Completely Unreliable: Time to Play

This is the third entry on using Sam Barlow’s Her Story video game to study unreliable narrators in my 9th grade English class. The first entry can be read here and the second here. This will focus on how we played Her Story in class, the final writing assessments, and student feedback along with my own reflections.

Is This a Game to You?

I hinted and teased my 9th graders that this unit would be a little different. I’ve used video games as texts in my class for a few years, so they knew some type of video game was coming. We had spent several days breaking down the unreliable narrator: their methods of lying, dissembling, (mis/dis)informing, and how a reader can construct an understanding from that unreliable narrative. After finishing our discussion of In a Grove – and its modernist skepticism of objective truth – I turned on the projector which displayed the virtual desktop of the “L.O.G.I.C. database”, the central interface of the game:

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 11.05.27 AM

Note the virtual reflections on the antique CRT “screen” the game emulates. Sam Barlow did a fantastic job making the game’s interface itself immerse you in the narrative.

I purposely did not show the title screen, or give away the title of the game (despite their insistent demands). I wanted to give a sense of mystery but also deter students from instantly Googling the game and gorging on spoilers.

The first instruction was to open a clean copy of the Narrator Table on their laptop. As Matthew Farber noted in his excellent new book Game Based Learning in Action, game based learning organically lends itself to Montessori style instruction:

A Montessori-like approach was also observed in how games were contextualized to students. “Brevity” is how Montessori (1912/2012, p. 61) described how long an explanation should take before students engage in a learning activity. (Farber 121)

Without realizing it, I embraced a very Montessorian style of introduction for Her Story. I explained to them that we had studied unreliable narrators, examined their methods, built up “defenses” against them, but the time for theory was over. It was time for them to prove they could grapple with an unreliable narrator.

I gave them a quick narrative overview: you are sitting at computer in a police department archive. You have access to a series of clips that have been fragmented and disorganized, but you can search the clips through the words spoken by the subject. At this point, I hit Enter and the pre-filled search term of MURDER is executed (the game starts that way). Five clips – which I explain is the limit for any single search term – appear and I explain how they can be viewed, annotated, and bookmarked for later study. Then I cede the laptop (connected to the projector) to a volunteer student. They can rotate who “drives” on their own. At this point, I’m pretty much done and I step away to observe.

It’s time for their final exam.

Hello, Hannah

As they dug into the text, I encouraged them to keep the debate lively. They obviously need to (and did) listen closely as each clip was played, but between clips crosstalk, debate, and “backseat driving” was the norm. This is informally known as the “hot seat” method of game based instruction. As a 1:1 laptop school, I could have given each of my students a copy and had them play on their own. In fact, this was the model I used when teaching Gone Home as a text (see Paul Darvasi’s excellent blog for more about studying that game as a text in English class), but I sensed that this wouldn’t be ideal for Her Story‘s complex narrative that has players grappling with constantly shifting interpretations and a non-linear plot. This is a story that would need to be experienced with the safety of numbers.

Fortunately, my instincts paid off. The students reported in post-unit feedback that the social format of playing the game not only aided comprehension but was more fun as well. For example, one student said:

The class as a whole was also a lot more vibrant when playing [the game]


My peers and I were able to be more enthusiastic with Her Story because we played it together and some of my fondest memories of school were when we did find out new info on the case and the whole class freaked out

This type of experience and engagement is backed up in the research as well. A meta-analysis by the Journal of Educational Psychology found that collaborative play was significantly more effective in learning outcomes compared to solitary play, by two standard deviations or more. (By the way, the research in general on game based learning is quite bullish.)

This is encouraging for several reasons. One, this lowers the financial barrier for teachers interested in using commercial games in the classroom. You don’t need 30 copies of Her Story to effectively teach it. I should note, however, that small publishers are often amenable to helping teachers acquire copies of their games. In the experience of many GBL teachers, if you contact an indie developer and explain you are seeking copies for the classroom, it is not uncommon to be offered discounts or even provided free copies. But again, the hot seat method can defray the cost, too, and in some cases may even be preferable to a 1:1 model. I would imagine a class of 30 might get too crowded, but two or three groups of 10-15 is far more manageable.

This model allowed students to take detailed notes using their Narrator Table. The student in the hot seat was given notes from the day by a classmate of their choice. In fact, one student who often had difficulty with reading and writing was the most diligent, detailed note taker. He ended up filling pages and pages of thorough notes, often making insightful connections and interpretations on the fly. This Table was collected and graded along with their final writing assessment.

The Write Way to Play

As the students began to play, they quickly brought their analytical skills to bear. Theories were developed, modified, eliminated, and resurrected as the plot thickened. Competing theories began to emerge as well, but it did not derail their exploration. After about five days (three hours of class time), we wrapped up our play time. Two to three hours is likely sufficient to have a firm grasp of the narrative but – perhaps a minor spoiler! – there is a major interpretative choice to make that is never objectively resolved. Students will likely know what side they fall on, or become comfortable with the ambiguity, after that much time. Unlocking every single clip is not necessary to feel like the story is “complete”. To prepare them for their writing assessments, I provided them with two supplemental resources that “unlock” the entire game to speed up their acquisition of necessary elements.

(Massive spoilers behind the next two links!)

First is a YouTube fan video that compiles all of the clips into chronological order.

Second, and which my students found the most useful, is a transcript of all the clips, also in chronological order.

Armed with these (and copies of the game), they broke into two affinity groups based on what type of assignment they found the most interesting. Here were the two options:

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.30.06 PM.pngThis is an overview of the two writing options from a presentation I gave at the Games in Education symposium last summer

The students were given exemplar texts to study and discuss, in addition to some reflection questions they had to answer in our online discussion forum (used all year for homework responses). I used a Vanity Fair cold-case article that was recommended to me by a colleague with a journalism background. This article was perfect because recordings of police interviews played a major part in the narrative, just like Her Story would for their version. They had to take on the part of an investigative journalist who has discovered the clips (in reality, discerning the identity of the “viewer” is a late plot element in the game) and is trying to piece together what really happened. This option was geared towards those who have the urge to untangle and explain complicated narrative knots.

The second group analyzed and discussed professional video game reviews. I didn’t want them copying or being influenced by existing reviews of Her Story, so I emailed the editors of my favorite review outlet, Polygon, and asked if they had a style guide or other guiding material for structuring their reviews. They did not have anything formal, but Arthur Gies, the Reviews Editor at the time, did have some delightful things to say about their review writing process, at least for an English teacher:

Our basic structure is the 5-part argumentative thesis-based essay, with an avoidance of passive voice and assuming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and opinions.

Wonderful. And who said five paragraph essays are useless?


Not every site uses [the thesis based essay model], and sometimes we don’t, but I also feel like our reviews go for clarity of thought and opinion above all. We’re not a commercial – our reviews exist to tell you what a person thought of a game, holistically. The thesis backed structure is great for that, and is a sound basis for just about any argumentative/advocative piece.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

However, Arthur was even more helpful by providing me with three exemplar reviews that he considered to be good models. The students going down the review track had to read those three reviews and answer reflection questions to further understand the format. Then, following that model, they had to write their own professional style review of Her Story. This option appealed to students who are interested in the medium of video games and how it is both expanding and changing, as well as those that are comfortable and/or enjoy writing persuasively.

I was impressed by the depth of the reviews and articles. The articles were dramatic and compelling in their reconstruction of the narrative. One student who wrote a cold case said he essentially wrote two different versions of the article because he was constantly “at war” (his words) with himself over which interpretation he believed. He bathed in the struggle. I couldn’t have been prouder!

Several reviews made mature observations about not only the narrative but the format as well. They understood how and why the unreliability affected and drove the story, and also why it was disorganized and fragmented. They made connections about a new medium without my input. This was true Montessori style learning – I let them explore, I let them make the leaps. I just watched.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

So, what did the students think? The response was overwhelmingly positive – perhaps not unexpected – but so was the effort and engagement. From beginning to end, the students were focused, enthusiastic, and diligent.

However, I am always quick to point out that we shouldn’t assume all our students (especially boys) are “gamers” who will be intellectually and emotionally electrified by the mere presence of a video game in class. In fact, a good number of students I’ve taught are skeptical at first, but once they see that this exercise isn’t frivolous they are enthusiastic. But game based learning teachers should be careful not to fall into the “digital native” fallacy and assume because they are using new and interactive media that their students will be automatically enthralled, or even comfortable. Elements like the hot seat model can help those who are less comfortable with the medium and I advocate for always giving students as much agency and choice as possible. That said, I have never had a student throw their hands up and reject a game based learning unit. But, I have had some who are candid in letting me know it is not their preferred method of learning. You should teach (or not teach) the games that best reflect you, your students, and your community. Fortunately, there are countless options out there. Her Story is only one of many.

One thing I want to repeat is they were also having fun before, during, and after playing the game.  I am a big believer in the maxim popular with those who take their play seriously: “The opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression.”

With that in mind, this comment from a student particularly struck me:

…the unit [felt] more like an investigative game than a test and this meant that the dread and stress that were apart [sic] of normal exams were replaced by excitement and joy.

“Dread” and “Stress” vs. “Excitement” and “Joy”.

I know which I’ll take every time.

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#4: 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:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 12.37.20 PM

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, 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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 11.02.40 AM

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.

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#3: 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.

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