Blog Post

Alternate Reality Game (ARG) on UNC Chapel Hill's Campus

I'm excited to tell you a bit about a project I am working on. Myself and others are creating an alternate reality game (ARG) for UNC Chapel Hill's undergraduates. Although Matt Wood says I am the "brainchild" of this; I would hesitate to qualify my contribution to this project in quite so grandiose a way. I am simply one among many who are working on this.

An alternate reality game is a multiplayer game that mixes technology with the real world. There is a storyline with characters; and as events progress through the storyline, players must follow clues. They challenged to solve a variety of puzzles and often have to work together to do so. To learn more about ARGs, I recommend reading 

Kim, J.Y., Allen, J.P., and Lee, E. (2008) Alternate reality gaming. Communications of the ACM, 51(2): 36-42.

For example, the ARG associated with the movie premier of The Dark Knight led players to certain GPS coordinates. At these coordinates there was a bakery. Players were told to give a secret phrase to the baker and in exchange for this phrase, they were given a cake. Then the cake begins ringing. Inside the cake is a cell phone. Players had to dig the phone out of the cake and answer it. The voice on the other end led them to another clue or puzzle.

So in thinking about ARGs and talking about them with university librarian, Chad Haefele, I began to also think about UNC Student Affairs. I used to work in the Division of Students Affairs at UNC, back before the doctoral program; and around this time, I had been talking with various folks who work there and are concerned about not only preparing undergraduates for future professions but also for life as independent adults. Student Affairs doesn't just provide dorms for students to live in. Student Affairs, through its various departments, also provides a lot of learning that is intended to prepare students to get out in the world on their own. For instance, the Campus Y focuses on social justice and service to the community. The Dean of Students Office often has to teach students about honesty and integrity (in the form of our Honor Code system), relationship and behavioral issues, and tough stuff like alcohol use. In talking with my former co-workers in Student Affairs, I discovered how wonderful it would be to employ ARG methodology to teach students about living in the world. In particular we decided to focus our storyline on relationship issues. 

Our campus sponsors include the following Student Affairs departments: the Campus Y, Counseling and Wellness Services, the Dean of Students Office, and the Department of Housing and Residential Education. Additionally we have my program, the School of Information & Library Science (SILS), and the University Library backing us. Our efforts are a part of the Games4Learning initiative on campus.

Members of the core development team include Karen Crenshaw (master's student in SILS), Elizabeth Evans (director of the Games4Learning initiative), Chad Haefele (university librarian), Emily King (university librarian), and Brian Sturm (professor in SILS). 

On Monday, our team laid out the entire storyline, all our puzzles and clues, and all our media content (blog posts from characters, emails between characters, photos of characters, audio and video files, etc.). We walked through the entire thing, looking for holes in the plot line, missing connections between plot bits and puzzles, missing media content, etc. Now we have a To Do list of things we need to work on in preparation for our student game testers! Several students in my Systems Analysis class (that I am teaching) have graciously volunteered to be our game testers. Ultimately we hope to launch the ARG (which will run for 2 weeks) in February of 2010. 

I will keep you all posted on our progress! 



I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out on campus!


Sounds great! Have there been any studies done about ARGs as pedagogical tools before?


There's not a lot out there and what is out there are case studies, it seems. It's a tricky issue. We had talked about this as well (in the team). In order to really do some non-case-study analysis, I would think you'd want to do a pre-test and then, much later, a post test. Additionally, how do you authoritatively say someone has *learned* something? It begs the question of what is learning anyway? Is learning retention? Application? How do we know that students who play the ARG will retain and apply what they've learned several months after the ARG ends? In most studies I've seen about learning, it seems people often use test scores as the dependent variable. We are not testing anyone; and I personally think test scores are a limited view of learning anyway (but you do what you can and sometimes test scores are the best you can do).

Additionally, the IRB process must be considered. How do we obtain consent from all the students who will play the ARG? Some of them we may never truly know about. These students may be the "lurkers" - the ones who watch the game unfold but ultimately never make themselves known to us. Furthermore, a lot of the media we will be using does not require logins; and if they do, the students can use pseudonym logins, which again means we may never fully know their identity. If students think they are a part of a research study, will this change their behavior? Will it suck all the fun out of the game? Will we ultimately shoot ourselves in the foot?

So we may turn out a case study as well. My feelings on this are mixed. While I would like to be able to offer something more experimental to the field of research, I'm not sure how feasible that is at this time. It is possible that if we were to do another ARG in the future, we might be able to plan out a research study that is more experimental in nature. Part of our process now has been so organic and evolutionary. The momentum has just built and now we are deadline-driven. So halting things to draft an IRB proposal and plan a study isn't in our current timeline. Thus a case study will have to suffice for now. This is a learning opportunity for us as well. We are uncertain if we will even get 10 students to play - haha. We need to learn and grow with this and see how it goes. After that I think we will be more prepared to design and implement some sort of experimental study - should we decide it would not ruin the experience for our gamers.