Receiving enigmatic text messages, looking for hints on a website every now and then, following a trace that leads to a particular book in a library – all this can happen when people play what is called an alternate reality game (ARG) together. This relatively new kind of collaborative gaming combines different media and real-world experience. As more and more gamers all over the world become fascinated with ARGs, educationalists are also trying to find out more about the games’ pedagogical impact. Steven Vosloo, Communication and Analytical Skills Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, South Africa, is currently preparing to initiate an ARG project for twelve to fourteen-year olds in his country.
“This is not a game” is the mantra of alternate reality games. Indeed, ARGs often do not reveal their true premises at first. Following a “storytelling as archaeology” philosophy, ARGs also do not present a coherent narrative or prefabricated characters, which is exactly what makes the whole process even more appealing. ARGs drive collaboration because they are not typically won or solved by a single player; they bring gamers together to solve puzzles and advance a game’s storyline collectively. To get the most out of an ARG, however, players should be ready for experimentation; they also need to be familiar with the Internet, Web 2.0, and the use of mobile technology.
The genre first appeared in 2001, when an intriguing riddle was incorporated into the promotional material of the latest Steven Spielberg film AI (Artificial Intelligence). A mysterious name appeared at the end of one film trailer and a second revealed an encoded telephone number. This aroused curiosity amongst fans and by conducting Internet research into the name or by calling the number, the more inquisitive unwittingly went down one of the three rabbit holes, or entry points, into the game ”The Beast”, the first widely-known ARG.
For Steve Vosloo, Communication and Analytic Skills Fellow at Shuttleworth Foundation, there are several benefits that make ARGs quite appropriate for a learning context. He says that ARGs not only foster collaboration among players and help to develop multi-modal reading skills (playing requires reading of clues across various media); they also help to improve subject-specific content knowledge. Given the complexity of the puzzles, player collaboration is required to solve them, and the games then become a practical tutorial in collective intelligence – the notion that nobody knows everything but everyone knows something. This is also supported by the findings of researchers, who discovered that the highest levels of learning are achieved when there is social dialogue among game players as opposed to learners playing on their own – a fact that provided the impetus for Vosloo to set up such a game for pupils.
The pilot will be aimed at twelve to fourteen-year olds, and while it will be aligned with curriculum outcomes, the game’s storyline will delve into South Africa’s youth culture, slang and music. Learners will need to explore, research and solve puzzles while working together across a variety of loosely linked virtual and physical information sites – for example, websites, libraries, voicemails and text messages – that collectively comprise the fabricated reality of the game’s narrative. The findings of the pilot will inform decision-making about the benefits, constraints and resource requirements for such a game and enable educationalists to make decisions as to whether an ARG is feasible for or appropriate to particular learning contexts.
Steve Vosloo: “Digital game-based learning holds significant potential for learners in Africa, but the high cost of games and hardware has prevented its realisation. ARGs offer an affordable, low-fidelity gaming option that uses popular web-based and mobile platforms to cost-effectively create – compared to the development cost of most digital games – accessible gaming content with an alternate-reality setting.”