Walter Jon Williams, author of This is Not a Game, told Tor.com that the book deals with ARGs—alternate reality games—which he has worked on in real-life. In the book, he takes advantage of the blurring that occurs between game and reality to insert a Menace that operates in both spheres.
“At some point the play-acting ends, and it isn’t just the fictional characters who die,” Williams said in an interview.
Williams first worked on an ARG with Last Call Poker, an eight-week ARG that ran in 2005. Working on the project with him were fellow SF writers Sean Stewart, Maureen McHugh, and James Cambias. “Not only was it the coolest thing I’d seen in ages, I knew at once that I wanted to take this gorgeous, hot, multi-platform electronic art form and turn it into print on dead cellulose,” Williams said.
An ARG is different from other computer games in that it pursues you into real life. “When you logout of World of Warcraft and turn off your computer, the game is dormant until you return,” Williams said. “But if you join an ARG, you start getting phone calls from fictional characters. People in the game will send you faxes and email, and send you out on missions away from your home and into the real world. You’re not just a player, you’re an actor. And you combine with other actors into ad-hoc committees formed online (and in face-to-face meetups) in order to solve puzzles, advance the plot, and contribute to the story.”
And so in any ARG, the lines between game and reality are blurred. “Hence TINAG, This is Not a Game, which isn’t just my title but an ARG game ethic,” Williams said. “In order for the game to work, everyone has to act as if it were real. The fourth wall can’t be broken—but the fourth wall encompasses the audience and not just the game characters.”
Williams couldn’t help but notice that almost all the writers who create ARGs are science fiction writers, so This is Not a Game‘s protagonist, Dagmar, is one too. “[She’s] a talented SF writer whose career hit the skids along with her marriage, and she was free to take charge of a game company that was in need of some talent,” Williams said. “She’s smart, dedicated, ambitious, and involved. She’s also human and fallible and just a little bit fragile. She’s a victim on the very cusp of being a hero—or perhaps it’s the other way around.”
This is Not a Game is a near-future novel, so Williams didn’t have to invent anything radically new. “All I had to do was extrapolate what’s already here,” Williams said. “Basically, the world is shinier, faster, and geekier. A major plot element has to do with the threat of economic collapse—so let’s just say I got that part right.”
Williams is currently working on a sequel, titled Deep State.