Research

The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry (AGOG) alternate reality game (ARG) is part of a NSF-funded study of the design process and educational use of ARGs: ARGs in the Service of Design and Education. The purpose of this research is to better understand how transmedia storytelling experiences can be used as novel educational activities. We’re also trying to improve our understanding of how experts and novices create transmedia experiences and experience them, with a special emphasis on the use of mobile devices.

Our investigation explores the following research themes, and falls into multiple parts:

Research Themes:

  • Novice and expert design processes for educational games and ARGs in particular
  • Mobile technology and ARGs (e.g. we created a wiki of mobile apps appropriate for educational ARG use, and mobile apps will figure prominently in Season 2 of AGOG)
  • New ways to encourage STEM learning
  • Information literacy concepts (e.g. collaboration, wiki editing, blogging)
  • The ethics of educational historical gaming (how to teach facts while exploring counterfactuals)
  • Replayability (e.g. making ARGs extensible and affordable)

Research Initiatives:

1. Expert Interviews and Presentation Recordings. In 2010 and 2011, the research team interviewed experts in the area of ARG design and development, transmedia studies, and games and learning. Our interviewees included (among others):

  • Sean Stewart, ARG-writer extraordinaire (The Beast, ilovebees, Last Call Poker, the Cathy’s Book series)
  • Mal Jones, illustrator for the National Zoo’s ARG, Save the Pygmy Dragon Panda
  • James Gee, games and education theorist and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
  • Margeaux Johnson, a science/reference librarian at the University of Florida who designed an information literacy mission/quest as part of a larger university ARG (“Humans vs. Zombies”)
  • Ken Eklund designer of the World without Oil ARG
  • John Maccabee, designer of Ghosts of a Chance and Pheon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Highlights of these interviews, along with an annotated bibliography and glossary of transmedia resources (focusing on ARGs) can be read at our community site, THINKTransmedia.org. Our interviews and compilation of community resources reflect our ongoing efforts to capture the ARG design process from multiple, interdisciplinary perspectives.

2. Novice Designers. Graduate iSchool students in classes taught by the study’s Co-PI Derek Hansen acted as a pool of ARG game-design novices. This team of “novice designers” created a transmedia lesson plan that included an ARG-appropriate mini-puzzle. This group helped us study how first-time game designers confront design tasks; their work was documented through interviews and design diary activities throughout the design process. The study also recorded and examined ARG puzzle and mythology creation by members of the research team.

3. ARG Players. The first season of a test-bed educational ARG ran in April 2011 with a group of 57 eighth-grade students at Bates Middle School in Maryland. A second season of the ARG, currently scheduled for Spring 2012, will work with a group containing both undergrad and other players, allowing us to both interact with a different audience and test replayability.

4.  Cooperative Design. Motivated by what we might learn about transmedia storytelling and associated genres and technologies by including children in the design process, we partnered with Allison Druin and KidsTeam in 2010-2011.  Over the course of four design sessions, we explored several inter-related themes:

  • Session 1.  After asking the kids to brainstorm movies and stories—e.g., Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland–in which children enter imaginary places via secret portals, we watched video clips from some of the examples.  The kids were then divided into groups, given bags of craft supplies (“bags of stuff”) and mobile phone surrogates, and asked to design their own “stories they can play” that involved entering a fictional world from the real world or vice versa (the idea of one world spilling into another was foregrounded).
  • Session 2.  The kids were asked how they would collaborate or communicate with other in-world players, especially if they had certain in-game constraints, like only being able to use materials from a certain time period, for example Victorian England.  As a way to prime their imaginations, they were asked about various ways of repurposing everyday objects, such as an egg carton for a jewelry box or a daisy chain for a crown.  The kids were then divided into groups; provided with various vintage artifacts purchased on Etsy (e.g., watch parts, drawer pulls, butter knife handles) that they could use to create assemblage art; and asked to build imaginary communication devices and other technologies that might populate an alternate steampunk world.
  • Sessions 3 and 4. Inspired by “design fiction,” which involves the prototyping of artifacts that embody our ideas about the near future (what Julian Bleecker has defined as “crafting material visions of . . . possible worlds”), we asked KidsTeam to collectively imagine the future of the book.  As a way to move beyond conventional associations of the book with the bounded space of the codex, we gave each group a mixing bowl and directed the students to a table with assorted odds and ends laid out–miniature instruments; leaves, seeds, and other organic elements; blocks; magnets; remote controls; and so forth.  The kids were then asked to invent new “recipes” for the book by combining ingredients from the table in their mixing bowls and describing the resulting composites (e.g., what happens when you cross the traditional book with a harp, colored yarn, and a shape primitive such as a cylinder?).  A follow-up session began with a slide show on the history of the book, charting its many permutations over time, and ended with an activity that required KidsTeam participants to extrapolate from what they’d learned in order to envision the sort of books their grandchildren might read.

5.  Typology of Concealment.  Given the emphasis on false and hidden affordances in ARGs (for example, anagrams, encrypted text, buried caches, disguised characters, camouflaged containers, and so forth), we’re interested in inventorying different modes and processes of concealment, not only those typically encountered in ARGs, but also those originating in other contexts, such as nature (e.g., biological mimicry), the military, and culture, with an eye to how they might inform game design.  We expect to work this research into an article over the course of the 2011-2012 academic year.

6. Alternate Reality Games as Platforms for Practicing 21st Century Literacies.  With Marc Ruppel (PhD student at the University of Maryland), we’ve been examining how the machinery and conventions of ARGs can be used to scaffold information literacy instruction. 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 21st-century literacies. (Article under review).

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