from actors. Its success is associated with
subsequent sales of Halo 2. That is, within hours after Halo 2 was launched, it sold 2.4 million
copies, reaping $125 million in sales.
“We saw the internet was creating a kind of try-before-you-buy mentality… People
expect to receive some value in advance of having to hand over their hard-earned cash.
And so this whole concept was about how to create that emotional kind of attachment and
demonstrate the value and quality of that experience before you buy the video game or a
ticket to the movie.” (Weisman cited in Handy 2005, 7)
The ARG was introduced, or actually it was not introduced at all to the gamers, in a cryptic web
address in the trailer for the video game Halo 2. At the end of this trailer the web address
ilovebees.com appeared below the Xbox logo. As people gravitated toward the web page the
puppet master Jane McGonigal started to post cryptic messages on the page for the gamers to
explore. The plot of the game was that an artificial intelligence of a crashed spaceship had found
its way to the ilovebees.com web page. There it gave messages to the gamers about a future
menace, rallying help to find allies to overcome this threat.
3
Data from Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=ai.htm - Downloaded 2009-10-8.
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Although ARG has a cultural proximity to video games and films there is nothing in the
design or form that limits ARG only to market these products. The Art of the Heist was an ARG
to promote the car model Audi A3. This ARG started with a staged theft of an Audi A3 from an
auto dealer at Park Avenue4. Although this “theft” was a staged simulation, the appearance for
those walking by would have been of a real theft: smashed glass, security guards, chases, police
tape, wanted posters and so on. Then days afterward, at the auto show, there were signs about the
theft at the place where the first US Audi A3 was about to be displayed. This story spread
amongst bloggers and later there were also billboard postings about the theft, asking for “your”
help to locate the car. Not knowing if this was real or fake, thousands of people ventured into the
Audi web site, there finding information that a company specialized in stolen art had been
contracted to find the A3. This company’s web site, seemingly legitimate, contained more
information enabling the viewers themselves to engage in the search of the stolen Audi A3. The
summary of this example and the two previous ones is shown in Table 1.
*** Table 1 Goes About Here. ***
Uses in Marketing
Uses of Alternative Realty Games for promoting products and services have seen an increase
since the middle of the 1990s. Since then we have seen ARG promoting products as Windows
Vista5, Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero (Rose 2007), TV-series Lost (Manly 2006), The Dark
Knight film6, and the 2008 summer Olympics7. “Serious ARGs” have also been launched, in for
example, World Without Oil on the projected oil shortage, or Tomorrow Calling (Demeter 2007)
4
A film describing this ARG can be found at http://mckinney.com/#/work/item,116/client,22/ - Downloaded 200910-8.
5
http://www.vanishingpointgame.com/ - Downloaded 2009-10-8.
6
http://whysoserious.com/ - Downloaded 2009-10-8.
7
http://www.thelostring.com/ - Downloaded 2009-10-8.
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on future environmental themes and activism. Games are becoming more widespread, attracting
new players and bigger clients (Ruberg, 2009). A summary of recent ARG action is given in
Table 2.
*** Table 2 Goes About Here. ***
From our viewpoint, both the demographics of the participants and impact of these
contributions make it plain that we have only seen the beginning of ARG for promotion
purposes. It therefore behooves us to take a look at the need being met and the potential future
this approach has.
First, it must be appreciated that ARGs are a one-time thing. That is, these games
take place in real-time and are not replayable. As much as one might want to go
back and explore the activities involved in The Beast or The Art of the Heist, that
opportunity is gone. Thus, they play a specific role in a promotional package. To
date, commercially, they have performed well in introductions, i.e., calling
attention to subsequent developments. They also seem to do well in promoting
causes as suggested by calling attention to environmental themes. Commonly, the
word “buzz” is used in their description. That designation seems entirely
appropriate.
Secondly, the approach hits a fairly select segment of potential participants.
Although the overall segment would include puzzle solvers and internet
communicators, it is likely to attract a heavy proportion of gamers. This segment is
growing and becoming more homogeneous (ESA, 2009), but there are specific
demographics, size and interests associated with this group. ESA (2009), for
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
instance, notes that 68 percent of homes play video games and 43 percent of the
population buys games. The segment that might be called “serious” gamers is
much smaller and probably is reflected in the numbers that participate in MMOGs,
which appears to be about 16 percent of the gamer segment. Thus, one is looking
at a potential of about 20 million US and so the participation of between one
million (McGonigal 2003) and three million (Handy 2005) in the Beast is probably
not out of line with this estimate – and may approach the upper limit for future use
of ARGs. This number does not, however, represent the number of people exposed
to the promotion. ARGs almost always have a tight inner ring of dedicated fans
who do the footwork and a much wider circle of “lurkers” who simply watch the
action unfold. Further, information may make its way into the mainstream as
happened with I Love Bees in 2004 (NYT, 2004) and the Art of the Heist a year
later. The “trick” of hiding the initial clue to enter the I Love Bees ARG clearly is
a practice that could work both ways. It may indeed create buzz, but then it also
severely limits early entry and perhaps focuses selection on serious gamers. A
sketch of ARG participation is shown in Figure 1.
*** Figure 1 Goes About Here. ***
Third, just because an individual plays the game, it does not mean that person will
buy the product. Skepticism exists on the value of doing such things (Moorehead,
quoted in Baertlein, 2008). That is, ARG sponsors must use a very subtle
marketing technique or risk turning players off. As is the case with any attention
gathering promotion, success is gauged in the publicity received. Direct impact is
expected to result in those products similar to games such video games themselves
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
(the Halo example) or movies (AI: Artificial Intelligence). It remains to be seen
what will happen with sales of items such as Hondas.
Forth, ARGs are not cheap. Although there have been low budget and even
volunteer efforts, development of an ARG is after all similar to the development of
other games. Presently, these costs are running in the range of $2 to 20 million.
Additionally, there is the cost of maintaining the puppet master and support, which
typically would be expected to be double development costs. Thus, returns that
would recoup $4 to 40 million would justify use of an ARG approach. The barriers
to entry remain very high for independent ARG creators, who can see their teams
and finances overwhelmed by audience demand (Baertlein, 2008). The budget for
the promotion of AI was $100 million,3 which would place an upper limit on ARG
expenses seen to date. Further, although ARGs that require a subscription have
been tried, generally these games are played for free. Thus, any coverage of ARG
expense must come from additional profits from increased sales.
Fifth, ARGs are not always successful. EA’s Majestic was cancelled in 2001 due
to lack of players. There were extenuating circumstances of course. The launching
after 9/11 was unfortunate, as was the decision to charge a fee, but the conclusion
remains that just because these items are available, they do not necessarily attract
an audience.
In summary, ARGs are growing both in number and categories. Just as it is difficult to
define what an ARG actually is, it is difficult to define where they fit in promotion. Clearly,
they are a cross between advertising and sales promotion because they bear a direct expense to
the organization responsible for their commissioning. Their impact, however, has been along
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
the lines of what one would expect from a publicity effort. That is, at the commercial level, they
have been used to pique interest in an upcoming development and specifically brand awareness
in some cases (Baertlein, 2008). They have a fairly distinct user segment, but that segment is
enlarged both by “lurkers” and potentially attendant media publicity. They are not cheap and are
a one-time thing. Thus, their use must be carefully integrated into the overall promotion of an
item. Non-commercial use of the approach has been a recent phenomenon with applications
toward environmental activism, charitable contributions and event promotion. These uses will
grow as long as sponsors can be found who are interested in “gift marketing” (McGonigal
quoted in Ruberg, 2009). Usage in education would seem a natural but seems to be an area slow
in developing.
In closing, we would like to rationalize/speculate on observed behavior when products or
services are brought to market with an ARG affiliation. Primarily, this situation has been the
case of an introductory nature. Thus, diffusion theory holds. One can therefore discuss the
expected behavior of the three groups shown in Figure 1 as they are confronted with the three
different offerings in Table 3 (cf. Rogers, 2003, 281). For video games or similar products, such
as movies, ARG participants would be expected to have a propensity to readily buy the product.
They thus would be the innovators and early adopters. The lurkers would also tend to be early
adopters, and the opinion leaders (classically conservative) would be in this group. The buzzers
and mediaites, which get the information by word of mouth or from the media, would likely
constitute the early majority group as adopters. For other products, there is no certainty that
either the ARG participants or lurkers would even buy them. Their role might just be to
play/watch the game and enjoy the experience. Early adoption and opinion leaders might go
further out from the participant center to the individuals who get the information through word-
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
of-mouth or the media. Finally, participants in the ARGs featuring charities and/or non-profits
may be the primary target for support. Fundamentally, the ARG may be an educational vehicle
and thus establish a relationship with them. The buzzers and mediaites conceivably would be
rather detached and thus either laggards or non-adopters.
*** Table 3 Goes About Here. ***
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
References
Baertlein, L., 2008, “Alternate reality games blur reality and fiction”. Downloaded 2009-10-13.
http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSN2945731720080530?pageNumber=2
&virtualBrandChannel=0
Brown, D., 2003, The Da Vinci code. New York: Doubleday.
Dahlén, M., 2008, Nextopia: livet, lyckan och pengarna i förväntningssamhället. Stockholm:
Volante QNB.
Demeter N., 2007, “It’s tomorrow calling. Do you accept the charges?” Alternative Reality
Gaming Network. Accessed Online 2009-10-8.
Electronic Software Association (ESA), 2009, Essential facts about the computer and video
game industry: 2009 sales, demographics and usage data.
www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2009.pdf - Downloaded 2009-10-13.
Handy, A., 2005, “The buzzmakers”. East Bay Express Online.
Jenkins, H., 2006, Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New
York University Press.
Lévy, P., 1997, Collective intelligence: Mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace. Cambridge,
MA: Perseus Books.
Manly, L., 2006, “Running the really big show: ‘Lost’ Inc.” The New York Times. October 1.
McGonigal, J., 2007, “Why I Love Bees: A case study in collective intelligence gaming”. The
Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Online December 3, 199-227.
McGonigal, J., 2003, “‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive aesthetic and collective play”. Paper
presented at MelbourneDAC, the 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference,
May, Melbourne.
NYT, 2004, “In a word: The year of (your catch phase here)”. The New York Times. 2004-12-26.
Rose, F., 2007, “Secret websites, coded messages: The new world of immersive games”. Wired
Magazine, 16(1). Accessed online 2009-10-8.
Rogers, E. M., 2003, Diffusion of innovations, 5th ed. New York: The Free Press.
Ruberg, B., 2009, “Serious fun”. Economist, 390 (March 7), 16.
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Walfisz, M., Zackariasson, P. and Wilson, T. L. (2006). Real-Time strategy: Evolutionary game
development. Business Horizons, 49 (6), 487-496.
Zackariasson, P., Wåhlin, N. and Wilson, T. L. (2010). Virtual identities and market
segmentation in marketing in and through Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs).
Services Marketing Quarterly, 31 (3) – in press.
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Competitiveness Review, 20 (2) – in press.
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of the offering, internal marketing of projects, and a product manager’s view of the overall
process. NFF 2009 Proceedings, Turku, Finland.
Zackariasson, P., Walfisz, M. and Wilson, T. L. (2006). Management of creativity in video
game development: A case study. Services Marketing Quarterly, 27 (4), 73-97.
Zackariasson, P., Styhre, A. and Wilson, T. L. (2006). Phronesis and creativity: Knowledge work
in video game development. Creativity and Innovation Management, 15 (4), 419-429.
Zackariasson P. and Wilson, T. L. (2004). MMOG – A 21st century service. Other Players – A
Conference on Multiplayer Issues. December 6-8. IT University of Copenhagen.
http://game.itu.dk.
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Table 1 – Summary of ARG Examples
Year ARG
2001 The Beast
Connection
The movie, AI:
Artificial
Intelligence –
Warner Bros. &
Dreamworld.
2004
Microsoft’s Xbox
video game, Halo
2.
2005
The
Haunted
Apiary, or
I Love
Bees
The Art of
the Heist
Honda U.S.’s
Honda A3
Approach
Extensive problem
solving requiring a
group approach.
Puppet masters had to
push to keep ahead.
Ran for three months.
War of the World’s
type narrative broken
into 30-60 segments
broadcast over pay
phones.
Staged theft of A3
supported by display at
auto show concerning
theft. Web page
provided information
for search.
15
Comments
Drew upwards of 3 million
participants worldwide.
About equal number of
female to male participants.
Inspired some participants
to form creative groups.
Departure from web site
approach. Pushed people
outdoors. Received more
mainstream attention than
previous efforts.
Received extensive media
placement. Bloggers
directed recipients to web
page.
Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Table 2 – Summary of Recent ARG Action
Game
The Beast
The Haunted
Apiary
The Art of the
Heist
The LOST
Experience
Vanishing Point
Why So Serious
World Without Oil
Tomorrow Calling
Find the Lost Ring
Product
Film: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Video game: Halo 2
Launched
2001
2004
Car: Audi A3
2005
TV-series: Lost
2006
Software: Windows Vista
Music: Nine Inch Nails album Year
Zero
Film: The Dark Knight
Political: oil shortage
Political: future environmental
themes and activism
Sports: 2008 summer Olympics
2007
2007
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2007
2007
2007
2008
Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Buzzers & Mediaites
Lurkers
Participants
Figure 1 – Sketch of ARG Participation
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Authors’ final draft of a manuscript to be presented at EURAM 2010 – Rome, May, 2010.
Role
Participants
Lurkers
Buzzers &
Mediaites
Video Game or
Close
Innovators & Early
Adopters
Early Adopters –
Opinion Leaders
Early Majority
Other Products
Charities & Non-Profits
Innovators & NonAdopters
Early Adopters &
Non-Adopters
Early Adopters –
Opinion Leaders
Innovators, Early Adopters
& Early Majority
Late Majority
Table 3 – Speculation on Role Players in Three Situations
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Laggards & Non-Adopters
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