The Wrong Way

by danhon

Right now, it takes a lot of effort for me to write something for this website. There’s quite a lot going on in my life: I’m running a successful startup, and this weekend I’m moving house. My delicious stream goes some way in getting out to the rest of the world what I’m interested in, and believe me, there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I’m interested in at the moment that I’d love to write about if I felt I had, or actually had, the time.

On the other hand, there’s nothing more motivating than righteous fury and anger, and – joy of joys – it’s one of those posts I’m writing right now.

See, what we do at my new company is make entertainment experiences. Or games. Or tell stories. We don’t really have a good name for the kind of thing we make yet, but alternate reality gaming – or ARGs – seems to be doing the trick at the moment. But really, the whole crux about what we do, and what I passioantely believe in, is making good things. Taking time, and really, really being passionate about what we create and build. Because, in the long run, that’s going to win. It’s going to win against fads, it’s going to win against cheating, and it’s going to win against being lazy and untrustworthy.

It just happens that a side-effect of what we do, of the kind of things that ARGs are, is that they create passionate and engaged audiences. They bring traffic and attention. Good things, I think, do. And I’m sorry if this is some sort of woolly splurging, but at the same time, it’s a completely core belief. The company we – myself and my brother – admire the most is Pixar because you can just tell that everything they make is about as good as they can make it, and Jesus Christ does it look like they sweat it, but it all pays off in the end.

So what’s gotten me so angry to actually get off my arse and write a long-form post?

There was a story that did the rounds a couple weeks back about a kid who’d stolen his dad’s credit card to buy hookers and get them to play Halo with him. It was certainly an interesting story. It was, evidently, the kind of interesting story that would attract a lot of people, traffic and attention – in an incredibly successful way, too – if your metric, your measurement of success was the amount of traffic and attention the story would gather. And success in this case was mainstream media coverage.

The problem was that the story wasn’t true.

This is interesting to me, because a large part of what my company does, and a large part of what a traditional audience for ARGs likes, or even in some cases expects, is a game that pretends that it isn’t. And right now, a lot of ARGs are used as marketing tools. The good ones are excellent entertainment in their own right. But a lot of the history of ARGs, as an accident of what’s regarded as one of the first, the Beast, is the concept of This Is Not A Game, which is where things get a little complicated for me.

This Is Not A Game is, as I understand it, the concept in alternate reality gaming that the game itself doesn’t let on that it’s a game. It behaves, for all intents and purposes, as self-consistently as possible, but at the same time doesn’t explicitly say that it’s a game. For a game that would be, say, set right now, in this world, it would be conceivable that a game could, say, include a story about a kid who’d stolen his dad’s credit card to buy hookers and get them to play Halo with him.

This game might well be a promotion for a financial services company, or it could be about something else, but the big thing about This Is Not A Game is that, for purists, you wouldn’t see a disclaimer anywhere at all. For all intents and purposes, the This Is Not A Game philosophy requires and encourages the audience and players of the game to honestly believe that the material and content they’re consuming is, or just might be, real.

Some people might call that a hoax. This isn’t new. Blair Witch was hoax-like. Found footage is hoax-like. There’s a whole genre of it in literature that starts with literary forgery, includes false document and ends who knows where.

Now, what normally happens in ARGs that follow, for whatever reason, the This Is Not A Game philosophy, the hoax issue is dealt with quite easily and in the majority of cases in one of two ways. The first is framing and context: it’s unlikely that there really (a) is a vast interstellar war going on in the future where we’re fighting an alien species and an advanced artificial intelligence is communicating to us through payphones, or that (b) you have found a website that has defied the laws of physics as we know them and are actually browsing the web of the early twenty second century. The second is that invariably at the end of such games, it normally makes sense for the marketing exercise to link up with the product or service that it’s marketing in the first place: thus “Oooh, I’ll go and buy Halo 2 now” or “isn’t that a nice new car from Audi.”

The reason why I’m going into this is that as game designers, having everything you produce have to be some sort of hoax is rather limiting. I’d rather expend time and energy in coming up with a good game design and refining it rather than coming up with ever more convoluted reasons as to why the whole setup might, just might, be real. I mean, did I really work for a company that’s secretly employed by an academy of puzzle solvers?

What I’m getting at here is that while it’s nice for some games to be hoaxes, not all of them have to be. And in a lot of ways, it’s remarkably freeing to say to an audience; you know what? This is a game. You know it’s a game. We know it’s a game. Now that we know all of that, let’s pretend it’s real and carry on as normal and have you taking telephone calls from a flailing artificial intelligence without us worrying about whether or not you’re stalking us because the game you’re playing might be real.

So. Hoaxes.

The credit card, hookers, Xbox and Halo story wasn’t real. It turns out that it was a calculated (and, I’ll happily admit, creative) attempt at gaining traffic, attention and increased ranking in search engine results.  It was published, without a disclaimer that the story was fake, as the only story in an “and finally” section of articles (amongst other categories such as “personal finance”, “utilities” and “you and your money”) on a financial services comparison site that’s regulated in the UK by a government body and has this to say in its terms and conditions:

Whilst every attempt is made to ensure that the information published is correct and up to date no warranty or representation is given as to its accuracy or reliability. Except in the case of death or personal injury caused by Dot Zinc’s negligence, no liability can be accepted for any inaccuracies or any loss incurred as a result.

Let’s recap: the article was a hoax article. The author of the article admitted as such and stated that it was specifically created to attract attention. It was published on a site that explains itself as:

a free, online comparison service allowing customers to compare a range of personal finance products and utilty services. Our objective is to present information in a simple format, enabling initial comparisons to be made ‘at a glance’ so that customers can make informed financial decisions.

Now, the article was published in the “and finally” section. In the UK, the informal convention is that “and finally” is the part of a news broadcast – at the end – where quirky stories are highlighted. But they’re still part of a news broadcast and, one assumes, that a certain amount of fact checking has gone on.

What happened was that a number of blogs, aggregation sites and then mainstream media picked up on the credit card and hookers story and ran with it. Yes, it was in a quirky “and finally” section, but it didn’t have a hoax disclaimer. It wasn’t flagged, on any area of the publishing site, as satire – in the way that a site like The Onion does in its FAQ section on editorial.

See? The Onion’s quite happy in being upfront that its content is made up. It’s still entertaining, though.

This is the part where I’m going to get angry.

The publishing site – money.co.uk – specifically stated in its terms of service that “every attempt is made to ensure that the information published is correct and up to date”.

It lied.

There’s no two ways about it. There’s a follow-on in the terms that disclaim liability, but the long and short of it is that they say that they make every attempt to ensure that what they publish is true.

They didn’t, and ignored their terms of service in a calculated way.

The author of the article, a Lyndon Antcliff, claimed that he wasn’t interested in the ethics of running the article, merely that it worked as linkbait – gaining traffic, attention and improving the publishing site’s search engine ranking.

Well, the publishing site’s search engine ranking may well have improved thanks to the number of incoming links to the hoax article. But the article still doesn’t say that it was a hoax. So, as many have quite rightly pointed out, how am I or any other reader to know whether any other articles on money.co.uk are true, seeing as the publishers have so flagrantly disregarded their own statement as to accuracy? How can I know that they’ll honour their privacy policy? If this is what the publishing site will do to increase their search engine ranking – which undoubtedly ultimately affects their bottom line – what else will they do to increase their profit? Sell user registration data in violation of their privacy policy or, even, in violation of the law?

I don’t know. You don’t know. You could take a guess – but it would be a guess.

This tactic – hoaxing, doing whatever it takes to improve search engine ranking, or, bluntly, lying, won’t work and can’t work in the long run.

For starters, it won’t work because where financial services are involved, providers are regulated in the UK by a government body that doesn’t take kindly to misrepresentation or, again, bluntly, lying.

It won’t work because companies are required by the advertising standards authority to, bluntly, not lie. Because the ASA requires marketing communications – and this hoax story was explicitly revealed by its author to be a marketing communication – to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful regardless of whether they appear in traditional media, such as a newspaper or a magazine, or in new media, such as an SMS text message or banner ad”.

It won’t work because newspapers quite quickly cottoned on to the concept of labelling advertorial as, well, advertorial. They might not like it, and it might be in a tiny corner, but it’s there.

It won’t work because this is the web, and anyone can create a link, and I can link to an untrustworthy site.

It won’t work because you can complain:

If you wish to register a complaint, please contact us:
– in writing: Customer Services, Dot Zinc Limited, 16 Borough High Street, London. SE1 9QG.
– by phone: 0870 922 0727
– by e-mail: complaints2@dotzinc.co.uk
If you cannot settle your complaint with us, you may be entitled to refer it to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

(the uncharitable cynic in me would ask what happened to the implied complaints@dotzinc.co.uk for the company to have to move on to complaints2)

The hoax article’s still there. There’s no disclaimer. As far as I’m concerned now, the publishing site is absolute rock bottom.

(And no, I haven’t contacted them before publishing this entry. They don’t deserve it. It’s late and I’m angry – but I know what I’m doing tomorrow morning.)