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Wisdom of the crowd triumphs in alternate reality games

'The Lost Ring,' a game tied to the 2008 Olympics, depends on collective sleuthing by players around the world.

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It was a regular Friday at the office for Web strategist Robin Sloan when the front desk called to say he had a package. The box bore a return address, "TLRing, San Francisco," and scrawled in black marker was: "Unravel the mystery."

Inside, he found postcards, a poster from past Olympic Games, a list of future dates, and a ball of yarn.

"It was thrilling because it was just so 'Da Vinci Code,' " says Mr. Sloan.

He chronicled the mystery on his blog and soon a visitor solved the first riddle: unravel the yarn. The ball held a scrap of paper pointing him to a website for "The Lost Ring" – a new "alternate reality game" (ARG) tied to the 2008 Olympics.

Part scavenger hunt, part group storytelling, ARGs are collective experiences that usually combine online and offline elements and have no winners or losers. "The Lost Ring" could become the breakthrough event for a genre its enthusiasts describe as everything from the next-generation movie to a mechanism for saving the world.

"This is just how the 21st century wants to tell stories," says Sean Stewart, cofounder of Fourth Wall Studios, a game design firm. "It's no longer based on the broadcast paradigm. People want to participate in some manner."


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