ARGs in Education — How to Meet the Challenge

April 15, 2013

I’ve just finished week four of the Games MOOC and am struggling to keep up with all of the great resources and suggested activities.  I manage to look at all of the resources at the beginning of the week but then don’t have time to follow up and thoroughly go over them.  The problem K-12 teachers have is having time to dig in to the things they learn in professional development.

The fifth of Seven Things You Should Know About Alternate Reality Games suggests that ARGs “can be complex to design and execute” and that “constructing them might be best undertaken in a team environment.”  Perhaps GamesMOOC can set up a clearinghouse for bringing people together to work on educational applications of ARGs to specific classroom situations. The other suggestion might be to carve out space in a future iteration of the GamesMOOC for collaborative project-building of specific games (one genre of which could be ARGs).

As I dipped into the readings over the past week, ideas have come to me about how to create an ARG for an orientation to the library.  I envision using Dewey Decimal numbers as numeric code for puzzles, aurisma imagery that launches youtube videos or audio files with further clues, QR codes tucked into reference books that lead to websites with more information. (Some of these ideas came after reading the last part of Dave Szulborski’s book Through the Rabbit Hole: A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Alternate Reality Games, which runs through a sample ARG for beginners and includes the kinds of puzzles, acrostics, anagrams, secret codes, and clue translation that are typical [according to him] of ARGs.)


These are the fragments that have come to me so far.  As for a specific narrative, I think of how McGonigal used narrative in World Without Oil and Urgent Evoke:  as a framework for introducing players to current issues and invite them to engage in actions they need to take to solve the problems.

As for the actual story:  I thought–what do I want my students to do? and then make it a game…First of all, I want them to appreciate the opportunities that they have almost 50 years after the civil rights movement. What kind of a story could I tell for them to learn about the civil rights era and also be oriented to the library? I thought of a potentially controversial topic:  something to do with white supremacists attacking libraries and stealing specific books… Creating a fictional white supremacist character on twitter, though, could be problematic, given the TINAG (“this is not a game”) ethos of the medium.

I’m guessing that trying to create an ARG will be hard for newcomers to the concept.  I’ve been grappling with ARGs since playing McGonigal’s Urgent Evoke back in the spring of 2010–trying to figure out what these strange beasts are… I’m just beginning to get what’s going on.

The Potential for Emotional Depth in Games

April 7, 2013

As an English major, I am naturally attracted to powerful stories and chose this major because of my love for literature. I have a deep craving for engaging stories and at times find myself so thoroughly immersed in the lives of fictional characters that I lose myself, somehow, in the process. It’s amazing to me how many stories I can have going at one time and yet keep track of where I am in them all–and yet still thirst for more. This love for stories stretches across all media: not only books but also movies, TV, and comics/graphic novels.

When I started teaching Writing for Interactive Media at Emerson College, I began to play story-games–video games that employ narrative, or gamified stories (which dominates is one of the great debates of the 21st century between narratologists and ludologists). What I can say is that any games I’ve played to date (most of them RPGs like Fable and Assassin’s Creed) do not satisfy me in the way that good literature does. This is indie game-designer Jonathan Blow’s primary critique of the video game industry: he wants to make games that really touch people the way that fine art and great literature can, and he doesn’t see this happening yet.


One work that I’ve come across that does just that is an interactive fiction called Sand-dancer by Aaron A. Reed. It is actually the model game that he creates in the process of writing his book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. (You can play Sand-dancer now within the browser)


This story has great emotional power yet includes interactive game elements with significant choice that truly effect the story’s outcome.

I also heard recently about a newly released game called Cart Life that looks like it might have the same powerful effect.

It’s interesting to see the discussion around this game. One person writes: “WHY, would you want to create a game about real life experiences like working, talking, eating, brushing your teeth, etc? … It could be me, but I play games to escape real life for a moment and go on an adventure and do stuff that I can’t do in real life.”

Comparing this to literature: there are books that are written as escapist fare, but there’s also serious literature that talks about “real life experiences.”

As for me, I’m happy to see games like this that begin to approach the emotional depth that some of the best books I’ve read have achieved.

On the Horizon: New Technology in Education Requires Paradigm Shift

April 1, 2013

As I consider the materials for Week 2 of the Games MOOC course I’m taking, I think of the context where I work and of how hard it has been to bring about even the most obvious of institutional changes.  Some of the readings asked us to look at recent New Horizon reports, where the next 1-5 years of edtech adoption are anticipated for any given year.  It’s interesting to look back and see how their predictions fared.  For example, the 2009 report for K-12 (the first of its kind for K-12) speaks of “collaborative environments” and “online communication tools” in one year or less; “mobiles” and “cloud computing” in 2-3 years, and “smart objects” and “the personal web” in 4-5 years.  The only one of these that has begun to impact my own school is “cloud computing,” and that impact will only be felt in the “back end” (data closet applications of a hybrid hosted solution for a phone system), with occasional use of cloud storage.

My point is simple:  there needs to be some degree of institutional support for these kinds of changes to become widely integrated.  Otherwise, it remains to the “outliers” or pioneering teachers to continue experimenting and integrating the latest technologies (the latest being games and mobile devices and augmented reality, all subjects of this latest round of the Games MOOC).


The other point:  the required paradigm shift — a move toward “student-centered,” constructivist or “constructionist” models of education with “inquiry-based learning,” “problem-based learning,” and the like — has been discussed and theorized for decades now.  There is very much a slow trickle-down process (molasses like!) when it comes to how these ideas infiltrate current practices.  When I first read it back in the early 1990s, I was encouraged by Seymour Papert’s book The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of Computers, in which he writes that “…computers serve best when they allow everything to change.” He describes the phenomenon of School as a bureaucracy that absorbs any innovations and sequesters them, enabling the existing system to continue unchallenged.  This has been my experience for the past 16 years trying to integrate this kind of change Papert advocates in his book, which has been published for almost 20 years now. I think with schools being pushed into 1:1 initiatives and/or BYOD, the technology might finally push the institution into shifting the paradigm at long last.