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Layering with Games

Big Games are one way to use the physical world as a gameboard, layering the "game" with the "real."

Another common way for games into happen in space are called ARGs. Here's an ARG Quickstart Guide geared toward perspective players with answers to frequently asked questions about the genre. This Brief Introduction to ARGs is from more of a social media perspective. Educase has also developed this 7 Things You Should Know about ARGs guide for educators.

Serious and Educational ARGS

Although World Without Oil was a simulation that went on at a particular period in time and was not explicitly designed for formal education, the developers have included lesson plans that allow teachers and independent learners to use the media generated by players to engage in with the questions the games explored. Teachers are encourage to make the crisis real, just as a the original participants did, and produce their own in-game stories that can be sumitted to the World Without Oil archive.

The STEP Lab at MIT has been creating augmented reality games in colloboration with various youth groups since 2003. In Environmental Detectives, the first game they developed, students played the environmental engineer faced with a toxic spill on the MIT campus. Using location-aware pocket PCs, students "sampled" simulated data from all over campus, conducted interviews, and strategically used their time to indentify the source of the spill, decide how it should be handled, and prepared a debreifing presention with their findings. The STEP AR Toolkit is downloadable for free for educational and nonprofit purposes. It contains software for GPS-enabled Windows Mobile PDAs and a a Windows desktop AR Editor to create or modify AR game.

The "A" in ARG can stand for a couple of different things, and each has a different meanings and implications. These terms are in debate even among those who make or study these games professionally, but a good starting distinction might be that Alternate Reality Game, like World Without Oil, ask players to imagine that "this is not a game." They "realplay" instead of "roleplay," imagining that they are themselves living out a different reality. In Augmented Reality Games, like Environmental Detectives, the emphasis is on the simulated information that is used to supplement reality. Game data "augments" the physical world. Most of the time, the right term for the game is whatever the developers choose to call it, which can give insight into the underlying ethos upon which they see the game depending.

Using ARGs explicitly for formal learning purposes can be very valuable, but also comes with a special set of considerations. In a report (PDF) by Dr Nicola Whitten at Manchester Metropolitan University on using ARGs as part of learning in college campuses, highlighted a number of ways in which ARGs education are necessarily different from ARGs for entertainment:
  • The ARG aesthetic of ‘this is not a game’ may not be appropriate in the context of education as students needed more support in knowing how to get started and more motivation for completing the activity.
  • Most students require a clear purpose for taking part in a game like this, whether it is linked to assessment, there is a prize or simply a clear link to being able to help them with their studies. The fact that something is a game does not appear to be a sufficient motivator for many busy students.
  • There is a tension between the niche nature of ARGs and the inclusivity strived for in formal education. There are also issues of how to make a game accessible without spoiling it for other players.
  • In games where students are asked to meet and work with others (who can not necessarily be verified as bona fide students) there are issues of online safety and duty of care by the institution.

DIY Student ARGs

Playing ARGs can be a great way to practice the NMLs like play, networking, and collective intelligence, but in a participatory culture, students should pushed to design these kinds of games as well. As James Paul Gee writes in What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy (2003), “active, critical learning should lead to learners becoming designers, either by physically designing extensions to the game or by cognitively extending the game design and using that to inform their play.”

Find Chesia, an ARG developed by a Frederick, MD library as part of a youth summer reading initiative, centered on helping a 12 year-old-girl find her parents who'd gone missing at an archeaological dig and was designed by 5 groups of middle schoolers. Although, according to his CNET article that profiled Find Chesia and other small-scale ARGs, Find Chesia encountered many structural problems, figuring out how to work these problems out was one of the most valuable aspects of the learning experience.

 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The grassroots ARG group Akward Hug

In correspondence about the development for this guide, Eric Klopfer of the MIT STEP lab wrote:

A lot of ways our Augmented Reality games most closely resemble live-action roleplaying games (LARPs).  So one can certainly create similar experiences with low tech.  The technology adds some components that are important for schools and teachers.  First, they allow the game to be run without the intervention of the teacher.  So the technology manages the logistics in a number of ways that would be hard to do with LARPs.  Second, they can structure certain kinds of interactions between players and support role play.  The technology can provide distinctly different skills and information to the players and enforce them to stay within those constraints.  It can also facilitate collaboration between roles by requiring "jigsawing' of information that would be easy to work around without technology.  In a lot of our games we also provide quantitive scientific data that students can "sample" from using their location-aware devices (e.g. to take a sample of the air quality wherever they are standing).  The data is fictional but based on real models.  That kind of feature would be hard to implement without the technology.  We also can provide them with rich media like audio and video that deepens the experience.

Clearly, technology plays an important role in the development of an ARG, but students can author ARG-like experience that layer game information over the physical space or tell transmedia stories. Even without access to basic tech tools, students can make low-fi ARGs using paper, costumes, and their imagination. After studying the mechanics of ARGs, the traditional scavenger hunt can be made more complex when clues from a fictional or hypothetical world are layered over real geography and used to solve stimulated problems. In February 2009, Dean Groom started End of Web, and educational ARG project that includes in its list of lesson ideas a list questions indicating multimodal ways students might contribute to an ARG:
  • Maths - redicting statistics and growth of technology; comparisons?
  • English - Resonance with literature - could you take a character from a novel - and interpret the endofweb though their eyes
  • Creative Arts - could you draw, make or make some performance?
  • Sport/Health - how will these things look in 11 years time?
  • History - how has society delt with mass change/war etc - can you make a timeline?
  • Science - how will the environment be impacted? How might it be impacted in the next decade leading up to this?
  • Society - how do people take action? what is action?
This clearly shows how a variety of skills and interests at varying levels of technical proficiency might be required to create a successful ARG. The techniques described in the Community Engagement section to augment reality with information can be used to develop ARGs. Some of Pontydysgu's 25 Ideas for Using Cell Phone in the Classroom are particularly relevant as well:
  • be in different places working on the same project and be talking via instant-messaging.  Our example was a history  ‘Treasure Hunt’ where groups were competing to find objects and information. The groups split up and group members updated each other on progress using mobile phones.
  • Using twitter. History teachers chose a period in history (was the second world war) and had groups of evacuees, host families, parents of evacuees back in bombed cities sending messages to each other about their feelings
Based on the skills and tools available and the, most importantly, the learning objects, teachers and students can decide whether developing an Augumented or Alternate Reality Game (or some combination thereof) best suits their needs. As in World Without Oil or Environmental Detectives students can use these techniques to overlay simulation data over the real world, enabling themselves and others to experiment and play with the systems produced to to problem solve. Even though ARGs often depend on "real play" instead of "role play," as students take on a role in the ARG and produce tweets, blog posts, and other media, they perform and experiment with new identities and perspectives.

A bibliography of ARG resources by Zach Whalen.

A compilation of ARGs made for use in libraries, museums and schools.

New Media Literacies: Simulation, Performance, Play, Transmedia Navigation, Collective Intelligence