(Flickr/Nick Thompson)
(Flickr/Nick Thompson)

How would Homer have told the story of The Odyssey as a game? What would participatory learning look like in ancient times? Learning about the lessons raised in classics like The Odyssey is getting a fresh perspective thanks to several educators who have started experimenting with how alternate reality games (ARGs) can be used as an immersive learning system that combines rich narrative, digital technology, and real-world game play.

John Fallon, a Fairfield Country Day School teacher and game enthusiast, brings game-based learning to The Odyssey with a game he designed called Dolus: Finding the Journal of Odysseus. Many educators today struggle to keep the classics relevant for a generation reared in the fast paced world of Internet and video games, and Fallon’s game bridges the classical past with the digital future for his seventh grade English students. Rather than merely reading about the adventures of Odysseus in English class, students can walk a mile in his shoes by channeling the skillset of the Greek hero who masterminded the Trojan Horse and outwitted the Cyclops. Students must exercise critical thinking, resilience, and creative problem solving to succeed in an ARG.

The idea came to Fallon while playing The Secret World, a video game that incorporates real-world browser searches to help solve puzzles. “It all hit me at once,” remembered Fallon. “The portability of cross-media ARG puzzles, the use of real world information in a fictional game world, and the ancient Siren-song of puzzle solving. Immediately, the game about the crafty thief who stole the journal of Odysseus was born.”

Courtesy of John Fallon
A screen grab of the fictitious BBC story used in John Fallon’s Dolus ARG. (Courtesy of John Fallon)

Fallon drew his students into the game’s narrative with a bogus BBC News story about the theft of recently discovered ancient Greek manuscripts. A riddle concealed within the article led players to master-thief Dolus, who challenged them to follow his trail of clues and re-assemble the lost journal of Odysseus. Clues and puzzles were distributed across QR codes, password protected videos, PDF files, and a variety of web 2.0 tools. He also enlisted his school’s IT department and fellow teachers to help deliver hints in a variety of unexpected ways. One puzzle required finding a Freemason symbol, which a few perceptive players discovered pinned to the lapel of their History teacher, a practicing Mason. Once they gave him the correct password and passed a quick test on Masonic iconography, they received a key to help them unscramble a cipher that unlocked the next step.

Sticking to the “this is not a game” ethos common to ARGs, Fallon feigned ignorance and never admitted to know anything about the month-long caper. “Students had to identify, research, and master a variety of different codes and ciphers. They had to parse difficult riddles – with no guidance from me – and solve multiple phase problems and then synthesize their findings to succeed,” said Fallon.

This type of elaborate puzzle solving is standard fare for mainstream ARGs. Originating in the early 1990s, ARGs are designed and run by development teams called “puppet masters” who combine the digital and the real to deliver intricate narratives that blur the line between reality and fiction. Players enjoy a great deal of agency as they solve elaborate puzzles while they negotiate a world of phony websites and documents, midnight phone calls, and park bench envelope exchanges, to name a few of the tactics that can make these games indistinguishable from everyday life.

Educational versions tend to be scaled down to accommodate specific learning objectives and operate safely within a school setting. Fallon’s model shows that any motivated teacher can design and run their own ARG without programming skills, specialized technical knowledge or a big budget. This is assisted by the availability of free or inexpensive user-friendly, web-based tools, and digital software. The modular nature of ARGs also lets educators decide how simple or complex they want to make their game, and allows them to choose elements that best suit their unique circumstances.

Alternate Reality’s Impact on Real Life

While they can be played from elementary school to college, most existing educational examples are found in middle schools. “It’s a developmental period of transition where kids begin to build and exercise critical thinking skills,” said Dr. Tanner Higgin, who helped produce the United Colonies ARG. “They are still relatively untainted by the social pressures and inhibitions that set in with growing older and they are also less entrenched/acclimated to the traditional school model.”

Despite the paucity of studies specific to educational ARGs, this new learning system combines three ingredients whose benefits are supported by a growing body of research: game-based learning, embodied learning and the use of transmedia in education. Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, draws one distinction between video games and ARGs:

Historically, in fact, most ARGs, like most computer and video games, have been designed simply to be fun and emotionally satisfying. But my research shows that because ARGs are played in real-world contexts, instead of in virtual spaces, they almost always have at least the side effect of improving our real lives.

ARGs are not for everybody, but Fallon noted that students who were not typically motivated in his class kicked into high gear, some laboring into the wee hours at home to untangle a conundrum. To succeed in Dolus, students had to inhere the very qualities that helped the cunning Odysseus to prevail on his journey. “Odysseus is mortal and without superpowers but, above all, he’s a tenacious problem solver,” explained Fallon. “He is put into seemingly impossible situations and, through sheer human ingenuity and persistence, he finds a way out.”

Students wrote their own creative adaptations of The Odyssey to conclude the unit. Fallon noticed a substantial improvement in the quality of the work over past more traditional deliveries of the lesson. “They did a better job of making their individual versions of Odysseus more clever and better problem solvers rather than just a cardboard cutout hero who bashes his way through problems. This likely stems from having experienced some difficult problem solving of their own in similar circumstances.”

Empathy for Injustice

The multidisciplinary potential for these games ranges far beyond English class, as their narrative and content can be tailored to accommodate a broad rang of subjects and learning outcomes.

“Any situated learning experience can most definitely promote learning better than traditional pedagogical strategies and there’s some good research to support the benefits,” said Randall Fujimoto, an instructional designer and former video game developer who founded GameTrain Learning, a not-for-profit that helps schools implement game-based learning initiatives. Inspired by The Beast, a sci-fi whodunit ARG designed to promote the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Fujimoto felt that the dynamic and embodied gameplay could make a potent learning tool.

Fujimoto was so enthralled with the idea that he decided to focus on how ARGs could be used in the classroom for his masters thesis, ultimately developing a game focused on the Japanese experience of internment camps during World War II. In Arising from Injustice, students are contacted to investigate why Dr. Alice Sasaki had been found unconscious in her lab. To wake her from her coma, players must access her high-tech Memory History Cognition device and reconstruct her memories as a Japanese American in the 1940s. In ARG parlance, this is known as the rabbit hole – the initial event or clue that pulls players into the game world.

The modular, web-based narrative relays the story of the Japanese Americans with eclectic historical documents and media, including pictures, letters, journals, videos and audio. In classic ARG style, players progress from Pearl Harbor to post-war resettlement by solving puzzles, following clues, and carrying out assignments and sharing their findings on a group discussion board. The game was designed to service a wide range of age groups and was trialed by eighth graders at Tomodachi Gakko, a summer camp whose focus on Japanese American heritage fit well with the game’s theme.

Arising from Injustice embeds clear learning objectives within the narrative. Players evaluate and analyze primary documents to determine the social conditions that precipitated prejudice and discrimination against Japanese Americans. They also hone their media literacy skills by synthesizing their learning in collaborative media projects where they support their research with primary sources. All of these fit with Common Core standards, and post-game surveys indicated that players were not only engaged, but that the intended learning outcomes were achieved.

But perhaps the most important lesson learned was one of empathy.

“The game puts players in a situated learning environment where they must interact and empathize with various characters in order to succeed,” said Fujimoto. While playing Arising from Injustice, students experienced the hardships and discriminations suffered by Japanese Americans through the eyes of the victim. One player reported that “you could really put yourself in Alice’s shoes,” highlighting the game’s capacity to emotionally connect players to their subject. Dr. Mary Flanagan and Jonathan Belman’s research supports that games can be designed to foster empathy, a quality that not only produces better human beings, but also better learners.

The Anytime, Anywhere World of United Colonies

One fall morning, sixth grade students from the PlayMaker School in Santa Monica were surprised to find a mysterious note labeled “UV got a message” in their lockers. A few students eventually connected it to an ultraviolet bulb that had appeared in their classroom and, when the note was placed under the UV light, a secret set of instructions was revealed.

The UV message from the United Colonies game.
The UV message from the United Colonies game.

For the rest of the school year, the United Colonies ARG led players along an elaborate trail of clues that included books with hidden compartments, alien codes, meteors inscribed with cuneiforms, and even a bacon puzzle. Not tied to any one class or subject, but drawing from many, the game added an extracurricular layer that extended beyond the classroom. “The ARG made school an anytime, anywhere experience, a thread running between and within classes and carrying through to home,” said designer Mike Minadeo, the game’s creator.

Participation in the game was entirely voluntary and outcomes were not attached to grades or points. “Students self-selected to be involved and were driven purely by interest, curiosity, and excitement of the unknown to figure things out together,” said Higgin, who was lead researcher at GameDesk when he worked with Minadeo to develop United Colonies.

Any object in their midst might be a code, a message or the start of a puzzle, so their learning environment was transformed into a spatial text that was alive with possibilities. The school’s neglected online discussion board was reinvigorated as game-related updates and information were actively exchanged. Students crafted their own riddles, and even started a club for designing ARGs, an important shift from students consuming games to creating them.

Students were clearly engaged, but what did they learn?

“The United Colonies ARG explored how learning opportunities could be presented through a transmedia platform that inspired associative learning, gritty persistence, cross-disciplinary thinking, and critical analysis,” Minadeo said. The creators found academic support in Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth’s work on grit and a scholarly article from MIT press that identifies seven core literacies delivered by ARGs: gather, make sense, manage, solve, create, respect and collaborate. In an effort to make the project available to teachers, the game designers posted a detailed lesson plan to GameDesk’s Educade site, outlining how the game fulfills specific learning outcomes and Common Core standards.

A Rethinking of Roles

Some educators are convinced that alternate reality games have huge potential to invigorate learning environments, but they face some implementation challenges. Administrators operating in a risk-averse climate of national standards and testing want to see clearly defined learning outcomes and assessment strategies to accompany any new teaching strategy. ARGs also take time to plan and ask that teachers think differently about how they delivery their instructional material.

Good ARGs are often custom crafted to specific classrooms and schools, making them difficult to transfer into new environments, Fallon said. Further study, experimentation, dedicated technology and user-friendly ARG designs will not only help overcome hurdles, but also open the door for other dynamic, immersive games that combine digital media and reality. ARGs may also occasion a rethinking of the roles of teachers and schools.

United Colonies is a product of the collaboration between educators and game designers; a model espoused by schools like Quest to Learn in New York City and CICS ChicagoQuest in Chicago. These charters might be forecasting a future where game and learning environment designers become standard personnel who work in conjunction with teachers in schools and districts, making initiatives like ARGs more feasible.

The discovery of this Freemasons pin helped students unlock the next phase of the Dolus game. (Courtesy of John Fallon)
The discovery of this Freemasons pin helped students unlock the next phase of the Dolus game.(Courtesy of John Fallon)

Alternately, John Fallon is a model of the autonomous teacher-designer, who relies more on holistic creativity and resourcefulness than specialized knowledge. Teachers may welcome the opportunity to engage their students and invigorate their practice with a unique creative outlet. Perhaps they need only take a page from Odysseus’s book and, like their students, push the creative boundaries, problem solve and overcome adversity with resilience.

Author

Paul Darvasi

Paul Darvasi is an experienced educator whose research, speaking and writing explore the intersections of games, narrative, technology and learning.

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