Blog Post

Please Disregard: Building an Alternate Reality Game at Occidental College

You are a freshman at Occidental College. You chose the school for the beautiful campus, the small class size, and the feeling of wonder you got wandering through the stacks of the library after you got lost on the first tour. You were certain that this was the school for you, but sitting in your dorm room on a hot Los Angeles September day, you’re not so sure anymore. Your roommate, who is from the East Coast and still feels like a complete stranger, is tapping away at their laptop at their desk on the other side of the room.



You decide to go on your computer yourself. Orientation Week has proven to be dull, and besides dinner with your O-Team leader, a chipper upperclassman who put you and your other Orientation mates through ice-breaker games, you don’t really have plans for the next week. Wondering idly when you should head for dinner, you check your email. 5:30 it is. As you are about to log off, you get another email, from “Student Announcements”, with the subject “Strange Objects in Orientation Bags: Please Disregard.” Curious, you click on it.



“Dear new freshmen,” the email reads. “It has come our attention that some strange objects were placed in all freshmen Orientation bags along with your registration forms and other resources. We do not know of their origin and we apologize, and ask that you please disregard them. Thank you.”



You haven’t even looked through your Orientation bag. You don’t even know where it is. Finally you find it, jammed between your desk and the wall. You dump it out on the IKEA carpet your roommate’s mom bought before she left. As for your roommate, you see them watching you out of the corner of their eye.



Digging through all the health surveys, registration forms, maps and restaurant coupons, you’re not seeing any strange objects. You look in the bag again--and there it is.



You pull it out. It’s a small silver flash drive fob, with a logo like a wifi signal on it. An orange ribbon connects the flash drive to, of all things, an ornate bronze key, blotchy with age. You show it to your roommate, who immediately goes to find their own orientation bag, which is stuffed inside their backpack. As they did through it, their eyes widen as they too find it, a flash drive connected to a key.



“Please disregard them.” The words run through your mind as you and your roommate plug the flash drive into your computer.



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At least, that’s what we at #oxyARG hope happens!



Currently, I and thirteen other Occidental College students are enrolled in “Art and Media 348: Games, Play and ARGs”. Instead of papers and tests, the class has a specific purpose: at the end of the semester, have the outline of alternate reality game (ARG) to be played on the Occidental campus. According to unfiction.com, a major ARG hub, “Alternate Reality Gaming (also known as beasting, unfiction, or immersive fiction) is an interactive fusion of creative writing, puzzle-solving, and team-building, with a dose of role playing thrown in.” These games are developed as marketing strategies, as works of art, or, very recently, as campus activities. The Occidental administration thought that an ARG designed by students, for students, would be just the ticket.

 

Our single given objective is to make a game that “promotes digital literacy.” At a small liberal arts college, that’s a loaded proposition. Our library is now officially named “The Academic Commons,” and a third of the physical library books are to be discarded in the next few years to be replaced by digital media. The school is also constructing a giant “media wall” in the circa-1913 Johnson hall: the facade of the building will retain its classical lines, while the inside will be taken up by a “a two-story tall “media wall” designed to highlight student work and present textual and visual materials on pressing issues of the day. Nearby, a digital lounge will make it possible for students and faculty to speak with friends and colleagues from around the world.” Some professors and faculty see these admittedly dramatic changes as a challenge to the traditional liberal arts education, while others believe it’s high time to embrace these new technologies before the school gets left in the dust.

 

Our game, which is aimed at freshmen in their first few weeks at Oxy and is tentatively scheduled for 2014, will be exploring the these themes, of analog versus digital, traditional versus cutting-edge. It will incorporate local L.A. history and the history of the school, connecting new students to their surroundings. It will promote digital learning and social technologies, as well as teamwork between two teams of freshmen. There will be challenges to be overcome, swag to be collected, puzzles to be solved. It will (hopefully) be fun.

 
For more info:

(To be continued....)

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1 comment

hi there, interesting project! I am currently involved in setting up an architecture and developing documentation that should enable teachers and students to develop an alternate reality game themselves. My idea is a kind of object oriented / MUD style alternate reality game, which supports distributed design of single and interconnected storylines. We are developing an initial storyline that gives the context of the other storylines to be made, but over time, it might become an entirely distributed collection of mini-ARGs, some of which are interconnected. I find it quite complex, as I have to think about how others might be able to design single ARGs. If you have suggestions for design frameworks, models, documentation, please let me know.

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