In 2001, Jonathan Waite was living in South Korea and lurking around in a futuristic online whodunit called "The Beast."
Seven years later, most of his friends and acquaintances come from playing so-called alternate reality games, which blur the line between reality and fiction — and entertainment and advertising.
"It's a boon for a person like me, who likes to talk to people but doesn't always have people nearby," said Waite, 31, who now owns ARGNet, the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, and lives near Winnipeg.
The story-driven, reality-bending genre is also referred to as immersive fiction and has a fellowship of devotees that is equally split between genders.
The games have already been used to create brand awareness for everything from beer and toys to high-end European automobiles and charge cards. Such efforts allow game makers to experiment with new types of game play, while deep-pocketed sponsors foot the bill.
Hamburger chain McDonald's jumped into the fray this year with an Olympics-themed title called "The Lost Ring," and Coty has launched "The Case of the Coveted Bottle" to promote "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker's new perfume.
"The Beast" — the game that hooked Waite — ran for 12 weeks in 2001 as a promotion for Steven Spielberg's film "A.I." and is widely cited as the game that launched the modern ARG.
Puppetmasters dole out clues
Puppetmasters, who control ARG play, dole out clues via Web sites, mysterious mail deliveries, late night phone calls, billboards, podcasts and every other imaginable type of media.
Fans, who play for free, delight in the intellectual challenge and say working with others to solve puzzles and crack codes creates a strong sense of community.
Enthusiasts converging on a handful of sites like unfiction.com and despoiler.org swap tips and information about their favorite ARGs. Players host real-life meetups, some marry, and many maintain relationships long after the games end.
"I Love Bees," one of the best known ARGs, started with an e-mail address planted in the credits of a preview for Microsoft's 2004 "Halo 2" video game. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The hint led players to what looked like a hijacked beekeeper's website, but was really a rabbit hole into a sprawling game that involved Web sites, pay phones and scads of computer audio files.
"The human brain is just set up to solve puzzles," said Patrick Moorehead, director of emerging media at advertising firm Avenue A/Razorfish.
While the pure entertainment value of ARGs is clear, he questions whether corporate sponsors are seeing returns.
"I'm very skeptical of the value of doing these types of things," he said.
Treading lightly with ads
Marketers that pay for ARGs are must tread lightly with their message. Players say a successful, sponsored ARG must use very subtle marketing techniques or risk turning players off.
Waite said he bought Activision Inc's Old West-inspired video game "Gun" after playing the ARG that promoted the console game title, but that he does not make a purchase after finishing every game.
"I played a great game that was sponsored by Audi, but I don't have the wherewithal to buy an Audi right now," he joked.
Not all ARGs are backed by big corporations.
A handful of independent games, like 2006's "Sammeeeees," have found success.
Some game makers have even attempted to tackle social issues.
In "World Without Oil" — a 2007 game that has particular resonance as gas and heating oil costs skyrocket — players are immersed in a global oil crisis.
The barriers to entry remain very high for independent ARG creators, who can see their teams and finances quickly overwhelmed by audience demands.
"Right now you can't create enough content by hand to keep up with the usage of the most dedicated players," said Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore College history professor who also specializes in popular media and video games.