The story of This Is Not a Game is driven by a force located at the nexus between commercial marketing and geek culture: the alternate reality game, or ARG. Though the book is set in the near future, ARGs are being planned and played right now: these are the massive and complexly plotted entertainments that have driven millions to hunt for clues on hidden websites, deliver packages to secret locations and call studios where live actors impersonate characters from a carefully crafted fiction.
The novel follows Dagmar Shaw, an architect of such games. In her role as “puppetmaster” she has cunningly led players through countless twists and revelations by carefully weaving elements of her dangerous virtual worlds into our own. But the real world has turned suddenly dangerous for her: stranded in Jakarta during a collapse of the national economy, she watches helplessly as riots tear the city apart.
When Dagmar—with assistance from her friends and associates at the Great Big Idea company—alters her game in an attempt to summon the aid of its players, the novel takes on fascinating new dimensions and becomes a genuine page-turner. Spurred into action, the group mind of a million and more gamers eagerly applies its problem-solving skills to the real-life crisis.
But getting Dagmar out of Jakarta is only the beginning. Back in Los Angeles, another member of the company (and one of Dagmar’s oldest friends) is gunned down in the parking lot by an assassin. The Russian mafia may be involved, and there are hints of an international finance conspiracy. Soon Dagmar is tracking down the killer while trying to keep the game going, even as outside influences alter the rules of her own creation.
Walter Jon Williams begins with a knowing and sympathetic grasp of gamer culture, and proceeds through schemes and stratagems with a good deal of gamesmanship himself. This Is Not a Game is a tale every bit as engaging as one of the intrigues its characters might have dreamed up.
Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection.