An article from The Australian today reported on a new project being launched by ABC Innovation called Bluebird AR. It’s another Internet gaming mystery where clues are scattered across the Internet for participants to track down and decode.
Quoting from The Australian:
As followers of the alternate reality gaming genre will know, such stories unfold gradually through a series of clues that are decoded by participating viewers, so Media can’t reveal too much.
Let’s just say on Thursday we received in the mail what’s known as a “rabbit hole” into the game: an employee security card for a young scientist named Kyle Vandercamp and a handwritten note on Bluebird company letterhead with the following message: “Hi, I need you to look after these for me. Who knows what’s going to happen with Bluebird over the next little while . . . One thing I know is I can’t let this bird fly — I’ve got to get the word out. K.”
Participants can then go and find accounts across multiple online services such as Flickr, Twitter, and, YouTube, and Digg. The ABC have launched a website to launch Bluebird AR this morning and a fictional tie-in site developed at http://nowicanchangetheworld.com.au. We know the website is fictional because of the massive ABC disclaimer on the site telling us so.
The official ABC site tells us that they have launched this as an attempt to capitalise on the story-telling capability of the Internet that “involves interaction, reactivity and scenario-game play, alongside the more traditional languages of storytelling”. ABC Innovation head of marketing Carolyn MacDonald has cited one of the challenges of this sort of storytelling, explaining that “…the internet community is so savvy that if you try to pull the wool over their eyes, it’s a complete turn-off”.
While the potential for this sort of story-telling certainly does exist, it does raise a couple of questions. The big one is: how many people really are engaging with these interactive games and what sort of metrics are being used to measure the user engagement? Bluebird AR is firmly pitched at the 18-39 year-old age group, which I am smack-bang in the middle of. Yet, anecdotally, I don’t know of anyone who ever engages in online stories such as this. You regularly hear of them being launched, but the silence that follows (particularly on social networks) is deafening.
Since 1999, when the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project launched and utilised a similar form of storytelling to develop brand awareness around their product, there have been a multitude of other online stories told. Most-often, they are told for the purpose of promotion. Carolyn McDonald has said that online audiences are savvy media consumers. I’d have thought that after years of being manipulated by these online promotional campaigns, the level of interest in participating in another corporate-driven story like this would be minimal.
Also, who really has enough time to invest in these online story-telling ventures? People are increasingly time-poor (except when Farmville is involved, it seems), especially in the 18-39 demo that Bluebird AR is aimed at. All of this begs me to question whether the majority of participants are actually engaged in the story, or if they are simply general web traffic who have viewed sites involved in the greater story.
Am I being too cynical? Is there a substantial audience for this that exists outside of my real-world peer group, online social contacts, and general web-browsing experience? I certainly believe the ABC should be chasing opportunities to engage with its audience on new platforms and in new forms, but I’m just not convinced that there is value in this.