Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are part story, part scavenger hunt, part puzzle, part role-playing game, and part community-building exercise
Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are part story, part scavenger hunt, part puzzle, part role-playing game, and part community-building exercise. They are set in real and virtual spaces, with players navigating both their environment and the digital media landscape in search of clues and solutions. ARGs have been around since 1996, and some notable ones have been produced by large media companies looking to create buzz about video games or movies (Alternate reality games, n.d.). However, a growing list of educational institutions—including The University of North Texas ((Warren, Dondlinger, &McLeod, 2008), Arizona State (Hea, Zimmerman, & Howe, 2010), and Duke (Boluk, Jagoda, & Lemieux, n.d.)—are turning the power of ARGs’ collective intelligence skills to educational purposes.
Alternate reality games can run for months (and sometimes years) and thus are usually produced by teams of
game masters who create the game’s narrative and monitor and adjust
the game in real time. This narrative structure is not the usual linear structure, but instead is distributed across various media platforms for players to find and piece together. During gameplay, players’ responses to puzzles and characters impact how the game unfolds, with game masters writing players’ characters into the storyline and gently guiding teams toward possible puzzle solutions.
Clues are hidden in websites, on blogs, in emails, in layered pictures, in scrambled YouTube videos, in garbled audio files, and even in the architecture and cityscapes surrounding the players. Each clue is a puzzle, and each puzzle's solution leads the players to another clue. The massive distribution of content and the skills needed to play ARGs lead to players collaborating and sharing information in organic learning communities.
Twenty-first century educators are competing for students’ attention—competing with various interactive media, from video games to YouTube to social networking sites to transformative works. Because past pedagogical practices, including lecture, can exclude multimodal learners by reifying dominant power structures—making students consumers of scholarship rather than collaborators in their own education—we feel it is important to combine digital literacy skills with traditional textual research in the composition classroom. One way to do so is through the use of ARGs.
Historically speaking, games and rhetoric are so closely intertwined that the rigid distinction between play and rhetorical pedagogy appears new and incongruous—not games in rhetoric, but rhetoric without games.
Although several composition theories inform our game, social construction theory remains at the fore. Even the possibility that contingent subjectivities emerge through social interactions leads us to believe that alternate reality games are ideal spaces for players to experiment with constructing particular identities. While social construction theorists, such as James Berlin (1988), critique power structures that work to naturalize identities, our game supposes a different, but compatible purpose. Taking a page from Kenneth Burke (1969), our game presumes that identification with a range of literacies allows students to experience diversified academic identities by interacting with/in the university environment itself. Though we suspect that academic identifications would occur even without the game, we took that inevitability into account and designed the game to provide students with the agency to construct and negotiate their identities in contexts they may not have experienced otherwise.
Historically speaking, games and rhetoric are so closely intertwined that the rigid distinction between play and rhetorical pedagogy appears new and incongruous—not games in rhetoric, but rhetoric without games. Take any rhetor’s education in antiquity: progymnasmata were a series of increasingly difficult modules focused on specific rhetorical challenges that began with fables and simple narrations, leveled up to more developed practices such as the confirmation or refutation of stories or speeches, and eventually culminated in more fully developed role-playing performances such as ethopoiia and, eventually, declamation. This graduated structure epitomizes many of the educationally beneficial qualities contemporary theorists identify in games, such as
performance before competence (Gee, 2007, p. 62) and
flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008, p. 6) or being
intensely focused, highly motivated, creatively charged, and working at the very limits of [one's] abilities (McGonigal, 2011, p. 40).
Classical rhetors also participated in role-playing exercises as part of the progymnasmata: Students tried out different subject positions as part of the process of crafting their own, flexible identities as skilled speakers and writers, often through explicit role-playing in fictional scenarios. The role-playing dimension of declamation tuned out historical or political considerations that distracted from the immediate learning objectives (Winterbottom, 1982, p. 65), making role-playing among the most effective mind-sets for learning. Additionally, literacy scholar James Gee (2008) argued that games teach players necessary skills and knowledge within a Situated Learning Matrix, where content
is rooted in experiences a person is having as part and parcel of taking on a specific identity (in terms of the goals and norms stemming from a social group) (p. 26). By teaching through role-playing, games
distribute their knowledge and skills as a deep form of value-laden learning (p. 32).
Fantastical exercises in role-playing or fictional declamation themes, however, are not irrelevant to real-world experience. Rhetorical games are instead lenses through which students can reason about, engage, and assume authority over controversial and complex topics. As Erik Gunderson (2003) put it, ancient declamation reveals
a zone of intellectual engagement where the
otherwise unapproachable can be handled under the aegis of irrelevance, mere play, and idle fantasy (p. 6). Unlike many of the pedagogical techniques commonly found in the classroom setting, games get players to
exercise their learning muscles …
without knowing it and without having to pay overt attention to the matter (Gee, 2007, p. 29). Players do not approach games in order to learn a set of skills or a body of knowledge. Rather, skills and knowledge are gained unconsciously as one takes pleasure in mastering the problems and challenges good games offer.
By using both real and fictional controversies, games can sustain students’ engagement with real-world issues by providing low-stakes, imaginative, and skills-oriented contexts that also make the learning experience pleasurable. All of these objectives allow for differential rates of learning, keep players invested in the game, and make the often frustrating experience of learning a new skill more pleasant.
Because the puzzles in ARGs are usually complex enough that one player cannot solve every puzzle alone, players quickly learn to leverage their
collective intelligence in their learning communities. The digital media scholar and philosopher Pierre Lévy (1997) defined collective intelligence as a
form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real-time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills (p. 13). Lévy’s collective intelligence is the opposite of authoritarian structures that confine individuals to interchangeable parts in service of an overarching purpose. Instead, in a collective intelligence network, each individual possesses skills others do not, and thus is given chances to contribute in an “information on demand” environment. In this environment, individuals find themselves simultaneously mentoring and being mentored by their peers.
In addition, since game content is distributed across many types of digital media applications and real-world locations, ARGs create a necessary condition for productive collaboration:
responsibility [rests] on each and every player to come forward with any and all discoveries, so that the entire collective [can] access and process as complete a data set as possible (McGonigal, 2008, p. 11). Because no player is an expert on every facet of a clue, it is more advantageous to share knowledge rather than horde it.
As a result of piecing together the game’s structure and mentoring each other, players build communities based on mutually shared knowledge. Jane McGonigal (2008) called this stage in ARGs the
collective cognition stage, where players gather and analyze
game content, developing a cohesive theory of the game world and a shared language for discussing it. This initial period of intense collaboration provide[s] the players with a sense of community, shared focus, and common knowledge (p. 11).
Players in ARGs produce media to make a change in the game world, and in turn, can use those same practices to change the real one.
Through the course of an ARG, players must navigate various digital media platforms in search of clues. Additionally, ARGs adapt to player input because players do not merely consume the game, but they produce content as well. Because ARGs require this type of input as well as navigational literacies, players develop a variety of literacies.
Digital literacy can be divided into three types: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Simply stated, when referring to digital literacies, a functionally literate person can use technologies, a critically literate person can question technologies, and a rhetorically literate person can produce technologies (Selber, 2004, p. 25). The structure of ARGs works to develop skills in each of these areas.
Puzzles within ARGs require complex skill sets in a variety of platforms, and getting from clue to clue requires developing these skills. Players, at various moments, may need to comb the source code of a webpage, gradually peel away the layers of a scrambled Photoshop image, or navigate the private databases at one of the campus’s libraries. A single player may not possess all of these skills, but, through mentorships formed in her learning communities, she can teach others and in turn be taught by them. In this way, players leave the game familiar with various interface metaphors from a multitude of platforms. The value of this type of literacy comes from knowing how to “work the programs” of our modern digital era. These basic skills, however, are often the limits of traditional methods of instruction. With ARGs, we have a chance to make students questioners and producers of digital media artifacts as well.
Because ARGs lay a fictional narrative across real-world technologies, they present prime opportunities to discuss the natures of propaganda and hypermediated societies. Players are constantly questioning the limits of the game, testing the aforementioned hypotheses regarding the storyline, digital media, and reality. When any medium may contain a clue, players become adept at recognizing cues to the veracity of digital media. Traditional instruction in this area may leave students with principles of web credibility, but ARGs force players to put these principles into practice through numerous examples. When players must look beyond the skin of a digital media artifact to find clues, they cultivate critical thinking skills that can translate into a healthy skepticism of the digital media they are exposed to everyday.
Finally, in making alternate reality games interactive, we ask players to reflect on these technologies as media of persuasion, deliberation, and social action. More than just following clues from one location to the next, ARGs are participatory media. They ask players to collect, analyze, and critique various sources of information, and the game responds to each of these actions. Seeing a larger system respond to such actions can translate into real-world social action: As Henry Jenkins (2006) found, some alternate reality gaming groups evolve into social action groups, as was the case with the Collective Detective,
a think tank whose first task was to try to identify corruption and waste in U.S. federal government spending (p. 244). As one member of the collective noted, the phases of an alternate reality game coincide with real-world practices for analytical thinking as a step toward persuasive discourse (p. 244). Players in ARGs produce media to make a change in the game world, and can in turn use those same practices to change the real one.