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Alternate Reality Games in the Classroom


A few years ago I attended my first conference with an alternate reality game implemented as a way of engaging participants as a learning community, and ever since I’ve been hooked. Amanda Visconti and I ran several conference games at THATCamps involving escaped video game characters and invading aliens. Alternate Reality Games (or ARGs) are built on the idea of a shared story invading the physical world, and can include scenarios of invading aliens, impending apocalypse, or mysteries waiting to be solved. While some incorporate technology or social media, many ARGs are built by transforming objects and spaces in the learners’ physical environment. Players collaborate and react to those ongoing stories through the mediation of the game designer, and in so doing, build new skills towards the intended  learning objectives.

I’ve written a lot here on ProfHacker about games in the classroom (pt 1/pt 2/pt 3/pt 4) and tools for making games (board gamesScratch, Inform 7, inklewriter, Construct 2, Twine). Alternate reality games are a little different: they can be a way of transforming a classroom or conference through a playful story. You’ll often here ARGs talked about using the phrase “This is Not a Game,” which for a while characterized the ARG-approach to presenting the story and puzzles as “real.” The phrase has gone out of style, but the idea of ARGs as blurring the lines of fiction continues. You can see some ARGs at work online: Disney’s The Optimist, the Perplex City archive, and the classic I Love Bees. Educators are also experimenting with ARGs: check out The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry from a team at the University of Maryland for a great example that encourages “playful historical thinking.”

It can be hard to get a clear picture of ARGs without participating in one directly. Alternate Reality Games typically start with a rabbit hole: a website URL for a fictional company embedded in a movie ad campaign, a strange interruption in a video clip on YouTube, a series of street art images with a Twitter hashtag, or some other method of alerting potential players that a story is starting. From there, players typically follow a trail of clues presented by the game’s puppetmasters. You can find out more about games going on now through the Alternate Reality Gaming Network and the Unfiction Forums. Brooke Thompson has a great quickstart guide on how to play ARGs that can help you get started. Most of the games are marketing promotions, but they still often include great examples of using mysterious websites, codes, social media, geocaching and flash mob events to play a story. These same techniques can be scaled up or down to a classroom or conference.

I taught a workshop on making simple educational alternate reality games at NASAGA, a games and learning conference: you can find the Prezi and worksheet online. I’m currently planning the next NASAGA conference and working on designing a game that will introduce more of the educators and trainers in attendance to the value of collaborating through Twitter backchannels. I’m working through my design process following five steps of questions:

Step One: Planning the Educational / Training Objectives

  • What knowledge do you want to apply or disseminate?
  • What skills do you want the learners to build? (personal, team, technical, communication?)
  • What are your learners’ experiences with games or stories? What game-like elements from their profession or scenarios can you harness for your fiction?

Step Two: Building the Rabbit Hole

  • What theme supports your learning objectives?
  • How can you use your existing environment?
  • How will users find their way down the rabbit hole?
  • (Think of Alice—why did she follow the white rabbit? The surprise of something unexpected?

Step Three: The Bread Crumb Trail

  • How will you communicate with and respond to the learners?
  • What information do the learners need to understand their task?
  • Where will information be placed in physical or virtual environments?
  • How will the actions and choices of learners change your story?

Step Four: The Final Obstacle

  • How will you communicate with and respond to the learners?
  • What information do the learners need to understand their task?
  • How can you provide feedback and responsiveness to their solution?

Step Five: Reflection and Transference of Skills

  • What follow-up activities can you plan to clarify the outcome?
  • How will you assess transference of learned skills?

ARGs are a great way of bringing play and creative critical thinking into a typically structured place: because these games break the rules of the environment, they can also help us rethink our very assumptions about learning.

Have you played an ARG, either at a conference or in another context? Share your experiences with ARGs in the comments!

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