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A Practical Example of an Instructional Alternate Reality Game (iARG) January 12, 2008

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

When you go to an industry conference, it’s fun to get excited and re-energized about your field. You often learn about new technologies, see great examples, and hear fresh ideas. The unfortunate reality is that you may only get to implement a very small percentage of this new stuff when you get back to work after the conference. At DevLearn 2007, I became really excited at the idea of instructional alternate reality games (iARGs). These games seem to take engagement to the next level; people live the experience, rather than just taking part in a mundane training activity. After DevLearn, I went back to work and tried for weeks to figure out ways to use iARGs. I just couldn’t think of a realistic scenario where they could work for us. Fortunately, the light bulb turned on this week.

I’ve written before about our upcoming PeopleSoft upgrade at work. It’s coming in the next few months, and it’s going to be a BIG project; we’re essentially upgrading the entire software platform for our whole organization. Our training department has been brainstorming ways to tackle this project. We came up with a new concept this week to draw in our users and keep their excitement level up, and holy cow, I think we may have stumbled upon our first instructional alternate reality game!

Here’s what we’ve got so far: We know we will be creating a large number of self-paced eLearning courses to deliver the material to the learners. Each of these courses will take approximately 30 minutes and will consist mainly of Captivate (and maybe Assima) simulations that show the learner how to complete a task, allow them to try the task, and then assess their ability to complete the task (show me, let me try, test me). Now, here’s the fun part: It looks like we’re going to wrap a contest/game around the whole experience. It’ll be called Crack the Code, and we’ll market this internally to our employees. We’re presenting them with a challenge: Once training begins, we will leave clues throughout our eLearning courses that the learners must track. We’ll come up with a standard icon that represents a clue (for now, let’s just says it’s a gold star). Whenever they see a gold star during training, they’ll know that they should investigate it to find a clue. (Of course, this clue could directly be linked to a learning objective or a key point in the learning.) We will build a companion web site where learners can go and "store" their clues. Each clue may be a single word, a phrase, or a number (we haven’t quite figured out the exact specifics of this part). On the companion web site, we will have a large image that slowly reveals itself to users based on the number of clues they find over a series of weeks; the ultimate objective of the game will be to figure out this image and crack the code. For example, the final image may be a simple cipher message or word scramble that must be solved. The first person to solve the puzzle will receive a big prize, perhaps $500 or $1000. We will also have weekly or monthly raffles for anybody who has recovered a gold star – so it’s a good incentive for them to stay on their toes throughout the training. We will probably keep a leader board that shows all top-ranked employees and how many clues they’ve recovered, too.

So far, what I’ve described is online-only, which wouldn’t qualify as an ARG. Here’s where it gets fun: Our company has hundreds of offices across the United States. We’ve discussed the idea of making gold star clues (ex. print a clue on gold construction paper and then laminate it) and then sending the clues to our office managers across the country. The managers would plant these clues throughout their offices where employees would stumble upon them. Employees would then go to the companion web site and enter their newly-found gold star clue. We’ve also talked about hiding gold stars throughout our company’s intranet site, and I’m sure we’ll come up with more ideas along these lines

Sure, this may not be as truly immersive as some high-end ARGs, but I believe this is a good start. Our employees will be on the lookout for clues, they’ll be more motivated to complete their training, and their attention-level should be heightened. And they may have a little fun along the way, too.



1. Brent schlemker - January 12, 2008

awesome! I can’t wait to hear how it goes. Perhaps you’ll have something to report out at AG08?

2. B.J. Schone - January 13, 2008

I just realized that our attempt at an iARG doesn’t completely fall in line with the idea of the textbook alternate reality game. In an ARG, the person playing the game doesn’t always know what elements are part of the game and what elements are part of their real life. The line is blurred. What I’ve described above is more of a mixed-mode game that has online and in-person elements. But I still think it’s a good idea, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.

3. Jay D'Ambrosio - January 18, 2008

Over the past few years I have developed an educational alternate reality game for my ancient history classroom. Students will be challenged to develop their critical thinking skills, locate information using real world resources, and practice creative problem solving. Participants will attempt to solve an archaeological mystery by infiltrating a secret society, and answering initiation questions regarding history, science, mathematics, world languages, and the arts. They will need to contact various fictitious characters via email, telephone, text messaging, and instant messenger, who will provide clues that will allow them to continue their quest to discover the truth about a terrifying artifact known only as the Hexagon.


This format can easily be adapted to fit a wide variety of learning objectives.

4. B.J. Schone - January 18, 2008

Kudos to you, Jay! I looked at the link you provided, and it appears you have laid the foundation for an excellent iARG. Great job! I can see how your storyline can hook your students from the very beginning, and it looks like you’re using several different methods of communication to keep the game *very* interesting. This is definitely a way to grab (and keep) the attention of your learners. Well done!

5. TroyFish (I rarely use the real name on the net) - January 19, 2008

Trying to figure out how to utilize an ARG especially an I-ARG is actually one of the most difficult obstacles to tackle. What you have here is a great concept that could easily go somewhere. I think that your only real failing point is thinking that there is a true “Textbook alternate reality game.”

There is no real textbook that I’ve found in this regard, and even if there was, I don’t know if there is anyway I’d trust a writer to be able to definitively define what ARG’s are. One of the beauties of an ARG is that it defines itself as it plays out. It’s great to have the puppet-masters guide the play, in a specific direction, but the imagination of the players is unparalleled and should never be overlooked.

So let’s see if I can give some creative suggestions to your dilemma. In rereading it, I tend to think that the only thing that you are needing to make it more immersive as opposed to a straight up scavenger hunt is to give them a reason (other than cash which is often a fine incentive) to find the answer to these clues.

Off the top of my head, I would probably set up a scenario where your company site was hacked. Hide your clues in there as needed in a variety of methods. (Need some silly L33t speak check out this video – it’s funny in the simplicity – http://revver.com/video/208011/l33t-haxxors/) Weave in some clues, and even better give them a reason to use Peoplesoft.. I think you have some real promise in there, and I think you will definitely attract some attention and get the people learning. That is the goal after all, yes?

Keep it up, and if I can help in anyway, let me know.

6. B.J. Schone - January 20, 2008

Thanks for this great feedback, TroyFish. I love the idea of having an intruder of some type…especially if they leave clues around (w00t!).

I watched The Da Vinci Code again recently and it gave me several more ideas for puzzles and clues, too. We’ll be designing the rest of this game/puzzle/experience in the coming weeks. I’ll post updates…

7. Rowan - February 8, 2008

I had an I-ARG idea for PeopleSoft which I give to you because I think you’re excellent. There’s a mole in the company stealing company secrets and passing them to a competitor. Could be a veteran doing it for money, or a newbie doing it for allegiance to the other company and money too. The clues to who the mole is, how he or she is stealing the secrets, what secrets have been stolen, and why he or she is doing it — are all in PeopleSoft, mixed in with real employee data and every day applications. Your players would use PeopleSoft skills learned thru other modes to solve this mystery. They could collaborate in a wiki, chat group, or blog (if the company has any of those), or even an online meeting. At the end of the game you could have security go to apprehend the mole…only to find his or her desk cleaned out and a note… “you’ll never catch me”.

8. Rowan - March 19, 2008

Hi B.J.!
I would like to invite you to beta test Never Rest but can’t find your email address anywhere!!! Send it to me?

9. stalherz - November 15, 2008

Return to Gotham.

10. Blog Medialabs » Archivos del blog » Juegos de Realidad Alternativa para la formación en la empresa - July 25, 2010

[…] A practical example of an instructional ARG […]

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