Altering Reality: Teaching About and With ARGs

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are cross-media storytelling ventures sometimes involving thousands of players collaborating on solving puzzles, communicating with in-game characters, and generally advancing the plot. While most interaction with ARGs takes place online, the central conceit of these fictions, often, is that they are really happening, and interactions frequently extend to in-person contact between players and characters. In this presentation, I discuss my own experience teaching about ARGs in a New Media class, and I offer examples from student-designed ARG projects to argue that the learning outcomes associated with ARG play and design are indeed significant. These include critical thinking about media texts and media literacy (for example, the ethics of media hoaxes) as well as an insight into how to invoke and harness the powerful suspension of disbelief that constitutes online discourse. I also relate my experience attending the 2009 ELI Meeting in Orlando FL where organizers commissioned a self-contained ARG to run during the event. I end the presentation by contrasting this ARG and my own experience with an alternative model for ARG pedagogy — teaching WITH ARGs — and point out what I see as potential problems with putting this in practice. The crucial point that all these ideas relate back to is the latent tension between the idea of ARGs and the actual experience of playing ARGs. Much of the enthusiasm for ARGs in academic and conversation deals too much in the former, so this presentation attempts to bring some insight from the latter