Hi all!

I'm so sorry for accidentally freaking emailing everyone the below essay - I mistook the discussion thread and direct messages. Here's the essay for discussion.

I'm really glad I decided to stumble onto Jane McGonigal's website after taking some time to evaluate how to go about with a redesign of an ARG I'm developing, because it's great to be able to discuss this with likeminded people

Here's the full story:

I'm a Masters student at the University of Pretoria, and I'm attempting to run an educational ARG to teach library and information literacy to first year university students (they even have a course that aims to teach them these things). Development started on it last year with my colleague and co-sup, and this year we brought on a team of students via our postgrad programme to help refine the design, build assets etc (our academic year starts in January).

Over the first semester we finished the design and built the assets, and we attempted to run it starting in August. However, for the study to be academically valid, we need freshmen to play. Obviously, they didn't.

I think one of the main reasons for this was the fact that we did not explicitly sacrifice TINAG, and as a result were going on a couple thousand students being curious enough to jump down the rabbit hole (a really cool "hacked" presentation that the game character gave to each of the first year Info Lit course classes).

However, we did get a few players at the first live event (noted by info in the presentation). Well, five, one of which was a freshman. At that point we started seeding the first puzzle phase, which was basically just "get the name of a book, find the book in the library, get the clue". We additionally tried to individualise these pieces and encourage communication between players by giving each player separate information - at this point, we'd had a few more eyes-on due to a game character posting a plea on Blackboard, the university's online organisation system, so we tried to rope those guys in by giving them something to do.

And then at some point everyone just stopped playing. Our 5 players, one of which at some point actively tried to brute force the puzzles, just didn't say a word for a week.

At this point, validity became a worry, so we attempted to target the freshman Multimedia students by claiming that another university site had been hacked, which pointed them to the game site, which we replaced with a counter for this pastTuesday. This was essentially another rabbit hole for a specific group that we felt might be more "curious" about goings on.

And then, obviously, none of those targets showed up on Tuesday, and we were left with 4 players - 2 of our initial active group, and two people one player literally dragged along. The freshman player wasn't even involved anymore. At which point we decided to call it, because it wasn't academically valid anymore, and my supervisor said we could use this current incarnation as a pilot study for the game proper that we can hopefully run at the start of next year.

So now I have a few months of downtime with a mostly developed ARG, and I've decided to spend it doing a LOT of case study reading regarding educational stuff, as well as reaching out as best I can to any and all designers just to get their perspectives on a few things, which I'll get to in a moment.

First and foremost, here's a rundown of the game in terms of what the players do:

  • Rabbit Hole: Needs to be redesigned
  • Phase 1: Players get book names, find books, find pieces of a photo. The photo shows a man, and a time and date for Live Event 1.
  • LE1: The players get a phone call from a game character with exposition (reward for P1, another hook for new players)
  • Phase 2: The players get ISBN's, which translate to book names, which lead them to Beale Ciphers. Beale Ciphers lead to other book names. More clues, live event 2. Note this is a bit more multi-layered than P1, but exercises searching + contextual understanding.
  • LE2: The players get another phonecall, telling them to go, vaguely, to 5 places. At those five places are pages with wholes cut out. When placed over the indicated book, they reveal characteristics of the man on the phone, and another location. When they go to the location, they see a man looking for something in an office, and then disappearing.
  • Phase 3: The players find a secret diary entry of a man needing to complete the research of the disappearing man (Diary Man). They are given the opportunity to uncover more clues by submitting journal references to this man (so, basically, testing referencing). These clues are audio logs from the disappearing man talking about his research (narrative stuff). The last one gives them a time and date for LE3.
  • LE3: Another frantic phonecall from Disappearing Man telling them to go back to the place it all began. When they get there, there is a wall full of photos. Some stand out. After deciphering where the standout photos point to, they find a  cassette player congratulating and thanking them from Diary Man, telling them the photos are they key to saving Disappearing Man.
  • Phase 4: The players are presented with a timeline, and need to order the photos by date based on their content, so contextual searching. Upon completing this, players get clues for locations that contain QR codes, and scanning the QR code helps to unlock a message, as well as the date and time of the last LE.
  • LE4: The players are presented with a mismatched journal of the game's events, which they need to order again. This LE is supposed to be a bit more intrinsically rewarding because they get to relive the game's events so far. Once complete, they need to write the unlocked message from Phase 4 (I Remember You) somewhere in the journal, at which point cool narrative stuff happens and the game ends.


So, what do I need from you guys? Well, I really just want to stimulate discussion regarding how we can go about things in the final study. The pilot was a failure because players didn't even really finish the puzzles for Phase 1 (They didn't complete the photo, so we had to force LE1's time and date and place via the "MM rabbithole", at which point we pulled the plug before making the phone call), so how do we make the next iteration better?

Some questions:

  • How important is TINAG, specifically in an educational context? What are your experiences? Most entertainment ARGs stick to it pretty religiously so we tried to in the pilot here. However, persuasive and educational ones seem to concede TINAG. Why? Jane McGonigal had a brief Twitter discussion with me yesterday where she said she feels TINAG is not really important, and it seems like TINAG is never really explicitly mentioned in the literature (or, rather, its merits of use it or don't), but whenever someone mentions an ARG, TINAG is mentioned in the same breath.
  • Are there any holes in the general flow you can see? Any cool exercises I could perhaps add?
  • Any great academic work or examples you can point me to? I've read a lot, but you can never read enough here (I've actually read Randall's giant thesis, I think, in developing a history based ARG)
  • Anything you'd like to ask or suggest?


Any discussion surrounding this thing would get my wheels turning, so I'd really appreciate it.

Thanks for reading guys!

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Adam,

I held an educational ARG for computer science education about an year ago. In my ARG, I held to the TINAG aesthetic and it was a central design choice of the game. However, in my case, the ARG was not part of a course and therefore keeping with the TINAG was probably easier. I have written an article about the ARG that is currently in press but not published yet, and I also discuss the TINAG aspect in the article. If you are interested in it (before it's published), send me a private message. If you want to know more about the ARG and maybe get some ideas that way, you can check its blog: http://stoptoilworndiamond.blogspot.com and the discussion thread in Unfiction: http://forums.unfiction.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=37576

If you want to read more, you can also check this paper that briefly introduces the ARG and discusses about using ARGs in computer science education: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2526973

BR,
- Lasse

You ever think of using http://arisgames.org/ to design an ARG app employing GPS and QR codes and such?

I'd never heard of it until you pointed it out. I'll definitely have a look as it since we're looking at developing more "gameful" interactions for the next iteration.I just wish it wasn't iOS only, as here in ZA Android or Android-based OS's are more common :(

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