When my friends ask me what alternate reality games (ARGs) are, they usually say something like, “Second Life, right?” No, dear friends, no. It’s bigger than that, better! Sometimes they’re a little scared to ask because they know how over-excited I get with the prospect of being the first person to tell them what alternate reality gaming is. I just love the moment when they become goggled-eyed with mouths agape.
ARGs are truly a wonder. When designed and executed properly, they allow ordinary people to enter into a new and exciting reality, giving the feeling that we’re escaping into a parallel world. It’s like when you were 10 years old (or maybe even what you did last weekend) and you played spy games with your friends where you all assume a secret identity and you imagine you have a time-sensitive, life-threatening, enemy-infested mission to complete. It’s just plain riveting and your imagination draws you in. With ARGs, the only difference is that it’s actually happening and, thankfully, you don’t have to be the one to think of the next part of the story (that’s usually when the imaginary world, you’ve tried so hard to create, falls away). More importantly, you have a role and other people (players) rely on you and you rely on them. Depending on how involved you are, or what your role is, the game may not be able to progress, or may take an unknown turn or even abruptly end. Of course, you’re always at the whimsical mercy of the puppetmaster, who has the ultimate control over the narrative and direction of the game.
The beauty of ARG games is that they can span across any and every media platform, from the internet, television and DVDs to billboards, t-shirts and murals. One can only imagine the endless possibilities that a puppetmaster has when developing the narrative for the ARG. In order to begin an ARG, a potential player must first discover its point of entry, which could be found almost anywhere. It must be obvious and subtle at the same time, posing the risk of whether it will actually be found. Last year, an ARG created for the promotion of a new Nine Inch Nails album almost went undetected. It was called Year Zero, the name of the new album, and it all began with the band’s tour t-shirt.
It took fans two days to pick up on the clues that were literally on their backs, in the form of randomly bolded letters, which spelled out “I am trying to believe”. Soon, the unassuming fans-turned-players typed iamtryingtobelieve.com in their web browsers and came across a hoax website claiming that the U.S. government has been adding the drug Parepin to water supplies. From this website, players unravelled more clues and the conspiracy theory narrative continued onto other sources. Using the internet as a base, players followed the narrative looking for clues anywhere they could think of, including one in a mural found on a wall on the south bank of London.
Since clues could be found anywhere and in any form, it’s evident that it would be extremely difficult for one single person to find all the clues themselves. Because of this element of ARGs, a very strong online community of blogs and forums naturally develops. One of the more famous online communities founded in this way is the Cloudmakers, which came together for the first known ARG, The Beast, which was created for the promotion of the then upcoming Steven Spielberg movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).
Generally, ARGs have mostly been used as an outlandish and guerrilla method of marketing. However, I’ve recently discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that ARGs are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for education. My favourite, so far, has got to be World Without Oil, which aims to create a simulated world chronicling the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. The narrative, described as “a huge, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression,” urges participants to imagine what their lives would be like without, you guessed it, oil. On the World Without Oil website you can see how the ARG is broken down into lessons which are like checkpoints in the game, making it easy to track progress and ensure that the players are moving forward together. In addition to this, the players are urged to write their own blogs in order to express their experiences and reactions (in character) to their new way of life. Stefanie Olsen, of CNET news, puts across how useful a tool an ARG can be in teaching as she states, “If you want to change the future, play with it first.”
Another educational ARG called Black Cloud revolves around the mysterious appearance of a black cloud over Silicon Valley, California.
Black Cloud The game, created by UC Berkeley is aimed at making environmental studies in high schools more engaging and interactive, with the motto: “Suspense is a key emotion to engage players in game-based learning.” Students must track down wireless air quality sensors planted in their neighbourhoods and need to be able to read graphs and associate air quality data with human activities in specific locations with the ultimate aim of developing an understanding of the emission landscape in their neighbourhood. The website is designed to look like a newspaper, called The Daily Polluter, which reports on the mysterious sightings of the black cloud, including fictional stories about the cloud and the people involved, possibly to increase the sense of suspense.
It’s plain to see that ARGs can be a very innovative and engaging way to teach. It incorporates a variety of methods of teaching, whereby players (students) can progress individually and/or in groups, using any resources, facilities or materials provided. Other than the knowledge gained on a subject, it could potentially improve a number of skills. Communication skills are improved as players must work together to complete tasks and investigative/research skills are needed, as players must seek out information themselves. It also works well for long-distance learning as the games are normally internet based, where players interact and share information using forums, blogs, skype and live chat rooms. I believe that something as innovative, exciting and engaging as ARGs, as a format for teaching, should not be left uncultivated and should be looked into as a very viable way to convey certain concepts to any person willing to play and learn. I know that if my GCSE history classes entailed playing a Dan Brown DaVinci Code-esque ARG, I probably would have remembered much more than I do now.