The story behind Cicada 3301 and what ARGs are

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An ARG is an alternate reality game, which is defined as an “interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players”. In simple terms, they are a game that is often started through a TV show or video game that can be played alongside the original series, examples of this include the Fortnite ARG in 2018 and the Mr Robot online video series, where viewers went onto a quest to find a secret meaning behind the TV show, being brought clues by the addition of new series’. Huge online communities were set up by fans in order to be able to track the developments, creating vast flow diagrams, subreddits and even entire websites around the subject.

One of the most famous ARGs has to be Cicada 3301. The name originating from the Cicada bug located in Greek islands, which translates to “The loud insect of the night” giving an insight into the thoughts and opinions of those in the group. This particular ARG rose from an anonymous source on 4chan on the 4th January 2012 posting an image on the b (random) board (see fig. 1). The original series ran for one month, with later series’ running during 2013 originating from a tweet this time, and then again during 2014. The trail of clues was then left silent for a few years until on January 5th 2016.

fig. 1

During April 2017, a PGP-signed (see fig. 2) message denied the possibility of there being any un-PGP-signed puzzles or clues to prevent those involved being led down the wrong track and to deny allegations of cicada 3301 being linked to illegal activities. PGP is a form of encryption  program, standing for “pretty good privacy”, which authenticates data for communication. It is mainly used in signing (verifying the authenticity of digital online documents), encrypting and decrypting data. This stage was found by this post, after having been hinted at by the original creators in this post.

fig. 2

All of the puzzles during the Cicada 3301 ARG were focussed around cyber security, cryptography, steganography (concealing a secret and hidden file within another such as storing a text file hidden behind a photo), and internet anonymity. Tasks ranged from decrypting simple messages to analysing files using software and changing file types to discover new hidden documents, amongst many other techniques. It’s mysterious and cryptic nature have lead to many people speculating that it may be apart of a recruitment tool for a government cyber security organisation such as MI6, GCHQ, the NSA or CIA, especially with an ongoing rumour that those partaking are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) meaning any information they find out from then on cannot be shared outside of the organisation they have signed the NDA with, however, the fact that no one has taken responsibility for this makes the probability this was undertaken by a government organisation less probable.

However, one of the supposed solvers of the 2013 puzzle, Nox Populi stated that the 3301 group as a whole don’t intend to cause any harm and from his own knowledge alongside the leaked email from 2012 (available here) that “it is a group of individuals who are interested in the inalienable right of privacy of the individual, the freedom of information and the struggle against the tyranny of censorship.”

To conclude, ARGs exist on many different levels, whether that be on the enjoyable and lower level of TV series’ ARGs, and those that run along side videogames such as Fortnite did during 2018 or the much higher level of the multi year projects, as they can be called at this point, that have created a source of wonder and intrigue for all of those involved. With varying degrees of uptake, success and intrigue among the whole online community, there are often new ones being created, but due to the complex nature they take a long time to develop, and often take an even longer time to solve! Despite having never personally been involved in solving an ARG I can see the appeal and will no doubt get involved in some in the future as I find it a particularly exiting subject and being involved with long term communal project is always fun!