Blog Post

ARGs at UT

This past spring, the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin playtested one clue from an upcoming alternate reality game. We designed the game to coincide with our next year's first-year forum book, a text that all students in Rhetoric 306 use. Next year's book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a critique of the business model of K-12 education. We wanted to take these larger concerns of government involvement in education and apply them to both past and current situations at the University of Texas, but more importantly, we wanted to engage students with the rich history and communities in Austin.

As a genre, alternate reality games lend themselves to this type of engagement. Players explore real and virtual spaces in search of clues, and puzzles are often too complex to be solved by one individual. Thus, players leverage the power of collective intelligence by forming teams with heterogeneous backgrounds.  The more diverse a group's expertise, the more likely they will have the necessary information to solve the puzzles.

Beyond the benefits of collaboration, alternate reality games draw upon a wide range of digital media skills. In designing our game, we wanted players to use the usual tools of ARGs web searches, cryptography, message boards, and wikis -- but we also wanted players to learn multimedia production tools like Adobe Photoshop and Apples GarageBand.

For this aim, our playtested clue focused mainly on Photoshop, but other clues draw upon audio and video production tools as well as digital research resources. To start off the clue, players were sent a single image:

Joplin-Gilbert Poster

Players knew there was a game afoot (though some ARG purists would say this violates the "This is Not a Game" mantra), but were given no further instructions. If you look closely, there are three QR codes hidden in the picture, and each leads to another part of the puzzle. One leads to an article about Texas Governor Rick Perry's recent involvement in higher education policies; one leads to a Photoshop file of the image, with layer names corresponding to sentences from that article; and the final one sends a text message reading "To hear the call, separate the evaluative and informative statements." Within each of the Photoshop layers is hidden part of a call number. If a player separated the informative and evaluative statements, she ended up with two call numbers. One of the call numbers led to a book about Janis Joplin, a former student at the University of Texas; the other led to a book on Cass Gilbert, architect of the Federal Supreme Court Building and a few of the buildings on our campus. A piece of a QR code was hidden at each book location, and scanning those together gave the player a message that she had won.

We had hoped the clue would lead players through this series of steps, drawing upon basic reading and critical thinking skills taught in lower-division rhetoric courses. However, the players proved wilier than we anticipated. Players immediately recognized the hidden letters and numbers as parts of call numbers, and skipped over the step of grouping the evaluative and informative statements. Instead, they used the visual clues of Joplin and the various buildings to perform library searches, and reverse engineered the image by using the Library of Congress classification system. They gamed our game.

Granted, our pool of playtesters consisted of only graduate students, but I suspect the same would happen with a group of undergraduates as well. In any ordered system, people will find ways to work around the rules. In rolling out our game next year, we'll have to design for all types of players and possible routes through the clues.

Aside from ways of gaming the system, well be focusing on finding more open source applications for players to use. If any of you HASTACers know of similar projects or resources, we'd love to hear from you.

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