Monthly Archives: May 2010

This Is Not A Game: ARGs as a Composition Course Structure

This is a paper that served as a foundation for a presentation I delivered at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s First Year Composition program pedagogical development conference on May 1, 2010.  Thus, much of the rationale is framed by that program’s specific ethos and identities; I believe, however, that the benefits of an ARG course structure as discussed below are not bound by this focus on a single institutional setting.


There is a growing body of research on the use of several types of video games for educational purposes, such as simulations, both close-ended objective-defined and open-ended “sandbox” simulations, games designed with specific educational/physiological goals, to name a few. There is, unfortunately, far less available on the potential and impact of blended-reality games, such as pervasive games—those based on specific locations, such as geo-cache treasure hunts or Pac Manhattan—and, more importantly, I will argue, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). ARGs and pervasive games share some overlap in design and characteristics of play: both use “real” world features and artifacts, such as streets, buildings, public spaces, or payphones, and publicly available media, such as billboards, posters, or media made available through mobile networked technology. ARGs tend to use multimedia clues to direct players on a narrative-driven puzzle-solving experience that takes place in the players’ “real” world, as opposed to being hosted through a computer graphic (CG) mediated virtual world, like Halo, World of Warcraft, Second Life, or Myst.

In addition to little academic research on ARGs as educational tools, a standard definition of the genre is elusive. This appears to be at least two-fold in reason. The infancy of the form likely contributes to a lack of definition. The educational application of video games, in general, seems to have achieved a large body of work only over the past 10-20 years, as media and technology have continued to evolve and converge, and as video games have become a topic for media, cultural and ludic studies. Over this same time period, new media technologies have also begun to creep into pedagogy through blogs, wikis, and other digitally networked text-based tools.

ARGs, when discussed under that definition, have a history dating to 1996, with two records of ARGs before the year 2000, according to, arguably the most comprehensive listing of ARGs and related links sponsored in conjunction with the International Game Designers Association Alternate Reality Games Special Interest Group (IGDA ARG SIG). Another barrier to a single definition is the large iterations of complexities and variations offered by the relatively simple structure of the ARG and the multi-modality of its narrative/gameplay environment: interactive web-based technologies, DIY publishing, remix and the co-option of popular narratives and artifacts.

I anticipate that understanding what an ARG is—and what one “looks” like—may be a substantial barrier for the reader of this paper. Thus, for the purposes of this project, I will adopt Jane McGonigal’s definition of an ARG:

an interactive drama played out online and in real world spaces, taking place over several weeks or months, in which dozens, hundreds, thousands of players come together online, form collaborative social networks, and work together to solve a mystery or problem that would seem impossible to solve alone (“Alternate Reality Gaming: ‘Life Imitates ARG’ [PDF]”).

As this definition is expansive, allow me to propose a few translations that might help the reader see a more concrete connection to this project—bringing an ARG into a multimodal composition classroom. First would be to think less of the “drama” (or, the fictionalized impetus for entering the game; the reason to play). As I will later argue, this narrative patina may not be an applicable internal motivator within the classroom. In McGonigal’s definition, I encourage the reader to focus on the “interactive” pursuit of a community of student “players” to analyze and interpret texts collaboratively—the act of interpretation being akin to “solv[ing] a mystery or problem,” though one with an open solution. Further linking the composition classroom to this definition is the language of the assignment sequence—language that positions interpretation as an act that may seem incapable of being achieved alone, without the reflection and multiplicity of perspectives that the composition classroom provides.

Despite the relative dearth of research and academic texts produced about ARGs by that name, it is appropriate to turn to transmedia narratives, multimodal pedagogy, and new media digital storytelling as a framework to build an ARG for classroom use. Through this approach, the work of Henry Jenkins on both video games and media convergence becomes applicable in a discussion of the aesthetics, structures, theory and history of ARGs, as well as their potential as educational collective intelligence communities.

The large question that I hope to address through this project, then, is: how can an ARG serve as a pedagogical tool in the composition classroom? In this paper, I hope to: provide an outline of the aesthetics and structures of ARGs, what might serve as a working contextual definition for the aims of this project; examine a case study and principles of ARGs designed for student induction and orientation; and examine this case study in terms of the educational benefits that resulted from play. Furthermore, while ARGs have been used as texts for academic study, my aim is to apply the knowledge from the above approaches to illustrate how an ARG might serve as a structure for motivating and producing student writing within the curricular goals of the English 101 course at UWM.
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Digital Nomad

With the server down for extended maintenance, I decided it was time to setup a more appropriate web home than the bare-bones service provided by UW-Milwaukee’s PantherFile system.  No MySQL; no blog.  So, instead of simply picking up the my previous WordPress-hosted blog, Developing News, it is time to start fresh.  Plus, while I do manage cream city review’s WP site, I want to get some more non-drupal experience.  When I decide to pony-up for my own domain, I’ll be more able to make an informed decision on CMS.

I imagine this space as a site for perhaps-weekly updates on what I’m reading and watching, what I’m thinking about, and what I’ve found in electronic and meat spaces.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll try to get this space firing on all cylinders with updated info and the like.