In the following podcast, members of the Battle Lines design team discuss the challenges of creating an alternate reality game that is fun and engaging while it teaches rhetoric and digital writing. We discuss the techniques of creating alternate reality by using archival material from this ARG (starting at 1:40); trying to strike a balance between revealing a compelling narrative, requiring digital literacy and skill, and requiring rhetorical engagements with the story (5:19 and 5:57); the problem posed by red herrings and students’ inclination to overinterpret false clues that we hadn’t intended to leave for them (8:26). As a design team, our on-the-fly course corrections in response to these challenges made significant improvements to our original game design even as the game was unfolding in students’ hands. The exigency of keeping students interested, immersed, and on track made designing Battle Lines into an exciting recursive composition process in its own right.
Click the audio bar to jump to a section of the podcast. You can also read through the transcript or click the times above to go to that section of the transcript.
One of our goals was to design clues that required digital media skills in order to solve. One of our earliest problems was ensuring students had no other way to advance in the game without learning the intended skill.
One of the first clues we brought from planning to playing became Level 3: Images. We made up a fake concert poster for a Janis Joplin show and used it to embed QR codes that would enable players to download the poster’s original Photoshop file. We intended for students to learn to use layers in Photoshop to reveal hidden library call numbers. Players who tested this level before the game went live to students found they could study the printed poster and visually make out some of the call numbers—thus circumventing the need to learn about layers in Photoshop.
We first of all obscured the call numbers visually so that players would have to turn off certain layers in the Photoshop file to see them. We also added a piece to this level that required students to use layers in Photoshop to create a digital collage with a rhetorical purpose (a successful collage earned players the trust of their in-game guide, the mysterious Amanda).
The innovation of adding a productive mode of gameplay (in which students created persuasive digital media) to the more investigative mode (in which students discover, assemble, and interpret clues) gave us a useful model for designing the other levels. It not only made it more intuitive for students to rely on the digital media skill they had just practiced when they encounter the next clue that required the skill, but adding a productive mode of gameplay also furthered our rhetorical goals for the game: asking students to respond to rhetorical exigencies with digital arguments.
In the game’s initial level, we wanted to introduce a compelling story about our main character (Amanda) along with a basic rhetorical skill: identifying better and worse paraphrases of an argument. The level stages an email exchange between Amanda and her brother and between Amanda and her boyfriend. The problem was getting students to focus on the arguments without overinterpreting all the other points of data in the level.
We had hoped students would discover the heuristic of identifying the best paraphrases by reading each of the emails carefully and recognizing a dispute between interlocutors over whether their arguments were being represented fairly. We did not want to issue overt instructions about identifying paraphrases because we worried about direct instruction making the game feel like more work and less fun.
But, in the absence of focused instruction about what to look for, students began to overinterpret clues we hadn’t meant to leave them! For example, some students printed out an archival telegram and tried to tie it to a physical location. Some found the garbled text embedded in email subject lines, but couldn’t figure out how to assemble it into the URL we meant them to find. Others examined the source code of the web pages for further clues. They even tried to contact a real person through Facebook who had attended UT Austin and by coincidence shared the name of our main character! These red herrings were distracting students from what we had intended to be the relevant—and rhetorically salient—clues.
We thought of this problem in terms of students’ ability to distinguish rhetorical meaning in context from a kind of paranoiac overreading that finds meaning everywhere (such that no relevant meaning can be discerned).
We knew we had to alert students that they were on the wrong track, but we didn’t want to break the alternate reality we were creating. In order to help students focus when they were struggling with a clue, we created a Twitter account for our main character, Amanda: @amananadaTX. We tried to use the Twitter account to lead students in the right direction without simply giving things away. Although it took awhile for us to learn to use it well, the Twitter account was useful throughout the game, and it helped preserve the sense of the story by making Amanda into a kind of in-game guide, challenging students with clues and puzzles but also helping them with cryptic hints.
As Battle Lines was drawing to a close, we planned what we thought would be a dramatic conclusion to the gameplay: Students who completed a final declamation assignment received a codeword they had to mention to a helpful librarian inside a campus building, Battle Hall. Each student received a custom-etched wooden coin as a unique memento of their participation in the game.
What we didn’t think about was bringing the game to an equally rewarding sense of narrative closure. The mysterious disappearance of the in-game guide, Amanda, had left some students wondering how her friends and family felt since her secretive activities with the players had resolved the digital and rhetorical teaching of the game, but not her story! Students made it clear they felt the game was somehow unresolved.
Because students wanted to know what happened to Amanda, we scripted and filmed a semi-campy narrative resolution in which Amanda breaks up with the boyfriend she had argued with in the first level and disappears into thin air. We released this film as a kind of bonus reward to the game’s most outstanding players, who circulated it among their classmates. We hoped that our film, entitled The Good, the Bad, and the Friendly, would give students a laugh and our thanks for their perseverance throughout the game.