Alternate Reality Games – My reflections from PELeCON 2012

Before actually writing about the second day at PELECON, I would like to reflect a bit upon Helen Keegan’s spotlight talk and which I – together with, I would guess, the rest of the participants here at PELECON, just absolutely loved. Helen Keegan described an Alternate Reality Game which she literally pulled on her students – students who were following a BSc Professional Sound and Video Technology, Advanced Multimedia module.

Now, even the phrase pull on one’s students starts triggering ethical questions… should I? Shouldn’t I? Ethics in Education seems to be a very sore point and at times I feel that many Educators and researchers hide behind the ethics cover to justify their lack of innovation in approach and their need for standardization throughout.

In fact Helen said many things which one needs to ponder on. For example 1) learning initially sparked off from a sense of paranoia (student tweets showed that some got really scared that an unknown person had actually started sending them confused information messages)  – what does this mean and imply? 2) one needs to be willing to take certain amounts of risks. This is a very interesting point. I find, sadly I must say that I am surrounded by many academics who are not willing to take risks. As my  colleague Alex Grech says, people just fall into the Gramscian Hegemony – many love the ‘status quo’. One does appreciate, that ‘status quo’ implies stability – the known, the experienced. But the unknown is fearsome, might be chaotic – who knows? and that is particularly the question which really really somehow needs to make its way into our learners’ brain. WHO KNOWS IF?
Anyway this who knows kind of attitude, featured particularly in Helen Keegan’s ARG game (for more info about ARGs visit this link). Students were deceived, the ARG rules do declare the need for a degree of deception, into believing that this person, the famous or infamous Rufi Franzen, had actually hacked into their lives and was disseminating bits of code and information which they had to take as clues to solve a puzzle which they had no idea what it was, or why it was done. They were just asked to “join the dots”. What they had no idea of was, that the actual module curriculum, was indeed being followed. As Helen Keegan said – “It took a lot of effort to balance the curriculum with the wild wild west”. The students were indeed doing what is normally covered in the course, albeit following it in an entirely different way. What the students didn’t realize was that rather than having their lecturer tell them that they need to watch 20 videos, (for which they wouldn’t be assessed and which in all probability none would have watched), it was the mysterious Rufi that actually told them that they had so many clues in these videos and one learner after the other, started watching these videos more closely, more attentively to try and solve the conundrum. In the end the ARG culminated in a rather theatrical display which the students loved and which I believe does make some justice to all the hard work thinking through the problems which were posed throughout the 12 week course duration.
However the learning that occurred via this ARG, as testified by the students themselves, took them to a so much deeper level that so amount of theatrical display can actually make up for it. Students were immersed in such a way that it took them ages, (for some it was really hard to stop playing the game) to realize that after all they were “conned” into learning. For many, Rufi was someone who was a “real” presence throughout the course, even though Rufi was completely imaginary! So much for behavioral change that is directly related to the perceptions in the mind. This idea of immersion, whether it is through a virtual world or an alternate reality game is an aspect of cognitive science which I am very interested in exploring – and I am already thinking of ways of how to do this with my own pre-service teachers. I wonder though – am I really willing to take the plunge and risk? Will I find partners who will support this leap in the dark? And as Helen said, “is such an approach justified for the sake of Education?” Hmmm – yes…and now to some serious thinking stuff…how shall I do it?


5 thoughts on “Alternate Reality Games – My reflections from PELeCON 2012

  1. Pingback: My Day 2 reflections at PELeCON #pelc12 | Seriously Virtual

  2. Thank you so much for such a fantastic write-up. It’s great to read your impressions, and the thoughts that you have in relation to ethics, deception, risk-taking. I must admit, I was very nervous about presenting the ARG as I was worried that people may object to the deception (and paranoia etc…), but the PELeCON crowd were so supportive. If you do something like this yourself I’d love to know more about it – please do get in touch! It would be great to bounce ideas around with you 🙂

    • Your comments are very flattering and I thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I admit I was impressed by your talk, and what you did with the students. I will certainly share anything which we do in terms of alternate reality gaming, but I don’t know if we can be as daring. I would certainly love to though 😉

  3. I struggled with exactly this dilemma when I developed an ARG-based unit a couple of years ago. In the end I sought advice from a professional ARG writer, Andrea Phillips ( who offered some sage words of wisdom. We agreed that, ethically, it is too problematic not to disclose the nature of the intervention to the students and that some may react badly if they were convinced that the characters in the ARG where real (this is particularly true for my unit where the students are working with a failing company, with all of the inherent stresses and strains associated with this scenario). So what I do is tell the students that they are going to participate in a 12 week long simulation which is like no they simulation they have participated in before and that, crucially, in order to be successful, they will have to participate in a professional manner, interacting with the characters in the scenario, as if they were doing this for real. In fact, a big part of the assessment is based upon this. I then tell them that, as of now, we never talk about the unit a a simulation, after which I switch into character and the story unfolds.

    You can find out more about my work here:

    Happy to talk further about this.



    • Hi Simon,
      thanks for your comments, and your work seems interesting and exciting. I, myself, am very much interested in working with HE students, especially those following B.Ed (teacher training) courses. My doubts are whether the students would in effect agree to participate in such games. I find that as a community, our students are not very open to such ideas. However it doesn’t mean I will give up and any help, advice and suggestions as to how I should go about this, from people in these communities such as yourself is greatly appreciated. Will follow your blog with interest,
      Many thanks

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