Alternate Reality Games
We take our shape, it is true, within and against the cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.
— James Baldwin (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”)
It was a fairy tale, no fooling. It was unreality becoming real. This frightened her. Because people don't care for unreality becoming real. It pricks their well-fed minds, you see, with something like a hunger pang. They prefer the logical stuffiness of expectancy. It is only at certain times that they weaken, letting imagination in. That's the time to get them.
— Richard Matheson (“The Disinheritors”)
They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact…
— William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury)
by Patrick Jagoda with documentary film directed by Philip Ehrenberg and interactive timeline created with Ashlyn Sparrow
In the summer of 2014, a cohort of high school students, primarily youth of color, was invited to the University of Chicago campus to play a game. When they arrived, they discovered something that appeared to be more than a game, or at least unlike any game they had ever experienced. A group of approximately 70 young people entered a large auditorium where they saw, on stage, a group of scientists in white lab coats. These facilitators introduced themselves as the “Temporal Archivists.” They explained that they had been working on a technology, called the S.E.E.D., that would allow them to open up limited communications with people from the future. As was evident from the surprised yet curious expressions among the students listening to this introduction, their attention was piqued but they did not yet know what to think, especially since the scientists appeared to be serious.
Following the full group orientation, students were asked to fill out psychological questionnaires and watch an absurd training video. The training video explained that the youth had been selected to be part of a “Crop” that would participate in a three-week boot camp called “Project Harvest,” which would prepare them to interact with the future. By this point, uncertainty yielded to skepticism. While the authoritative lab coats and technical language of the scientists insisted that the S.E.E.D. technology had yielded an actual material device, the science fictional and surreal atmosphere intimated that something else was happening. Many of the students grinned and laughed. After all, cross-temporal communication just could not be real, could it?
Later that same day, the participating youth began to push back harder against the Temporal Archivists, challenging their claims. The scientists would listen and respond calmly, explaining, for example, that even if cross-temporal communication seemed absurd, they should keep in mind that the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction had taken place on the very same University of Chicago campus, on December 2, 1942, eventually enabling the creation of the atom bomb. At that moment, in the early 1940s, the atom bomb had similarly seemed like science fiction, before it changed the world forever. Even with such explanations, the youth retained a healthy skepticism, continuing playfully to test the limits of the narrative conveyed by the scientists. After the orientation and questionnaires, youth were placed into teams and sent out on an initial scavenger hunt that initiated Project Harvest. The Temporal Archivists explained that if they could complete this initial test, they would be rewarded by seeing the actual S.E.E.D. While skeptical, the youth, led by undergraduate- and graduate-aged mentors, eagerly undertook the task.
After successfully completing the scavenger hunt, each team returned to the University of Chicago’s nondescript Mott building (which has since been bulldozed and replaced with an on-campus conference center, eliminating any material marker of where this all unfolded). Upon entering this building, team mentors took the participants through an ordinary set of hallways filled with offices and down to the basement where they were greeted by a Temporal Archivist. After a realistic overview of the device, they stepped into the S.E.E.D. technology room. In order to enter, they had to take off their shoes. What they saw surprised many of the youth. Inside what appeared to be a windowless office space was a black-lit compartment. In its center was a bonsai tree, covered in glass, and extending out via wires that looked like vines and connecting it to a number of functioning computer screens with displays of data. It is not just how the room looked but also how it felt. Another strange detail the visitors noticed was that the floor was not tiled or carpeted, as the participants might have expected. Despite being indoors, the floor was completely covered with grass. Coming out of their brief encounter with the S.E.E.D. technology, some of the students began to retreat from their earlier skepticism. After all, this strange space did not look like a bad science fiction genre knockoff but truly appeared like an experimental device — and unlike anything they had ever seen before.
This opening scene comes from the first day of an alternate reality game (ARG) entitled S.E.E.D. As I explained in Chapter 2, a video game is a multimedia form in which a player engages in play on a single screen that integrates graphics, audio, and interactive components. In certain video games, a player may also have opportunities to share a virtual environment with other players, either on the same split screen or online, and to traverse multilinear narratives. This chapter focuses on a different game-based form, the alternate reality game, which can be described as truly “transmedia” rather than multimedia. Alternate reality games (ARGs) are narrative-driven scavenger hunts that unfold both in physical space and across online platforms. These large-scale, participatory games, which do not announce themselves explicitly as games, invite multiple players to work together to solve challenges and resolve narrative mysteries. ARG narratives use transmedia storytelling, whereby elements of the story are distributed and conveyed across different media. That is, while a multimedia world appears on a single screen, a transmedia experience asks a player to move through a variety of platforms, often emphasizing the differences among them or the unique affordances that each provides. These media may include (but are not limited to) videos, podcasts, social media from Instagram to TikTok, communications platforms such as Discord, live-streaming interactions via Twitch, and invisible theater performances that unfold in public or online spaces. As players move through the immersive narrative, they encounter an assemblage of short games, puzzles, quests, or playful experiences. Gameplay challenges may require players to crack codes using cryptography, engage in social engineering experiments with non-player characters and actors, and play traditional digital or analog games together.
This chapter explores the educational and social potential of ARGs by describing and analyzing the design, curriculum, and objectives of one specific ARG, S.E.E.D., which I offered a glimpse of in the opening paragraphs. Even compared to some of the multi-level interventions we describe across this book, ARGs might be the most complex and difficult to grasp for someone who has not designed or participated in one. Unlike replayable screen-based video games, most ARGs tend to be ephemeral experiences that can be challenging (though not at all impossible) to replicate and scale. This status makes their documentation valuable, if notably difficult, as a contribution to the continued study of the form and its affordances (Jagoda, 2016, 185–186). Given these challenges, ARGs are often difficult for non-players to imagine, and are frequently, upon initial description, confused for video games, virtual reality, augmented reality, and live-action roleplaying experiences, even as they admittedly draw elements from all of these genres. For this reason, an in-depth case is even more crucial for demonstrating how ARGs can operate as an intervention and research method.
Enabled by the multimedia format of this book, this chapter can be traversed in three different ways, which complement one another. First, it can be read as a traditional book chapter augmented by images. Second, this chapter also includes a series of five video segments below that make up a short documentary film, directed by Philip Ehrenberg. This film weaves together the voices of S.E.E.D. game designers and players, as well as video documentation recorded on-site. Third, given the complexity of this ARG, we offer a precise interactive timeline, composed by Ashlyn Sparrow, which includes over 100 specific events in the game. Even as the chapter version does not go into detail about every design element, the timeline constellates many curricular details and additional images for designers or educators who might be interested in this level of granularity. Through text, video, audio, and timeline elements, we hope to communicate aspects of the original experience of the S.E.E.D. ARG to a variety of audiences and possible stakeholders, ranging from game designers to digital media scholars to education researchers interested in out-of-school engagements with science, technology, education, and math (STEM) learning. We use a multimedia format that integrates transmedia assets and offers an overview of the game and curriculum of S.E.E.D. as an example of the affordances of ARGs with educational dimensions. S.E.E.D. operated as an experiment in alternative learning models that incorporated young people’s interests in game culture, the social affordances of group gameplay, and the intrinsic motivation and satisfying challenge that games provide. S.E.E.D. used these elements of game form and culture to give participants access to STEM knowledge, new media literacies, and civic engagement opportunities. Before introducing and analyzing this core case, I offer an extended account of the form of the ARG itself, especially as it might be even less familiar to most readers than the methods analyzed in previous chapters.
As I noted in the introduction to this chapter, ARGs are narrative-driven scavenger hunts that take place in physical and online spaces and move among numerous media and platforms. Beyond their transmedia status, ARGs also introduce a formal quality that is unique to the genre: a “This Is Not a Game” aesthetic that blurs the status of the experience and its reality (McGonigal 2003). In other words, instead of being told directly that they are playing a game, participants engage with the narrative world as if it were real. In place of a video game start screen, players enter into what is called a “rabbit hole” in which they are invited into the experience through a diegetic or in-world email or social media invite. In the case of this chapter’s opening anecdote, participants entered the S.E.E.D. experience, following recruitment and enrollment in the program as a STEM intervention, through a live orientation sequence. Though this aesthetic saw many of its cases occur in the early 2000s, it has taken on a new interest in the “post-truth” political moment that erupted in the latter half of the 2010s (McIntyre). This period saw the emergence of harmful ARG-like online experiences such as the QAnon conspiracy group. Precisely for this reason, the need for critical engagements with constructions of reality and fictional media grew at this time. Unlike groups such as QAnon, which insist upon their truthfulness despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, an ARG like the one in the opening description introduces a collective fiction that is co-created by designers and participants alike, and which is eventually discussed as a constructed fiction during a debriefing after the conclusion of the experience. Instead of withholding truth from participants in order to trick them, this process is pedagogical in the ways it shows participants how reality is frequently constructed — for instance, through ideology — and how people might respond in a more informed way to the world as it exists while also acquiring tools to co-create better worlds. In the case of an ARG that privileges learning, this aesthetic also imbues knowledge acquisition with a playfulness that defamiliarizes education and encourages experimentation on the part of learners.
The transmedia flow and “This Is Not a Game” aesthetic are important to an ARG, but they do not exhaust the form’s core qualities. As described by the game designer Sean Stewart, ARGs prompt collaboration and crowdsourcing among players to enable progress through a media-based narrative. Investigation drives gameplay, leading some players to solve a puzzle or uncover a new detail of the story before others. Consequently, any single player is unlikely to ever have a full grasp of the entire narrative. Since ARGs take place across extant real world and online spaces, they do not have the same boundaries that a fully digital video game might. For example, ARGs afford unique modes of interplay between players and designers. As players advance through the game, the designers may respond by creating additional games, characters, or story components. ARG narratives, then, are frequently nonlinear or multilinear and may be altered during the course of the game based on dynamic player responses and contributions. Designer responsiveness and flexibility in constructing tailor-made components for particular players can in turn permit all players to feel more self-directed and efficacious in their game-playing experience.
S.E.E.D. ARG Documentary: Part 1 (directed by Philip Ehrenberg).[Video Transcript]
ARGs are a transmedia art form and a genre of gaming, but in this chapter, we would also like to characterize them as a narrative method that enabled interventions into areas such as STEM education, health, and well-being. Admittedly, when ARGs first emerged in the early 2000s, they found greatest traction across immersive viral marketing campaigns. As media scholar Henry Jenkins demonstrated, several of the earliest and most successful ARGs were used to market other products — for example, I Love Bees, which was used to promote the Xbox game Halo 2, and game studio Valve’s Potato Sack, which promoted their game Portal 2. As the form of ARGs has expanded, some designers have also started to create versions of these games that operate as artistic experiments and educational tools. Scholars such as Elizabeth Bonsignore and her colleagues (2012a) have even suggested that ARGs have the potential to promote cooperative learning. Given the expansion of uses of this cultural form, ARGs have received increased attention in the second decade of the twenty-first century from literary critics, new media and communication scholars, anthropologists, game studies researchers, and education researchers (Garcia and Niemeyer). Though ARGs are a far less common form than conventional video games, they bring together elements of digital media, computer networks, and transmedia storytelling that also make them a paradigmatic cultural form for thinking about and experimenting with the contemporary world.
It is important, however, to emphasize that ARGs are not merely promising because they can be “applied” to a broad range of topic areas: ARGs themselves can be envisioned as a research method and intervention tool that deepens the quality of human-centered design. As the digital media and education researcher Caroline Pelletier has observed, games are perhaps best approached not as a “substance” or delivery mechanism capable of transmitting any particular educational content, but rather as a “relation” or occasion for reconfiguring social interactions (85). Pelletier’s vision of games as relational objects, instead of empty forms that neutrally convey information, serves as a critical principle for thinking about games as a research method. The social and interpersonal nature of games, in particular, proves complementary with learning, which is itself not an individual act but a fundamentally social interaction that generates communities (Gee).
As I argued in Chapter 2, narrative games in general have the potential to function as educational interventions or research methods that open learners to different interactions and conversations. At the same time, ARGs offer unique advantages that traditional video games might not allow. In particular, the improvisational, non-hierarchical, and responsive nature of ARGs make them an ideal form for working with and listening to communities who can be treated as collaborative partners encountering uncertainty together more than research subjects. Unlike video games, which need to be as complete and as bug-free as possible before play in order to maximize uptake by players, ARGs are a more Frankensteinian form that patches together different media and platforms in an experience that is integrated into the everyday lives of players. Moreover, these games are purposefully less polished in order to encourage contributions from players, including the active co-construction of the game’s world. For example, Sean Stewart describes three modes in which ARG improvisation can be seeded or invited by designers: “power without control,” “voodoo,” and “jazz.” First, “power without control” asks players to add to a narrative in limited ways without requiring them to alter the experience in substantive ways; “voodoo” entails creative contributions that designers can ignore or add into the shared experience; and “jazz” invites substantial collaboration and improvisation in which designers watch closely to incorporate ideas that were not originally intended.
The improvisational and responsive nature of ARGs allows them to serve as unique educational interventions, which the GCC Lab has designed within a framework of connected learning. As described by Mizuko Ito and her colleagues, connected learning advocates for expanded access to learning that is socially embedded, interest driven, and oriented towards educational, economic, and political opportunities. Experiments with connected learning frequently take place in out-of-school spaces, as opposed to formal classrooms, especially as practiced by Ito and other members of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative (Jenkins et al. 90). The GCC Lab’s work on ARGs builds on research that indicates that games offer interactive contexts for thinking through and experimenting with complex problems in a hands-on fashion in out-of-school contexts. They enable multiple learning styles and engage players at several levels simultaneously via text, graphics, audio, interactive processes, social interactions, and participatory play (Gee). They spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, teach procedural knowledge, and enable participants to inhabit complex systems. Games also instill motivation and optimism about the possibility of completing a challenge, as Jane McGonigal has argued. More specifically, gameplay skills also align well with a number of underlying learning goals in areas such as science and technology (Squire; Mayo).
In addition to their educational benefits, ARGs are also easily integrated into an ethnographic research approach insofar as they bring designers, teachers, and students together in both physical and online spaces. In many ways, ARGs are more akin to dynamic worlds than to static media objects. While running an ARG is not necessarily an ethnography unless there is explicit research design that incorporates this method, an ARG that includes game runners present at the physical and/or virtual site of the game entails ethnographic qualities. As anthropologist Tom Boellstorff notes, though ethnographic method may entail various techniques, from archival work to surveys, it is “participant observation” that is “the cornerstone of ethnography.” In addition to entering the “social frame” in an embodied way, participant observation entails “becoming directly involved in the activities of daily life” in order to gain “an intimate view of their substance and meaning” (65). Given the focus of this book on media technologies, it is worth observing that software engineering drew on and intersected with design at least starting with personal computer design work in Xerox PARC in the 1970s. Furthermore, with increasing systematicity, design and ethnographic method have intersected in the early twenty-first century, including through methods such as human-centered design championed by companies such as IDEO in the 2000s and 2010s. As Andrew Crabtree, Mark Rouncefield, and Peter Tolmie have argued, design ethnography can learn from methods such as “ethnomethodology” which proposes that “sociology is something that we are all competent in as members of society, that we are all practical sociologists” (2). Both through the design and the game running process, game designers can operate as practical sociologists, in this sense, as they integrate gameplay into everyday life. More than with other kinds of games, the blurring between designers and players in ARGs, as well as the embeddedness of designers in ongoing play, opens up possibilities for deep participation of both researchers and players within this type of intervention. With this overview of ARGs as a form and method, I now turn to this chapter’s core case to offer a more granular view of how this type of intervention was organized and executed in 2014.
An interactive timeline with over 100 events from the S.E.E.D. alternate reality game, created by the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab in 2014. This timeline includes videos, GIFs, photos, and encrypted messages from the game. Open timeline in a new tab.
S.E.E.D. was an ARG created by the GCC Lab. This narrative-based game unfolded on site at the University of Chicago and, for select portions, online and across media for three weeks in July 2014. The purpose of the game was threefold. First, S.E.E.D. sought to transmit STEM knowledge and career interest, especially to youth underrepresented in those fields. Second, the game was designed to develop new media literacies through hands-on and game-based learning. Third and finally, this ARG included exercises to promote political participation and civic engagement. Prior to these high-level learning objectives, S.E.E.D. invited participants into a science fiction story that would motivate them to engage with a series of challenges. Following these three weeks of gameplay and collective storytelling, the design and research team broke the fourth wall and debriefed students about the experience. Participants then continued for two additional weeks through a camp in which they learned how to design board games and ARGs about self-selected serious social topics that were particularly salient to students on the South Side of Chicago, such as gang violence, water scarcity, teenage pregnancy, and gender discrimination in the workplace. These final weeks invited players to become game designers. In sum, this five-week program had several different dimensions that existed in parallel and intersecting tracks throughout the experience. S.E.E.D. was at once an out-of-school educational program, a practice-based digital humanities experiment, a designed game, a research study about alternative learning forms, an ethnomethodological engagement, and a scalable social intervention.
S.E.E.D. ARG Documentary: Part 2 (directed by Philip Ehrenberg).[Video Transcript]
A brief overview of the program’s recruitment and demographics is useful for understanding its organization and context. We recruited players using flyers, online information targeted at Chicago public schools, and invitations to after-school programs. The research portion of the game included 69 youth, ages 13 to 18 years, who received parental consent or consented themselves to participate in this component. Forty-four of these participants (63.8%) were male. The group was also 69.6% African American, 15.9% multi-racial, and 7.2% Hispanic or Latinx. Among the participants, 62.3% attended Chicago Public Schools and 72.5% took part in free or reduced lunch programs. The vast majority of these students did not have previous experience with anything like ARGs or transmedia storytelling. Despite the fact that most of the participants came from the South Side of Chicago, the majority of them were not frequent visitors to the University of Chicago campus. The S.E.E.D. game, as well as earlier ARGs created by the GCC Lab, including The Source (2013) which had an even larger player pool, were direct responses to the lack of racial-ethnic diversity among youth pursuing STEM education and careers (Gilliam et al.). As such, the game embedded layered literacies that invited youth to engage with the ARG's form, STEM content, and the university context.
Logistically, participating youth came to campus each weekday for seven hours from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. We assigned youth to teams led by pairs of graduate or undergraduate mentors who had backgrounds in fields as diverse as game design, international relations, education, sociology, social work, theater, and visual arts. Alongside designers and actors, these mentors were intricately integrated into the experience of players, and served simultaneous roles that included game runners, teachers, advisors, and mediators between the designers and players. Some activities took place outdoors on campus and in online contexts, but the majority of the gameplay unfolded on one floor of a university building that was divided into workstations. Participating youth also had the opportunity to meet University of Chicago faculty and STEM professionals. All of the disparate activities and diverse experiences within the first three weeks were organized within the flexible form of the ARG.
In the context of this book’s focus on narrative methods, it is important to emphasize that S.E.E.D. was not merely a scavenger hunt or mixed reality game but also a participatory science fiction story. Though we follow the common convention of characterizing ARGs as “games,” they could just as accurately be described as transmedia narratives that contain interactive and participatory engagement. The narrative of S.E.E.D. was crucial to motivating the action that followed. At the start of the experience, a mysterious organization from the future, “ProPhyle,” contacted players via a group of “Temporal Archivists”: live actors and embedded game designers who explained that they were historians of the future. Through S.E.E.D. (a fictionalized technology which stood for “Story Engineering and Enabling Device”) and various media forms, ProPhyle informed the players that they had information from the future that indicated that the world would end, beginning on July 25, 2014. Only two things were certain at this point. First, this group of players still had a few days to save the world. Second, someone in the group would become known as the “World’s End” because he or she would instigate an apocalypse in the future.
With this introduction, the players were invited to solve the mystery of who was the World’s End (that figure ultimately being revealed as one of the embedded youth actors and not a participant) and thereby to save the world. Midway through the game, a second group from the future called “The Scattering” began communicating with the players through personalized messages and urged them to oppose ProPhyle. Designers communicated the story through daily newsletters, radio, social media, video transmissions, a tablet-based locative app, and live-action roleplaying with actors. This narrative included both planned plot twists and adjustments that the designers made through daily observations and improvisational responses to player activities, which they planned both before and after the daily arrival of youth on campus. We elaborate on details of this narrative in the interactive timeline that is part of this chapter.
S.E.E.D. included a number of discrete games, puzzles, and activities that made up the first three weeks of its curriculum. Given the presence of students on campus for seven hours a day, the design team crafted a curriculum filled with considerable game-based content.
In Week 1, players underwent the orientation session that I described in the introduction. Immediately after that segment, they met their mentors and participated in a series of icebreaker exercises. They were also sent onto the University of Chicago’s campus to solve puzzles and locate an orb that, when introduced to the S.E.E.D. technology, yielded an evidence folder filled with material they would require to complete the first week’s culminating challenge: a debate tournament. These folders contained board game activities, textual material, and digital sources that covered a series of science-oriented apocalyptic scenarios, including climate change, global inequality, super viruses and pandemics, and resource depletion. For each of these folders, designers repurposed board game prototypes that they created as part of earlier work with the GCC Lab to enable students to explore scientific topics via gameplay. For example, the board game Infection City demonstrated the rapid spread of diseases that may occur without proper prevention and treatment, and Power Play challenged players to diversify the types of energy sources used to power a city. These games all used the GCC Lab’s modular Hexacago game board, a map of Chicago and its subway lines that was overlaid with a grid of hexagons, so players’ game actions were situated in a familiar environment. Rather than representing complete curricula, each of these games was meant to introduce students to a new STEM subject area and set of fields and to motivate further exploration of that area.
S.E.E.D. ARG Documentary: Part 3 (directed by Philip Ehrenberg).[Video Transcript]
Given a limited timeline, players had to organize quickly and divide up tasks that included reading through available research materials, preparing a strategy against other teams, and composing briefs and speeches. Each team also met with a health or narrative professional or University of Chicago faculty member who offered information and insights about their assigned topic. For example, one of the teams focusing on the topic of global inequality met with an English professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in postcolonial literature (Sonali Thakkar), one of the resource depletion teams met with a representative of the university’s Office of Sustainability (Alfredo Izguerra), one of the climate change teams met with a member of the John G. Shedd Aquarium (Linda Wilson), and one of the super virus teams met with a university hospital epidemiologist (Jessica Ridgway). This research process culminated in a final competitive debate tournament. This event invited youth to delve deep into topics ranging from climate change, pandemics, and racial inequality in 2014, years before these issues erupted as central and ongoing concerns in the media and across U.S. politics in 2019 and 2020. During this debate, teams had to communicate the scientific and policy research with which we had supplied them to panels of judges in the form of organized speeches and persuasive rebuttals. In this way, this activity combined STEM content with analytical and communications skills.
In Week 2, the designers transitioned from an emphasis on science and policy to a focus on mathematics by way of cryptography and decryption activities. As players comprised a wide range of grades and academic backgrounds, cryptography presented a common baseline from which to engage participants in mathematical critical thinking and problem solving. Early in the week, each team was given different portions of an encrypted message, information about decryption, and a short packet with information about the history of cryptography. This tutorial conveyed both the contextual stakes of cryptography and key skills necessary to practice particular techniques, such as Caesar shifts, substitution ciphers, and Vigenère ciphers. Exceeding the design of the exercises, teams began to use these encryption and decryption techniques to send secret messages to each other. Some players received personalized encrypted messages that were said to be from the future, generating a narrative incentive for teams to continue with their studies while also increasing their emotional involvement. The curriculum also included additional games designed by the GCC Lab, including the board game Tales from DeCrypt, which helped players master the key decryption skills for the week.
Like the debate in the first week, the second week included a major culminating exercise: a two-day iPad-based scavenger hunt that took teams to particular locations around the University of Chicago campus where they would have to use on-screen clues and physical landmarks to solve cryptographic puzzles. These puzzles required teams to be able to navigate a college campus, examine their surroundings critically, and bring together all of the codebreaking skills they had spent the week mastering. Teams that solved the most puzzles were rewarded with privileged narrative information.
In Week 3, the curriculum emphasized digital media and computational technologies. During this week, ProPhyle instructed teams to rebuild the S.E.E.D. technology after it had been destroyed by one of the rogue Temporal Archivists. Using Arduino boards, players received introductions to the basic elements of circuitry and electricity. Unexpectedly, alongside the planned activities, players organized a public protest during this week, requiring the designers to respond in improvisational ways and to rewrite the narrative in order to incorporate player demands, a complex negotiation that we described in an earlier publication (Jagoda et al. 2017). Though slightly outside of the scope of this chapter, it is worth noting that this ARG and the player-organized protests within the game unfolded during the summer of 2014, a time during which the Black Lives Matter activist movement gained national recognition for the first time, especially surrounding the deaths of two Black men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Particularly because the majority of participants were Black youth, real-world and in-game events began to inform each other. This atmosphere occasioned conversations about civic and political engagement between designers and players.
Alongside the emergent protest of the third week, players broke into the base of the Temporal Archivists in order to free a character who had been unjustly imprisoned. The process of finding this character required a series of hacks. Each team learned about social engineering and discussed the ethics of hacking before secretly receiving two IP addresses from the Scattering resistance group. Players also received instructions about how to hack into the Temporal Archivists’ computers, granting access to various remote desktops and email accounts. In the process, players also learned about ways to protect their own personal technologies from external hacks, and visited the University of Chicago Hack Arts Lab, where they learned about various technologies, including 3D printers.
The curriculum of Week 3, and the overall narrative arc of the ARG, ended with a series of exercises that explored the ways in which STEM knowledge might impact social or policy outcomes. During this period, participants took part in an activity that we called “Youtopia,” in which teams drafted constitutions that might help a country combat the type of disasters through scenarios discussed in the first week such as climate change and resource depletion. On the final day, players formed different groups than the ones with whom they had been working for nearly three weeks, which presented new collaborative challenges. In these new groups, players prepared public speeches about the political and ethical dimensions of new and emerging technologies, drawing on themes and knowledge acquired through all three weeks of gameplay. They also determined the final moments of the game by participating in a caucus-like political gathering. The entire group practiced a mode of civic engagement by voting to determine what should happen to the game's central plot device, the S.E.E.D. technology.
Following the three-week S.E.E.D. ARG play experience, the designers and actors stepped out of character and debriefed players about the preceding experience. Then a major transition took place. For two additional weeks, player teams moved into design teams. This portion of the program was a significant departure from the first major ARG, The Source, that the GCC Lab had run a year earlier. That program included five continuous weeks of gameplay within a much more realist narrative framework in the summer of 2013. While five weeks allowed us to have a more in-depth STEM topical curriculum, it did not include a culminating exercise in which students could translate the lessons of gameplay into their own creations. At the end of that earlier program, numerous students expressed a desire to better understand the game that they had just played and to learn how to design games themselves. For these reasons, we decided to include a design education component in our next program. The continuity between segments was smooth. Many of the organizational and collaborative skills, as well as the content knowledge that students had learned during gameplay, could be transferred and expanded during two weeks of a design workshop. This transition also introduced a welcome interruption of formats and a boost in energy that helped us maintain momentum across the five weeks of the program.
S.E.E.D. ARG Documentary: Part 4 (directed by Philip Ehrenberg).[Video Transcript]
While the experience of playing the S.E.E.D. ARG exposed players to STEM and new media content, many of these early challenges and puzzles still required them to solve problems and exercises created by the designers. During Weeks 4 and 5, each team took a more active and self-directed role by choosing to create either their own “serious” board game or alternate reality game with transmedia components. Each team crafted a game that would introduce their peers to a serious issue of their choosing, such as gang violence or unplanned pregnancy. Graduate and undergraduate mentors, as well as the game designers who had helped craft the experience of the first three weeks, were again important in this process. The mentors served less as traditional teachers than as facilitators who helped teams undertake research, remain organized enough to meet their deadline, and focus on the learning outcomes that their games would convey.
During this part of the program, teams received fact sheets and discussed a range of social and emotional health topics with university experts. In preparation for design, participants also played and studied existing board and card games, including Dominant Species, Pandemic, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, and were asked to pay close attention to different medium-specific aspect of the design, including mechanics, rules, and objectives. Designers also participated in modding exercises where they made small changes to existing games in order to alter the gameplay experience in some substantive way. Specifically, following an exercise described by game designer Tracy Fullerton (200–203) in her book Game Design Workshop, they modified a simple board game called Up the River. These exercises began to give the nascent designers a shared language for discussing and evaluating games in a more in-depth fashion.
In order to design their games, members of each team elected to specialize in one of three areas. These included (1) visual art design, (2) gameplay design, and (3) learning outcome design for serious games. This team structure emphasized the importance of collaboration, while allowing youth to take on different leadership roles in the design of their shared serious game. Over the course of these two weeks, youth attended topic-specific skills workshops led by GCC Lab staff and faculty that would allow them to develop their specialization in greater depth: for instance, in the area of graphic design for board games or gameplay design for an ARG. Because of affordances such as ongoing designer-player interplay and multilinear gameplay, ARGs serve as an effective tool for promoting a design mentality. Players had already worked to reverse engineer the creator's puzzles. Subsequently, in the final two weeks, youth were asked to reflect on and critique the preceding ARG as a way of discovering their own design preferences. These workshops and activities progressed in parallel with the design of the teams’ own games, which followed an agile development process of designing, prototyping, playtesting, and iterating. These two weeks culminated with a showcase that invited parents, friends, and community members to play the serious games that the teams had created.
Across five weeks, the S.E.E.D. ARG and design workshop sought to connect digital media art and humanities-oriented critical thinking with STEM and social scientific approaches. The ethical and political dimensions of the game also sought to create a broader context for thinking about science and technology. In recruiting primarily youth of color, the project marked an effort to intervene in the ongoing underrepresentation in STEM education and careers long documented by entities such as the National Science Foundation. Described by Cinda-Sue Davis and her colleagues, a lack of diversity produces representational imbalances, decreases job opportunities, and narrows possibilities for innovation in both the theoretical and applied sciences.
S.E.E.D. was created with the intention of using an engrossing narrative, a participatory game, and a multidisciplinary curriculum to connect high school students to these fields in a concrete and hands-on fashion that would emphasize the real-world dimensions of STEM skills and new media literacies, building upon GCC’s previous ARG work (Gilliam et al. 2017). Given the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of most games, this form encourages combinations of varied literacies that stretch across text, images, sound, participation, and digital technology. Many high schools lack the resources to tackle literacies linked directly to digital technologies, systems thinking, and social networks. Though such literacies are not alone sufficient to tackle systemic inequalities, they are an important factor in the field of education. The articulation of gaming literacies as a new set of essential skills is taken up by a number of scholars, including Eric Zimmerman (2008) who has argued that literacies based in systems, play, and design will be essential to navigating the present century. Such capacities might give youth greater agency in preparing for their future professions, but also encourage forms of serious thought and critical making that are essential to inhabiting our historical moment.
The future of ARGs, including educationally-oriented variations of these games, is promising. Based on the S.E.E.D. case study above, as well as experience designing on other learning-oriented ARGs, I have found several advantages to this transmedia storytelling intervention and research method. I will review five of those potential opportunities here, including (1) flexible transmedia form that adapts to numerous contexts, (2) real-time responsiveness by designers to players that adjusts to their knowledge and play styles, (3) the possibility for multiple simultaneous interest-driven pathways for different types of players, (4) a modular structure that is ideal for introducing a variety of fields, topics, or career pathways, and (5) a relationship to contemporary media that teaches twenty-first-century literacies.
First, from a design perspective, an ARG is a flexible form, which is a huge aid when crafting an intervention that one wants to align with a particular topic, curriculum, or student demographic. An educational video game can operate much like a text that is added to a classroom or learning environment. Depending on the context, such a game can take the place of a cultural object that you might find in an English classroom (e.g., a narrative game that has similar properties to a novel that students analyze and interpret) or a textbook with dimensions of classroom interaction (e.g., a math game that encourages practicing operations and learning new formulas with instant feedback). An ARG is less like a single video game than like a collection of activities or a broader curriculum. As the S.E.E.D. case demonstrates, a player can participate in a single story that moves from a debate tournament to an iPad-mediated scavenger hunt to a creative constitution-building exercise. Similarly, in an online-only version of an ARG, a player could move through a transmedia flow from a website puzzle to a TikTok challenge to a Twitch encounter with a character. The permutations of media forms are practically unlimited, which means that an ARG can play to the strengths of any given design team or teacher. From a research perspective, this transmedia flow also means that one can also easily integrate surveys and other quantitative measurement techniques organically into an ARG, so long as one follows standard procedures, including institutional review board protocols and informed consent.
Second, an ARG unfolds in part through real-time improvisation, a quality that resonates with responsiveness to learners or player communities. No matter the amount of planning, any group of students, whether in a traditional classroom or a gaming environment, brings unique strengths and weaknesses, capacities, and interests. Instead of a “one size fits all” approach, an ARG invites real-time design and playback between designers and players. In S.E.E.D., our team redesigned the entirety of the third week of gameplay based on player interpretations of and reactions to the narrative. This responsiveness made students feel more agential in the shared world building project of the game. It also allowed us to assess their performance as the game was unfolding and to craft new activities that would be most beneficial to them. Practically speaking, it is important to point out that the creation of new characters, narrative twists, or learning games is extremely time consuming. Our team was able to make these kinds of adjustments because the ARG was running during the summer and not during the school year when our attention would have been less focused on a single project. Moreover, our team included a number of designers who had worked together in the past and were comfortable moving improvisationally together. For these reasons, depending on resources and experiences, different ARGs will enable varied levels of responsiveness.
Third, another way in which ARGs are adaptive to players is that they are multiplayer games that are designed for variable experience and interest levels. At the time we were designing and running S.E.E.D., our team was only starting to discover this affordance of ARGs. Some of the designers from this project carried this insight forward the Fourcast Lab’s later ARGs that I describe in the coda to this chapter. For now, I bring up one design technique from the parasite (2017) ARG, which was latent in S.E.E.D. but more explicit in the later game. Instead of charting a single trail through the game that would be undertaken by the collective of players, in that later game, we designed with multiple pathways of engagement in mind. We began the parasite by imagining distinct reasons why a person might enjoy playing an ARG. Unlike S.E.E.D., which was created for a smaller group of high school students, the parasite was created for approximately 1,800 incoming undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Given the potential number and diversity of players, the creation of multiple pathways was necessary for inclusivity. In imagining potential player pleasures for participating in the game, we planned for a player might want to (1) follow the narrative and interpret narrative lore, (2) roleplay in character, (3) solve cryptographic puzzles, (4) document game events and share them with others via social media, (5) create fan art and build out the world, (6) collect objects, or (7) observe the action from a relative distance instead of participating actively. These different pleasures are not mutually exclusive, but they provided a useful starting point for designing different game trails and activities. Better understanding the range of motivations for why someone might begin and continue playing an ARG allowed us to create multiple engagement pathways that still led all players to key information and reinforced our core learning objectives. This level of variability is not impossible to achieve in a video game, including an open world game or a massively multiplayer roleplaying game that includes different classes of characters. However, the cost in terms of both money and time would be much greater for creating a genuinely multilinear narrative that adapts to diverse player styles and proclivities. This range of pathways is part of what makes ARGs more akin to worlds that must be ethnographically inhabited than to discrete objects or linear narratives.
Fourth, the modularity of ARGs is ideal for tackling a substantial, even multidisciplinary, area such as STEM education. In our experience at the GCC Lab, ARGs might be more effective at introducing a set of topics than replacing an in-depth curriculum. One could certainly design an ARG that stands in for a particular mathematics or computer science course. Indeed, the Fourcast Lab later built the game Cene, in 2022, to replace a specific environmental science course for over 350 middle school students. But ARGs might nonetheless be more effective in allowing students to sample different areas en route to more specialized coursework or training in a traditional classroom. The S.E.E.D. case engaged in exactly this kind of sampling by dedicating a week each to the biological sciences and public health, mathematics, and computational technologies, respectively. In this game, we were more interested in exposing underrepresented youth to different areas of study and connecting them to STEM professionals who might serve as models for their own future educational or career pathways. In work with the Fourcast Lab, starting in 2017, I have taken a similar approach though with greater focus. For example, in approaching the COVID-19 pandemic through two ARGs in 2020, A Labyrinth and ECHO, we leaned into modularity by designing hundreds of quests through which teams could learn about and engage with the pandemic. In all of these cases, modularity promoted intellectual exploration of a transdisciplinary topic, instead of specialized depth.
S.E.E.D. ARG Documentary: Part 5 (directed by Philip Ehrenberg).[Video Transcript]
Fifth and finally, beyond supporting learning about a specific content area within a rubric such as STEM, ARGs are ideal for teaching transferable skills and twenty-first-century literacies. In 2012, the National Research Council described twenty-first-century skills as capacities that are crucial to success in education, work, and other responsibilities in the contemporary moment. These skills include abilities that are essential for college and career readiness. They include cognitive (e.g., knowledge and creativity), intrapersonal (e.g., intellectual openness and conscientiousness), and interpersonal (e.g., communication and collaboration) abilities (Pellegrino and Hilton). Bonsignore and her collaborators have argued that ARGs are uniquely suited to expand ideas about literacy in our time moving from “a relatively narrow focus on reading and writing to a multifaceted set of communications practices enacted in multiple sociocultural contexts, influencing and influenced by the technologies available for use” (2012b 30). ARGs might encourage players to develop transferable skills that motivate them to “gather, make sense, manage, solve, create, respect, [and] collaborate” in ways that are applicable to both the multimedia and transmedia environments that large parts of the world’s population inhabit in our time (25). In all of the ARGs that we have designed, we ask players to engage with emergent media and platforms in order to complete tasks, opening up opportunities for strengthening twenty-first century literacies. Via the “This is Not a Game” aesthetic, we have also been able to encourage thought and engagement about facticity, fiction, and social construction in a digital and networked media landscape.
One major issue that has percolated in the background of this chapter has to do with issues of scaling and infrastructure. To put it bluntly, ARGs are large and complicated productions that rely on transdisciplinary teams to create. I have sometimes playfully referred to ARGs as "logistics art" because of the degree of planning, organization, and real-time implementation that they require. In most storytelling forms, select portions of fictional worlds are represented — for instance across the pages of a novel or on the screen during a two-hour film. By distinction, ARGs are actual living and breathing worlds that unfold during the duration of play, which can sometimes run for days, weeks, or even months. To put this point directly, as an alternative to more rigid forms of one-size-fits-all gamified education, ARGs are expensive in terms of time and sometimes money. They require considerable infrastructure and logistics. The core case of this chapter, S.E.E.D., was no exception, as a five-week, grant-funded program that asked a dedicated group of staff, faculty, and students to engage in constant creation and improvisation with the players.
Admittedly, we approached S.E.E.D. as a pilot study that used ARG form to engage in STEM learning at one particular site. Nevertheless, this game raises important questions about scaling such an intervention. In Chapter 3, I explained that scaling is not always desirable and certain goals are better met by keeping things smaller. However, most ARGs are not small, so they raise questions about construction and expansion that must be approached head on. In an earlier publication about the GCC Lab's first major ARG The Source (2013), my collaborators and I asked: Is it possible to scale up improvisational play from small groups to large collectives that exceed the size of a traditional classroom? (Jagoda et al. 2015). First, this question raises theoretical issues. The concept of "scaling play" may seem oxymoronic. On the one hand, when we discuss "scaling" any intervention, and increasing the number of participants or institutions that can participate, we are naming an industrial-era goal for standardization, replication, and distribution. On the other hand, play maps onto non-uniform processes of improvisation, customization, connection, and world creation, which arguably belong more to a postindustrial era (Davidson). Second, this question raises practical problems. Namely, creating a non-uniform game, which is not merely a replicable piece of software and that responds in real-time to a large collective of players, requires investment in assembling, training, and working together with a considerable staff of co-creators en route to a fictional world that all participants inhabit together.
When the GCC Lab has thought about the scaling of ARGs, we have identified two related yet different challenges that I will call the problems of size and transferability. The first challenge is the problem of size: growing a game's capacity, both online and in person, so that it can include a larger number of players in a single location or across a larger number of institutions. This might involve moving a game from a classroom to an entire school to a city's public school system to a constellation of geographically dispersed public school systems and beyond. Unlike videogame software, which once developed, can be relatively easily downloaded or circulated to players who have access to the required technology, the size of an ARG player base introduces logistical issues for which designers need to plan. For example, if a game has a leaderboard that reflects the performance of individuals or teams across sites, that online leaderboard must be updated on a regular basis. In order for that leaderboard to be updated, members of the design team must evaluate player performance and update the website. Updating player scores is considerably easier for a classroom of 30 students than for a multi-school game that includes 300 or 3,000 students. There are various techniques for building a game-running team that can adjust to different scales, but most of these solutions entail costs of time and money. Such scaling issues, though not insurmountable, become increasingly more challenging when in-person activities are involved. Again, beyond a centralized game-running team, the growth of a game's player collective to various parallel in-person sites is likely to require intimate collaborations with on-site actors such as teachers across different classrooms or camp counselors at various locations. Though a greater number of players is likely to entail a growth in staff (short of the incorporation of artificial intelligence agents that are likely to introduce new types of problems related to automation), other projects have taught us that effective recruitment and training of this staff can also minimize those costs.
The second scaling challenge, which is distinct from if related to the problem of size, is the problem of transferability: moving a site-specific game and its narrative from one location to another. This might involve moving a game from the University of Chicago campus to the campus of The Ohio State University or an Oakland public school. With S.E.E.D., we focused entirely on an out-of-school learning space. This specific infrastructural decision reflected the fact that this game was a pilot meant to test feasibility and acceptability. Despite considerable recruitment efforts, conducting this ARG over the summer, outside of an institution with its own bureaucratic structures or rules, and with youth whose families sought out the program enabled a smoother process. Given the relative success of this program, however, we were left with a new problem: How could we someday move a game like S.E.E.D. to other contexts, including in-school learning environments? Some scholarship, including by Derek Hansen and his colleagues, has started to explore the ways that ARGs might be designed for reuse and adapted for multiple sites. In the GCC Lab's experience, the problem of transferability is not merely one of moving preset narrative and gameplay structures from one place and time to another. For example, the predominantly Black and brown youth on the South Side of Chicago have fundamentally different experiences, resources, and oftentimes play styles than predominantly white youth on the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago. Demographic and experiential differences may influence what types of narratives or activities are most salient to players. Therefore, creating blueprints for the reproduction of a particular ARG at different sites requires more than the details offered by a standard game design document. ARG designers must learn to produce documentation that conveys variations on particular elements, as well as ideas for altering narratives or encouraging particular play styles across different contexts. In practice, this means that the designers of these games can never retain a position of total expertise when they move to a new site where they must collaborate with with people who are most familiar with and invested in the context or site to which the game is being transferred.
ARGs can and should be adjusted to different sizes of player collectives, demographics of players, and sites of play. The strength of these games comes precisely in their non-uniformity and responsiveness to players. I will be the first to admit: this kind of development requires some irreducible costs and real commitments on the part of the designers and game runners. Aside from introducing formal or logistical innovations, an ARG must also reckon with status quo systems that bring with them entrenched ideological and bureaucratic structures. Admittedly, I believe that any form of learning that seeks to make a real difference in the lives of students, instead of merely signaling such a change through popular terminology, will target foundational cultures and infrastructures of learning — and therefore never be easy. At the same time, as I have suggested, there are ways to streamline and organize an ARG to make it accessible within any context. Aside from questions of personnel, designers can also make adjustments to infrastructure. While S.E.E.D. experimented with technology such as a tablet-based locative app, and other games I have co-designed have included live-streaming components or higher production values, these elements are not necessary for an ARG to succeed. The essential core of such a game has to do with the relations and responses between game runners and players within the framework of a shared and participatory narrative. Though I do not have space to elaborate this point here, there are ways of creating an ARG-based curriculum using low-tech or no-tech methods that adjust to the resources that a designer has available.
Beyond the problems of scale, infrastructure, and logistics, there is more experimental design and in-depth research to be conducted both about and through the form of ARGs. We acknowledge certain limitations to this work and the S.E.E.D. case study, some of which might be addressed in future design and research. For instance, in this chapter, I focus primarily on the voices of designers, rather than those of youth as I did in earlier chapters. While this chapter is intended primarily for educators, game designers, and digital media scholars, we focus on youth voices, including comments made in focus groups and interviews, more centrally in other scholarship (Jagoda et al. 2017). Soliciting feedback and reactions from players is a crucial part of improving the design of ARGs.
In the coda to the book, I briefly return once more to ARGs in order to point to post-S.E.E.D. games that have built on some of these findings and to gesture toward ways that transmedia storytelling techniques and platforms might expands the impact of the narrative methods analyzed in this book.