Category Archives: Alternate Reality Games

Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

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.


Blog Based Games, Matrix Games and Student Writing

campaignDo boys write? Of course they do, but it sometimes feels not unlike enforced dentistry. I have found, however, that given the right setting, boys will write copiously, fluently, and largely grammatically! Boys will write a great deal about subjects they care about. They do so happily on forum postings and fan sites.

I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school, and have found that the club members generate a great deal of writing around games played at the club on the club blog site. When the club started back in 2008, I started a campaign game – based on the wargames campaign popularized by Tony Bath. Each player takes the role of a leader in the ancient world. They receive resources and can raise armies, build roads and cities, wage war, make peace, build alliances or conquer continents. Each week players would submit a set of orders detailing what they wanted to do, and I would adjudicate based on common sense and a roll of the die. If there were battles, players would wargame this using DBx rules. Every week I would bring out a newsletter which reported the events of the previous week which were common knowledge, and players would get private reports.

I didn’t plan it, but the newsletter became so popular students started writing their own entries, and I moved the newsletter to a blog, allowing players to post their own stories. The campaign game then became more of a joint narrative creation exercise and started dominating the game itself. Players would use the blog to further their game position, spread propaganda, or simply let their imaginations run riot.

The campaign go way too much for me to handle, but was so popular that club members have resurrected it, and one of them has taken over as Games Master. Interestingly enough they have chosen to run the campaign from the blog itself, so all announcements are made on the blog, and players email the GM their orders. This shows that students saw the blog as a vehicle for their play, and enjoyment.

space truckersThe Mind Sports Club is an extra-mural activity, and I think that any attempt to bring this kind of writing into the curriculum would be doomed to failure, but one wonders if a blog-based game might not work in the English class. What I have in mind is more of a role play type game. Players would be given a character to play, and victory conditions – aims they need to fulfil, and then make arguments as to what they want to happen in their blog. Other players would leave comments tying to modify the action, and the Teacher/Games Master would use a die roll to decide which outcome was more likely.

This mechanism is based on the Matrix Game invented by Chris Engle, and in particular the thrust and parry variation of the game pioneered by Marcus Young. In this variant players make arguments about what they want to happen (the thrust) and other players make counter-arguments (parries). The GM then decides which is more likely to happen, and rolls a die (D6) to decide. A strong argument might succeed on a roll of 2-6, a weak argument only on a roll of 6. Parries that change arguments only slightly are rated very strong because both players essentially agree, whereas major changes are rated as weak. Unopposed arguments happen automatically.

Telling stories, even in this digital age, still has tremendous power to enchant, and I think this is why the campaign game at the St John’s Mind Sports Club has proven so alluring, and why a matrix type game would work well in the classroom.


Alternate Reality – Games in the Classroom

IMG_9756As part of the Cognitive Education programme at Roedean School, I was given a slot in the time-table at the end of last year to run an alternate reality game which would help us consolidate our Habits Of Mind programme, and highlight Thinking Skills within the school. The game itself was designed to foreground the importance of cognitive education, and hopefully to give students a chance to use thinking skills and strategies they have been learning within an open-ended, extra-curricular context.

The game I designed was set up to work largely without a puppet-master (in alternate reality game parlance the pm is the games master, controlling what happens next). It consisted of a series of clues, puzzles to be solved, leading to a solution which would save the planet. At each stage solving one puzzle led on to a new challenge, taking the player deeper into the game and towards a solution.


In the framing story we gathered all our grade 8 students together in The Realm, a multi-media room able to accommodate an entire grade, and told them that we would be engaging in a morning’s collaborative exchange with a school in England around Habits Of Mind. When we logged on to the computers, however, and accessed the website of the school we were collaborating with it became clear that there was something wrong. The (hoax) website of this fictitious school had a scrolling message on it and a computerised voice suggesting that the school had been taken over by aliens and urging us to “join the resistance”. By cracking a code, students were able to access a hidden page which contained a diarised narrative of a series of events detailing the crashing of a meteor on the school property, the strange behaviour of a number of staff and students, the discovery that aliens had landed and were controlling the others as zombies, that some (the Habits Of Mind class) appeared mentally resilient enough to resist. By accessing links to the Habits of Mind Blog of the teacher leading the resistance, more clues emerged – an easter egg needed to be found on the school website, another code cracked and eventually, following clues the trail led to a letter purportedly written in 1908 which was on display in the Realm as part of a school history presentation. This letter fleshed out details of an earlier, and similar attempt by aliens to take over the world, and gave vital clues as to how to combat the present attack.

All the characters and places were fictitious and involved a fake website, fake class blog and Facebook page. Staff helping run the session had been deliberately left in the dark so that they did not inadvertently give students clues. My own role was to look puzzled – something I think I managed quite well.

Feedback from students revealed that some were demotivated by the withheld scaffolding. they were not sure what they had to do, and did not enjoy this feeling. the task simply became too much.

“Our group found this task horrible. It had no excitement, it did not make sense, it was pointless and we did not learn anything from it. The teachers did not help us and we felt as though they just threw us in the deep and just wanted something to fill the day. The task dragged and we had no motivation to continue. It was too complicated to understand and unrealistic.” 

This reaction was quite natural given normal schooling practice, and was expected. What I had not expected, I suppose naively, was the reaction of some staff, who felt the whole thing had been an unmitigated disaster. I heard the next day that they had gone running to the headmistress to complain that it had been too unstructured, too difficult, and without educational value. Luckily I was backed up by my Head Of Department, and luckily the headmistress had paid us a visit and been able to see the levels of engagement in the room.

While some girls were undoubtedly demotivated, others were thoroughly engaged and relished the difference between this and normal structured school activities.

“We found this task hard at first as we were confused about what was expected of us and where to find all the sites and information, but we enjoyed it more as we went along and all pitched in and tried to come up with solutions together. We also enjoyed cracking the codes as it was very fun, and we worked together well.“

The majority seemed to find the task engaging, but also difficult and therefore frustrating.

“We really enjoyed decoding the message as we had to think and plan well, although this was tiring, it did give us a sense of achievement. We found this task hard at times as we thought we would need more clues and it was frustrating at times.”

This, to my mind, indicates that the exercise was a success – that it was pitched at just about the right level. A critical thinking task which did not challenge and frustrate was the worst case scenario for me. I wanted the girls too grapple with the task, to get frustrated, and to feel the elation of solving genuinely hard problems.


In the room, girls were animated and engaged for most of a morning session between 7:30 and 1pm: few were off task, there were simply too many clues to puzzle out. They tended to form naturally into groups, but slipped into competitive modes, often sitting on portions of the challenge they had solved. They used a variety of technological solutions, cell-phones, iPads and the computers in the centre to crack the codes.

One unforeseen boon was the wealth of associations thrown up by the clues as red-herrings. I had planned a few red-herrings to use if students were solving the tasks too quickly, but as it turned out there were so many unintended cross-references between the clues that students added to their own bafflement quite successfully! We ended the session with a presentation by each group on what habits of mind they had used to solve the mystery, and some feedback. This provided a sense of closure and an opportunity to situate the game back into the classroom environment.

This was my first attempt at creating an Alternate Reality Game in the classroom and, although I have a great deal of experience using Role Play Games, it was different. Many things happened serendipitously that had not occurred to me, and I suppose my main advice for anyone else wishing to try something similar would be to make sure that the clues are rich in cultural associations as this throws up its own richness. the way things worked out made the whole thing seem far more planned than it actually was, simply because I had not over-thought it too much. In many ways you have to trust more, and not be afraid just to jump into it.


How Online Games Will Save The World!

Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk in February 2010 must rank as one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking presentations of the year. What struck me right between the eye-balls was the incontrovertible truth of what she has to say about how people are made to feel in the online gaming world; how they are valued and trusted with planet-saving missions, and learn just a little beyond their current competency. The learning is always engaging and challenging. Failure is tolerated, and standards are exceptionally high. These are all things that we ought to be emulating in the classroom, but too often are not, and that failure to be as effective as an online game must hurt us as professionals.

But where McGonigal challenges us is not in her vision of the virtues of the learning models presented by gaming, or of how important gaming is, amounting as it does to a parallel curriculum, but in her assertion that if we only played more online games, we could save the planet!

This seemingly nonsensical thesis is carefully argued in the talk, and is made only half tongue-in-cheek, I suspect. She argues that if only we could use online games to work on real-world problems, then we would be harnessing the fullness of human potential to solve the problems of the planet. McGongigal has been active in developing Alternate Reality Games such as I love Bees or World Without Oil which show some of the potential of what she is arguing for.

Of course, one of the major problems with ARGs is that they appear to become so engaging that players become obsessive, lose their jobs, their spouses and all sense of reality. McGonogal’s project is to somehow marry the benefits of the online game or ARG with real world engagement. This is a challenging project, and I suspect that so much depends on how we perceive the value of entrusting large chunks of our education to gaming. As time goes by I believe that we will increasingly come to see less and less of a distance between gaming and education. Much as it is probably not possible to imagine training a pilot these days without using a simulator, we will probably come to see complex simulations, what we currently call games, as education. There seems little sense in arguing that education in the 21st Century should refuse to use powerful simulation techniques, or that what gaming has taught us about learning should be ignored.

What McGonigal teaches us is to bravely look forward to the day when games will have changed us, and the way that we think about ourselves. We will all have levelled-up!

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