This Is Not a Game (It’s a Class): Lessons Learned From An In-Class Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

 by Brett Boessen

Boessen_BioAlternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a little-known but fascinating storytelling genre that blends digital, networked, and live face-to-face components engagingly in a unique way (when done well). In a learning scenario that seeks to encourage deeper understanding of the ways these elements interrelate in contemporary culture, playing an ARG can be an exciting and deeply meaningful pedagogical tool.

However, the ability to participate in an ongoing ARG as part of a college course in a useful way is usually hindered by at least three problems. First, scheduling is prohibitive, since ARGs often unfold over many months, making them hard to pair with a fall or spring semester schedule. Second, most ARGs operate under the TINAG principle — “This Is Not A Game” — and as such do not readily reveal themselves to players even as they are being played, which can make it difficult even to be confident one is playing a game at all until significant resources have been invested. Finally, most popular, high-profile ARGs are built around a commercial imperative driven by marketing and advertising needs that do not necessarily fit comfortably with typical learning objectives.

Despite these potential obstacles, I try to encourage my students to engage in activities that help them develop collaborative skills and learn experientially. Collaboration skills are key to literacies our students are more and more likely to need in contemporary life, because the problems and challenges they are likely to face frequently in the future are more complex than any one person can address on her own. Experiential learning helps reinforce concepts by allowing students to draw their own conclusions about their work and its relationship to course content.

As a consequence, in the Spring 2008 semester, in a class on new media, my students and I wandered into an in-class ARG design assignment somewhat naively at first. In my syllabus, I wrote, “you will participate in a concluding group project that emphasizes your collective assessment of where…new media will take us in the future.” I left the specifics open until later in the semester. It was out of this open-ended and loose orientation toward “collective assessment,” “new media,” and “the future” that we were led to ARG design.

 IN-CLASS ARGS AND EVALUATION

Evaluation tools that can draw out students’ thinking as it develops throughout the semester are crucial to the pedagogical success of any open and complex project, for three reasons. First, because of the atypical nature of the assignment (in that my students and I would necessarily be developing criteria for evaluation as the project developed), much of the mental and intellectual work students would be doing throughout the semester would go undocumented without reflective activities built into the evaluation. Second, ARGs are not clearly built on analysis and research, even though their importance becomes clear when one embarks on an ARG design project. So we needed a way for students to “show their work” in the sense that they could explain the origins and narrative behind the development of the argument embedded in the work. Finally, media production defaults to an emphasis on product over process: when one makes something to be read, heard, seen, or played, one most often desires to hide the “seams” that keep the work together and make it whole, so the reader/listener/viewer/player experiences the meaning of the work without its production details creating additional noise. So there is a need for the evaluating faculty member to have access to the contextual details through which specific creative and design decisions have taken place.

For these reasons, one of the primary requirements I gave the class for their final project that spring was to write a “Lessons Learned” reflective essay and post it to the class wiki. This was to be completed by the last day of the semester, after work on the ARG itself had ceased. I asked them to respond to several general queries, such as:

•           How well did the project allow you to practice the theories of new media we discussed this semester?

•           How has your experience of researching and implementing your project (regarding design, implementation, participant behavior if applicable, group dynamics, etc.) helped you to understand how new media influence our daily lives?

•           How do the course readings and our discussions of them illuminate, clarify, or complicate your understanding of that experience?

The emphasis on evaluating their individual experience and linking it to their understanding of assigned readings for the course was intended to encourage reflection upon the relevance of the course content to the structure of the assignment. The range of depth and quality of their writing was somewhat broad, but taken together, the essays provided both a means to evaluate more carefully their experiences and understanding of the topics considered in the course, and a useful body of evidence for understanding the successes and challenges of the project.

WHAT WE DID

In my 2008 course on new media, the class opted to collectively design and run an ARG foremost out of curiosity. When we began discussing options for projects, this was the one format of several I suggested (such as a podcast series, a wiki, or blogging) that a large number of students responded to with enthusiasm. This gave me some early confidence, too, as student engagement was a key reason I had left the project topic open-ended to begin with. I was hoping that their selection would indicate a personal interest in the project.

The project was structured as follows. I took a prominent leadership and organizational role in guiding weekly discussion, assigning student roles, and keeping the class on schedule. Students as individuals and teams produced the narrative, challenges/puzzles, and ran the logistics of keeping the actual game running. We started with about six weeks left in the semester, hoping to have the game running about three weeks later, and hoping it would conclude by the end of the semester in time to write our “Lessons Learned” essays.

In the end, we generated one player, instead of the dozens or more we had hoped to attract, with our public game materials. He was also a crafty player, solving all of our puzzles in a very brief period of time, much to our chagrin. We concluded that there were many reasons for this, but collectively felt the game itself was a failure. However, to me, while it may have been a game design failure, it was a pedagogical success.

SOME STUDENTS’ LESSONS LEARNED

In reflecting on their work on this project, students made some insightful comments about aspects of the design and learning process, including collaboration, experiential learning, and failure as a means for learning. Below are some particularly telling examples of each.

On the Need for Collaboration to Complete the Project:

•           “I think also that [the fact that] each person contributes a little to the larger community of information, like the ARG, is essential to the idea of new media, in that one person cannot accomplish everything by himself, that there is a network of people working together.” (Student5)

•           “…our class had been posting on wikis and holding discussion boards all semester, but this was one of the first times it really hit me that the internet is truly responsible for the ease with which our class was able to communicate. As we discussed in class one day, the reply-all button really does make a huge difference; and in this case it allowed us to “share information” and “accumulate it collaboratively with others” – just like [web historian John] December said.” (Student6)

If one were to make a short list of 10-20 key terms used to describe 21st century literacies, “collaboration” would surely be one of them (and “participation” would be there, too). A wide range of scholars has addressed the ways social media technologies and practices have encouraged new opportunities for participation and collaboration, from Clay Shirky to Lawrence Lessig to Yochai Benkler. In the context of liberal education, we do a disservice to our students if we do not help them both to understand and begin to practice these new forms of literacy. As the two students above indicate explicitly, enacting collective and collaborative work in a classroom setting helps them see those benefits more clearly and robustly. Because there were so many components to successful completion of an ARG design project, collaboration was an inherent element of the assignment even if it was not explicitly evaluated.

On the Ways the Project Encouraged Experiential Learning:

•           Lessing [sic] talks about how, “technology could enable a whole generation to create—remixed films, new forms of music, digital art, a new kind of storytelling, writing, a new technology for poetry, criticism…through the infrastructure of the internet, share that creativity with others.” This is what we did in our project. We went from being the consumer, to then being a producer. (Student1)

•           Overall, a project like this is definitely a boon to the learning process, as it allows students to get their hands dirty in ways impossible in other classes. It does, however, limit students by spreading their schedules even thinner than they had been previously. (Student2)

•           While we were making blogs, websites and communicating through each over via e-mail, we were also trying to communicate with the audience in real life through the use of posters and co-operation with faculty. Technology wasn’t some excuse for us to ignore the real world, it was our very reason for engaging it in the way that we did. (Student10)

•           Regardless of the problems we encountered, the ARG project is a very worthwhile project. It’s the perfect practical application of the principles and ideas that we are exposed to in the text and in the class-room [sic], and in a way acts like a very interactive and entertaining final exam. (Student3)

•           I do believe the theories that we learned about this semester, including thoughts about interactivity and the reliance in our society on new media, were sufficiently elaborated upon during the project. This project taught me so much that I never knew. (Student4)

The concept of experiential learning — learning by participating in an active process of experiment, reflection, and further experimentation — is one explicitly articulated by education scholars such as David Kolb and John Dewey. In addition, the simple realization that some concepts are best understood and internalized by doing them has been around for thousands of years, at least since Ancient Greece. What these students above each point to is the power of this realization with respect to our project. Because much of the work we ask of our students in the humanities generates heavily text-based products that can appear passive, even lifeless, once completed, providing students opportunities to create in more experiential modes can be a powerful tool. ARG design has the potential to encourage this kind of experiential learning, even when the product often is still mostly text, because the format through which that text is conveyed is new.

On Failure As a Vehicle for Learning:

•           I don’t believe we can say we failed completely because at least we had one player and now if you ever wanted to have another ARG or anyone else in the class they know how much work and effort they must put into one before they can get any results. One can only learn from failure and I believe we’ve all learned a lot from this ARG. (Student7)

  • I don’t believe the game was a success as an ARG. I do think that it was a rather successful learning tool. It forced me to collaborate with an entire class of students more than any other class. (Student8)

•           This game was an interesting experience to become familiar with a form of media I had never even heard of before this class. Was the game a success; no. But it didn’t have to be. We achieved what we set out to do; learn about new media through this ARG. (Student9)

One important fundamental element of experiential learning, which is also a key component of other approaches to learning, is the central value of failure. One reason choosing an ARG as our final project worked well for learning was precisely because it was not something anyone in the class, including myself, had attempted before. We were all out on a learning limb, trying many things for the first time and failing throughout. This was useful individually, in that each of us could more clearly see what needed to be changed by looking at our failure. But it was also useful collectively, since it soon became clear that no one had all the skills needed to succeed, and therefore we were all in the same situation: we were out on the same limb together, and would both fail less and learn more if we shared and collaborated with one another actively.

SOME PEDAGOGICAL LESSONS LEARNED

The “Lessons Learned” essays have played a significant role in shaping my own conclusions about the value of this kind of project for my pedagogical goals. In addition to these essays, I have drawn on my own observations and perspective, another set of essays and personal experience from the second iteration of the assignment I conducted in 2010, and a response from our lone player, whom we invited to tell us more about himself at the end of the semester. The following are lessons I gleaned from the experience.

On the Heightened Role of Organization and Planning:

•           “Fit” – Ensure there is a strong connection between your course objectives and characteristics of ARG design before selecting it for your class. For example, if you are offering an English Literature course on monsters in fiction, you might decide that an ARG could be very productive in encouraging your students to research the monstrous in a contemporary context. However, if you do not allow for sufficient planning and organizational time somewhere in your students’ schedules, you may easily succumb to the heavy demands for coordination an ARG will bring. Be sure to ground your implementation of an ARG assignment in the primary your course objectives. As the project develops and questions arise, you can use that original grounding to determine which direction to take. You may also find that sharing your reasoning with your students can go a long way toward their being flexible and understanding with you if things do not go as planned.

•           “Time” – Ask yourself, “How much time am I willing to devote to this?” Both you and your students will devote a considerable amount of additional, out-of-class time, or in-class time, or both, to this assignment if you hope to see it succeed. You should be prepared for the effort.

On the Crucial Role of Teamwork and Group Dynamics:

•           “Communication” – Identify which tools and practices you will rely on most in facilitating communication among the participants before the project is assigned. Too many other details will soon take over the daily work to also be considering which web tool is best for you. The more about the design process that can be presented clearly to students, the better: true, they are there to learn from their experience (and, often, failure), but becoming frustrated because the wiki you’re using doesn’t have an easy way to send messages to other users only makes an already complex communication environment worse.

•           “Conflict” – Take stock of your own level of comfort with intervention regarding interpersonal conflict. Though this is not what students are being evaluated on, it can easily derail not only the work of the students involved in the conflict, but can infect the morale of the rest of the participants as well. If you do not have a plan and process for identifying and addressing such issues — even if it is simply to pull the students aside and tell them they must work it out on their own — then the entire project begins already at a disadvantage.

On the Role of Your Own Potential Failure:

•           “Work-in-Progress” – Accept that you are not likely to nail this assignment the first time you conduct it. A more productive approach will be to have a positive attitude about the role of revision and to look at the first iteration as a valuable experiment.

•           “Reflection” – Build in plenty of opportunities for reflection, not only via reflective culminating essays, but also at regular intervals during the project. Direct discussion in class, prompted e-mail replies, and short anonymous surveys can each be valuable in assessing whether the direction you intend to be heading pedagogically is in fact the direction the project is taking you.

•           “Patience” – Be careful not to draw conclusions too soon about whether the project has been a success. This goes for making changes to the project based on incomplete evidence as well as concluding the project itself has been a failure. For me, this was especially true in seeing how the project could fail as a game but still be quite valuable as an opportunity to learn.

Finally, I would like to reiterate the value of some kind of reflective writing assignment, paired with at least the potential for it to be read by others besides you (such as students’ peers), for the kind of open-ended, non-standard, collaborative, and experiential project an in-class ARG design is. First, the nature of each author’s connection to the project becomes sedimented in the text of each essay, which can be both deeply resonant but also potentially disruptive. Once the semester has ended and you have had time to distance yourself from the project, returning to read participants’ reflective writing again re-connects you with the insights and often emotions participants were having at the time. This has a tendency to keep passion and excitement fresh and new, which can be a boon when your own confidence has withered under an in-depth analysis. But frustration and other negative emotions will also be captured, to be felt anew each time they are read, which can be hard to take. Still, I strongly recommend such an assignment with a project like this, as its benefits outweigh its potential detriments.

In sum, my experience facilitating an ARG design project has taught me that collaborative, experiential, creative work conducted in class by a number of students is at least theoretically possible, even if my own attempts at it so far have had limited success. The students themselves did seem to have a great time producing the game by most accounts. They produced a creative and potentially compelling ARG, and they learned some things about the nature of new media, collaborative work, and problem-solving that might have been harder (and less fun) to learn as part of another assignment. I would encourage any teacher to seriously consider experimenting with ARG design if you have an interest.

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This article is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. An earlier version was circulated for open peer review via Media Commons Press. The “Games in Education” issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.

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