The first iteration of the Battle Lines ARG consisted of five levels in which players solved puzzles and created digital artifacts using audio-, image-, and video-editing software. This section describes the specific requirements of these levels and draws on observations made by members of the development team who took turns being present in the classroom during gameplay. Battle Lines challenged players to consider and respond multimodally to a controversy over the value of higher education. The most significant features of gameplay discussed here include the dynamics of digital and real-world collaboration and competition between players and their development of technological proficiency in media editing in accordance with the objectives of the game.
The game world of Battle Lines opened with players receiving an email with an interactive PDF file mimicking the email inbox of Amanda, the protagonist of the game. Players interacted with the inbox image in the same way that they would a real inbox. Scrambled lettering in the subject lines indicated that Amanda’s inbox had been hacked and provided players with the first puzzle.
The messages in Amanda’s inbox provided backstory and paraphrases of argumentative stances held by James Battle, former president of The University of Texas and a defender of higher education, and former Texas governor James “Pa” Ferguson who objected to universities on account of their tendency to perpetuate intellectual elitism. Players were supposed to identify the best paraphrases and extract strings of inconsistently capitalized letters from subject lines corresponding to web addresses of pages on the Friends of Texas website, which had also been hacked.
Players initially attempted to solve these puzzles on their own and with classmates seated nearby. Individual web and social media searches, attempts to analyze images from the Friends of Texas pages in Photoshop, and even pen and paper analysis of data strings quickly gave way to forum collaboration. In the first week of the game, a player requested that the instructor create a page for sharing thoughts and findings on the main course wiki. Players swiftly began sharing information on this page and sifting relevant findings up as static context at the top of the forum page.
The development team expected that at least some players would recognize that the quality of paraphrases in the email corresponded to the correct strings of letters for accessing the pages on the Friends of Texas site, granting access to a Twitter hint system and a portal for requesting access to the designated Battle Lines game wiki. Upon accessing the correct pages, players discovered the game’s first hint in Amanda’s Twitter feed:
Players could view Amanda’s tweets on the Friends of Texas pages or on Twitter without signing into the service, but several chose to follow Amanda via existing profiles or by creating new accounts. Hints were posted in real time based on collective progress through game objectives—usually 15 minutes before the end of a 90-minute class session. The development team tweeted additional hints when players still did not recognize paraphrasing as the basis for the puzzle.
Several players discovered the correct pages using these hints and shared the addresses with their classmates on the class wiki. Players solved the first level of the game through experimentation and without demonstrating mastery of the skill of paraphrasing, though they did devote considerable time to perusing online instructional material on paraphrasing tweeted by the development team. Some even attempted to parse this external resource for clues. In response to an inquiry by the instructor regarding the “logic at play” in the level, the first student to solve the puzzle attributed his success to “luck.” In the class session following the solution of the puzzle, one player finally identified accurate paraphrasing as the basis for the puzzle.
Due to a fundamental disconnect between the development team’s pedagogical intentions and the strategies adopted by players, Battle Lines inadvertently began with the most difficult and longest challenge of the game. Level progress was slowed by uncertainty over the digital and real-world boundaries of the game as players intrigued by Amanda’s identity searched university directories and social media, discovering numerous false paths. Critical problem solving, logical approaches, and online discussion prevailed over rhetorical analysis or face-to-face collaboration.
In the second week of in-class gameplay, players advanced to the second level of Battle Lines. A scrambled Garage Band audio file in the game wiki included several phrases—“a bar,” “eating,” and “drums”—obscured in multiple tracks. Players had to adjust track volume to decipher these clues which were intended to direct them to the Cactus Café, a historic music venue on The University of Texas campus located near their classroom.
Players readily isolated the clues but hesitated to act on either them or hints tweeted during class. As the first level of the game was entirely digital, players were wary of venturing out during class time. The instructor broadened the game’s real-world horizons by encouraging players to pursue their notions regarding the clue. Five players investigated the Cactus Café and swiftly located a poster created for the game. At least one of these players brought a smart phone and scanned in the QR code embedded in the poster, thereby gaining access to the collage challenge.
Upon returning to class, these players reported their discovery and shared the link from the QR code on the Battle Lines wiki forum page. The link in the QR code directed students to the third level of the game—one emphasizing Photoshop. Students also began to note the presence of strings of letters and numbers embedded in the poster, ultimately identifying them as library call numbers for two books located in different libraries on The University of Texas campus.
Two groups of players—one of four and another of three students—visited these libraries and found short phrases attached to the shelves below the books. Players removed these clues and brought them back to share with the class and, according to class observations, initially shared their findings with one another remotely, presumably via text message. These phrases were subsequently posted to the forum page on the game wiki. When combined and added to the Friends of Texas homepage's address, these phrases directed players to a page on the Friends of Texas website with a message from Amanda summoning them to the reference library in the basement of the state capitol, located approximately one mile from the classroom.
The second level of Battle Lines laid the groundwork for several subsequent levels, extended the game into real-world space, and challenged conventional classroom practices with an investigative approach to involving students in determining and satisfying the objectives of the game. When the instructor asked the players who visited the Cactus Café and libraries if they would have left the classroom had they not been encouraged to do so, the first student to take the initiative said that they would likely have waited to pursue the clue until after class had concluded.
By the third week of the game, most players had progressed to the third level based on the prompt given by Amanda on the page linked to in the QR code. This level required that players create and submit their first digital artifact: a collage assembled in Adobe Photoshop visually expressing their understanding of the relationship between democracy and education and incorporating at least ten layers of visual data. Students in the Writing in Digital Environments course had previously shared their technological proficiencies on the class wiki.
Some students were unfamiliar with Photoshop and uncertain how this software differed from other photo editing or presentation applications. As with the previous level's requirement of a smart phone, camera, or other mobile device and Internet access, the issue of limited or uneven access to technology became significant. Some students inquired whether they could create their collages in other image editing software, but the availability of Photoshop in all Digital Writing & Research Lab facilities allowed use of this particular software to remain a requirement. The development team sought to introduce students to this powerful image editing software by encouraging them to respond to a loosely defined topic with a basic minimum requirement for complexity of composition. Most of the collages submitted grappled with the disjuncture between privilege and merit. Several players created abstract landscapes emphasizing inequality of opportunities for educational advancement.
Other players incorporated cartoon and other visual texts, words, and symbols, juxtaposing the meaning of these components with suggestive images and symbolic positionings.
Some players took a more stylized approach and incorporated allusive images into a unified aesthetic treatment of the controversy.
Players submitted their collages to the game wiki along with a brief written description and commentary on their work. These collages were reviewed and commented on by development team members signed into the wiki under the name ‘Amanda.’ Players either moved on to the video manipulation level, which commenced with the combined phrases retrieved from the two libraries or revised their submissions. The players also decided among themselves to switch from the main course wiki to the designated game wiki as the primary forum for consolidating their findings.
Significant questions involving the unity or multiplicity of clues and the necessity of individual submissions began to arise at this point in the game. Observers from the development team remarked on most players’ willingness to submit individual materials and to progress through game objectives at their own pace. Teams also began to emerge in the class based on classroom seating patterns with enthusiastic players encouraging and guiding others in their immediate vicinity and technically adept players assisting others stuck on previous objectives. An observer on the development team reported that some students appeared to be working with clues that they did not publish on the wiki or share with their classmates, giving rise to a more competitive approach that coincided with other players’ willingness to allow clues to be solved for them, but all players ultimately submitted their own collages.
The fourth level of Battle Lines began when players combined the phrases found in the two libraries and added them to the basic Friends of Texas web address. A message from Amanda summoned them to the reference library in the state capitol. Players hesitated to commence this level at the end of week three on account of the distance between the classroom and capitol, but they collectively discerned that the capitol would be closed on Monday of the following week for a state holiday. Our in-class observer noted that students attempted to arrange group treks to the capitol, but only one student visited the reference library where that student obtained a flash drive from the librarians and then uploaded those findings to the game wiki.
The flash drives provided by the development team were loaded with two segments of speeches on education, one by William Powers, the current president of The University of Texas, and one by Governor Rick Perry. Rearranging the segments of these videos in the right order revealed the address of a final page on the Friends of Texas website. On this page, students were prompted to create a final declamation in video or other media format and submit it to the game wiki along with a brief written discussion of their rhetorical stance and the process of creating their artifacts.
An encrypted file on the flash drive provided students with raw images and video for use in creating their final declamations. Players expressed frustration with the encryption of the file and when one player succeeded in accessing the data, that player promptly shared the contents of the file on the game wiki. By this stage of the game, players generally realized that they did not necessarily have to participate in solving clues and some began to test the submission and assessment process on the basis of a suspicion that Amanda’s feedback to their submissions was automated. Observers from the development team remarked on a loss of some energy among the students when faced with the task of creating a second digital artifact.
Most students devoted class time in the final week of the game to finding additional images and videos for the declamation. These multimodal declamations and written descriptions were accepted or returned with recommendations for revision.
Successful submissions resulted in players being given a final password which they used to obtain a commemorative game token at Battle Hall. Players were also sent a link to a live-action end-game video. By the end of Battle Lines, players had several opportunities to familiarize themselves with the basic use of audio-, image-, and video-editing software by creating digital artifacts responding to the rhetorical situation and main themes of the game. Students submitted a variety of declamations ranging from videos and slideshows to blog entries and collages.