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If you want to read about the implementation of the video game Gone Home in a high school English class, start here. If you want to know how to turn your class into an alternate reality game, keep reading…
Are you Ready to Ascend to Epic Awesomeness?
Have you lost sleep wondering how to turn your class into the most epic adventure of all time? Can you imagine your students climbing over each others backs to get to your class and collectively groaning when it’s over? If you think you’re ready to ascend to a whole new level of awesomeness, brace yourself. Today begins your initiation to learn the ancient and jealously guarded secret of how to turn your class into an alternate reality game (ARG for short). You’ve never heard of alternate reality games, or you’re not quite sure what they’re all about? Leave your doubts and hesitations at the door and enter – all will be explained and the path will become clear(-ish). All mysteries will be demystified, and all secrets will be, well, unsecreted.
An Alternate Reality Collaboration
This tale begins two years ago, when John Fallon and I met at the Games in Education Symposium in Upstate New York, where we were presenting on the ARGs we’d designed for our classes. We quickly discovered a shared appreciation for games, books and secret societies and forged an instant friendship. It wasn’t long before talks turned to designing a game to be played between our two schools. Undaunted by the international border that separated us, we Skyped, Googled, Facetimed, Facebooked, Instagrammed, Tweeted and Retweeted, until Blind Protocol was born. What ensued was an immersive 30-day game that pit our two classes in the US and Canada in a mock-cyberwarfare simulation. By the time it was over, our students were well versed in the pitfalls of privacy, surveillance and online security. And they had fun. Yes, fun. Yes, in school.
This past summer, we were lucky enough to present on our work at the International Boys School Conference (IBSC) in Cape Town, South Africa and the Games in Education Symposium (GIE) in Albany, NY. One of the many promises that were made to the session participants was that we would publish a one-stop-shop resource to help ease them down the ARG rabbit hole. So here you have it – the recipe to channel the transformative power that will let you run your class as an immersive alternate reality game.
This first post will ground you in an overview of ARGs and their uses in education, and the next post will provide all the resources you need to get started.
What’s there Not to Love?
Alternate reality games are a unique and creative way to engage and challenge your students by deeply immersing them in their learning. They foster collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, self-organization and problem solving and naturally check all the 21st century learning boxes. Like in many games, player are empowered with agency, choice and flexibility in how they approach their learning. Running an ARG definitely takes a little extra elbow grease, but the payoff is huge: your students will love to play as they learn, it may become your most creatively satisfying and rewarding experience as a teacher, and it will have a positive impact on the overall growth and evolution of your practice. What’s there not to love?
ARG’s are a subcategory of what are called “pervasive games”, where gameplay extends to the real world. Wikipedia defines them as “an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and uses transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions”. ARGology provides a much longer definition, while James Bono does a good job defining and providing an overview of ARGs on this blog post. You should also read this post by John Fallon which provides a tight intro and description of ARGs with an educational spin.
In a nutshell, ARGs are games that combine digital and real world elements to immerse players in an interactive narrative experience. To blur the lines between reality and fiction, they use phony media, false documents and other real world elements such as actors and telephones. A popular ARG catchphrase is “this is not a game”, denying that a game is being played at all to deepen the feeling of realism…and paranoia. It sounds complicated, and it can be, but you can also keep it as simple as you like. ARGs are good like that.
Now that I’ve dished out definitions, we can throw them away. I’m using “ARG” as a convenient and somewhat mysterious acronym for turning a class into a game. Some of the examples and tools we’ll suggest fall outside of the traditional strictures of ARGs, and some of the existing educational models listed below might be better called pervasive games, gamified classrooms or even transmedia simulations. I started down this road with the slightly deranged idea of turning my class into a video game. Purists, please forgive my liberty with the term – I just want educators to have fun and unleash the full force of their teacherly imaginations.
Origins and Examples of Commercial ARGs
ARGs emerged from the primordial mists of the 90s. A number of smaller ones cropped up at that time, as outlined in this Wikipedia article, but the first big game that came to define the medium was 2001’s The Beast. It was created by a team at Microsoft as an elaborate marketing scheme to promote Steven Spielberg’s film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The game attracted thousands of players, many of whom worked together under the name The Cloudmakers to resolve the game’s super complicated challenges and puzzles. Once The Beast ended, players from the community went on to design and deploy their own grassroots versions of the game. Companies such as Audi and Microsoft created ARGs to promote upcoming products, and the band Nine Inch Nails developed one to anticipate the launch of a new album. Popular television shows such as Heroes and Spooks have also launched their own versions as tie-ins that run concurrently with the shows. Today, Google’s Ingress is probably the world’s most widely played ARG.
Alternate Reality Education
Despite their shady origins in marketing, an ARG’s propensity for collaboration, narrative immersion and critical thinking have led a handful of educators to use them in their practice. Some schools and teachers that have experimented with ARGs in their classes (including John Fallon) are discussed in this article I wrote for MindShift. They can also be applied to other institutes of learning, as illustrated in this blog post that looks at ARG projects in schools, museums and libraries. More generally, UK Professor Thomas M. Connolly discusses the educational value of ARG’s, including alignments with constructivist-learning, project-based learning and situated learning. On a larger scale, Dr. Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil is a great example of a commercial ARG with educational benefits, as players are asked to collaborate to contend with a world suffering from an oil shortage. Incidentally, highly recommend McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, as an intro to ARGs and their potential for social change.
If you’re like me, you learn better through models and examples than instructions. The list below consists of teachers who run their classes as games. Even if they don’t fall cleanly within the definition of a traditional ARG, what they achieve is close enough and equally inspirational.
Some Alternate Reality Practitioners
Lee Sheldon (Troy, NY): Lee is a college prof at Rensselaer Institute of Technology, who wrote the seminal The Multiplayer Classroom. He’s a pioneer in educational ARG design, and you can read about his work in this piece I wrote about him for MindShift.
Timonious Downing (Prince George County, MD) Timonious has experimented extensively with games in his class and has run his class as a game using Classcraft. Be sure to check out his informative website which is chock-full of educational technology ventures. He’s also featured in The Game Believes in You, George Toppo’s new book on game-based learning, which I recommend your read.
John Fallon (Fairfield, CT) John’s Dolus: Finding the Journal of Odysseus is an example of a classroom game that remains faithful to a traditional ARG. A mysterious BBC article draws his students down a rabbit hole where they must follow the clues left by master thief Dolus to find the stolen journals of every Greek’s favorite hero, the wily Odysseus. Also check out John’s awesome blog, The Alternate Classroom, where he discusses ARGs, game-based learning and his experience running Dolus.
Randall Fujimoto (Los Angeles, CA) Executive Director of Game Train Learning, Randall designed and ran an ARG based on the internment of Japanese citizens in the US during World War II. Arising from Injustice was played by middle school students while in summer camp.
Michael Matera (Milwaukee, WI): Michael runs a yearlong Medieval ARG with his middle school class, but also check out his amazing websites where he discusses other ARG projects, simulations, gamification and game-based learning. Michael also co-hosts Bam Radio’s Game Based Learning show with Matt Farber, another GBL rock star.
Tim Saunders (Grand Rapids, MI): Tim delivers a two-month Grade 4 science unit on matter to his science class with an ARG he designed called Matter Quest. His students work through quests to foil the dastardly “Creeper”. You can read more about his and Amanda Pratt’s amazing work at their Gameful Learning website.
Playing Alternate Reality LEGO
ARGs can be used for any subject or grade. They can last a few lessons, or run the entire year, and can range from the fairly simple to the extremely complex. They don’t, however, always transplant well from one class/school to another. In most cases, you can’t simply take a premade game and apply it wholesale to your class. ARGs want you to channel your inner designer and artist; they want you to get playful and creatively adapt a game to your unique school and classroom culture. Also, the games are so dynamic that no two games are ever the same, and you’ll have to make additions and changes on the fly in response to how your unpredictable students will play. This may sound slightly intimidating, but DON’T PANIC! Trust me – any motivated teacher can pull it off. Any teacher who’s run one will tell you how invigorating and exhilarating it is to be challenged in this way, especially since it flies in the face of the boring, old and creaky factory model of the prepackaged and fossilized lesson plan. This is what real and meaningful change looks like. This is what fun looks like.
ARGs are fairly easy to tweak, adjust and massage. You can borrow, steal, jerry rig and extract mechanics from existing games, ARG or otherwise, to canabalize your own. Like a LEGO set, they are modular systems with interchangeable parts. You can pick, add, eliminate and reorganize the various components to fit your specific needs. They can be played as extra-curricular activities, as after-school clubs, as a bonus or parallel activity to a regular class, or as games to introduce students to a school, a library or a campus, and even as a creative means to deliver PD. In the end, they can be bent and shaped to suit any educational purpose. If you’re new to the game, I’d say start small and low stakes, and then raise the ante as you become more comfortable and begin to realize the immense potential harboured in these playful learning systems.
The first part of your training is done. You now have a foundation, and hopefully more questions than answers. More to come.
Please feel free to write or comment if you’d like to contribute further resources to these posts, share experiences, request further information or suggest any additions or alterations.
Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Turn Your Class into an Alternate Reality Game is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.