By Xiaochang Li | October 7, 2009
Levi’s recently launched a new ARG-style scavenger hunt to promote deeper involvement with their brand mythology. The story centers around the last will and testament of Grayson Ozias IV, a fabled friend of Nathan Strauss who disappeared mysteriously into the wilderness with $100,000, which in turn is the grand prize for the game.
While the game and story themselves seem like a fairly straight-forward multi-platform scavenger hunt — a three-tiered system of challenges, quizzes, and puzzles that will eventually identify 100 finalists that will compete for the grand prize — the nature of the grand prize caught my eye. While it’s certainly not the first of it’s kind of offer a large cash reward as an incentive to participate (Mind Candy’s Perplex City memorably offered 100,000GBP to their winner) , the Levi’s campaign does represent a rising trend in contest-focused efforts.
It’s unclear this early in the game whether the Levi’s campaign intends to play out like transmedia experience, or if it intends to be a more traditional scavenger hunt with a decorative narrative shell. What is clear is that they’re hoping to leverage the type of collective action and deep engagement by “pulling out a page of the ARG book,” as Levi’s director of digital marketing Megan O’Connor put it to Brandweek, but also seeking to “keep it a little less complicated.”
Making things “less complicated” often means at the level of narrative, which in turn suggest that it will be centered around the contest structure. Which makes me wonder how a contest-driven format that focuses on a clear (and singular) winner deals with engaging the type of collective intelligence and participatory action we’ve come to associate with ARGs. Especially if they’re “trying to keep it a little less complicated” as O’Connor claims. ARGs, after all, are not about games or puzzles, per se. The games and puzzles are the vehicle to drive forward the larger collective storytelling experience, which is what stimulates the robust levels of engagement, even for those who don’t receive anything tangible in return for their participation. Therefore, by reducing complexity, they run the danger of also reducing the points of access and the types of incentives available for participation to the cash prize. And if that were to happen, what incentive do people have for sharing information and clues and otherwise engaging with one another to move the story forward?
Certainly and many ARGs have had some sort of special (often secret) prize for who those who stuck it out to the end. But on the whole, ARGs, though considered to be games, aren’t competition-driven, which is what allows for the pervasive collaboration that serves as both the heart and the engine. So how might we see participation reconfigured when the whole process is oriented towards an end goal that can only be claimed by one person, rather than the collective storytelling experience? What does it mean for the social ties formed within the process?
My recent white paper at C3 focuses on the negotiation between types of social value/worth and economic exchanges, and I can’t help but think of it now and wonder the campaign will still generate the sort of engagement it envisions, given the changes in social relations that come with the introduction of monetary value. As ARGs become more and more common in promotional campaigns (last summer, in the wake of Dark Knight, it felt like a movie couldn’t premier without an accompanying ARG), the question of how to negotiate the space been social worth and economic value becomes increasingly pressing. Advertising may very well be able to generate the same amount of attention, whatever their tactics, but must still consider how different game-play and reward structures affect the nature of the engagement produced.