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ARGs and the Classroom

I attended the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association last week. It was fortuitous, maybe, to have this week’s James Paul Gee reading on the potential of video games as pedagogical tools, as I had the opportunity to attend several Internet and Video Games panels. One panel in particular made me reflect back to this course, and instead of just doing a gloss of the readings and the websites I’ve visited, I want to use my post to discuss the ideas I encountered in this panel.

J. James Bono, from the University of Pittsburgh, presented a paper called “Playing with Disaster:  Serious Games, Alternate Realities,and Atlantic Storm.” This paper brought up the pedagogical possibilities of something I’d never heard of– Alternative Reality Games. These are a new development, a web-based type of game that is without a single platform– the game is outside, it’s in the minds of the participants, it’s essentially research-as-gaming. Players find clues and put together remarkably difficult puzzles cooperatively, in a “game” the elements of which could be anywhere– on any website, in the form of an SMS text message, even in that dreaded IRL world. For those of you unfamiliar, as I was, with the idea of Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs,as I was, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia article linked above– it gives a good sense of what ARGs are, and how they work, and it’s pretty well-written for a Wikipedia article.

Another presenter, Angela Colvert, of the University of London, discussed a project she undertook with two primary school classes she taught: she assigned her fifth grade students to create an ARG, specifically targeted at the fourth grade students she also taught.  While the project was, due to the students’ ages, a rather simplistic project about an alligator who lives in the London Sewers, the project immediately suggested a whole set of ideas in my mind– what if an assignment for grad students in CLIO was to design an ARG for students in an undergrad course, one based on an actual historical event or mystery? One class would acquire an invaluable set of skills based in information design, and the other could finding new approaches to research– in an environment of a “game,” which whether we’re gamers or not, is often more fun and engrossing than reading a textbook and memorizing dates.

The final paper in the panel that related to this class– I’m excluding a wonderful piece about the Japanese aesthetic principle of mono no aware in the Nintendo video game Pikmin 2, because it simply doesn’t apply– was by Terence Brunk of Columbia College.  While his paper was actually an analysis of the narratological principles that can be seen in two “serious” online games– the type of game that is created specifically with the social consciousnessof its player in mind.

This paper really brought home the potential of ARGs as opposed to more traditional video games– no matter how many options you present a player, video games are essentially goal-oriented and thus fairly linear. Eventually in the process of game design, you have to decide that the player must complete Level 1 before entering Level 2. While they’re interactive, video games still have much the same linearity of text. And this is reinforced by their very nature: they’re pre-produced, complete worlds. Add-ons like they have for the Sims or when they add new areas to an MMORPG are limited fixes, and must follow the rules previously established.

The role of the “puppet master,” the person who essentially creates and maintains the ARG, often modifying the next step, puzzle, clue, or plant based on previous outcomes, is in many ways essentially very similar to the role of an excellent educator– they challenge their subjects, altering results to outcomes, constantly pushing the problem further. I think it could be a really useful tool for this reason.