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Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

06 Dec

DSC01789Jane McGonigall, in her TED Talk talks about the four powers of games: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric and epic meaning. These are qualities often missing in the classroom, which games have in abundance. This year I ran an alternate reality game for our end of year programme in grade 8. Alternate Reality Games are games which present themselves as real life events. In this game, I assembled all the garde 8s for a collaborative project with another school. When accessing their website to contact them, students had to solve a mystery and save the fictitious school from alien invaders. To accomplish this they had to crack a few codes, sift through some clues to solve a mystery and figure out how to use the lyrics of a song to find a secret web-page to communicate the solution. I used a fictitious blog and some fake twitter accounts to sprinkle clues around.

The task was run on the second last day of the year as part of an extension programme, and was meant to show-case our cognitive education programme. There is a concern that our girls are not as confident in problem solving skills as we would hope, especially that they give up too easily. The current task was adapted from one I ran a few years ago, and was shortened, with a little more scaffolding early to try and ensure that students did not give up too early.

DSC01775In the reflection, girls were generally positive about the game, although significant numbers found the tasks too challenging, and felt they had not received enough support from me. This was deliberate, and expected. I wanted my role as puppet-master to be hidden, and I tried to act surprised and bewildered as events unfolded. What hints I made to groups who had given up were done purely to get them engaged in the task again. Some groups were unable to crack any codes and were sent to spy on groups that had done so. About two-thirds of the students did successfully crack substitution cyphers. All groups were able to correctly identify what the fictitious school needed to do to defeat the aliens, but the biggest struggle was over finding the easter egg on the index page, and translating the song lyrics into a URL.

I believe that students need far more exposure to problem solving tasks than they are getting, and that alternate reality games offer a wonderful way to accomplish this. McGonigall’s powers of games offer a useful perspective.

Urgent Optimism

The predominant attitude in games play is for players to search around for tasks to engage in. This was evident in this Alternate Reality Game (ARG). At times girls were running around the room to consult with other groups or find out what could be done next. One aspect of the game I particularly enjoy is the richness of the red herrings. A group can explore a blind alley and really enjoy doing it, uncovering all kinds of unexpected and unintended associations which appear to lead to clues. These red herrings are actually as beneficial in terms of problem solving than the intended clues.

Blissful Productivity

The ability to spend hours engaged in a task while losing all sense of time is one common in games, and absent in many classrooms! In the ARG, I noticed that while pursuing a clue, girls seemed to lose all track of time, but when they gave up, time dragged. This was an aspect of the game that I will need to improve on, perhaps by insisting that all clues solved get shared. Some groups translated the task into a competition to solve it first, and this  competitiveness, while useful, did hamper those who needed extra help at times.

Social Fabric

Most games are strongly collaborative, and players will help each other with clues, inventory and so on. In this ARG, too many groups became competitive, but, what was enlightening was that groups formed naturally. Nowhere in my instructions did I ask them to form groups, in fact I gave no instructions at all. Groups are often problematic in the classroom, but seem to be intrinsic to the game format.

Epic Meaning

Games have a purpose, one often not very visible in the classroom, and their relevance and importance are self-evident. This ARG had as its point the saving of the planet from alien control, and the students appeared to take up this task with gusto. I was at first bombarded with questions about what they had to do, but after it became clear that I was not going to say anything, or give any direction, the class naturally splintered into groups and started working on clues, not all the same ones at the same time. As soon as the narrative was revealed, once the easter egg had been found, groups seemed instinctively to know what to do and what the “game” point was. The task fitted into game play genres and so made sense. When the game was “solved” there were loud cheers and frantic attempts on the part of all groups to submit the solution online. I think even groups who had not “won”, felt they had shared in the task by solving parts of the puzzle.

In conclusion, I think that Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to offer the classroom. But they need to be carefully designed and structured. They are much harder than any board game, role play game or computer game, because they need realia rather than playing pieces or pure imagination, but this makes them, in some ways, more rewarding.

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