My favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, enjoyed creating and deciphering cryptograms. A few years ago, after I taught my kids that fun fact, I started to put cryptograms in their work that, when deciphered, gave the title of our next Poe story. They were hard, and they took time and effort to solve. They were not graded, and they were not mandatory, yet the kids did them anyway because they were fun. When I heard about gamification a year ago, and began to experiment with it in my class, I kept thinking to myself how cool it would be if I could combine gamification with the fun my kids had solving cryptograms.
I racked my brain. I thought it would be even cooler if I could make these puzzles meaningful. If i could make them an integral part of a mystery my kids could unravel during the year; really make my class into a video game and make them the main characters. Last March, I realized what I wanted to do was to turn my classroom into a yearlong Alternate Reality Game (ARG). Now that my students have figured out the basics of the ARG, it’s safe to tell you how I am turning my classroom into the world’s first, (as far as I know) yearlong classroom ARG.
While my yearlong, classroom ARG may be new, ARGs are not. They’ve been around at least since 2001. An ARG tells a transmedia story using fictional characters that “exist” in the real world and interact with the real people that are playing the game. These real people playing the game have a direct impact on the direction the story takes and how it ends.
Creating ARG characters is a lot of work. When you create your story you want to be able to tell it with as few characters as possible. My ARG has five characters. I’ve created an online presence for each character in a way that makes them seem like real people (like you see on the show Catfish). Now, I can’t tell you everything, since some of my students have found this site (Hi, guys!), but I will tell you what my students know thus far in an effort to better explain what an ARG in the classroom looks like.
*Do me a favor, please don’t fill out the forms on the characters’ websites, nor follow/post on their twitters. Thanks!*
Allow me to present the cast of TwentyTwenty, my classroom ARG:
Malus Evermoore is a self-made billionaire entrepreneur. Recently, Malus Evermoore has taken all of his money, teamed up with Dr. Jamal Jones, and started Evermoore Energy. Using Dr. Jones’ discovery, Evermoore Energy hopes to provide an alternative energy source for the world. Twitter here.
As a member of CERN, Dr. Jamal Jones helped discover the Higgs Boson. More importantly, using the Higgs Boson, Dr. Jones was able to prove the existence of Dark Energy. He then theorized a way to harness Dark Energy and use it as an energy source. To get the funding he needed to make this Dark Fusion Reactor a reality, Dr. Jones has teamed up with Malus Evermoore. Together they opened the doors of Evermoore Energy and started powering homes in the United States with Dark Energy. Malus runs the company and Dr. Jones oversees the R&D department… that was until Dr. Jones went missing.Twitter here.
Dr. Jamal Jones’ sister, Jenna Jones, believes something has happened to her brother. He won’t return her calls. In fact, he hasn’t been heard from since Evermoore Energy opened its doors this past 4th of July. Jenna is worried because she and Jamal have always been close and it’s unlike him to even go a day without talking to her. She has been asking anyone to help her find Jamal. Twitter here.
Arthur Baxter has just announced his intention to run for president in 2016. Arthur, a long time politician and community activist, is popular with his constituency and many believe the presidency is not out of his reach. One of his campaign promises is to help get America off foreign oil. He says he’ll do this by working closely with Evermoore Energy. Twitter here.
A mystery yet unraveled, there is a person actively trying to make contact with my students. For some reason, it seems this person is hiding clues in my students’ work or on websites by manipulating files saved on my (me, the teacher) computer or stored on the internet. So far, my students have figure out that if this person puts an @ symbol before words, this person wants them to visit those words on Twitter. If they see a # before words, this person wants them to search for those words on one of the characters’ websites. When they decipher the clue, they will know the proper place to go and what to do when they get there. Following these steps, what they find is a puzzle. When the students solve the puzzle, they will get a message, picture, audio file, or some type of media to help them start to piece together what this person wants and what it has to do with them and these other four characters.
How about some examples of clues leading to puzzles leading to transmedia storytelling?
Scattered throughout a recent worksheet, the following appeared: @won’t @help @me @you. Rearranged, the students figured out that this person wanted them to go to the Twitter handle @wontyouhelpme (yes, you can go there, but please don’t add/tweet this handle). When the students arrived at that the twitter paged they found a pixelated profile picture and strange looking text:
When put in front of a mirror, they realized the message read:
Help me. Can you see me? Can you see me? I failed the test. Help me.
Who is this person? Why do they need help? What test did they fail? Many questions remain unanswered.
Another clue led to a puzzle that when deciphered said, “Save Jamal, Save The World.” A Google search on the name led them to Jamal Jones’ blog. My kids realized that the array error wasn’t some benign message, it was a cryptogram:
Deciphered, this message reads: “SAVE JAMAL JONES AND YOU WILL SAVE THE WORLD. FIND JENNA JONES.” It took my students less than a day to crack this code. Many students thought Jamal had been the one hiding clues in their work, but this puzzle made them realize it was a yet unknown person in the story, the mysterious person mentioned earlier.
A little more sleuthing led students to Jenna Jones’ page dedicated to finding her brother. Some students filled out the form on her site and told Jenna that Jamal might be in trouble, stuck in the future, or just offered words of encouragement. They were shocked when Jenna e-mailed them back! Some got a nice reply from Jenna thanking them for their words of encouragement. Some students didn’t get such a nice e-mail, as Jenna was not in the mood for their “your brother is trapped in the future” antics. Regardless of the tone of the e-mails, kids loved that the character, Jenna, had interacted with them personally. The kids finally realized they were characters in the story now. Many students commented how this game was like those old choose your own adventure books, and you know what, they’re right!
Clues led to puzzles, puzzles led to more of the story, and the more they know the more they can interact in the real world with the characters and be a part of the story. Real world interaction between student and character is the heart of a good ARG.
Another exampled: A couple of minds were blown yesterday when “Evermoore Energy” texted students who had filled out the form on their website the following message:
“Thank you for your interest in powering your home with Evermoore Energy! A representative will contact you shortly. See you in the future!”
If that wasn’t enough, when they called that number back, they were greeted with a welcome message from Evermoore Energy recorded by a live person, just like you would if you called a company in real life.
IF THAT wasn’t enough when they Googled the area code of the phone number, they found out that it was from the same area Evermoore Energy is said to be located, Dauphin, Pa. All of this was really easy to do, but is still vital to creating immersion, creating that sense that this story is going on right now in the real world my kids live in…. Don’t worry, I’ll cover this How To stuff in future posts.
Another puzzle: go to the TwentyTwenty website, and click on the little star on the main banner. That puzzle has been there since July, but none of my visitors to this site have found it. Some puzzles, like this one, are hidden in plain sight in my ARG. This is how I reward my explorers, hidden puzzles. Obviously, it’s Morse code. What might not be so obvious is just how hard some students worked to decode it, doing so by hand, or how smart some worked, downloading an app on their phone that did it for them. Either way they decoded it, and they got this message:
“I don’t want to be bathed in the blacklight.”
After some discussion and searching, they came across this tweet on Evermoore Energy’s “official” twitter:
What is the blacklight? Why doesn’t this mysterious person want to be bathed in it? Only time, and the hard work of students playing the ARG, will tell.
If you looked through the websites and twitters of my characters, you may have noticed that they are all cartoons. I used a great site called GoAnimate to create them. GoAnimate is a really easy to use site that aims to let the user create their own fully animated cartoons. I used GoAnimate for a few reasons. I needed a way for students to know that the profile or websites they were looking at were part of my game. I also needed an easy way to fully control all of my characters. Animating my characters solved both problems. Students know content animated in the style you saw is part of my game, and I have one place where I can control everything about my characters and pump out the content I need, anytime I want. While you don’t have to use GoAnimate (worth checking out though since they finally got their price plan in check), I would highly consider animating your characters for those two important reasons.
As far as writing an actual ARG storyline, it isn’t easy. Making the puzzles and hiding the clues is easy, but coming up with a good, plausible story is tough. Your storyline has to be fictional, obviously, but it also has to be realistic. Students have to believe what is happening in the game is not only currently happening in the world they live in, but could be happening in the world they live in. It sounds weird, I know, but listen to this.
A few days before school started, I had to do a last minute rewrite of my story because, as I went over it in my head, even though it was fiction, my story wasn’t possible. Originally, I had a villain turn off the Higgs Boson, and I asked myself how would the villain do that? And.. I had no idea. So what did I do? I e-mailed one the world’s foremost experts on theoretical physics, Matt Strassler. He graciously answered me in his blog post that you can read here (this guy is awesome).
Thanks to his post, and the comments underneath, I realized that even though my ARG is science fiction, the story I had originally written wasn’t possible; it defied the laws of physics. It couldn’t happen in the real world. It failed as a good storyline.
After a frantic rewrite and recreation of some of the content (pictures, puzzles), I had a new storyline that, despite being science fiction, could now plausibly happen in the real world. Will anyone ever be able to prove the existence of Dark Energy, let alone harness it as an energy source? Who knows. But, in my ARG world, it has happened and happened in a way that is believable; my story is now believable science fiction.
Again, no matter the genre, I think the most important part of a successful ARG is figuring out a good, believable story. I would suggest that you storyboard your ARG and really try to find ways to pick it apart and try to find plot holes in it because your students definitely will. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask questions they would ask. Tear your story apart. There are no do-overs in an ARG. The story has to be perfect or the ARG will fail.
Another hard and important part of making my classroom ARG is coming up with a believable reason for clues to be hidden in students’ work. Someone is manipulating files on my computer and things on the internet in an attempt to get messages to my students. For some reason, these messages must be hidden and encrypted. The kids don’t know why yet, but the reason is a big part of the game. Make sure you make your clues and puzzles have a reason to exist in the game world. Unfortunately, I can’t say more than that right now, but will cover this better in a future post.
The last thing to remember when creating an ARG for your classroom is the idea that you want students’ decisions to impact the game and let students have a hand in how the game ends. They need to be active participants as main characters in the story. To use the terms of classical dramatic structure, I have planned out the exposition (ARGs require a ton of exposition in a bunch of different types of media), the rising action, and the climax of my story. The falling action and the resolution will be decided by the kids and their actions. If I were to show you my storyboard, you would see it branches off into a bunch of different directions after the climax. Each branch outlines what I think the kids will do after the climax and how the story will change/end based on that. There is even a branch that outlines the consequences for the characters and the world if my students choose to do nothing or don’t act fast enough at certain points in the game. My game takes place in the “real world,” so there needs to be real world repercussions based on what students do or don’t do. Imagine the debate, if at a point of action, half my kids want to take the story one way and the other half want to take it another. That’s good drama! If they choose to act in unison or as independent factions, I’ve accounted for that. They are shaping the story. This is their game. They are the main characters.
I think students realize this now after they analyzed why some of them received a nasty email from Jenna Jones. They collectively agreed it was probably a bad decision to e-mail a woman who is looking for her missing brother, out of the blue, talking about time traveling and being trapped in the future, and you can bet if the same kids were to e-mail Jenna again, she would remember what they said and respond realistically.
I hope to not only teach critical thinking with this game, but also make my kids realize they must think before they act and that actions (and inaction) have consequences. They will have to rely on students’ strengths and pick up the slack to make up for students’ weaknesses. I plan to make them question their sense of morality as they will learn, like all great stories (How great was the Breaking Bad finale?!?), my characters are not all good or all evil, but somewhere in the middle. I foresee many disagreements between my students when they reach a point of action and need to decide what to do or who to help/support. With this ARG, I hope to teach them to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, creativity, and, above all else, learning can be fun.
Hopefully, you better understand what an ARG is and how you can start to turn your classroom into one. There is a ton of information out there about ARGs and how to make your own, so feel free to do some research. The specific, How To stuff on ARGs in the classroom and what I do, will be rolled out over time. As always, drop me a line if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.