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42 Entertainment pioneered the alternate-reality game. Mixing real-life with a fictional story, these games are viral marketing campaigns for a variety of media. Now 42 has created a new alternate-reality game for The International, a new film starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

You can play the Stop The International game by visiting a web site. Players have to put a stop to the International Bank’s corruption by searching through the site for clues. The clues lead to other web sites and can lead to caches of $100 bills in real-world locations around the U.S. and Europe. Players can also win a car similar to one that Watts drives in the movie. The game runs through Feb. 13, when the movie opens.

This sort of game draws some seriously committed players, who solve problems collectively over the Internet. The best games spread by word of mouth as friends enlist each other to help. Quite often, the alternate-reality games draw casual observers who number in the millions. The challenge, says Susan Bonds, chief executive of 42 Entertainment, is to get more people directly involved.

The biggest successes are when the alternate-reality games help spread the word about a bigger product, such as a movie. 42 Entertainment recently created campaigns for The Dark Knight film, the Sony game Resistance 2, and Year Zero, the Nine Inch Nails album. Big brand companies such as Microsoft or film companies hire 42 Entertainment to make these ephemeral games that last only as long as the campaigns do. Bonds says 42 Entertainment likes to choose campaigns where a deep storyline can be woven in.

If they take off, alternate-reality games can be quite cost effective, since the fans themselves spread the word and do so for free. But it remains to be seen if fans will stick with them now that their is wearing off. Mind Candy created a clever alternate-reality game, Perplex City, which sent users on a real-world treasure hut. But the British company decided that, while the game created a lot of buzz, so few people actually participated in solving the puzzles that it wasn’t a good business if you were trying to sell an actual game or related trading cards.

Others have also tried alternate-reality games. Jane McGonigal, who worked with 42 Entertainment, went off on her own and created World Without Oil, a game about what would happen if the world ran out of oil. The success of these games is not in how many players they draw, but in how much attention they can drum up for the particular target of the campaign.

“If this qualifies as an art form, we are just scratching the surface of it,” Bonds said.

42 Entertainment was founded in 2003 by Jordan Weisman, Bonds and Joe DiNunzio. It was self-funded and never raised money. They made the first alternate-reality game, The Beast, for Steven Spielberg’s AI movie. The 2001 campaign started with a “rabbit hole,” or a clue in the form of a web site that rolled by with the credits of a film. That led gamers through a mystery that they had to solve collectively. The campaign was such a novelty at the time that media coverage resulted in more than 300 million recorded impressions.

One of the most memorable alternate-reality games is Microsoft’s 2004 “ilovebees” campaign for the Xbox game Halo 2. In that campaign, 42 Entertainment arranged to have 50,000 pay phones ring across the country at exactly the same time. Fans answered the phones, recorded the messages, and pieced the audio into a six-hour broadcast about the topic of the game, the invasion of Earth by the alien race The Covenant. While a small number of people participated, more than 2.5 million people watched. That campaign won a variety of awards, including a Webby.

42 Entertainment also ran The Vanishing Point campaign for the launch of Microsoft Windows Vista. That campaign kicked off with a secret message that was embedded as a light show on the famous water fountains of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Right now, the company has 25 people and works with a lot of outside contractors. That’s amazingly small, considering how big the campaigns are.

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