#5: Riddle Me This, Part II – Cracking the Code

In the last post, we looked at how the rabbit hole led to a small riddle. That riddle led to a video ending with the following puzzle:

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Cue “Jeopardy” theme

(If you want to figure this out yourself, stop reading! The breakdown of the puzzle design and answer continues below.)

This is obviously a riddle even if the answer is not immediately clear. Where this differs from your average ARG out in the wild is in the familiar “riddle” phrasing; it immediately lets the students know there is something to solve here and some piece of hidden information they need to discover. “Wild” ARGs usually plant the mystery among a variety of other seemingly innocuous information, and the players work together to first filter the signal from the noise and then begin cracking the puzzle once they figure out what it is.

This riddle uses the most elementary of ciphers: the Caesar cipher. It is as simple as encoding gets: all the letters in the encoded phrase are substituted or “shifted” for another letter; if it was a “shift” of “3” then A would be encoded as D, since it is 3 spots down the alphabet. Therefore, you need only two things to crack a Caesar cipher: the knowledge that it is, indeed, a Caesar cipher, and how many times it’s been shifted. If you know that number, then you have the key.

The first sentence nudges the students toward this knowledge. Aeneas founded Rome, which leads to Julius Caesar, and the word “to” has been swapped with a big, bold red “2” to draw their attention that it is a shift of two. At this point, the student is well on their way to solving the riddle since it will be trivial to decipher the scrambled second line once they connect those dots. So, let’s skip down to the third line, since that actually lets them know what they need since, as you’ll see, the unscrambled second line isn’t the answer itself.

“STANDARD” is in all caps – obviously important – and Dolus has let them know he is looking for a “number”, but which one? It apparently has to do with “books” and every book has “2” of these numbers (emphasized again as another clue for the Caesar cipher’s key). A little sleuthing around and students eventually stumble across the International Standard Book Number. Each book has a 13 digit one and a 10 digit one, and clearly Dolus wants the “smaller” of the two, so 10 digits it is. But which book? Back to the scrambled second line.

Running the phrase through any Caesar cipher decryption tool (with a shift of “2”) gives the students: “Edith Hamilton Mythology Hardcover 1976”. A quick search to Amazon or elsewhere will give you the number Dolus is looking for: 0848810376. In the past iterations, students would email that answer to Dolus, using the email address they discovered, and he would answer with the next puzzle in the game. One of my projects this year is to modify the game to make more use of password protected files and videos. In this case, Dolus will send them a password locked folder along with the introductory video, and the password to the folder will be the ISBN number. Once they find the ISBN they can continue the game without my direct involvement. Managing the responses and guesses of students becomes very taxing when you are relying on email. It also can cause students to lose momentum as they have to wait to see if they’re right.

Why Codes and Ciphers?

The foundation of many ARG puzzles are codes and ciphers. These not only offer intriguing and challenging critical thinking exercises (and often a lot of math, to boot)  but they help avoid a critical design flaw: false negatives. A false negative – getting or making progress towards the right answer but not realizing it – is perhaps the worst case scenario for an ARG puzzle. If a student began to correctly solve a puzzle but did not receive clear or immediate feedback that they did so, the game’s puzzles could feel arbitrary, or even impossible.  In my experience, students do not mind spending hours failing, but progressing, to crack a puzzle (in fact, they often love it!). However, if they were to invest significant time into a puzzle only to later realize they had abandoned the right solution hours ago, it could be a fatal blow to their motivation and engagement. Codes and ciphers, however, instantly and accurately indicate success. Once you solve a code based puzzle, the answer wholly, or in part, reveals itself. Even if they haven’t solved the entire puzzle, a crucial sense of progression is achieved. As a result, they are the bread and butter of many ARG puzzles.

One of the best resources on designing puzzles for ARGs – especially those using codes and ciphers – is this fantastic article by Adam Foster. Adam was the brain behind a very successful ARG to help promote the launch of Valve’s Portal 2 video game. He does an amazing job breaking down the logic and DNA of a good ARG puzzle and I highly recommend you read it before you start designing your own puzzles.

Let’s look at another puzzle I created for later on in the game that makes use of some more tried and true ARG mechanics.

In this particular puzzle I chose to use a book cipher because it would potentially involve the physical medium of an actual book (more mediums means more immersion), and I found an easily accessible example of the cipher’s use in the Sherlock Holmes novel: The Valley of Fear. In fact, I decided to weave the novel directly into the clue.

I used the free text to video site, xtranormal, to create another video clue (it looks like xtranormal is back from its long absence, now rebranded as nawmal.com, but isn’t available for education/free users yet). It uses a combination of preset animations and a voice synthesizer for text to speech. I used xtranormal to save time compared to doing another custom video in iMovie, but as I said before, it helped augment the pervasiveness of the game: the more mediums and formats the games incorporates, the better. It also added to the narrative, which played into Dolus’ character as the mysterious thief that can be anywhere, at any time, in any form. The clue itself was spoken in the video but the key text was also copied in the video description to make it easier for students to reference as they worked to solve it.

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Dolus taunts his challengers

Like most ARG puzzles, and the previous one, it is multi-step and centers around the identification and decoding of a cipher, in this case a book cipher.

In Dolus’ video clue he directly references The Valley of Fear which forces the student, at the very least, to find out what that is and likely end up at the Wikipedia entry. From there (or the novel itself) the students will realize that the “method” Sherlock Holmes used was a book cipher. Modeling their strategy after Sherlock’s (and likely with some help from the Wikipedia page), they will realize they need three things: a particular book, a specific page in that book, and specific words on that page. The book they need, the “key”, is their classroom copy of The Odyssey, identified by its ISBN 1591940427, hence it being “close at hand”, and the page in question is 108 (This is also a callback to the earlier puzzle involving ISBNs).

But what of the seemingly random series of numbers? If they execute the cipher correctly, they discover that each number refers to a word on the page, e.g. 220 is the 220th word on page 108. Once compiled correctly (they will realize if they’re doing it right very quickly because a sentence will begin to form – no false negatives!), they will see they are being asked to email Dolus the name of Odysseus’ father, something that memory or a quick search will remind them is “Laertes”. Once that name is emailed to Dolus, the next puzzle begins. Again, a planned reform for this iteration is to have a locked file or website that will be unlocked once “Laertes” is punched in.

As you can see in the wording of this puzzle, the hints have been mostly stripped out: no bold letters, no capitalized words. This puzzle appears later in the game, and the “difficulty level” has been increased accordingly. They know by now they need to parse every word and examine every meaning of each word. Every piece of the clue must be interpreted and cannot be ignored. A synthesis of multiple elements must be achieved to complete the puzzle. This type of synthetic puzzle solving is a crucial form of 21st century critical thinking. The internet puts a deluge of data at our fingertips; the hard part is figuring out what you need, when you need it, and why. This type of critical thinking challenge is exactly why I love using this type of game based learning in my classroom and it is exactly the type of challenge they love to bang their head against. It is also the type of creative problem solving that our students will need in the decades ahead. Even more, it is exactly the type of cleverness that saw Odysseus out of the Cyclops’ cave and helped him persevere on his journey home to Ithaca.

In the next post, Space Invaders, we will examine how ARGs can instantly transform the players’ mundane environment into the fantastic.

#4: Making an ARG: Riddle Me This

Riddles, puzzles, and ciphers are the bread and butter of most ARG’s. There are a few reasons for this (which I will go into detail about in subsequent posts), but for now let’s just focus on how the rabbit hole employed a simple one to introduce the game’s narrative and get their brains working.

Early on I decided that the core narrative of the game would be relatively simple but hopefully engaging: a priceless document, the “journal of Odysseus”, is stolen by a mysterious thief and he is challenging the students, a la The Riddler, to solve his puzzles in order to get them back. To initiate this narrative, the BBC article is written as authentically as possible but does immediately drop some clues that Something Is Strange: the befuddled archaeologist mentioned in the article is named Dr Henry Jones III, for example. 

A few thoughts about narrative – it’s really important! The most engaging experiences we have are emotional ones and games are no exception. A good story immediately frames an activity with meaning, even a simple one. To me, that is the heart of game based learning: you allow students to add their own meaning to their own learning. Don’t be discouraged! You don’t need to have the narrative chops of a professional fiction writer to draw your students into an ARG. A little narrative goes a long way.

For Dolus, the narrative is mainly introduced through the fake BBC article and it is your textbook heist: something stolen and only you can get it back! The article quotes a mysterious note containing a riddle which begins the hunt; the riddle is worded to explicitly reference an element of my school’s culture in order to draw their attention.

“DOLUS resides in fair fields where crusaders roam. Send a digital hello to me there and we can begin our game. Only those whose blood is blue and white can get the journal back.”

Nearly all students immediately realize this strange note somehow has a connection to the school, and to them. To further emphasize the connection, the school colors, blue and white, and mascot, the crusader, are mentioned. This is the moment where the game world and the real world begin to blur. You can also already see the singular nature of many ARGs, especially those made for the classroom. They are not easy to simply “transplant”. They require a lot of customization to the specific school environment, but I assure you they are worth the time and effort!

I have changed the wording of this riddle a few times; it initially involved hunting for a specific website about the origin of Dolus: the Greek god of trickery. But I found it was a bit too early to involve ARG mechanics that required a lot of investigating since it is a brand new type of gameplay to them. This riddle has been pared down and simply requires them to figure out that they need to email Dolus, who is waiting for them at a school email address created specifically for the game. I have found this to be a fairly typical progression for my puzzle design. Ideally, you want to find that “sweet spot” of difficulty: hard enough to make them sweat but not so intimidating that they give up completely. There are a few ways to approach this problem and in a later post I will address them in detail. But I have found, at first, that it’s better to err on the side of being more difficult than vice versa, since you can always give hints to help them progress.

Compared to the types of ARGs found in the corners of the internet, Dolus was designed to deploy comparatively obvious hints and clues, especially in the early game, since this is a genre of game that few, if any, of the students are familiar with. Even then, some students needed a rather significant nudge to read closer and realize there was a riddle to be solved; this is not surprising since ARGs go to significant lengths to pose as not a game! The riddle eventually leads the students to a fake, but functional, school email address that was set up with the help of my school’s IT department (this was both for immersive effect and to keep all game communications within the school network). Once that email is contacted, the student is immediately sent a “welcome video” hosted on an unlisted Youtube video which sets up the antagonist, lays out the basic “plot”, adds some more narrative flavor, and offers up the next puzzle.

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Dolus introduces himself

This was relatively easy to make. Armed with my Macbook, a script, Apple’s iMovie, and a quick Youtube tutorial on how to use the free program Audacity to scramble my voice, I laid down an audio track of Dolus introducing himself. In addition to the audio track, I inserted a few relevant images into iMovie (including the puzzle text which was taken from screenshots in Pages; iMovie does not handle large amounts of text well on its own) and uploaded it to a private channel on Youtube, under an account made specifically for this game. In the next version, I plan on spicing it up by replacing some of the flavor images with relevant video clips, but again, start small. You can add more detail and depth as you improve the game each year. It is much better to design something that is simple but fully functioning than something more detailed that might not work the way you intend, or at all.

iMovie is a great program to use since it mostly relies on simple drag and drop mechanics. I dropped relevant pictures and text into the program and then laid the mp3 recording (scrambled in Audacity) on top of those images. It is then a simple process of making the timing of the pictures match the content in the audio recording. The most recent version of iMovie even has an option to directly upload finished videos to different websites, including Vimeo and Youtube, making the process even easier. If you don’t want/need to scramble your voice, iMovie also has a built in feature to add a voiceover. But be sure to make a script and do several takes!

The welcome video ends with the first official puzzle and the hunt begins!

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Dolus hands out his first riddle

If you have comments/questions, feel free to drop a comment below, or tweet at me at @johnCfallon

In the next post, Riddle Me This Part II, we will look at how this basic ARG style puzzle works and how the students use it to progress in the game.

#3: Making an ARG: Down the Rabbit Hole

The most intimidating factor in creating an ARG is that you are immediately confronted with a nearly overwhelming number of choices. However, that is also the genre’s greatest strength, as you have a nearly unlimited palette of tools to create your puzzles, very few of which require any type of expert design knowledge. The first piece of advice for ARG puzzle creation is: steal! Start paying attention to puzzles and problem solving in your favorite games (especially other ARGs if you play them), movies, books, and TV shows (the mystery genre is particularly ripe for the picking). Ask yourself, “could this puzzle solving experience exist on its own or in another format?” Any challenge or puzzle that connects to your lesson outcomes or the skills you want your students to focus on can potentially be used. Using the scaffold of pre-existing puzzles will not only help you get started, but will help you branch out and create your own once you see how they work in an ARG. I find it easier to design chronologically, so I started at the first puzzle for Dolus and worked from there.

The first puzzle in any ARG is what is referred to as “The Rabbit Hole”. Like Alice in Wonderland, this is the first step into the fictional universe of the game. This is where the “this is not a game” ethos first presents itself and “rabbit holes” are usually designed to create a feeling that the player has accidentally stumbled onto a hidden reality heretofore unknown to them. The multimedia element of the game synergizes perfectly with this: suddenly the game world is everywhere, if you’re looking in the right place.

The Rabbit Hole is the door into the ARG universe and the introduction to the game itself. A common way to create a “rabbit hole” is to use a popular mechanism of ARGs: the “false document”. False documents and media are usually a central mechanic for ARGs. They blur fiction and reality by utilizing documents, websites, social media, etc that appear genuine but are crafted specifically for the ARG.

For Dolus, the false document rabbit hole is a fictional article purportedly from the BBC. I decided that a fake news article would be a great way to put the game at my students’ fingertips and a perfect introduction into the “this is not a game” mindset. I found Apple’s Pages app to be a great resource for document creation since I lacked experience in Photoshop or other professional level design programs.BBC-story

To create it, I went to the BBC World News site and by using screenshots (pressing Command + Shift + 4 on a Mac lets you take screenshots of specific parts of the screen), I simply copy and pasted the different web page elements onto a blank page in the same configuration – the banner at the top of the page, ads on the side, etc. I then formatted the article text size, color, and font to match the styles on the BBC’s website and typed away. For simplicity’s sake, I opted to make the document a PDF since I did not have immediate knowledge to plausibly render the article as a functional web page. In the end, I think the restraints ended up helping, and I framed the Rabbit Hole narrative as a “cool article I found but seems to have disappeared from the BBC site (weird, huh?).” For the first two iterations, I delivered it via e-mail, but I opted to print it out and give a copy to every student this year. I think the tangible element made it seem more plausible and subtly sidestepped the lack of a real web presence (although the more skeptical minds immediately jumped onto Google to try and locate the article – not finding it seemed to only fuel their curiosity even more). I’ll be doing it that way from now on. 

However, since creating Dolus I have also discovered Mozilla’s WebMaker. Using a tool they call X-Ray Goggles, you can “hack” a website by altering its content as easily as you can edit a text document. It, of course, is only altering a copy you can see on your own computer (and share with others, if you wish) but it is an easy way to quickly transform a standard news article into one that fits your ARG narrative. I’m still experimenting with it but it certainly is very easy to quickly insert new text (or images) into an article or website, and then take screenshots (again Command-Shift-4 on a Mac will let you capture just the parts you want; Windows users could use Print Screen to get everything on screen and then crop out what they don’t need later using an image editor). I’ll update this post if I find a better way to use this tool to create false websites.


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However, if you want to make a live, working website for your ARG, I recommend using a simple website maker like Wix or WordPress (both free). There are premium options like Squarespace or Vistaprint, but I think the free options should do just fine for a classroom ARG. Don’t underestimate the immersive effect that a student/player will experience when they find their game existing “in the wild”!

In my next post Making an ARG: Riddle Me This I will discuss some basics of how puzzles work in an ARG and how you can make them for your own environment.

#2: What the heck is an ARG?

Dolus is essentially what is known as an “alternate reality game” (ARG). An alternate reality game is a game that blends everyday digital mediums with the everyday physical environment around the player. These digital mediums include emails, websites (often “fake” ones created specifically for the game), social media, phone calls, physical or digital documents, and more. Essentially, if you can communicate with it, it can be used as part of an ARG! The primary game element is attempting to solve difficult puzzles using information presented through these mediums and in the real world. ARGs use a core narrative that ties the puzzles together and usually places the player in the explicit or implicit role of an investigator that uncovers the narrative and subsequent content as they solve puzzles to bring the game to its conclusion. In addition, the narrative is often “archaeological” in nature: the story develops through “found documents” and media that the player discovers either directly or indirectly as they solve the game’s puzzles. As a result, a dominant ethos of this particular type of game is “this is not a game” – the game is constructed and delivered in ways to suggest that the narrative and content are “real”, and the fictional nature of the game is usually never explicitly acknowledged by the creators. Similar to the “found footage” film genre, a large part of the fun is pretending the fiction is real. The fact that the game exists in the world around the player – in their email, on social media, and even in the physical spaces around them – makes ARGs feel all the more immersive.

ARGs are a natural type of game to use in a classroom. ARGs do not require a pre-existing graphical engine, like a video game, nor do they require a static physical space and equipment, like a tabletop game. ARGs can be the best of both the digital and physical worlds. Even better for the classroom: they can be designed by you to fit nearly any lesson, unit, curriculum, or student need. It is an educational reality that sometimes commercial off-the-shelf games can be very exciting square pegs for the round holes of classroom limitations or curricular demands. The custom and modular nature of ARGs, combined with their relative ease of content creation, allows educators to design fun, engaging games that can directly support their unique curricular goals and learning outcomes. ARGs also use pre-existing media, so they require little to no expert design experience. If you are comfortable using Youtube, Facebook, or iMovie, then you can make an ARG! In addition, they are inexpensive; the plethora of free and low cost tools means that making an ARG is primarily a consideration of time, not cost.

ARGs are also great for the classroom because the game’s challenge is not only the explicit intellectual hurdle of the particular puzzles but the greater “macro-puzzle” of problem solving in the modern world. In today’s information age, virtually any piece of data is accessible in a few keystrokes; the real challenge is knowing what data or tools you need and when you need it. Half the challenge of alternate reality games is figuring out what tools you require for the immediate task and then teaching yourself how to use them to solve that problem. In that regard, ARGs dynamically combine an ancient element of puzzle solving with the modern demand of finding the right resources among the nearly unlimited choices available and then using them to problem solve. However, ARGs’ modular nature also uniquely positions them as an accessible game platform specifically for classroom teachers.

In the next post, How Do I Make an ARG?  I’ll explore some of the basic elements of how an ARG works and how I made mine.

#1: Turning my class room into a game room

Prologue: From Gamer to Gamer Teacher

In this first post, I’ll explore what inspired me to use games in my classrooms

I became an educator because I had several excellent teachers who showed me that learning, despite my adolescent certainty at times, is not a harsh but effective medicine one has to swallow painfully, but a joyful, powerful experience that can – and should – guide your life. If as a student I had a few lessons every year that really inspired me, surely I could, over time, design an entire year long curriculum that captured that joy from beginning to end. This was my personal starting point as a teacher. As a lifelong gamer, I long ago recognized how much intellectual prowess, resilience, and critical thinking games can demand from their players. I spent hours learning complex systems for games like Magic: the Gathering, honing my ability to think and adapt on the fly in video games like Starcraft, and creating my own fictional worlds for role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Even before I taught my first lesson, games clearly seemed like the ideal vehicle to create a dynamic, engaging classroom experience that would get my students excited about learning.

I was even more confident games had learning potential because I had a few teachers growing up who used games in their classrooms with great success. My 9th grade English teacher (who directly inspired me to become an educator) used his love of role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to help us dive deeper into our reading of Homer’s Iliad. He assigned every student a character from the epic and laid out the rules for what was essentially a collaborative creative writing exercise in which we created a crowdsourced version of The Iliad. By reading deeply into The Iliad, including chapters we skipped as a class or outside mythological sources, you could acquire information about your character and use that to try to shape the emerging class narrative with your own submissions. You could “upgrade” your character using your research: give them a legendary weapon, a superhuman ability, a divine ally, etc as long as it was supported by an existing mythological source. It was instantly one of the most enjoyable classroom experiences I ever had despite its relatively simple design. That was an incredibly impactful moment for me as a student: for one of the first times, I felt like my classroom was responding to not only my passions, but how I uniquely learned.

That memory rattled around the back of my mind during my first few years of teaching, but it wasn’t until I played Funcom’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) The Secret World that I was able to take this vague impulse for classroom gaming into a real executable unit. The Secret World places thousands of players all within the same online virtual environment where they can play, interact, and battle against each other as agents of clandestine organizations (e.g. The Illuminati or The Templars) and interact in a game universe full of supernatural dangers and conspiracy theories come to life.

What attracted me to the The Secret World was what they call “Investigation Missions”. I read an early review that lauded them as deep and interesting puzzle solving experiences, a large departure from the usual fare in MMORPGs which are infamous for including dull, repetitive tasks whose completion is often referred to as “grinding”, since they are necessary for improving one’s character, but are generally considered boring in their own right. Much like the “busy work” – worksheets, textbook comprehension questions, etc. – that is present in so many classrooms, even the gaming world is not immune to getting mired in mindless mechanics whose only value is killing time.

The Investigation Missions in The Secret World required the player to not only use the information and events contained within the game but also the built-in Google browser to search the Internet for the right information and clues to solve the puzzle at hand. A few hours into the game I realized what they had done was include ARG style puzzles and weaved them into the virtual landscape of their game. The confluence of these two types of games clarified the elements I needed to harness to make my own game: the portability of cross-media ARG puzzles, the immersive effect of using real world information in a fictional game world, and the timeless Siren song of puzzle solving. I was spending hours researching arcane topics, decoding ciphers, and sweating over riddles – just to play a game. I also realized that the game engine itself was not integral to the experience…I could make these puzzles! Dolus, the master thief who has stolen the journal of Odysseus, was born.