#2: 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.

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#1: 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.

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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.

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