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Academic Commons Special Issue

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

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0  By Brett Boessen, Austin College

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Alternate 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.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 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.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 However, I want my students to participate in non-standard assignments and activities that help them develop collaborative skills and help them learn experientially.  Non-standard assignment types, while surely more work in terms of preparation and sometimes coordination and conduct, have the benefit of combatting the “been-there-done-that” syndrome that can quickly creep into more traditional types of coursework.  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 learning by allowing students to draw their own conclusions about their work and its relationship to course content.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 As a consequence, in the Spring of 2008, 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.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 How to assess such a project

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 One thing I knew from the start would be crucial to any pedagogical successes with such an open and complex project would be the importance of assessment tools that draw out students’ thinking as it developed throughout the semester.  There were at least three reasons some opportunity for sharing individual reflections on their process would be important.  First, the non-standard nature of the assignment: my students and I would be developing criteria for evaluation as the project developed, so much of the work students would be doing could end up un-represented in the final outcome.  Second, ARGs are not clearly built on analysis and research, even though one realizes the importance of research quickly when one embarks on an ARG design project.  So I wanted 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 naturally features 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 faculty member doing the assessment to understand the context within which specific creative and design decisions have taken place.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 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:

  • 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  • 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 illuminate, clarify, or complicate your understanding of that experience?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 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 provide both a means to evaluate more carefully their experiences and understanding of the topics considered in the course, and a useful data set for understanding the successes and challenges of the project.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 What we did

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In my 2008 course on new media, I have concluded that the class opted to collectively design and run an ARG 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 in the first place.  I was hoping that their selection would indicate a personal interest in the project, which I find helps students push through trouble spots and issues.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 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.[1]  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.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In the end, we had one player, instead of the dozens or more we had hoped to attract.  He was also a crafty player, and solved 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.[2]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Some students lessons learned

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 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.[3]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 On the Need for Collaboration to Complete the Project:

  • 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  • “I think also 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)

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 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 have 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.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 On the Ways the Project Encouraged Experiential Learning:

  • 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  • 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)[4]
  • 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. (Ahmed)
  • 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, 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)

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 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.[5]  What these students above each points 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 which 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.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 On Failure As a Means of Learning:

  • 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0
  • 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)

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 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.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 My own pedagogical lessons learned

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 These 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 brief 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.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 On the Heightened Role of Organization and Planning:

  • 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0
  • “Fit” – Ensure there is a strong connection between your course objectives and characteristics of ARG design before selecting it for your class.  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.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 On the Crucial Role of Teamwork and Group Dynamics:

  • 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0
  • “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 be also 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.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 On the Role of Your Own Potential Failure:

  • 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0
  • “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 look at the first iteration as a valuable experiment.
  • “Reflection” – Build in plenty of opportunities for reflection, not only via the Lessons Learned Essays, but at regular intervals during the project.  Direct discussion in class, prompted emails 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.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 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 your own analysis.  But frustration and other negative emotions will also be captured, to be felt a new 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.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 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 to learn (and less fun) as part of another assignment. I would encourage any teacher to seriously consider experimenting with ARG design if you have an interest.


  • [1] We drew heavily on Dave Szulborski’s ARG how-to, This Is Not a Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming.
  • [2]In the Fall of 2010, I offered the New Media course for the third time after more work and research on my part into digital networked media culture, again offering the class the option of collectively designing an ARG for their final project.  We did many things the same way we had done in 2008, but the group dynamic was much different.  Fairly early on in the design process (which we began a little earlier in the semester), in-fighting and turf wars between teams began to undermine students’ ability to get work done.  Though we gave ourselves a little more time for the design segment, in the end, running the game itself never happened because we were too behind on the details.  As such, I consider this iteration less successful than the first, both in terms of design and in terms of learning objectives.
  • [3] Emphasis added throughout.
  • [4] Students have been assigned numbers to facilitate anonymity.
  • [5]For example, the Sophists, contemporaries of Plato, are known to have encouraged active debating among their students as one technique (alongside others such as memorization) for helping to hone their rhetorical skills.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/gamesineducation/this-is-not-a-game-its-a-class-lessons-learned-from-an-in-class-alternate-reality-game-arg/