How To Create Effective ARG Characters For Game-Based Training

How To Create Effective ARG Characters For Game-Based Training
Olena Yakobchuk/
Summary: What you need to know about characters in an Alternate Reality Game for your corporate learning programs.

Creating Effective ARG Characters: Tips, Types, And Elements

Andy Petroski, Emerging Technologies Leader and Author, is allowing our readers to read portions of his work. This article comes from his book Alternate Reality Games: Gamification For Performance.


There are very rarely “player characters” in an ARG; players “play” as themselves as opposed to taking on the role of an established protagonist. There may be an opportunity for players to represent themselves with an avatar or a unique screen name, but in most ARGs the players don’t play a character role in the story or the gameplay.

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Player Characters And Non-Player Characters

I emphasize the lack of player characters in “most ARGs.” Just because it isn’t a common approach doesn’t mean it can’t be done. That’s the great thing about ARGs: There’s not one, precise formula for creating an Alternate Reality Game.

NPCs (Non-Player Characters, i.e. the characters not controlled by players), can play any number of roles in the ARG story and gameplay. The table below describes the impact NPCs can have in an ARG.

Introduce the Rabbit Hole The Rabbit Hole is the hook into the game. A non-player character can be used to make players aware of the game and initiate gameplay.
Establish the objective A character can establish the reason for playing the ARG. Think M from the “James Bond” films, or Charlie from “Charlie’s Angles.” An NPC can deliver an urgent message to establish the overall goal of playing the game. Or, a character can recur throughout the game to provide incremental objectives for gameplay.
Provide information Characters might play a large role in the story and gameplay and appear every time a clue is given, puzzles are solved, or information is requested. A character may also appear at crucial moments of gameplay to encourage players to complete a task that will establish expectations or build momentum.
Guide players A non-player character can be available as a guide throughout the game, giving hints and advice to guide players to success. The guide can be automatically presented to players or the players may have to request guidance from the character.
Distract players Contrary to a guide, a character can be used to distract players with misinformation or require players to complete an additional task to get around an obstacle the non-player character presents.
Reinforce the storyline The story is interwoven with gameplay in an ARG, but sometimes the specifics of gameplay activities become a greater emphasis at the expense of the story. Characters can be used to bring players back into the story and re-establish motives, emotional connections, and fun.
Adjust the storyline and gameplay As mentioned previously throughout these series of articles, the ARG story and gameplay may need to be adjusted by the puppet master. Characters can be a part of the change in direction and communicating the new direction to players.
Conclude gameplay Just as a character can be useful for starting an ARG, an NPC can be used to summarize gameplay and let players know that they’ve reached the end.

7 Character Types To Consider For Your Alternate Reality Game

When you think of characters for your ARG, go beyond creating only human-like representations. Characters can be fictional people. But, objects and places can also be Non-Player Characters in the game. Regardless of the form of the character or the purpose for the character, there is a variety of character types [1] to consider as you craft your ARG story and build your character elements:

1. The Hero Character

This is the player character in most games. An avatar represents the player character as a Hero who plays to overcome a problem and transform him, her or itself and the world in which he lives. In an ARG the hero can be a non-player character and the ARG player can be a director, supporter, or observer of the Hero’s journey. Or, the ARG player may undertake the activities of the hero, but not as a specific character. Remember, players in an ARG usually play as themselves.

2. The Shadow Character

He or she represents the hero’s opposite; an adversary who is assumed as responsible for the hero’s problems. The revealing of the shadow in the story can be a twist; revealed as the dark side of the hero, a former friend of the hero, or just someone or something in the story that’s an unexpected shadow. A shadow character might be used to introduce the Rabbit Hole, distract ARG players, reinforce the storyline, or adjust the storyline and gameplay.

3. The Mentor Character

He or she often guides the ARG player toward some action, prepares the player for the journey, and guides the player throughout gameplay. The mentor may be someone who has taken the same journey, as the player is undertaking; and provides wisdom based on her previous success or failure. The mentor character might be used for any character role in the ARG outlined in the table above.

4. Ally Characters

They help the ARG player progress throughout the game. Allies may also help the player get past obstacles that are too difficult to overcome by himself. An ally character can be used for any character roles in the game outlined in the table above. But an ally can also be another real-world player of the game working on the same challenges as the player.

5. Guardian Characters

They present an obstacle to the ARG player in her journey until she has proven her worth. A guardian character might require a feat of strength, intelligence, or compassion before providing the information or path that the player needs to continue. A guardian character can be used to provide information, distract players, reinforce the storyline, or adjust the storyline and gameplay in the ARG.

6. Trickster Characters

They cause chaos through their pranks and foolishness. Tricksters mainly play neutral roles in the story and may just be used as a form of comic relief or to provide a transition in the story from one stage to another. A trickster character can be used to introduce the Rabbit Hole, distract players, or adjust the storyline and gameplay in the ARG.

7. Herald Characters

They bring a message to the player that generates action, emotional change, or movement in a new direction. A herald character can be used to introduce the Rabbit Hole, establish the objective, guide players, reinforce the storyline, or adjust the storyline and gameplay in the ARG.

Final Word

There is a number of character description templates available online that help to outline the main characteristics of a character as well as character bible templates that guide the establishment of a much more detailed character description and history. Search on “character description template” or “character bible” for a wealth of resources.

Like story creator software and sites, there are character creator resources as well. [2] The Brainstormer app also includes a Character Builder option (for an additional $.99). The character builder add-on “mixes personalities, backgrounds, and themes for an unending variety of compelling characters.” The character example provided with the Character Builder option in Brainstormer is “The Self-made Man / Genius / Naturalist.”

Stay tuned for our next article, where we discuss effective ARG story development.


  1. Game Development Essentials, Jeannie Novak, 2nd Edition
  2. The Brainstormer App