A slightly-built young man dodges through the shadows, face partly hidden by a black hoodie. But even as he tries to conceal his identity, there’s something incredibly familiar about him. What is he doing?
If a new website called Secret Lewis is to believed, the 2008 F1 World Champion and 2010 McLaren title hope is leading a secret existence foiling international art thieves, as well as helping their victims recover their lost and priceless treasures.
Ridiculous? Implausible? Well, yes.
But nevertheless, we have some quite substantial evidence to convince us this is what is going on. For a start there is the photo to the right and a YouTube video showing him in action (see below). And here it is as Hamilton himself supposedly tells it:
Last year, I rescued over $90 million worth of artworks and artefacts. That’s rescued, not stole. It’s a very important distinction. Now I want you to help me – and I promise it’s going to be fun.
But maybe I should back up a bit.
I’m lucky. My work lets me travel the world, drive fast cars, visit the homes and palaces of famous and powerful people… it’s awesome and I don’t take it for granted for a second.
But I also can’t resist a challenge. Near the start of last year, I was invited to a party through work, hosted by a European aristocrat I won’t name here. I mentioned the invitation to a friend who runs a gallery and she said that the nameless prince was rumoured to be involved in some dodgy art dealings. Unfortunately, she’d never been able to blag her way into his high-security home to find out the truth.
Me, I strolled past security on a red carpet. Five hours later I walked out – sweating more than a little, I admit – with a recovered Warhol print shoved inside my tux and my eyes open to the ways of the world.
The print’s now back in a museum, but the whole experience made me realise I could use my position to do something worthwhile. Read on here.
Lewis Hamilton, international crime fighter. It’s an enticing if somewhat incredible prospect. So, what is really happening?
Well, of course it is a marketing exercise, on this occasion featuring his personal sponsor Reebok.
But it’s one that offers fans a tangible reward for getting involved – engaging and interacting with Hamilton in ways they may never before have dreamed were possible.
Welcome to the world of Alternate Reality Gaming.
So, what on earth is an ARG?
Alternate reality games (ARGs) use all the means at their creators’ disposal to develop the illusion of reality, creating an “immersive” storyline that players can utterly believe in – as long as they are prepared to suspend a certain amount of disbelief and play along.
This means players might be able to exchange emails, receive text messages or find other ways to interact in real time with characters, track down secret websites and unlock content, solve puzzles, locate viral video and, more recently, follow Twitter accounts that give them extra information.
A key feature of this treasure hunt-like game is co-operation – the world of the ARG is usually too big and well-distributed for a single player to succeed without working alongside many others, and there are specialist forums dedicated to the pursuit.
ARGs are a creation of the Internet age and are at the cutting edge of entertainment. So cutting-edge, in fact, that the commercial world is still scratching its head over how to best exploit them. The most successful so far have been launched as marketing tie-ins, including one very successful attempt by the band Nine Inch Nails to promote its album Year Zero.
Fans were tipped off to its existence by noticing seemingly-random bolded letters and numbers on tour t-shirts. They decoded these to uncover secret websites and phonelines – and, soon after, one fan at a gig found a USB drive in the bathroom. It turned out to have an unreleased song on it, with more clues to the puzzle in the metadata of the file.
Over the next few months, fans uncovered a complex storyline about an alternate future in which the USA becomes a terrifying fundamentalist theocracy – and the game ended with many players bussed into the desert for a surprise concert by the band which was broken up by a SWAT team.
Whether Secret Lewis will grow to be that complicated, or involve Hamilton itself in its climax, is something we’ll only find out by playing along with it. It’s certainly unlikely to have a political agenda, being instead about promoting Reebok and entertaining fans.
But its authors include at least one of the team behind the successful Perplex City game – and that included a clue towed behind an aircraft over Manchester City Centre, players in San Francisco being buzzed by black helicopters, and a live event in London that ended with one player revealed to be a spy who hot-footed it away to the nearest helipad where he was spirited off into the clouds.
David Varela, a producer at ARG specialists nDreams, said: “It’s fun for F1 fans and for anyone who likes a challenge. It isn’t an ordinary game: Lewis could ask you to help with anything.”
Nor is the action all one-way. ARG story-lines change and develop based on what the players do – a specialist name for them is ‘chaotic fiction’, which sums up something of how players can influence the story and experience it in ways that perhaps creators like Varela never expected or even thought was possible when they began their planning.
Formula One: Access all areas
And now this unique format is being blended with the exclusive and ring-fenced world of Formula One where access is everything and hardly anyone interested in the sport is able to cross into the charmed inner circle.
As a means of satisfying fans’ craving for access to, and contact with, their racing heroes, it’s a novelty – and could make for a heady brew where passions run high. As they often seem to do where Hamilton is concerned.
Back in February we predicted that Williams could be the first of the F1 teams to become involved in an ARG thanks to its innovative viral launch of the FW32. You may also remember the slightly strained saga of Nico Rosberg’s lost helmet in Brazil during 2009, which had definite ARG-like elements.
That prediction could still come true but Hamilton and his sponsors Reebok have beaten the sometimes new media-shy teams to the punch and done something that is genuinely innovative and radical.
So, what inspired them? Well, reading the press release, it is clear that the sportswear company is seriously attracted by the prospect of boasting the only global sports star who has featured as the central character in such a venture.
They say: “The adventure has been developed by Reebok and will allow millions of fans around the world to experience another side to Lewis in this alternate reality. Within the game they will help him train and prepare to recover priceless artworks, sculptures and manuscripts from thieves.”
Describing his role in the development of the game, Lewis Hamilton said: “Creating ‘Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life’ with Reebok has been pretty cool.
“I’m into gaming and particularly playing online with friends who aren’t in the same place, but this is on another level entirely – it’s a real adventure. I’ve worked closely with the team throughout the project and the detail of the game is just unbelievable.
“It’s taken a year to develop and I hope we can get as many people as possible to take part. We want to make this experience as big as we can.”
Developed over the past 12 months by Reebok and nDreams, ‘Lewis Hamilton: Secret Life’, is described by its creators as one of the most ambitious projects of its kind, building a multi-lingual community of players from every corner of the globe.
They claim it will be staged on a truly international scale as the adventure develops in nine languages simultaneously, following Lewis’s fictitious exploits around the world as they play out alongside the F1 season.
However it is a long way from being the first ARG to cross continents: Perplex City was a two-and-a-half year online treasure hunt that attracted players from scores of countries around the world, while before it came The Beast. This 2001 game was designed to promote the movie AI: Artifical Intelligence and generated a global network of players who called themselves the Cloudmakers – many of whom went on to develop the next generation of ARGs.
Later came I Love Bees, where a War Of The Worlds-style radio drama was broken into 30-60 second segments and broadcast over ringing payphones worldwide, with players tipped off just in time to race out from their computers and pick up the calls.
Whether or not Secret Lewis lives up to the claims and ambitions of its creators, it’s certainly a project supported at the highest levels of the company. Ulii Becker, Global President of Reebok, said: “We’re committed to bringing the joy and fun back to sport. From the very beginning, Lewis has been on board with this goal and Secret Life is a great example of this.
“Secret Life is our way of inviting fans to see a different side to Lewis and get involved in his training in a fun and unique way. I hope fans have as much fun participating in the game, as we did in creating it.”
Organisers promise that the game will feature elements including online heist simulator games, a network of fictional websites, mobile games, Twitter feeds and plenty of video footage of the star carrying out what they call “his adrenaline-fuelled heists to recover the stolen artefacts”.
Players will be able to attend live events in different cities involving the central characters and make their own creative contributions to the story as it unfolds.
Since the game’s launch just before the Bahrain Grand Prix, players have cracked a password on an auction house’s website to find out the identity of a collector with a suspicious interest in Turner paintings – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the trail is now leading to Melbourne.
So, how do I join in?
The game centres on five core missions and will run until October. To take part you simply go to the Secret Lewis website, read the latest update from his in-game sidekick Anna Chao, and start looking for clues.
That will lead you to ways of working with other players to solve puzzles and complete tests online, on cellphones and in the real world at live events across the globe.
It’s also something you will need to keep an eye on, as the storyline of an ARG evolves constantly and you never know when the next instalment might be coming.
In fact, these qualities can put many people off. It takes a fair bit of time to build up your knowledge of the world, to keep up and to stay in touch with what is going on in the game’s player community. And it may be that juggling all these elements is just too much to ask of the casual fan.
Also, the game faces a challenge in finding an audience. Many ARG players are in the United States, where F1 is a minority pursuit, while many F1 fans have grown thick skins in the face of the sport’s constant marketing pitches, and are more interested in the practical reality of engines and aerodynamics than fictional art heists.
But, if you want to try your hand at becoming one of Lewis’ gang of international crime-fighters, here are a couple of tips.
You might keep an eye on the SecretLewis Twitter feed. And checking out the Unfiction Forum thread on the subject might also help. Perhaps this blog is one to follow too.
Certainly here at Brits on Pole we’re every bit as keen on alternate reality gaming as we are on racing – for reasons that make a very long story which we won’t bore you with. So the idea of the two coming together has us very interested indeed.
That means we’ll be looking for all the ways we can find to get involved.
See you on the other side.
To find out more about Lewis Hamilton’s double life, search online for ‘Secret Lewis’ or go to www.secretlewis.com.