Tag Archives: arg

Denmark Research/Teaching Trip

Over nine days at the end of March, I was honoured to be invited over to Denmark to work on two projects connected to my research and teaching.

Monumental statues by Thomas Kadziola on Lolland island

The first was the HistBattles project, being developed at the wonderful Lolland-Falster museum in Nykøbing Falster (on one of the two southern-most islands of Denmark). Erik Kristiansen, who I had worked with on the Transforming Thresholds project, is leading a project to create twelve alternate reality games (ARGs) to teach the local history of the islands to 13-18 year olds.

A rune stone

A rune stone at a church on Lolland island; one of the sites for the game.

Each ARG will cover a period of Danish history, and will be connected to one of the sites covered by the museum across the two islands. I was there to help scope out a framework for the game, and to help local staff start to design the puzzles and meta game. No further spoilers, but I’ll post more details as the project develops. The aim is to launch the first game in the Summer.

The second project was a guest teaching role at Aarhus University, firstly for the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media (CUDiM) – where I talked about online learning and curriculum design for the digital age; and then as a guest speaker for the House of Game//Play and Game Design Masters course, I ran a talk/workshop around Alternate reality and pervasive games. Both days were really interesting, with engaged students and staff entering into some deep discussions around both areas. The organisers,  Rikke Toft Nørgård and Claus Toft-Nielsen, then introduced me to their Coding Pirate workshops, where younger students (9-16) were creating their own computer games, and building mazes for robots and LEGO models. My thanks to Rikke, Claus and all the students and staff at the Centre for such an interesting and welcoming two days.

Students playing game

Students playing my ARG-cards game.

All of this playful activity was the perfect precursor to Counterplay 2017, which I’ll be reporting on in a following post.

Engaging Visitors Through Play

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast

The Museums Computer Group (MCG) is an excellent voluntary group serving museums in the UK (and wider) with support for those involved in creating digital experiences for visitors, and digital and information systems behind the scenes. As well as their annual conference (UK Museums on the Web) and lively discussion forum, they also organise a range of innovative meetings, symposiums and gatherings around topical issues.

I was delighted to be invited to speak at one such event, Engaging Visitors Through Play, hosted by Alan Hook and Oonagh Murphy at the University of Ulster in central Belfast. Based around the theme of play and games within museum contexts, the event pulled together ‘experts’ from around the UK alongside museums and creative companies from Northern Ireland, to create what looked like a fabulous line-up. As well as speaking about low cost game developments for learning, I was to join in a panel involving Sharna Jackson (Tate Kids) and Danny Birchall (Wellcome Collection), both of whom I’ve been wanting to meet and hear from for some time: so I was looking forward to the day hugely as it arrived.

The room was packed comfortably with a museum and creative audience, and Mia Ridge (Chair of MCG) outlined the work of the Group for those not familiar, and described some of the areas museums are currently interested in (or struggling with). Nico Fell from AV Browne, a creative agency in Belfast, hosted the first group of speakers. Lyndsey Jackson kicked off by telling us fascinating stories about her playful local immersive theatre company, Kabosh (my favourite being Belfast Bred, a culinary tour – with tasting – through 1912 Belfast); Oonagh and Alan then presented their own work on hack days and rapid development, and the MyNI photo challenge game in conjunction with the NI Tourist Board which gathered over 1800 players. A discussion around the markers of ‘success’ for games/play-based projects ensued: in this case the NI Tourist Board happy with the estimated £50,000 worth of royalty-free photographs they obtained; whereas museums might be happier with increased visitor numbers or widening visitor groups.

Wellcome Collection's High Tea

Wellcome Collection’s High Tea

The visiting speakers panel was next, chaired playfully by Matt Johnson from the Digital Circle in Belfast. Sharna Jackson gave us an entertaining insight into her game commissioning role for Tate’s younger visitors. Although bigger than most small museum budgets, her budget in relation to the Tate’s presence – and the implied requirement for cutting-edge art games – is tight, and she discussed the relative merits of small, low-cost games with much larger experiences created by top games developers and artists. She also made the important point that although Tate Kids aims to educate children, the games must be games in themselves and not the familiar ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ of many edu-games.  Danny Birchall made reference to the chocolate-covered vegetable too, and presented Wellcome’s beautiful collection of games – all commissioned from different designers for different purposes, and most interestingly: aimed firmly at an adult audience, not children (music to my ears). Budget is clearly not an issue here, and so each of the games could be designed with their aim and gameplay as core requirements, rather than limited by budget or resource. Danny’s most interesting example was the High Tea game based around Opium trading – he described how the game introduction, location, tools and methods were as historically accurate as possible, yet within that frame, players were free to do what ever they liked (which may or may not change the course of history). This process of setting up a strong context, but then letting players play freely, uninhibited by historic decisions, provides the essence of why games are good – a feeling felt around the room. I was up next, and used a little disruptive trick to demonstrate the concept of Alternate Reality Games to the audience – which seemed to go down well judging by the stream of tweets; following up with key ARG features which can transfer to a learning context, and my simple development process for low-cost contextual games. For the latter I took the group through the development of a simple card game especially for this symposium – which we were to play later in the afternoon.

After a very civilised (and tasty) tea and scones, there were four fascinating ‘lightning talks’ from local creatives: of these, the highlight for the audience was the two brothers of Design Zoo taking us through all the potential new technologies museums could make use of (a slingshot which catapults tweets to a talking wall being the best), some of their clever immersive games (using a giant public screen to show passers-by surrounded by giant bees) and all-too-brief details of their ARG Black Helix. My personal highlight though was Lance Wilson‘s warts-and-all development process for his own mini ARG around Belfast: battling rain-washed chalk clues, and vandalised phone boxes, he nevertheless managed to stage a successful ARG almost single-handed, proving its worth as a low-cost alternative to high-end digital.

How to curate a successful exhibition

How to curate a successful exhibition

It was then time to play the specially-developed card game for this symposium: Curate-a-fact. I’ll describe the design process and the game itself in a separate post soon – but essentially each member of the symposium was given an artefact. They then had to find 3-4 other artefacts to form a coherent collection (avoiding certain colour clashes), and pitch that collection to the rest of the room in a rapid-fire round at the end. The game lasted for 10 minutes, and saw the room bustling with trades, wild ideas, and slowly forming groups – everyone fully immersed in the game. After some excellent pitches, a team who curated ‘historic iPhone apps’ won by a narrow margin, and were awarded some very generous prizes from Rory’s Story Cubes who had kindly donated them (and who I had a fascinating chat with later in the pub). A great finish to the day, and it left everyone chattering away happily as they made their way to the pub.

Our work still wasn’t over then – this being the latest in a series of #drinkingaboutmuseums gatherings – but who can call it work when discussing game development in museums with some of the best creative minds around. A meal followed, and then some prearranged museum visits the following day (to the excellent recently revamped Ulster Museum and the very cleverly designed and hugely impressive Titanic Belfast experience).

Great city, great people, great event, great thinking.

New journal article: An Alternate Reality for Education?

IJGBL CoverA paper in which I revisit the research I conducted into the most engaged players in the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) Perplex City has just been published in the International Journal of Games Based Learning (IJGBL), Vol. 2, Issue 3, pp32-50.

The paper takes a fuller look at the data I presented at ALT-C in 2008, and – drawing on more recent research into ARGs since – reaffirms the seven key features I feel can be transferred to higher education to improve engagement with learning:

  • Problem solving at varying levels (graded challenge)
    – enable students to pick their own starting level and work up from there
  • Progress and rewards (leaderboard, grand prize)
    – this could also be assessment
  • Narrative devices (characters/plot/story)
    – doesn’t have to be fictional: academic subjects have histories, themes, news etc.
  • Influence on outcomes
    – as researchers we don’t think that we are working towards a known answer or statement; and we would like our students to think in the same way: by letting them decide or influence some aspects of their course, this helps to scaffold their path into a critical academic thinker
  • Regular delivery of new problems/events
    – key to maintaining engagement. Thinking about ways to keep things moving without putting extra pressure on staff
  • Potential for large, active community
    …which is self-supporting/scaffolding – the potential is less the smaller the group and the narrower the subject interest/specialisation.
  • Based on simple, existing technologies/media
    – rather than high-end simulations or graphics

If you can’t access the journal article from your institution, you can get the gist of the paper from the 2008 conference paper in Publications, and I hope to be able to provide the new full paper here in due course.

Museums at Play

A shiny and rather playful new book dropped on my doormat this morning: Museums at Play, the latest in MuseumsEtc.’s quick-to-press up to date publications for the museum sector.

I contributed a chapter on the use of pervasive or alternate reality games (ARGs)  in museums, drawing on a very interesting interview with Georgina Goodlander about her work at the LUCE foundation on the two ARGs Pheon and Ghosts of a Chance; and the work Juliette Culver did with Bletchley Park on our charity ARG for Cancer Research UK, Operation:Sleeper Cell. I strongly feel that ARGs provide a compelling approach to museum education, due to their low-tech and cheap budget (yet highly engaging) nature. Hopefully my chapter will encourage other museums to try this out.

The rest of the (mammoth, and expertly woven together by editor Katy Beale) book has an incredible variety of theoretical and practical approaches, case studies, and thought pieces. They cover game approaches from simple card games and treasure hunts, to multiple actor staged events and high-end digital installations; with many involving the museum audience in co-creation or collaborative outputs.

It’ll take a while to read through them all, but I challenge any museum education officer not to be inspired by at least one approach.

Game Based Learning 2010

I’ve waited a week to mull over the Games Based Learning 2010 conference I attended in the rather impressive surroundings of The Brewery last week.

Main hall, The Brewery, GBL2010

The Main Hall, The Brewery

I was there to co-present a new approach to games based learning for higher education with Simon Brookes from Portsmouth University (more of which later), but approached it with more than a little trepidation. The conference (in its second year) is organised by a private promoter, and supported rather prominently by industry partners. This proved only slightly worrying/irritating, the main irritant being the central prominence of sponsor logos behind all of the keynotes (slides, and in the case of Jesse Schell, the speaker themselves demoted to smaller screens at either side). Otherwise, Graham the promotor and his team were enthusiastic and enabling.

The other worry was the broad spread of the conference: drawing talks/attendees from industry, politics, media, and education from all sectors (primary to higher ed). This proved both limiting and inspiring – limiting in that big questions pertinent to certain sectors moved no further on than age-old issues (for example, ‘what is a game’ and ‘games are not evil’ reared their heads repeatedly) whilst many discussions died before they could begin due to the audience spread. Inspiring, though, in that the papers and discussions which followed provided a number of different viewpoints/approaches from the various sectors, and helped spark ideas from left-field and possible collaborations.

Myself and Simon were speaking in a mini- ‘alternative reality’ section, preceded by Kris Rockwell (Hybrid Learning). Kris’s talk highlighted many of the aspects we hoped to pull together in our paper, giving the section a coherent feel. We had a few seconds to get into our white scientist coats (courtesy @jobadge) – and presented our approach to Alternate Reality Games in education as epistemic frameworks (after Schaffer, 2005) which I’ll write about here soon. The session as a whole went well, with good questions for Kris and ourselves.

I spent most of the conference in the separate strands – particularly the whole-day Research strand on the Tuesday. Not too much research in evidence, unfortunately, although there were some good case studies across a range of disciplines and sectors.

Of the keynotes I caught, a mini (friendly) political sparring between Tom Watson and Ed Vasey saw the former upstage the latter with his enthusiasm for games and education; Alice Taylor gave a comprehensive overview of the upcoming projects the innovative Channel 4 Interactive arm are working on (including pirates, explorers, image manipulation and a fabulous sex education game where one takes charge of a platoon of ‘privates’); and Derek Robertson and one of his primary school Heads Gillian Penny gave an energising account of off-the-shelf games use in Scottish schools.

Jesse Schell minimised

Two keynotes stood out though: the first from Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma was thought-provoking and engaging: Matt describes some simple ideas and facts, but they form a powerful and persuasive (though not, surprisingly, particularly subversive) message – feedback between piracy/copying and originators provides a creative loop – and a useful heuristic for approaching game- and course- design. The second, from Jesse Schell, was delivered by video link – but proved to be the most engaging of all. Jesse proposed that game/course design should follow the four aspects we most like in modern life: beauty, customisation, sharing and reality. Drawing on some themes from the opening keynote of the conference, Jesse proposed that designs come from a hybrid of skills – artists working closely with technicians, for example. It’s well worth catching (base of page).

Two quick final notes: the catering at the otherwise excellent Brewery was a bit sparse: small slightly odd portions at lunch, and a distinct lack of biscuits; but this was more than made up for with the free bar at the evening event, and some great food, beer and discussion as a result.

Shaffer, D. (2005). Epistemic games. Innovate 1 (6). Available: http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=79 (accessed April 8, 2010).

ARG Event at SGI, Coventry

The Coventry University Serious Games Institute hold a series of mini-conferences around a gaming theme on the second Wednesday of each month; and on November 11th it was the turn of Alternative Reality Games. The presenters, and audience, were drawn from academia, the games/arts industry and publishing, which made for an interesting range of topics and good questions/discussions.


Dan Hon, Six to Start

Six to Start’s Dan Hon opened the proceedings with an overview of their projects since the initial, and impressive, We Tell Stories (which English teachers apparently really liked: good news!). He described how their Spooks: Code 9 ARG sneaked in education elements by linking in-game events and deeper information into the realtime TV programmes. He also revealed that they will be making an ARG for the new Misfits superhero series.


Mike Bennett was up next, of Oil –  makers of, amongst other things, the Channel 4 Routes genetics ARG (which a colleague of mine working in Genetics had found less than educational). Mike had the interesting theory that of a typical audience, 90% are casual observers, 9% are engaged, and 1% are immersed (90/9/1) – it struck me that this kind of ratio might well be applied to many education contexts too.

I was there to talk about competition – and how my initial research into ARGs, and later experience with four case studies in academia, had revealed a strong link between motivation and competition elements; I also touched on the lack of competition in modern education, and the incongruence of this with the modern student’s social life; and argued for a realignment of assessment with more motivating methods such as those incorporating competitive elements.

After a break, where I had a good chat with the midlands regional team for 4IP about their plans to introduce game-based learning at sixth-form level, there were two fascinating live storytelling/interactive presentations from Toby Barnes (Mudlark) and Tassos Stevens (Coney). Toby was presenting a new project based in Sherwood Forest, and mused on the fact that people engage in different ways (some are happy to watch in silence; others discover; some prefer public engagement, others private) and all need to be covered in a game experience. Tassos described a number of fascinating projects with schoolchildren (my favourite being a ‘live’ emailing cat). His presentation, and the discussion in the room afterwards, centred around the idea of liveness – how high engagement is dependent not on things actually happening ‘live’, but on responsivity – having individual or collective contextual and timely responses. This is something which has been on my mind since then, and is a concept which applies well to assessment and feedback too. More thoughts/musings on this in a later post.

All in all, a varied and thought-provoking day, with some excellent speakers. And well hosted by the Serious Games Institute and BAFTA’s games arm. Food for thought!



Reality Bytes: ARGs in Academia

vf75An article I wrote for the British Universities Film  & Video Council’s excellent Viewfinder magazine has just been published (June 2009, no 75).

In it I give a brief overview of what an ARG is, why it is so interesting for education, and some examples of recent ARG-related work in educational settings.

Click the cover for a PDF of the article; use the link above to obtain a copy of the full printed issue.

Initial Reflections

Well, the Great History Conundrum finished its first iteration three weeks ago now, and the final marks (for the reflective, group wiki stage) have come back in from the departmental tutors. Given that some sectors of the department were (quite rightly) slightly apprehensive about this new fangled online game thing, the comments coming back have been mightily heartening!

A press release recently went out containing some brief details of the course’s success (see PublicTechnology.net‘s article) but, in advance of a full analysis of the results, I thought I’d reflect on some of the key things we discovered:

  • Moderation is a mutable but vital beast. Some of the moderators were slow to start (due to poor advance warning on our part) which caused initial unrest amongst students; and moderation varied from fair to outstanding at different times, whereas the students and department expected consistency (of course). Biggest problem? Time. We allocated 5 hours per week per moderator, and probably needed 7-10. Lesson: more preparation/handholding at start, more time, more checks throughout.
  • Students are all different, despite what you hear.A portion of students really liked the narrative puzzles, a portion hated them. A portion liked cryptic ones, others preferred straightforward questions. About half enjoyed working in a group, about half as individuals.Lesson: No size fits all – don’t try to.
  • Enthusiasm is infectious. Academic departments are used to bored/unengaged students (it’s becoming the norm), so a show of enthusiasm can bring them onside to anything. Our closing ceremony was a stroke of genius: the students whooped their way through it, and the departmental staff present got to see their enthusiasm first hand. It also came through in their reflective wikis (I really enjoyed this one; this one took me ages, etc.). Lesson: try to capture and disseminate any enthusiasm to students and staff.
  • Assessment is a double edged sword. It guarantees that students will do your course, and gives it status within a department; but means that you are open to strong scrutiny, are affecting a student’s degree, and (most importantly) the students feel that they have the right to moan. a lot. all the time. even when they are actually enjoying things.Lesson: none really. For mass take-up, assessment is vital. Accept the moans.
  • Learning is doing. This was the primary aim behind our course, and it’s been proved in spades. First year students this year have engaged with the key skills and topics in a way that surpasses their second and third year peers. The difference? They’re having to think, and apply, to achieve an aim. Lesson: it’s not a new one. But it’s true.

Merry Christmas everyone!
(I’m allowed to say that: I grew up near to Noddy Holder).

We Changed the Game

lctglogoFriday 5th December: screening room, underneath the giant 3D ‘4’ at Channel 4 HQ. A hitherto unseen convergence of education, charity, broadcasting, games industry and student representatives, listening, discussing and brainstorming at length on the subject of ‘Games for Good’ – or more precisely, Alternate Reality Games for noble causes.

The first conference of its kind, dreamed up during a conversation with Adrian Hon of Six to Start and Juliette Culver of Law 37 and the Open University, this was certainly not the last: the happy crowd were discussing the next get-together in between soakings on the mini pub crawl afterwards.

Adrian and myself had, between us, managed to get a good cross section of the cutting edge of ARGs for Good at the moment: for my education section, I was thrilled to be joined by Nic Whitton (Manchester Met., ARGOSI) and Katie Piatt (Brighton Univ., several fabulous induction games), which combined with the recently completed Great History Conundrum, gave a great range of ARG- and pseudo-ARG approaches.

Juliette was up first, to give an overview of Operation: Sleeper Cell (which ended last week having raised over £3000 for Cancer Research UK – more on this later), followed by a good Q&A where we discussed the highs and lows of making the first international ARG for charity. The broadcasters were up next, Alice Taylor (C4 Educational programming) and Philip Trippenbach (BBC Current Affairs interactive)  giving very interesting accounts of their upcoming plans – interesting things in 2009, viewers!

The academics were up next, and it was great to get a chance to hear more about ARGOSI’s Viola Quest and Katie’s Herring Hale, What is GG, and Neverending Uni Quiz projects, as well as to give an overview of the Great History Conundrum and its hot-off-the-press results. There was some surprise at how much was going on in education and off the industry radar, and the Q&A raised some interesting questions about whether ARGs can ever be all-inclusive (probably not) but are still a very useful educational tool (probably so).

A breakout session followed, where we asked groups to come up with a pitch for a new ARG for education which would take advantage of industry, charity, broadcasting or gaming involvement. Some great ideas were bouncing around (not least the one for an online popularity game – not particularly educational, but it could take off in a big way…).

The day finished with details of the GameRaid project (Comic relief -style in-game video spoof event: interesting but slightly above my head) and an insightful theoretical perspective on participatory media by the BBC’s Nicola Smythe. Dan Hon (Six to Start co-founder) then finished up with an irreverent but highly entertaining (and pertinent) attack on the current state of ARGs. 

Fabulous day, with lots of cross-sector thinking and idea storming. Many thanks to Adrian for pulling in such a great bunch and sorting out the fabulous venue, and to Nic and Katie for holding up our end so well. We’re keeping the group going online, and I look forward to the next meet-up with eagerness – but meanwhile, there are some funding ideas to mull over…

The Great History Conundrum

Although I’ve been researching and preparing for this course for one and a half years, I’ve held back from writing about it here until it launched. Which it has. Last Monday.

Stakes are high. The History course it was designed for had a cohort of 140 students; and for the last few years both they and their lecturers have complained about the first year research skills course they have to do in the first semester (the students find it dull and patronising; the lecturers find that the students don’t engage with it or pick up the necessary skills). 

A Great History Conundrum Puzzle

A Great History Conundrum Puzzle

Using my research into ARGs (see earlier posts) I had designed a new online section of the course which hoped to use key features of online reality games to engage the students with historical research, teach them key skills, bring them together as a group, and allow them to work in their own pace and time. Two successful pilots were run last year, with 10 students each time, and the department decided to include it in the assessed first year module this year. In September, I heard that the number of students had risen to 200.

The Great History Conundrum (GHC) is based around 50 ‘problems’ or puzzles of varying difficulty, which are designed to introduce students to the range of resources and skills they will need in their three years. Various of them incorporate narrative elements, cryptic clues, real life locations and collaborative tasks, increasing the range of skills they develop and broadening their interest to different types of students (theoretically). 

As equally important, though, are the course’s forums (held, like the GHC home, on the University’s BlackBoard system), which encourage collaboration and reflection on resources and skills discovered. Posts on the forums feed into the final section of the course, which asks the students to create a shared resource (as a WIKI) which describes the resources and skills required and will become a reference for their studies throughout their degree.

Motivation and engagement is provided by instantly updated leaderboards and delivery of new puzzles (via a custom-built but ‘simple’ web app which talks to the intranet) and by carefully developed assessment methods: the three aspects of the course (puzzle solving, forum posting and WIKI creation) are assessed continually, with students able to see 66% of their actual assessment scores as they go along.

So that’s the background. And so to the launch. Following an opening lecture to introduce the cohort to their challenge, they quickly and encouragingly rushed off in droves to log in and solve their first puzzle – only for a bug to become apparent in the custom web system which resulted in blank puzzles being sent back to the students rather than new ones.

To cut a long and rather forgettable story short, niggly problems with the technical side continued until Thursday, when they were finally banished. The students stuck with us, though, and were able to solve puzzles and post to the forums throughout. Which they did with aplomb: to date, 125 of the 200 students have engaged to some extent, and a quarter of those have now achieved a running mark of over 40% for the course, with the WIKI stage (and 33%) still three weeks off.

More reports to follow, with further background on the course itself.