Alternate Reality Games as a Plat...
1 Alternate Reality Games as a Platform for Practicing 21st Century Literacies Order of authorship is listed alphabetically to signal equal input and investment on the part of all the authors in the research and writing of this paper. Elizabeth Bonsignore, PhD Student College of Information Studies University of Maryland Room 4105 Hornbake Bldg, South Wing College Park, MD 20742 email@example.com Dr. Derek Hansen, Assistant Professor College of Information Studies University of Maryland Room 4105 Hornbake Bldg, South Wing College Park, MD 20742 firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Kari Kraus, Assistant Professor College of Information Studies University of Maryland Room 4105 Hornbake Bldg, South Wing College Park, MD 20742 email@example.com Marc Ruppel, PhD Student Department of English 2119 Tawes Hall University of Maryland College Park, MD 20742 firstname.lastname@example.org Abstract Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a new genre of transmedia practice where players collaboratively hunt for clues, make sense of disparate information, and solve puzzles to advance an ever-changing narrative that is woven into the fabric of the real world. This paper highlights the potential for ARGs to promote 21st Century literacy skills. We propose a meta-level framework for 21st century literacies composed of seven core literacies: gather, make sense, manage, solve, create, respect, collaborate. We then describe how the unique properties of ARGs can be used to teach these core literacies, drawing upon expert interviews and examples from numerous ARGs. Finally, we outline the major challenges and opportunities for using ARGs in the service of education, focusing on reuse, budgetary issues, scale, and improvisation. We end with an outline of key research questions that need to be addressed to merge ARGs and education. Introduction In his award-winning novel Little Brother (2008), Cory Doctorow presents a dystopian perspective on contemporary secondary education, one in which surveillance culture has put a chokehold on learning, discovery, and creativity. Confronted by the bleak realities of a school system that seeks to control student behavior with spyware, biometric identifiers, and computer firewalls, Marcus Yallow, the novel���s young protagonist, and his techno-cool friends must look elsewhere for a meaningful learning experience. One of the places they find it is in Harajuku Fun Madness (HFM): an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG, that Marcus describes as ���the best game ever invented��� (p. 10). Originating in Japan, the fictional game postulates the discovery of a gemstone containing miraculous healing properties in the Temple of Harajuku (p. 15). Because the Harajuku teens who have custody of the rare gem are being hunted by all manner of dastardly villains, they turn to the HFM player community to help them defeat the evil-doers, communicating with them via encrypted messages and embedding secret information for them to find in puzzles, riddles, and real-world spaces. One of the principal virtues of the game is that it channels the DIY ethos, hacker values, and anti-authoritarianism of Marcos and his friends in imaginative and deeply compelling ways. Later in the novel, when Marcos is fighting a corrupt Department of Homeland
2 Security that has gone rogue in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, he briefly reflects on the lessons of Harajuku Fun Madness, notably the game���s successful integration of collaborative problem-solving challenges (p. 155), and deploys them for greater purposes. Taking Doctorow���s premise about the promise of ARGs as learning platforms seriously, this paper examines how the machinery and conventions of Alternate Reality Games can be used to scaffold information literacy instruction. We begin by defining ARGs in the broader context of transmedia narrative. We then explain the methods, diverse disciplinary backgrounds, and prior literature used to develop the Unified Metaliteracies Framework (UMF) (Figure 1). Then, drawing on examples that run the gamut from large-scale commercial ARGs (The Lost Experience) to high-profile serious games (Urgent EVOKE) to books with ARG components (Personal Effects: Dark Art and 39 Clues), we demonstrate how this emerging genre models, thematizes, and requires the systematic application of the 21st-century literacies in our framework. The paper closes with a consideration of the unique opportunities and challenges ARGs offer education and a call to action. Defining Alternate Reality Games Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a genre of what is known as transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 2006a) or transmedia fiction (Dena 2010), the formal practice of extending a narrative across disparate media such as film, TV, print novels, video games and the Web. In transmedia fiction, characters, events, locations and objects are developed in ways not possible in mono-media contexts. For example, a character shown in a background shot of a film might become the main focus in a graphic novel, or a website referred to in the text of a print novel might be fully interactive online. Building upon such frameworks, ARGs adhere to the ethos that ���This is Not a Game.��� In such a context, reality is privileged over fictionality, where ARGs take ���the substance of everyday life and weave it into narratives that layer additional meaning, depth, and interaction upon the real world��� (Martin and Chatfield 2006, p. 6) through a fluid hybrid of ���so-called real world media such as email, fax, SMS and websites��� (Dena 2008, p. 42). More recently, Jane McGonigal (2011), an influential designer and advocate of ARGs, defined them simply as any game that involves itself with some aspect of the real world, be it a functional technology such as email and text messaging, or a developing (or hypothetically possible) situation, such as the peak oil ���what-if��� scenarios of her own ARG World Without Oil, which beckons audiences to ���Play it���before you live it��� (http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/). For McGonigal, ARGs don���t necessarily need to be transmedia fictions in order to work, but they must always engage a substantial slice of the real world in order to truly instruct and inform. Over the course of an ARG, players often perform difficult feats of puzzle solving, hacking and decryption, improvisation with live actors and scavenger hunt-like searches of online and offline environments (ranging from phone booths to bathrooms). Because of the often difficult nature of these operations, the inherently communal aspect of ARGs is essential, where each participant contributes her own unique skill set and, importantly, her own unique interpretations that aid in the progression of the story as a whole. The interactions present in ARGs are guided by puppetmasters, ���the players��� nickname for immersive game producers��� (McGonigal 2003, p. 11). Puppetmasters often design and execute the multiple sites of an ARG, but their primary role is to provide real-time responses to the audience���s often emergent actions, accommodating community reactions and interactions, creating new sites and content where needed and, in some cases, revealing information that ���pushes��� the players forward when they are having difficulty doing so on their own. A successful ARG, then, is not simply the result of an audience doing the right things at the right time but, instead, it is a dynamic and mutable interplay between producer and player, one that relies on the overlapping literacies of each. 01 05/03/2012 by: Diane Du.
3 Even so, to date the research done on the relationship between ARGs and, by extension, transmedia fictions and 21st-century literacy practices is largely undeveloped. For example, most research on transmedia fiction and ARGs, as well as forms that later were subsumed by these terms, focuses on the economic and cultural paradigm shifts that result in such distributions (i.e., Kinder 1991 Meehan 1991 Wasko 1995 Couldry 2000 L��vy 2001 Lunenfeld 2001 Marshall 2002 Jenkins 2004 Bolin 2007 ��rnebring 2007 Profitt et al. 2007 Jones 2008, Gray 2010). Here, transmedia practice becomes a commodity system where each output is treated as a series of promotional exchanges, a ���complex of significations which at once represents (moves in place of), advocates (moves on behalf of) and anticipates (moves ahead of) the circulating entities to which it refers��� (Wernick 1991, p. 182). While such a system is often acknowledged as producing new modes of expression, these modes are often treated as secondary to their larger economic orientations. Yet there is evidence of a vital and formative shift in literacies in such expressions. Marsha Kinder (1991), for example, identifies in what she calls ���commercial transmedia supersystems��� (i.e. the vast commercial extensions of properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles across television, film, toys, clothing and even food) the seeds of a burgeoning literacy, one where young viewers ���gain entrance into a system of reading narrative���that is, a means of structuring characters, genres, voices, and visual conventions into paradigms, as well as models for interpreting and generating new combinations��� (p. 41). Peter Lunenfeld (2000) identifies such proliferations with the politics and poetics of what he calls the peculiar digital logics of ���unifinish,��� where audiences become pre-conditioned towards expecting, not simply hoping for, transmedia narrative extension. Indeed, Margaret Mackey���s (2002) work in literacies across media (rather than within a single medium) assumes from the outset that within what she calls the ���changing ecologies of literacy��� (p. 5) that it is unusual for a child to ���stick to one medium alone��� but, instead, to utilize a ���variety of portals��� (p. 6) in which they ���accommodate and make sense of texts in different formats��� (p. 6). Extending this idea, Henry Jenkins speaks of transmedia design as ���the next step���of cultural evolution���a bridge to a new kind of culture and a new kind of society��� (2006a, p. 130). To Jenkins, transmedia practice becomes a fictionally-oriented means of examining the dynamics of convergence as a divergence of media (i.e. more, not less) and the creation of singular, massively attenuated fictional universes where each medium contributes uniquely. In such a context, Jenkins argues, ���Younger consumers have become informational hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise��� (2006a, p. 129). Transmedia fiction and ARGs are to Jenkins some of the most vital examples of participatory culture we have, where audiences can become involved in a story in ways wholly specific to their needs. Building on this dynamic, Christy Dena (2008) highlights the varying degrees to which ARGs allow for and even thrive on the existence of several different levels of engagement, or what she calls ���tiers��� of play. Here, audiences often engage the outputs of the community���the Wikis, timelines, and forum posts��� more than even the ���primary��� ARG or fiction that these artifacts arise from, exposing them to a variety of new literacies even without directly engaging in them. Furthermore, the research conducted by the European Commission-funded ARGuing for multilingual motivation in Web 2.0 project shows that ARGs provide teachers with ���a massively motivational and potentially very powerful educational tool with which to improve and create a 3rd millennia teaching method��� (2009, p. 31).
4 Sidebar: EVOKE "If you have a problem, and you can't solve it alone, EVOKE it." - Alchemy, pre-game trailer/teaser (http://vimeo.com/9094186) EVOKE is an ARG with a social mission: ���to help empower young people all over the world���to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.��� Funded by the World Bank Institute and created by game designer and advocate Jane McGonigal, it aims to educate and inspire social entrepreneurs. Players who register on the ARG���s urgentevoke website become agents for the secret EVOKE network of social innovators and attempt to solve some of the world���s most challenging problems. In the end, over 20,000 agents from more than 150 countries participated in the first season. The EVOKE narrative is told through a short graphic novel released in installments. It begins in the year 2020, when the governor of Tokyo sends a secret ���Evoke��� (i.e., ���an urgent call to innovation���) message to the network soliciting help in stopping a food shortage. The evoke team leader, Alchemy, assembles a team of fictional agents from around the globe who secretly begin taking action to curb the food shortage. Future installments show the efforts of these agents, as well as introduce new topics such as how to deal with a flood in London, a financial crisis in Cuba, and gender inequality. Players act as social entrepreneurs and critics as they brainstorm and evaluate solutions alongside the characters. EVOKE is more clearly structured than most ARGs, with a known start and end date (March 3, 2010 ��� May 12, 2010), as well as a fully specified description of how gameplay will unfold during the 10 weeks of play. Each week, a new Mission is introduced with a graphic novel installment posted to the ARG website. To fully complete a mission, agents must complete 3 components: 1) ���LEARN��� encourages agents to take self-guided tours of online resources related to the mission (e.g., blog posts by thought leaders in the area, Wikipedia entries, academic articles) 2) ���ACT��� encourages agents to do something in the real world related to the mission that will make a difference, even if small and 3) ���IMAGINE��� asks agents to share stories about the missions that occur in the future and the agent���s own role in that future. Evidence for completion of the components is shared as blog posts, images, or videos that are attached to the profile of the contributing agent. These activities are augmented by open forum discussions by agents and the development of personal agent profiles. Agents can assign a positive vote (i.e., ���power vote���) to another agent���s contribution (e.g., blog post). Agents who receive these votes can use them to build up their ���evoke powers��� such as collaboration, creativity, local insight, spark, and vision. These are displayed on an agent���s profile along with the number of missions completed. Agents can also complete 10 ���quests��� designed to create personal narrative about themselves, their inspirations, environment, pivotal moments, oppositions, etc. As with other ARGs, agents are encouraged to be themselves, even in this ���fictional��� universe. Like most ARGs, there is not a winner of the game. Instead, agents can receive various awards for participation or recognition from other players and organizers. Agents who complete enough missions can become a founding member of the EVOKE network and a World Bank Institute certified EVOKE social innovator. Those who submitted exceptional EVOKATIONs (i.e., idea for a social challenge to overcome) were invited to a Washington DC area conference, where they were matched with an experienced social innovator mentor, and received seed funding for their own social venture.
5 Methods Using these contexts as a foundation for a more detailed look at ARGs and literacy, our analytic approach is grounded in two complementary strands: the interdisciplinary strengths of our research team, and the use of multiple methods for data collection and analysis. The varied backgrounds of the authors largely reflect the myriad of skill-sets found in both ARG designers and players. ARG design teams comprise individuals from diverse disciplines, such as creative writing, graphic design, human-computer interaction, narratology, software engineering, and marketing. As a group, ARG players possess skills and interests that range from mathematics and cryptography to art, music, literature and languages. Similarly, the effectiveness, breadth, and depth of our investigation on literacy development through ARGs relied on the interdisciplinary expertise and complementary skills of our researchers. Dr. Kari Kraus is a digital humanities scholar and active contributor to studies on virtual worlds, interactive digital genres, and mobile technologies. Dr. Derek Hansen, director of the University of Maryland's Center for the Advanced Study of Communities and Information (CASCI), investigates the design and use of social media technologies by online communities. Marc Ruppel is a doctoral candidate in Textual and Digital Studies in the University of Maryland's Department of English whose dissertation research includes the study of transmedia works such as ARGs. Elizabeth Bonsignore is a doctoral candidate in Maryland's iSchool whose dissertation research in ARGs grew from her studies in New Literacies and the design/use of social media technologies in education. Taken together, our diverse backgrounds encompass the disciplines of human-computer interaction, narratology, social networks, interactive fiction, new media literacies, and educational technology. Our collective experiences and intellectual cross-pollination afforded us the opportunity to develop richly layered perspectives on the potential of ARGs in educational contexts. We relied on the following data sources to develop and illustrate the unified metaliteracies framework: ��� the standards guides and theoretical outlines of established literacy frameworks developed by practitioners and scholars from multiple disciplines including information/library science, media/cultural studies, and education technology ��� openly available samples of designer and player-produced artifacts (online and print) from a selection of ARGs, both popular (e.g., The LOST Experience, Personal Effects) and education- based (e.g., EVOKE, World Without Oil) ��� transcripts/recordings from 11 interviews we conducted with ARG scholars, players, and designers, including Ken Eklund and Sean Stewart. In the spirit of Grounded Theory (Corbin and Strauss 2008), our analysis process involved close readings from these sources and the iterative development of common categories and themes. Specifically, to develop our transmedia literacies inventory, we applied constant comparative techniques against terms and definitions used within each, and across all the frameworks. Our metaliteracies framework emerged from the following iterative process: ��� reviewing each framework (each researcher independently) ��� grouping and comparing across frameworks (each researcher independently)