Thursday 1 March 2007

LEVEL 8 - ARGs: Using alternate realities teach about *real* realities

In terms of cognitive challenge, a well-designed ARG can be extremely demanding, so much so that players must rely on a 'collective community' to solve problems. ARGs will often require players to become adept at deciphering hidden codes, and this is sure to develop highly analytical thinking, yet also often needs creative 'out-of-the-box' ideas. It also indirectly teaches web 2.0 savvy, as much of ARG content is distributed through multimedia, forums, blogs, interactive websites and the internet - a player cannot help but become accustomed with these functions.

Not only does an ARG develop intricate research skills and attention to detail, but also require players to synthesize often huge amounts of data (see Perplex City) to figure out complex plot lines and problems. In the ARG white paper (2006), Martin and Chatfield sum this up well: 'ARGs teach us to heighten our ability to winnow patterns out of the otherwise seemingly random and meaningless data in the wider world'. Gee (2003) recognises this 'pattern thinking' as being very powerful. Not only does it allow us to 'think and reason by using the experiences we have had in life', but it also 'allows us to make guesses (predictions) about the world that go beyond our actual experiences'. Thus the practice of forming complex connections playing an ARG enables us to form similarly complex connections in our everyday lives.

THE immERsion that args can crEate IS ALSO a POTENTIALly powerful and valuable asset. As Martin and Chatfield (2006) write, 'args take the substance of everyday life and weave it inTO narratives that LAYER additional MEANING, depth and interaction upon the real world'. An interesting example of this (White Paper, 2006) comes from participants of the game *Last Call Poker*, who were 'encouraged throughout the game to visit local cemeteries and complete simple open-ended missions such as cleaning up gravesites, leaving flowers, and writing letters to people who had passed away. These events became deeply meaningful to players who participated. Additionally, this generated much conversations about the historic use of cemeteries as parks, the state of older cemeteries, and how to best remember and honor life'.

So instead of players viewing a screen and projecting their identity elsewhere as in other digital learning games, ARGs actually require the player to play themselves, embodying themselves fully in the fantasy scenario, providing fully-situated meaning. If it can be argued (Gee, 2003) that experience of projective identities contributes to deep learning, in that gaming requires players to 'see themselves in terms of a new identity..., the kind of person who can learn, use and value the new semiotic domain', then experiencing a new domain *as yourself* is likely to increase this contribution. From Turner and Morrison's experience (Turner and Morrison, 2005) of creating an ARG as a pedagogic tool for undergraduate students, it seems that this increased immersion is potentially compelling. They write that an ARG 'targets and implements a way to engage students with theoretical concepts by giving the a practice-based and relevant pathway with which to engage'. They also found that students developed self-directed learning processes, which standard school practices often struggle to instill.

Another strong feature of ARGs is the communities and forums that form to share clues and theories, enabling players to pool their expertise for a common cause. This is a strong expression of what Henry Jenkins of MIT calls the *conversion culture* (about which he's written a book of the same name), which reflects three core ideas: convergence, participatory culture and collective intelligence - where convergence is the 'flow of content across multiple media platforms', participatory culture is the inverse of 'older notions of passive media spectatorship' and collective intelligence is the ethic heralded by Pierre Levy 'based on sharing rather than hoarding knowledge'. Schools and education institutes should be aware of this cultural phenomenon, as children immersed in this culture are likely to find the passive absorption of knowledge uninspiring (which schools *are* trying to change). [Nor will students be engaged by the individual acquisition and retention of knowledge outside of integrated networks, which Gee (2003) recognises in school systems, but criticizes as being poor preparation for a knowledge economy]. This having to resort to teamwork encourages significant networking skills, and as Christy Dena (ARG white paper, 2006) writes, can enlighten producers of media, and teachers too, in 'how to design for participation, provide insight into tools for empowerment... and also illuminate the nature of communication and networks in general'.

In terms of what makes a good ARG, it seems that direct character interaction offers massive appeal. This is a concept that no media or literature format has really exploited (you cannot email characters in films) - and I feel marks a significant leap forward for the entertainment industry. Even receiving an email that you know is automated, like from a character in the BBC's Jamie Kane, gives you a feeling of being part of the story. This feature, where you know that its just a game, but are never quite sure, tends to foster an enticing sense of curiosity (for me anyway) - and it's reported that good ARGs never give the game away (tho some, like Perplex City, make no attempts to hide the fact that they are a game). When you combine these elements with complex problems, a compelling story and a bit of old-fashioned mystery, you have a format for a very appealing game.

Which are all principles I am trying to weave into the design of an ARG to submit for a Digital Earth competition (and course assignment), which intends to promote and involve players with DE software, while encouraging reflection and action on climate change issues. I am finding the process both extremely challenging yet rewarding - and at this stage with 3 weeks to go till the deadline have a slightly overwhelming sense that this is likely to occupy much of my waking life over the coming weeks. But if ARGs can hold great learning potential for their players, who knows what they can do for their designers! ;-)


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