6 Alternate Reality Game Examples: Using ARGs For Corporate Training
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Gameplay, Platforms, And Activities In 6 Alternate Reality Game Examples

Andy Petroski, Emerging Technologies Leader and Author, is allowing our readers to read portions of his work. This article comes from his book Alternate Reality Games: Gamification For Performance.

Alternate Reality Games are used to tackle many different challenges; from product releases, training and mentoring, to non-traditional entertainment. Consequently, ARGs appear in many forms based upon the overall objectives, platforms, and method of execution necessary at the intersection of technology, location, audience, and story. In this article we’ll explore the gameplay, platforms, and activities of 6 ARGs from various public and private sources. Comparing ARGs is problematic because each one has its own unique design and player experiences which have been developed to achieve specific goals. Here we will summarize a few Alternate Reality Game examples to gain a deeper understanding of the motivations, methods, and outcomes of the projects. These examples, presented in order of complexity, were chosen because of their different approaches to delivering user experiences. Beyond these ARG profiles, The Alternate Reality Gaming Network [1] and other similar ARG repositories are great resources for ideas and innovations in the ARG community.

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1. Robots Are Eating The Building

Premise

In Robots Are Eating the Building a cohort of small devious robots are destroying the main academic tower of Harrisburg University [2]. No one knows their ultimate goal, but the destruction at the start of the “Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum” was not part of the planning committee’s schedule. It is quickly determined that these sentient beings can be defeated by acquiring and uploading specific bits of data to the building’s network, effectively overloading the robot’s memory as they try to make sense of the data.

Sponsor/Developer

Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies, Harrisburg University

Purpose

Provide networking and career exploration activities for learning and entertainment conference attendees.

Gameplay

This ARG was conducted at the Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum (LEEF) at Harrisburg University in the Spring of 2010. A few days before the event, CCTv footage was released to the website showing how five robots were destroying the building, one room at a time. The video concluded with a call-to-action for conference attendees. The video was also played during the conference’s opening session. When participants arrived and picked up their badges they were offered five game cards that identified a variety of optional networking challenges for conference attendees. Each card identified one of five robots to be defeated over the two-day conference.

Players deactivated a robot by providing answers to challenges identified on the cards. Some robots were tougher than others requiring four or five facts about attendees, while most were easily dispatched with one or two details about conference attendees. Players used downtime between sessions, the lunch hour, and designated breaks to locate attendees who matched the specific criteria needed to defeat a robot’s components. As an example let’s see the ID Bot: This robot card represented the field of Instructional Design. It had three working components; a range sensor, a controller, and traction actuators which needed to be deactivated to incapacitate the robot. Supplying an answer to a challenge question about the event would deactivate the component. Below are the actual questions needed for the ID Bot:

  • Identify someone who has “Instructional Design” in their job title to disable the ID Bot’s range sensor. (This was a common job title among attendees.)
  • Identify someone who does Instructional Design for military projects to disable the ID Bot’s main controller. (~20% of the attendees fit this combination of skills.)
  • Identify an Instructional Designer with the first initial “R” to disable the ID Bot’s traction motor actuator (Only 2 of the 84 attendees fit this criteria.)

Players who completed all five cards were eligible for a drawing hosted during the final session of the two-day conference.

Platforms

  • This game was played using physical game cards which identified challenges and served as the progression mechanism.
  • A game master was also on hand to assist with challenges and collect/score game cards.
  • Gameplay took place across three floors of a single building.

Activities

Paper game cards; professional networking; social learning (no digital interactions)

Expected Outcomes

This activity promoted professional networking and introduced games for professional development to conference attendees. Participants made contacts with other learning technologist.

Time Frame

Two days; June 17-18 2010

Participants

75-80

2. I Love Trees

Premise

PETE&C is an annual conference for educators and administrators to meet and discuss strategies, technologies, and the resources needed to effectively use technology in education. The I Love Trees ARG focused on helping participants develop their own Powerful Learning Practices (PLP) while attending the conference. Players took on the persona of a new Principal at West Side High, whose superintendent has asked for research on Powerful Learning Practices (PLP) and to determine how the techniques can be integrated into the school district. Players were tasked with growing the schools tree of knowledge by advancing their understanding of PLP.

Sponsor

Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo and Conference (PETE&C)

Purpose

The project had two concrete goals:

  1. Create pre-conference experience to engage attendees.
  2. Introduce educators to the ideas and concepts behind Powerful Learning Practice, a year-long method of educating instructors on how technology can enhance teaching and learning. Players were introduced to the game via a Twitter post using the #petec09 hashtag. Email announcements were also sent out to conference registrants prior to and at the beginning of the conference.

Gameplay

PETE&C participants registered at the game’s website. Once registered, individuals were given a digital PLP sapling that would grow as the player answered questions and found clues hidden throughout the exhibit hall. Clues were found among the tweeted messages from Superintendent Wiggins, in placards and signs, in session materials provided by conference speakers, with exhibitors, and if they were lucky from Superintendent Wiggins himself.

The ARG’s website served as the primary communication vehicle for the game. Aside from collecting and validating player answers, the site also had an archive of tweets and game hints, a help section for instructions about playing the game, and a leaderboard where players could celebrate their achievements and check on their progress.

Platforms

  • Website built with WordPress, customized to facilitate user progress and integrated with content from Twitter and YouTube.
  • Gameplay made amble use of the exhibit halls, session rooms, and vendor booth of the conference facility.
  • Activities were managed by two staff members and an actor portraying Superintendent Wiggins.

Activities

Website (primarily mobile), direct email, public Twitter feed, introductory video, placards with QR codes and cryptograms, and a live actor were used to educate participants about PLP and digital learning opportunities to integrate into the classroom and the district.

Outcomes

Participants were introduced to Powerful Learning Practices (PLP) and new educational technologies and techniques. Players enjoyed competing against their peers and exploring how games could be used to promote learning.

Time Frame

Two days; Feb 12-13 2011

Participants

151 registered, 82 active, 22 highly active

3. Blink Mining

Premise

Evidence shows that simulation-based training significantly enhances team-level competencies during critical non-routine events and can be particularly effective in business education. The goal of Blink Mining was to provide a mechanism for teaching crisis management to university students.

Developer

Professor Mary Waller Ph.D., Schulich School of Business, York University

Purpose

Provide a team-based crisis management and disaster recovery simulations to study and assess team dynamics.

Gameplay

This 2-hour intensive simulation puts teams of participants in the role of c-level executives who have to react to a stressful scenario where critical decisions must be made every ten minutes based on a limited amount of information revealed to each player over the course of the experience. During the game players must communicate with their team and seven of the fictitious company’s external stakeholders while addressing the unfolding crisis.

The scenario begins with an email from the mine’s general manager; the mine has received a bomb threat and the CEO is on a commercial flight and won’t be available for the next two hours. It the player’s job to work with their executive team to make key decisions about the crisis. As messages from angry investors, inquiring reporters, company employees, and concerned government officials start arriving via email, direct texts, and social media, new permutations of the crisis emerge requiring the player to collaborate and respond quickly to the growing threat.

All messages and communications in the ARG are managed and delivered using Conducttr [3], an audience engagement tool used to build immersive cross-platform experiences.

Platforms

  • This classroom ARG relied on Conducttr to manage events, NPC communications, and story pacing.
  • Prof. Waller served as puppet master during each session.
  • Gameplay took place in a single classroom.

Activities

Email, SMS, Twitter, and Facebook

Time Frame

Two hours

Participants

Up to 35 participants working in seven teams of five students per session

More Information

University Affairs - Playing games at school Crisis Simulation with Blink Mining [4]

4. Click Spy Agency

Premise

Click! is an urban adventure program for middle school girls. It is part Charlie’s Angels and part MTV’s Real World. Click! agents use specialized tablet computer interfaces, location-aware mobile devices, and digital documentation to engage girls in a six-day camp. After five days of training, Click! girls have an all-day Saturday adventure at Carnegie Science Center that, if successful, will earn them a new status level in the Click! Agency.

Sponsor

Carnegie Science Center

Purpose

Introduce young girls to underrepresented STEM careers. In Level 1, attendees conduct experiments, perform scientific research, and use inductive reasoning to solve the case of the perplexing peach. This case focuses on hands-on inquiry to encourage collaborative problem solving and participatory learning. Once completed, the girls graduate to Level 2 and can come back to work on an environmental protection mystery with a new cast of characters and challenges.

Gameplay

After a week of training (in biomedical engineering, environmental protection, and expressive technologies) the girls come to the final day of camp only to learn that the Senior Click agents have been called away on various missions. In their absence a biomedical mystery has been discovered and it’s up to the young agents to figure out a solution. The case starts with news that a Pittsburgh Steeler has fallen ill. A small group of girls travels across the street to Heinz Field to interview the team chef about possible foods ingested by the player and gather background information on food borne illnesses. Another team examines case files from other patients and extracts DNA for further study. While yet another team takes their investigation online to learn about how two other local companies (Del Monte and a nearby restaurant) might also be involved in the mystery. Using personal interviews, websites, a science lab, and tablet computers the girls engage in activities associated with the careers they’ve been studying all week.

Platforms

  • Tablet PCs with a custom interface and social media tool, various websites, science lab.
  • Numerous non-player characters (NPCs) playing the role of Subject Matter Experts brought the experience to life.
  • Gameplay took place within a four-block radius on the North Shore of Pittsburgh.

Activities

Communication skills (interviews with NPCs, social media tool), research (websites), deductive reasoning (documentation).

Time Frame

Five hours

Participants

20 middle-school aged girls

More Information

In this ARG, the Level 1 participants were really engaged in the storyline. So much so, that the girls created their own reality when confronted with alternate/conflicting information. After coming across a red herring in the storyline, the girls wanted to confirm some information they received from Rachel, the NPC waitress at a local restaurant. Without telling the Click staff, the team found the restaurant’s phone number and called asking for the waitress. Of course the waitress was a hired actress using a fake name and the hostess told the team that no one with that name worked there. This could have presented a real problem, but instead of saying “this is fake” the girls came to the conclusion that the “waitress” must have been hired by the food processing plant to misinform the team. This renewed their efforts to find the culprits responsible in the perplexing peaches case.

5. The Black Watchmen

Premise

The Black Watchmen are a paramilitary group dedicated to protecting the public from dangerous phenomena beyond human understanding: Ritualistic murder, occult secret societies, and paranormal activity, to name but a few. As a global organization, The Black Watchmen offer a wide range of skills and services for covert missions anywhere in the world, on behalf of any group, corporation or government that can afford them. Often called in as a last resort, The Black Watchmen pride themselves on their discretion, strength, and efficiency.

Developer

Alice & Smith – an entertainment company based in Montreal

Purpose

Alice & Smith have set out to create the first permanent ARG. This is less of a game and more of a new reality to be experienced and explored.

Gameplay

Players register and play the game via Steam, an online game platform. After registering, players take on the role of a newly recruited Black Watchmen agent using a dashboard dubbed the “Mission Hub” to train and conduct research. The “trainee” missions consist of activities, which highlight online research techniques, being observant, and completing a primer on cryptography. These and future, mission-related activities are managed through the Mission Hub, which monitors agent progress, provides research tools, and serves as a central communications hub. The early missions are straightforward but challenging.

Once training is complete, players can determine the level of immersion they are looking for in the ARG. Each immersion level is represented by a color as outlined below:

  • Red: Interactions with red level agents will take place through the Mission Hub and via email.
  • Orange: Interactions may include voicemails, live streams.
  • Yellow: All of the above with phone calls (which might come at any time of the day or night), suspicious packages sent by mail, and interactions with real NPC.
  • Green: Promises to be the highest level of immersion. Details are thin, but a full medical exam and personal injury waiver are required. This level is not for the faint of heart, but if selected, you will remember the experience for the rest of your life.

Platforms

  • Primary interaction is through the Mission Hub and emails; additional interactions are possible at higher levels of immersion.
  • Most contact with the game world and other players is via online communication; some physical interaction is also expected as research is conducted by agents across the globe.

Activities

  • The game is played via websites, newspaper ads, phone calls, text messages, and by visiting real-world locations.
  • Heavy problem solving requires players working in collaboration. The collaboration is facilitated through the game’s Mission Hub, forums, and direct email.

Time Frame

On going

Participants

Released in 2015, the perpetual ARG now has 26,531 registered players.

6. The Threshold

Premise

In a fictional universe, players uncover clues and solved mysteries of an intricately woven story that plunges players into the world of high stakes corporate espionage.

Developer

No Mimes Media in conjunction with JUXT Interactive and a leading technology company

Purpose

A four-week, teamwork and collaboration exercise to engage the company’s worldwide employees in preparation for a sales conference.

Gameplay

To unravel the ARG’s mystery, players exchange emails and voicemail messages with NPCs over the three-week period prior to the global conference. Web sites, CCTV style videos, and even webinars also serve as resources for clues and challenges.

Platforms

Company employees from across the globe played the game using:

  • Audio files
  • Chat rooms
  • Digital posters
  • Direct email
  • Forums
  • Hidden messages
  • Short Message Service (SMS)
  • Social media tools
  • Surveillance videos
  • Virtual meeting spaces
  • Voicemail
  • Webinars
  • Websites
  • Wikipages
  • Activities
  • Various puzzle solving activities
  • Virtual visits to remote locations
  • Collection of player points for real-world prizes (top scoring team was awarded a SuperBowl get-away)

Time Frame

Four weeks in total

Participants

13,000 of 19,000 world-wide conference attendees (double the expected participation)

More Information

Read the complete summary and watch the overview video on No Mimes Media’s website [5].

Final Word

Although the examples shown here represent a wide range of uses—from middle school age to adults, classrooms to the streets of Chicago, low-tech paper and pencil to highly produced video content and custom applications—they offer a glimpse into the activities and challenges possible in the modern Alternate Reality Game. We’ll revisit some of these examples in future articles, but for now just keep in mind the variety of concepts, technologies, and goals.

Other ARGs to explore:

  • Zombie, Run! – A personal fitness ARG where players run to escape zombies and periodically solve puzzles
  • World Without Oil – popular ARG from Jane McGonigal and Ken Eklund

 

References: 

  1. Alternate Reality Gaming Network
  2. Harrisburg University
  3. Conducttr
  4. Playing games at school
  5. The Threshold: Redefining Teamwork
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