ARGs and the Classroom

I attended the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association last week. It was fortuitous, maybe, to have this week’s James Paul Gee reading on the potential of video games as pedagogical tools, as I had the opportunity to attend several Internet and Video Games panels. One panel in particular made me reflect back to this course, and instead of just doing a gloss of the readings and the websites I’ve visited, I want to use my post to discuss the ideas I encountered in this panel.

J. James Bono, from the University of Pittsburgh, presented a paper called “Playing with Disaster:  Serious Games, Alternate Realities,and Atlantic Storm.” This paper brought up the pedagogical possibilities of something I’d never heard of– Alternative Reality Games. These are a new development, a web-based type of game that is without a single platform– the game is outside, it’s in the minds of the participants, it’s essentially research-as-gaming. Players find clues and put together remarkably difficult puzzles cooperatively, in a “game” the elements of which could be anywhere– on any website, in the form of an SMS text message, even in that dreaded IRL world. For those of you unfamiliar, as I was, with the idea of Alternative Reality Games, or ARGs,as I was, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia article linked above– it gives a good sense of what ARGs are, and how they work, and it’s pretty well-written for a Wikipedia article.

Another presenter, Angela Colvert, of the University of London, discussed a project she undertook with two primary school classes she taught: she assigned her fifth grade students to create an ARG, specifically targeted at the fourth grade students she also taught.  While the project was, due to the students’ ages, a rather simplistic project about an alligator who lives in the London Sewers, the project immediately suggested a whole set of ideas in my mind– what if an assignment for grad students in CLIO was to design an ARG for students in an undergrad course, one based on an actual historical event or mystery? One class would acquire an invaluable set of skills based in information design, and the other could finding new approaches to research– in an environment of a “game,” which whether we’re gamers or not, is often more fun and engrossing than reading a textbook and memorizing dates.

The final paper in the panel that related to this class– I’m excluding a wonderful piece about the Japanese aesthetic principle of mono no aware in the Nintendo video game Pikmin 2, because it simply doesn’t apply– was by Terence Brunk of Columbia College.  While his paper was actually an analysis of the narratological principles that can be seen in two “serious” online games– the type of game that is created specifically with the social consciousnessof its player in mind.

This paper really brought home the potential of ARGs as opposed to more traditional video games– no matter how many options you present a player, video games are essentially goal-oriented and thus fairly linear. Eventually in the process of game design, you have to decide that the player must complete Level 1 before entering Level 2. While they’re interactive, video games still have much the same linearity of text. And this is reinforced by their very nature: they’re pre-produced, complete worlds. Add-ons like they have for the Sims or when they add new areas to an MMORPG are limited fixes, and must follow the rules previously established.

The role of the “puppet master,” the person who essentially creates and maintains the ARG, often modifying the next step, puzzle, clue, or plant based on previous outcomes, is in many ways essentially very similar to the role of an excellent educator– they challenge their subjects, altering results to outcomes, constantly pushing the problem further. I think it could be a really useful tool for this reason.

12 thoughts on “ARGs and the Classroom

  1. I tried to play Myst again this week and I wanted to hit that little girl…what a pain in the a$#. I work with children so this doesn bode well for me…

  2. I tried to play Myst again this week and I wanted to hit that little girl…what a pain in the a$#. I work with children so this doesn bode well for me…

  3. To me, the idea of using a video “game” to educate our youth –or anyone for that matter– is off-putting, to put it mildly. I just don’t think learning has to be “fun,” or even that it should be. What’s wrong with reading texts and memorizing dates? I think America’s schools could probably stand a bit more of that, given how often we have statistics and examples thrown at us about how little Americans actually know about the world and history. I do, however, believe there is a time and a place for “fun” learning. (And just pure fun of course.) Sure, educational video games could be helpful in creating an entry-point to some tough, otherwise abstruse topics. Museums are a great place for this. But, as I said in my blog, I don’t think interactivity is always a good thing. I don’t always like to be lead down a path and then forced to explore some topic. I would prefer to go where I want and read what I want, depending on what interests me. I suppose for students, being told what to read and what to investigate is not an abnormal thing, so maybe in an explicitly educational setting, educational interactivity and video games could be okay, sometimes. Otherwise, I’m not so sure.

  4. To me, the idea of using a video “game” to educate our youth –or anyone for that matter– is off-putting, to put it mildly. I just don’t think learning has to be “fun,” or even that it should be. What’s wrong with reading texts and memorizing dates? I think America’s schools could probably stand a bit more of that, given how often we have statistics and examples thrown at us about how little Americans actually know about the world and history. I do, however, believe there is a time and a place for “fun” learning. (And just pure fun of course.) Sure, educational video games could be helpful in creating an entry-point to some tough, otherwise abstruse topics. Museums are a great place for this. But, as I said in my blog, I don’t think interactivity is always a good thing. I don’t always like to be lead down a path and then forced to explore some topic. I would prefer to go where I want and read what I want, depending on what interests me. I suppose for students, being told what to read and what to investigate is not an abnormal thing, so maybe in an explicitly educational setting, educational interactivity and video games could be okay, sometimes. Otherwise, I’m not so sure.

  5. Tad

    What’s wrong with reading texts and memorizing dates?

    Well, it’s no way to give a student critical thinking skills. And personally, I think that’s a key element of why history is in school curriculum– humanities classes, when well done, encourage critical thinking and civic engagement.

    As for going where you want and doing what you want, personally I think that’s just not a right students have. I think guided research is the best method for transmitting both deep knowledge and research skills that pertain to history, but just letting students loose in a library? Very few are going to come back with anything.

    There’s a lot of interactivity in traditional education, if you look for it. Think about seminar-style discussions and essay tests.

  6. Tad

    What’s wrong with reading texts and memorizing dates?

    Well, it’s no way to give a student critical thinking skills. And personally, I think that’s a key element of why history is in school curriculum– humanities classes, when well done, encourage critical thinking and civic engagement.

    As for going where you want and doing what you want, personally I think that’s just not a right students have. I think guided research is the best method for transmitting both deep knowledge and research skills that pertain to history, but just letting students loose in a library? Very few are going to come back with anything.

    There’s a lot of interactivity in traditional education, if you look for it. Think about seminar-style discussions and essay tests.

  7. I agree with you Tad. See what I wrote on Maureen’s blog, I continued my commenting train-of-thought there. I think critical thinking skills are Very Important, but I don’t think that they are appropriate for every age. I think you need a foundation first–frankly, I feel that is an education that I missed somewhere along the way. Prime example is being asked to write an essay without ever having learned what an essay was. And, I guess since I’m not a student, though I happen to be taking a class, I do what to go where I want and do what I want. I will be guided –that is why I’m in the class. But, again, there is an age-appropriateness here. In college, I believe we are making that transition, or maybe today we’re making it even earlier, though I would probably argue we shouldn’t do too much too soon. Graduate school is where you are really trained and allowed and encouraged to do your own thing. And, actually, I remember being turned loose in a library quite often, with some instruction, say to find a biography about someone interesting. Seminar-style classes I, for the most part, have found disappointing. Some professors are certainly better than others at guiding and directing the discussion, but I believe their guidance is the key element here. And, again, to reiterate, this is all very different depending if you’re talking about high school, college, or graduate school. I’m not against all interactivity, I just don’t want it forced down my throat, which was the implication in the “Participation Inequality” article.

  8. I agree with you Tad. See what I wrote on Maureen’s blog, I continued my commenting train-of-thought there. I think critical thinking skills are Very Important, but I don’t think that they are appropriate for every age. I think you need a foundation first–frankly, I feel that is an education that I missed somewhere along the way. Prime example is being asked to write an essay without ever having learned what an essay was. And, I guess since I’m not a student, though I happen to be taking a class, I do what to go where I want and do what I want. I will be guided –that is why I’m in the class. But, again, there is an age-appropriateness here. In college, I believe we are making that transition, or maybe today we’re making it even earlier, though I would probably argue we shouldn’t do too much too soon. Graduate school is where you are really trained and allowed and encouraged to do your own thing. And, actually, I remember being turned loose in a library quite often, with some instruction, say to find a biography about someone interesting. Seminar-style classes I, for the most part, have found disappointing. Some professors are certainly better than others at guiding and directing the discussion, but I believe their guidance is the key element here. And, again, to reiterate, this is all very different depending if you’re talking about high school, college, or graduate school. I’m not against all interactivity, I just don’t want it forced down my throat, which was the implication in the “Participation Inequality” article.

  9. Bill

    Tad, thanks for reporting on the conference. Very timely! ARGs are very familiar to me, as we use the concept in a big way in the Pentagon to explore future military capabilities and try out different strategies. I’ve run several joint wargames (pretty much as a puppetmaster) to understand what capabilities the US needs to develop, and “behind the curtain” are people we call the “white cell” (while the red and blue cells fight each other). Some games start in the current world, some start with fictitious events in the future. Some use a lot of multimedia, some none.

    great report–thanks,

    Bill

  10. Bill

    Tad, thanks for reporting on the conference. Very timely! ARGs are very familiar to me, as we use the concept in a big way in the Pentagon to explore future military capabilities and try out different strategies. I’ve run several joint wargames (pretty much as a puppetmaster) to understand what capabilities the US needs to develop, and “behind the curtain” are people we call the “white cell” (while the red and blue cells fight each other). Some games start in the current world, some start with fictitious events in the future. Some use a lot of multimedia, some none.

    great report–thanks,

    Bill

  11. Thanks for your comments! I’m interested to hear if you’ve found a way to incorporate ARGs into your classes? Also, have you looked at World Without Oil? It was a game put on by the Institute for the Future which deals with peak oil. Outside of its civic component, the game is one of the few ARGs that are scalable and “replayable” to an extent. It also has an explicitly educational component and reaches out to teachers by providing lesson plans and course materials.

    http://www.worldwithoutoil.org

  12. Thanks for your comments! I’m interested to hear if you’ve found a way to incorporate ARGs into your classes? Also, have you looked at World Without Oil? It was a game put on by the Institute for the Future which deals with peak oil. Outside of its civic component, the game is one of the few ARGs that are scalable and “replayable” to an extent. It also has an explicitly educational component and reaches out to teachers by providing lesson plans and course materials.

    http://www.worldwithoutoil.org

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