S.E.E.D.: Creating and Implementing an Alternate Reality

Philip Ehrenberg, Patrick Jagoda, and Melissa Gilliam

Alternate reality games (ARGs) are large-scale, participatory narratives designed for multiple players. ARG narratives use transmedia storytelling, whereby elements of the story are distributed and conveyed across different media. These media may include (but are not limited to) videos, radio broadcasts, blog posts, social media, and invisible theater performances that unfold in public or unconventional spaces. As players move through the narrative, they encounter an assemblage of short games, puzzles, and playful experiences that use both physical and online spaces as their platforms. Explicit gameplay challenges may require players to crack codes using cryptography, engage in social engineering experiments with non-player characters and actors, and play traditional digital or analog games.

As described by Sean Stewart (2016), ARGs prompt collaboration and crowdsourcing among players to enable progress through a media-based scavenger hunt and narrative. Investigation drives gameplay, leading some players to solve a puzzle or uncover a new detail of the story before others. Consequently, any single player is unlikely to ever have a full grasp of the entire narrative. Since ARGs take place across extant real world and online spaces, they do not have the same boundaries that a fully digital videogame might. For example, ARGs afford unique modes of interplay between players and designers. As players advance through the game, the designers may respond by creating additional games, characters, or story components. ARG narratives, then, are frequently nonlinear or multilinear and may be altered during the course of the game based on dynamic player responses and contributions. Designer responsiveness and flexibility in constructing tailor-made components for particular players can in turn permit all players to feel more self-directed and efficacious in their game-playing experience.

The following webtext explores the educational and social potential of ARGs by describing and analyzing the design, curriculum, and objectives of an ARG entitled S.E.E.D. This webtext uses some of the transmedia assets that made the game itself possible, as well as video documentation of the game, in order to give a fuller account of this genre and its affordances.

[Video Transcript]

ARGs emerged in the early 2000s as a cultural form that found greatest traction across immersive viral marketing and media art experiments created by artists, designers, and writers (many of whom became involved with the game design company, 42 Entertainment). As media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006) demonstrated, several of the earliest and most successful ARGs were used to market other products — for example, I Love Bees, which was used to promote the Xbox game Halo 2, and game studio Valve's Potato Sack, which promoted their game Portal 2. As the form of ARGs has expanded, some designers have also started to create versions of these games that operate as artistic experiments and educational tools. Scholars such as Elizabeth Bonsignore and her colleagues (2012) have suggested that ARGs have the potential to promote cooperative learning. Given the expansion of uses of this cultural form, ARGs have received increased attention in the second decade of the twenty-first century from literary critics, new media and communication scholars, anthropologists, game studies researchers, and education researchers (Garcia & Niemeyer, 2017). Though ARGs are a far less popular form than conventional videogames, they bring together elements of digital media, computer networks, and transmedia storytelling that also make them a paradigmatic cultural form for thinking about and experimenting with the contemporary world.

We approach S.E.E.D. from the perspective of the game designers and researchers at the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC Design Lab) that created and evaluated the ARG. The GCC Lab creates board, card, digital, and mixed reality games that seek to make a social impact through multimodal learning. ARGs have been central to the GCC Design Lab's work through the framework connected learning. As described by Mizuko Ito and her colleagues (2013), connected learning advocates for expanded access to learning that is socially embedded, interest driven, and oriented towards educational, economic, and political opportunities. In implementing the connected learning framework, the Lab has developed a number of serious educational ARGs over the past several years, on topics such as reproductive technologies (Stork) and science and technology education in urban communities (The Source), as described by Patrick Jagoda and his collaborators (2015). The S.E.E.D. game is an extension of these earlier projects.

The Lab's work on ARGs builds on research that indicates that games offer interactive contexts for thinking through and experimenting with complex problems in a hands-on fashion. They enable multiple learning styles and engage players at several levels simultaneously via text, graphics, audio, interactive processes, social interactions, and participatory play (Gee, 2007). They spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, teach procedural knowledge, and enable users to inhabit complex systems. Games also instill motivation and optimism about the possibility of completing a challenge, as Jane McGonigal argued (2011). More specifically, gameplay skills also align well with a number of underlying learning goals in areas such as science and technology; see, for instance, Kurt Squire (2008) and Merrilea J. Mayo (2009).

Drawing from transmedia assets created for the game and video documentation recorded on-site, a series of short film segments weaves together the voices of S.E.E.D. game designers and players. Through text, video, and audio, we seek to communicate aspects of the original experience to a variety of audiences and possible stakeholders, ranging from game designers to digital media scholars to education researchers interested in out-of-school engagements with Science, Technology, Education, and Math (STEM) learning. Unlike replayable screen-based videogames, most ARGs tend to be ephemeral experiences that can be challenging to replicate and scale. This status makes their documentation valuable, if notably difficult, as a contribution to the continued study of the form and its affordances (Jagoda, 2016, pp. 185–186). Given these challenges, ARGs are often difficult for non-players to imagine, and are often confused for videogames, virtual reality, augmented reality, and live-action roleplaying experiences, even as they admittedly draw elements from all of these genres.

In what follows, we use a multimedia format that integrates transmedia assets and offers an overview of the game and curriculum of S.E.E.D. as an example of the affordances of ARGs with educational dimensions. S.E.E.D. builds on insights from educational ARG design and analysis. It operates as an experiment in alternative learning models that incorporate young people's interests in game culture, the social affordances of group gameplay, and the intrinsic motivation and satisfying challenge that games provide. S.E.E.D. uses these elements of game form and culture to give participants access to STEM knowledge, new media literacies, and civic engagement opportunities.

[Video Transcript]

S.E.E.D. was an ARG created by the GCC Lab. S.E.E.D. unfolded on site at the University of Chicago and, for select portions, online across three weeks in July 2014. The purpose of the game was threefold. First, S.E.E.D. sought to transmit STEM knowledge and career interest. Second, the game sought to develop new media literacies through hands-on and game-based learning. Third and finally, this ARG included exercises to promote political participation and civic engagement. S.E.E.D. invited participants into a science fiction story. Following these three weeks of gameplay and collective storytelling, the design and research team broke the fourth wall and debriefed students about the experience. Participants then continued for two more weeks through a camp in which they learned how to design board games and ARGs about self-selected serious social topics, such as gang violence, water scarcity, teenage pregnancy, and gender discrimination in the workplace. These final weeks invited players to become game designers. In sum, this five-week program had several different dimensions that existed in parallel and intersecting tracks throughout the experience. S.E.E.D. was at once an out-of-school educational program, a practice-based digital humanities experiment, a designed game, a research study about alternative learning forms, and a scalable social intervention.

A brief overview of the program's recruitment and demographics is useful for understanding its organization and context. We recruited players using flyers, online information targeted at Chicago public schools, and invitations to after-school programs. The game attracted 69 youth, ages 13 to 18 years. Forty-four, or 63.8%, of these participants were male. The group was also 69.6% African American, 15.9% multi-racial, and 7.2% Hispanic or Latino. Among the participants, 62.3% attended Chicago Public Schools and 72.5% took part in free or reduced lunch programs. The vast majority of these students did not have previous experience with ARGs. Despite the fact that most of them came from the South Side of Chicago, most of them were not frequent visitors to the University of Chicago campus. The S.E.E.D. game, as well as earlier ARGs created by the GCC Lab, including The Source, were direct responses to the lack of racial-ethnic diversity among youth pursuing STEM education and careers (Gilliam, Bouris, Hill, & Jagoda, 2016). As such, the game embedded layered literacies that invited youth to engage with ARG form, STEM content, and the university context.

Participating youth came to campus each weekday from 9am until 4pm. Youth were assigned to teams led by pairs of graduate or undergraduate mentors (coming from fields as diverse as game design, international relations, education, sociology, social work, theater, and visual arts) who served as game runners, teachers, advisors, and mediators between the designers and players. Some activities took place outdoors on campus, but most of the gameplay unfolded on one floor of a university building that was divided into workstations. Participating youth also had the opportunity to meet University of Chicago faculty and STEM professionals. All of the disparate activities and diverse experiences within the first three weeks were organized within the flexible form of the ARG.

In addition to being a game, S.E.E.D. was also a participatory science fiction narrative. At the start of the game, a mysterious organization from the future, "ProPhyle," contacted players via a group of "Temporal Archivists": live actors and embedded game designers who explained that they were "historians of the future." Through S.E.E.D. (a fictionalized technology which stood for "Story Engineering and Enabling Device") and various media forms, ProPhyle informed the players that they had information from the future that indicated that the world would end, beginning on July 25, 2014. Only two things were certain at this point. First, this group of players still had a few days to save the world. Second, someone in the group would become known as the "World's End" because he or she would instigate an apocalypse in the future. Thus, the players were invited to solve the mystery of who was the World's End and thereby to save the world. Midway through the game, a second group from the future called "The Scattering" began communicating with the players through personalized messages and urged them to oppose ProPhyle. Designers communicated the story through daily newsletters, radio, social media, video transmissions, a tablet-based locative app, and live-action roleplaying with actors. This narrative included both planned plot twists and adjustments that the designers made through daily observations and improvisational responses to player activities.

[Video Transcript]

S.E.E.D. included a number of games and activities that made up the first three weeks of its curriculum. In the first week, players met their mentors and participated in a series of icebreaker exercises. They were also sent onto the University of Chicago's campus to find an orb that, when introduced to the S.E.E.D. technology, yielded an evidence folder filled with material they would require to complete the first week's culminating challenge: a debate tournament. These folders contained board game activities, textual material, and digital sources that covered a series of science-oriented apocalyptic scenarios, including climate change, global inequality, super viruses, and resource depletion. For each of these folders, designers repurposed board game prototypes created by the GCC Design Lab to enable students to explore scientific topics via gameplay. For example, the game "Infection City" demonstrates the rapid spread of diseases that may occur without proper prevention and treatment, and "Power Play" challenges players to diversify the types of energy sources used to power a city. These games all used the Design Lab's modular Hexacago game board, a map of Chicago and its subway lines that was overlaid with a grid of hexagons, so players' game actions were situated in a familiar environment.

Given a limited timeline, players had to organize quickly and divide up tasks that included reading through available research materials, preparing a strategy against other teams, and composing briefs and speeches. Each team also met with a health professional or University of Chicago faculty member who offered information and insights about their assigned topic. For example, one of the global inequality teams met with an English professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in postcolonial literature (Sonali Thakkar), one of the resource depletion teams met with a representative of the university's Office of Sustainability (Alfredo Izguerra), one of the climate change teams met with a member of the John G. Shedd Aquarium (Linda Wilson), and one of the super virus teams met with a university hospital epidemiologist (Jessica Ridgway). The final exercise was a competitive debate tournament in which teams had to communicate the scientific and policy research with which we had supplied them to panels of judges in the form of organized speeches and persuasive rebuttals.

In the second week, the designers transitioned from an emphasis on science and policy to a focus on mathematics by way of cryptography and decryption activities. As players comprised a wide range of grades and academic backgrounds, cryptography presented a common baseline from which to engage participants in mathematical critical thinking and problem solving. Early in the week, each team was given different portions of an encrypted message, information about decryption, and a short packet with information about the history of cryptography. This tutorial conveyed both the contextual stakes of cryptography and key skills necessary to practice particular techniques, such as Caesar shifts, substitution ciphers, and Vigenère ciphers. Exceeding the design of the exercises, teams began to use these encryption and decryption techniques to send secret messages to each other. Some players received personalized encrypted messages that were said to be from the future, generating a narrative incentive for teams to continue with their studies while also increasing their emotional involvement. The curriculum also included additional games designed by the Design Lab, including the board game "Tales from DeCrypt" that helped players master the key decryption skills for the week.

Like the debate in the previous week, the second week included a major culminating exercise: a two-day iPad-based scavenger hunt that took teams to particular locations around the University of Chicago campus where they would have to use on-screen clues and physical landmarks to solve cryptographic puzzles. These puzzles required teams to be able to navigate a college campus, examine their surroundings critically, and bring together all of the codebreaking skills they had spent the week mastering. Teams that solved the most puzzles were rewarded with privileged narrative information.

In the third week, the curriculum emphasized digital media and computational technologies. During this week, ProPhyle instructed teams to rebuild the S.E.E.D. technology after it had been destroyed by one of the rogue Temporal Archivists. Using Arduino boards, players learned the basic elements of circuitry and electricity. Unexpectedly, alongside the planned activities, players organized a public protest during this week, requiring the designers to respond improvisationally and rewrite the narrative to adapt to player demands, described in greater depth by Patrick Jagoda and colleagues (2017). Though outside of the scope of this webtext, it is worth noting that this ARG and the player-organized protests within the game unfolded during the summer of 2014, a time during which the Black Lives Matter activist movement gained national recognition, especially surrounding the deaths of two African American men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Especially because the majority of participating youth were African American, real-world and in-game events began to inform each other. This atmosphere occasioned conversations about civic and political engagement between designers and players.

Alongside the emergent protest of the third week, players broke into the base of the Temporal Archivists in order to free a character who had been unjustly imprisoned. The process of finding this character required a series of hacks. Each team learned about social engineering and discussed the ethics of hacking before secretly receiving two IP addresses from the Scattering resistance group. Players also received instructions about how to hack into the Temporal Archivists' computers, granting access to various remote desktops and email accounts. In the process, players also learned about ways to protect their own personal technologies from external hacks. Along the way, players also visited the University of Chicago Hack Arts Lab where they learned about various technologies, including 3D printers.

The third week's curriculum, and the overall narrative arc of the ARG, ended with a series of exercises that explored the ways in which STEM knowledge might impact social or policy outcomes. During this period, participants took part in an activity that we called "Youtopia" in which teams created constitutions that might help a country combat the type of disasters discussed through scenarios such as climate change and resource depletion. On the final day, players formed different groups than the ones with whom they had been working for nearly three weeks, which presented new collaborative challenges. In these new groups, players prepared public speeches about the political and ethical dimensions of new and emerging technologies, drawing on themes and knowledge acquired through all three weeks of gameplay. They also determined the final moments of the game by participating in a caucus-like political gathering. The entire group practiced a mode of civic engagement by voting to determine what should happen to the game's central plot device, the S.E.E.D. technology.

[Video Transcript]

Following the three-week S.E.E.D. ARG play experience, the designers and actors stepped out of character, and debriefed players about the preceding experience. For two additional weeks, player teams transitioned into design teams. While the experience of playing the ARG exposed players to STEM and new media content, many of these early challenges and puzzles still required them to solve problems and exercises created by the designers. During these final weeks, each team took a more active and self-directed role by choosing to create either their own "serious" board game or alternate reality game with transmedia components. Each team crafted a game that would introduce their peers to a serious issue such as gang violence or unplanned pregnancy. Graduate or undergraduate mentors were central to this process. Overall, they served less as traditional teachers than as facilitators who helped teams undertake research, remain organized enough to meet their deadline, and focus them on the learning outcomes that their games would convey. During this period, teams received fact sheets and discussed a range of social and emotional health topics with university experts. In preparation for design, participants also played and studied existing board and card games, including Dominant Species, Pandemic, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, and were asked to pay close attention to different medium-specific aspect of the design, including mechanics, rules, and objectives. Designers also participated in modding exercises where they made small changes to existing games in order to alter the gameplay experience in some substantive way. Specifically, following an exercise described by game designer Tracy Fullerton (2008, pp. 200–203) in Game Design Workshop, they modified a simple board game called Up the River. These exercises began to give the nascent designers a shared language for discussing and evaluating games in a more in-depth fashion.

In order to design their games, members of each team elected to specialize in one of three areas. These included visual art design, gameplay design, and learning outcome design for serious games. This team structure emphasized the importance of collaboration, while allowing youth to take on different leadership roles in the design of their shared serious game. Over the course of these two weeks, youth attended topic-specific skills workshops led by lab staff and faculty that would allow them to develop their specialization in greater depth: for instance, graphic design for board games or gameplay design for an ARG. Because of affordances such as ongoing designer-player interplay and multilinear gameplay, ARGs serve as an effective tool for promoting a design mentality. Players had already worked to reverse engineer the creator's puzzles. Subsequently, in the final two weeks, youth were asked to reflect on and critique the preceding ARG as a way of discovering their own design preferences. These workshops and activities progressed in parallel with the design of the teams' own games, which followed an agile development process of designing, prototyping, playtesting, and iterating. These two weeks culminated with a showcase that invited parents and community members to play the serious games that the teams had created.

[Video Transcript]

Throughout the entire program, the S.E.E.D. ARG and design workshop sought to connect new media art and humanities-oriented critical thinking with STEM knowledge. The ethical and political dimensions of the game also sought to create a broader context for thinking about science and technology. In recruiting marginalized youth, the project marked an effort to intervene in the current underrepresentation of myriad groups in STEM education and careers long documented by entities such as the National Science Foundation (2013). Described by Cinda-Sue Davis and her colleagues (1996), an ongoing lack of diversity produces representational imbalances, decreases job opportunities, and narrows possibilities for innovation in both the theoretical and applied sciences. S.E.E.D. was created with the intention of using an engrossing narrative, a participatory game, and a multidisciplinary curriculum to connect our students to these fields in a concrete and hands-on fashion that would emphasize the real-world dimensions of STEM skills and new media literacies, building upon the design lab's previous ARG work (Gilliam et al., 2017). Given the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of most games, this form encourages combinations of varied literacies that stretch across text, images, sound, participation, and digital technology. Many high schools lack the resources to tackle literacies linked directly to digital technologies, systems thinking, and social networks. Though such literacies are not alone sufficient to tackle systemic inequalities, they are an important factor in the field of education. The articulation of gaming literacies as a new set of essential skills is taken up by a number of scholars, including Eric Zimmerman (2008) who argued that literacies based in systems, play, and design will be essential to navigating the present century. Such capacities might give youth greater agency in preparing for their future professions, but also encourage forms of serious thought and critical making that are essential to inhabiting our historical moment.

There are some limitations to this work and the S.E.E.D. case study, some of which might be addressed in other design and research. For instance, in the preceding webtext and videos, we focus primarily on the voices of designers, rather than those of youth. While this multimedia webtext is intended primarily for educators, game designers, and digital media scholars, we focus on youth voices, including comments made in focus groups and interviews, more centrally in other scholarship (Jagoda, Gilliam, McDonald, & Sparrow, 2017). Soliciting feedback and reactions from players is a crucial part of improving the design of ARGs. Additionally, though S.E.E.D. was treated as a pilot study that used an ARG to engage in STEM learning, a limitation is that the game was designed to be site-specific and therefore not easily replicated. Some scholarship, including by Derek Hansen and his colleagues (2013), has started to explore the ways that ARGs might be designed for reuse and adapted for multiple contexts. Building on this research, questions of scale and scaling will be important for both commercial and educational ARGs.

The future of ARGs, including educationally-oriented variations of these games, is promising. One formal quality that is unique to the genre of ARGs is their "This Is Not a Game" aesthetic that blurs the status of the experience and its reality (McGonigal, 2003). At the same time, the locative and mixed reality components of ARGs invite comparisons to and intersections with genres such as "augmented reality" and "pervasive" games (Montola, Stenros, & Waern, 2009). One such game that has achieved notable popularity is Pokémon Go (released approximately two years after S.E.E.D. in July 2016). While the game's profitability peaked shortly after its release, within months it broke previous videogame records with over 500 million downloads. The success of this game suggests that though ARGs may have started as an experimental form, there has now been sufficient cultural and technological saturation to enable the design of such games for both larger and more diverse player groups. If the fictional immersion of the "This Is Not a Game" aesthetic can be combined with pervasive game design techniques, such as those used in Pokémon Go, ARGs might expand from an experimental to a more common digital media form.

The authors wish to thank Ashlyn Sparrow for the development of this HTML page.

For additional reading about S.E.E.D., please visit its page on the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab's development blog. For a full list of designers and researchers responsible for the development of S.E.E.D., please visit this Credits page.

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