Mail Bag!

CastDan Wade, from Webb City Middle School, sent me a couple of questions about my classroom Alternate Reality Game (ARG). I’ve received a lot of similar questions lately, so I thought I would throw my answers up on the ol’ website to help as many people as possible.

Dan says:

Hello! My co-teacher and I are working on gamifying our rooms next year by creating an ARG that encompasses both of our classes. Your blog has been immensely helpful in helping us figure out what we should be doing. One area where we seem to be stuck is how the students receive the clues and what exactly the clues lead to. Do they lead to a digital location? A physical location in the building?

First, a quick plot summary of my ARG. In TwentyTwenty, Sammy, a girl from the future, is in trouble. She has been sending my students messages in hopes that they will help save her and the rest of the world from the evil Malus Evermoore and his reign of terror. At first the messages were digital, since Sammy had the ability to “hack” into my computer, but after repairing Sammy’s broken Quantum Computer she can now make things happen in the physical world.

Next, let me define my terms since I’ve been asked what I mean when I say:

Clue – a coded message that must be deciphered. When deciphered, clues lead students to a puzzle that they must solve. See if you can solve this clue I just made as an example:

Guvf vf n fvzcyr EBG13 pbqrq zrffntr. Gur zrgubq bs V hfr gb pbqr zrffntrf punatrf rirel gvzr.

Puzzle – A difficult problem that must be solved by students. For my favorite puzzle, check out my recent post on how to make an SSTV puzzle.

Plot – After successfully completing the puzzle and sending the solution to a character, they receive more information about the story. This information usually comes in the form of a conversation with a character who will also guide them on what to do next.

Together, I call a clue leading to a puzzle leading to a plot a “cycle.” I never design just one part of a cycle. I always plan and design a full cycle together.

So how do students receive clues?

Most of the time, Students receive clues IN their work. As they complete assignments in class, they must be on the lookout for anything that looks unusual. An underlined letter, a bolded word, part of a QR code, words or numbers seemingly out of place. Anything unusual could be Sammy attempting to send them a clue. Again, at first clues and puzzles sent students to digital locations and required digital solutions, but, after my students helped Sammy fix her quantum computer, Sammy can now open wormholes. The wormholes let Sammy hide clues and puzzles in physical locations around the school and require them to physically do something to solve the puzzle.

Here is an example of a digital clue —-> puzzle —-> plot cycle:


Students received this map of Accusers and Witches during our Level on The Crucible. You will notice on the key it says #whatalicefelldown. Earlier in the game, students discovered that a # in a message meant they had to go to a character’s website.


Students entered the answer, Rabbit Hole, into Arthur Baxter’s website using the search box. Note: this took some trial and error as there are five character websites.

Guvf vf gur jnl gur jbeyq raqf.

The search returned a secret webpage on Baxter’s site and with a picture from Sammy to download. On this picture is a coded message that gives more details on the plot, and the puzzle here is the picture under the coded message:


A group of my kids used Photoshop to clean up the picture. Their reward for completing this puzzle was the transmedia plot revelation that the evil Malus Evermoore is going to run for president against Arthur Baxter in TwentyTwenty.

Here is an example of a physical clue —- > puzzle —-> plot cycle students recently completed after repairing Sammy’s Quantum Computer.

I cut a QR code in half and put each half onto the back of two different handouts. Students realized if they aligned the two handouts perfectly, which took some serious origami skills, they got a working QR code.

When they scanned the QR code, they got this clue from Sammy:


This clue starts with an message from Sammy and ends with an ISBN number and the word “go.” It took students a while to figure out that the game had entered the physical world.The students had a week long discussion on Schoology about what to do next. Eventually, they figured out what an ISBN number is and what book the ISBN number belonged to.

Armed with this new knowledge, students went to the school library and checked out a copy of The Hobbit. Hidden in the book was a clue, put there by Sammy using her wormhole, that need to be solved. Upon solving the clue, students learned of their next physical puzzle: send Sammy a lock pick!


For my Explorers, I have also hidden Easter Eggs throughout the game. These can be found at anytime by anyone and give more background on the characters and their world. For an example, click the star on the banner near the top of the TwentyTwenty page.

What do the clues/puzzles lead to at the end of an Act (quarter)?

At the end of a quarter, students must solve a big, complicated puzzle. The SSTV puzzle ended the first Act. After solving the puzzle, the kids get a major plot reveal. The major plot reveal at the end of the first Act was the fact that Sammy was a girl (they saw her for the first time) and she could now interact physically with their world.

Do the clues lead to assignments or just the next clue?

The general order is Clue —> Puzzle —–> Plot —> Clue. Clues are often hidden in assignments, though sometimes they come from characters. While I guess you can say they lead to assignments, you are better off thinking of them as being plot driven. Create a cycle, then find places to hide them.

Lastly, for now, how many clues do you have in a marking period? Again, thank you for your help.

Short answer: it depends.

Long answer: The amount of clues/puzzles I make depends on how fast or slow the students are going. The number of clues/puzzles I make determine the pacing of the story.

I seeded the game with 25 clues that were ready to be solved on the first day of school. All these clues were just waiting to be found and students worked together to solve them. It took nearly three weeks to find all 25 clues. The purpose of the clues was to give exposition about the story, so students had an idea about what the game-world was like, who the characters were and what they were like.

After the seeding phase, I moved to first contact. The coded messages in their assignments started to tell them to go to digital places. At first they didn’t know who the messages were from or what the person wanted, but as clues led to puzzles and puzzles led to more plot, my students’ mission became clear: save Sammy and the rest of the world before the school year was over.

So where are we now?

Our latest puzzle: Next week, Sammy will open a wormhole in a predetermined place for 24 hours. Within those 24 hours, students must put something that Sammy can use to pick a lock “into” the wormhole. I can’t tell you where the wormhole will be or what “into” means yet because my kids have found this site.

No cheating!

With the lock pick, Sammy has told my kids that she can get into a room that might have some valuable information they can use to stop Malus in 2014 before he becomes president. If they don’t find the predetermined location, make the 24 hour window, or get a viable lock pick “into” the wormhole there will be consequences.

Dan, I hope all that made sense. Whenever I talk about my ARG I fell like a crazy person, but what everyone needs to understand is this:

I’ve never made an ARG before, nor do I know anyone else who has ever done anything like this either. And since Jane McGonigal hasn’t answered my fan mail (Call me, Jane! :)), I’ve just been trying to do my best and learn as I go.

If you are thinking about making an ARG, just do it. Make it up as you go! Just like you should teach your students, it’s OK to screw up. I’ve made a ton of mistakes doing this, and I know next year’s ARG will be better for it. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Jump in with both feet and have fun. Your kids will love it either way.

As always, if you need help, I’m here.

Until then,