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The Dasani Metro Bench Conspiracy, brought to you by MTV

Date: 28-Aug-2006/19:11+3:00


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I am very interested in the idea of Alternate Reality Games.
If you don't know what an Alternate Reality Game is, it's where people create "ficticious" gameworlds that integrate with "real life" via advertising and other means. The puzzles do not acknowledge at each step of the way that what's going on isn't precisely real (by the usual standards expected of "games"). With the TV series "Lost" the ARG is really coming into the spotlight: people are watching commercials closely looking for clues...and following debate about whether the Hanso Foundation is real (and being covered up as fiction by the show under the guise of marketing).
Games like these are built upon stories, and like interchangeable parts...stories can be plugged into each other at various points. If you set out to create an alternate reality game of your own, you can take a "shallow story" and leverage it on a "deep story". By borrowing an existing story universe, anyone who is playing your game who crosses into that already-debugged story can get caught up in the richness of the part you have borrowed. It will lend strength to your ideas.
Let me give a little illustrative example from my life, where I was faced with a curious opportunity:
I was talking with someone about games, and my involvement in the increasingly illusory nature of reality. As we happened past a metro bus stop, I pointed out a bottle of Dasani water that was sitting--conspicuously--in the precise center of a bench. Walking closer to it, I noticed it was completely full and unopened. I mentioned that as the kind of thing that could be used in a game, and was almost certainly put there as part of some conspiracy or puzzle.
She agreed that the placement was so intentional that it couldn't have been accidentally left there. Her key theory for why it was there was that someone's grocery bag was too heavy, so they put it there to be found by someone who wanted it and could carry it. (That doesn't jibe with me, it was a normal sized little bottle.) She said she didn't think it would still be there when we walked by it again, but when we left it was still there, so she picked it up and put it in her bag. When I badgered her about if she was going to drink it, she opened it and took a swig...then offered some to me. I turned it down and said "whoa, I don't want any of your poison water!" This got me splashed, and she took the rest of the bottle home with her.
Since she talked more about the bottle the next day, I decided to look up the Dasani website to see if there were any marketing stories I could leverage. Curiously, I found a form you can use to send a Dasani email advertisement to anyone you want:
Notice that though it asks you for your name and email address, it doesn't verify it. In fact, you can check a box electing to not get a copy of the ad...so I could make it appear to originate from someone else's valid email address and they wouldn't even know. Now anyone who sifts through their email headers and runs a trace will see the culprit pointed squarely at Dasani's marketing servers...so you'll have little luck convincing someone bright that George Bush sent them a Dasani ad. But sneakily enough, if you fill the To: out as being from "conspiracy@dasani.com" it'll look fine.
In my case, I made an email appear to originate from MTV.COM as if it were an official cross-promotion between Dasani and MTV. The body of the message had the URL of Gwen Stefani's Alice-in-Wonderland inspired What you waiting for? video. Despite the fact that I haven't been enthusiastic of most of Gwen's songs so far, I had always liked this tune...and I like the video for any number of reasons conceptually (but you gotta admit the scene where the little pink rabbit knocks her over and the pocketwatch goes flying on the downbeat is pretty wicked style.) Thought it would be a nice thing to send along, especially given her interest in Alice-in-Wonderland.
I quickly fessed up to my part of the "prank"--as I didn't see any use in prolonging the suspense, given that the Dasani Metro Bench Conspiracy isn't near and dear to my heart. Turning someone's life into a kind of paranoid obsession with bottled water just doesn't seem like a very useful direction to go in. I encouraged her to try and figure out how I did it, but she didn't know--she didn't think to go look at the dasani website to find out about the form. The email didn't even come from Dasani directly, it was a promotions group that worked with them, so it's not surprising that it did not occur to her to dig up the means for sending an ad.
I don't know what y'all think,but it seems like a really bizarre feature to have that "send an ad" bit. It's almost like you're supposed to do it like I did and lie about the originating address--like the site was designed expressly to be used in this way. If you're a skeptic of the purity claims of bottled water (I am) then you might wonder about the veracity of Dasani--is it more useful as an Alternate Reality Game pawn than as an actual product? Very blurry line, especially when it seems so easy to blend with fiction.
The problem everyone is destined to run into is that whether you think life is serious or if it's a game doesn't really matter. You can think bottled water is a hilarious joke or the most important thing in the world--but if your "game" involves starting a water company you still consume days in bottle factories and drawing graphics for water bottles. Is that how you want to spend your time?
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copy write %C:/0304-1020 {Met^(00C6)ducation}

The accounts written here are as true as I can manage. While the words are my own, they are not independent creative works of fiction —in any intentional way. Thus I do not consider the material to be protected by anything, other than that you'd have to be crazy to want to try and use it for genuine purposes (much less disingenuous ones!) But who's to say?