Create An Alternate Reality Game Using A Blend Of Activities

Alternate Reality Games For Corporate Training: What's An ARG And What's Not?

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.


In Alternate Reality Games, players discover information and develop new skills through personalized game play, versus being passive participants in learning. In an ARG, players learn by doing and discovering while interacting with systems and people that they will ultimately need as resources to succeed in their role as an employee, member, attendee, or student. Skills and knowledge are important, but so are critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. ARG experiences allow players to practice those more tangential skills as well as gain knowledge and develop job specific skills.

No ARG is like another. Yes, there are common elements in every ARG, but each one really is its own unique design and player experience. Because of their uniqueness, the ARG experience is difficult to briefly describe. It is also difficult demonstrate an ARG like one might demonstrate interactive multimedia or play a video. Most ARGs happen at a point in time and are from a single, personal, point of view. They are live!

To understand the use of Alternate Reality Games for corporate training, let’s have a look at what an ARG is and what it’s not:

6 Things An Alternate Reality Game Is Not

1. An ARG Is Not eLearning

eLearning  An ARG
Standard online learning, or eLearning, is normally an individual experience that occurs over a short period of time (an hour or two). Most eLearning is content driven with interactions that depend more on mouse clicks than cognitive challenges. The eLearning experience is pre-defined and there is often little opportunity for adjusting the design or experience based on learner interaction and feedback, until version two. An ARG normally happens over an extended period of time, from 2 days to 2 years (or more), and is interwoven throughout the daily activities of the players. The game is part of life. And, life is part of the game. Gameplay is centered on solving problems or mysteries and identifying hidden opportunities. Technology is often a part of gameplay, but the primary activities are research, collaboration, and problem solving. Depending on how players interact with the game, the puppet master can adjust the game design at any point in the game to make challenges easier or more difficult. The puppet master manages the resources and game systems from behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the players and sometime removed from the environment. They make adjustments to the ARG story and gameplay when player actions, or inactions, create circumstances that require a change of direction to keep the game on track to achieve its goals.

2. An ARG Is Not A Computer Game

A Computer Game An ARG
Computer games for learning, or serious games, are created to put concepts in context of performance and promote behavior change through problem-based learning. However, most serious games are bound to the desktop, the browser, or mobile device. They are not integrated with the world around you. While serious games can be longer-term experiences, they are normally incremental engagements; multiple 15-30 minute interactions over a period of time. ARGs are longer-term experiences and are not bound to the desktop, the browser, or mobile devices. ARGs are not computer games, but ARGs for learning can be considered serious games. In addition, an ARG could include a computer game and interaction through the desktop, browser, or mobile devices as part of the ARG experience. And, like a computer game, an ARG involves a story, a goal, and obstacles to achieving the goal. But, beyond the computer, there are also interactions with people, places, or objects in the real-world as part of an ARG experience.

3. An ARG Is Not Geocaching

Geocaching An ARG
Geocaching is a recreational activity that challenges participants to find hidden treasures around the world. Participants both hide and seek geocaches, which are containers that include an item and a logbook for noting those who find the item, as part of participating in the activity. Communicating the “hide and seek” of caches is based on Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates that are recorded on a geocache listing site(s). An ARG may include a challenge that requires players to find items based on GPS coordinates, but an ARG also includes a variety of other challenge activities; anything from talking with other players to gathering information and getting directions to solving puzzles based on available information. And, all of the ARG activities are based around a story and solving a problem or achieving a goal within the context of the story.

4. An ARG Is Not A Scavenger Hunt

A Scavenger Hunt An ARG
We’ve all participated in a scavenger hunt. In a scavenger hunt, you’re provided with a list of items that you must collect during a certain timeframe. Scavenger hunts are mostly recreational and often pit teams of players against each other in a race to find all of the items on the list before the deadline. Some scavenger hunts include clues to finding the items on the list. Often, the clue for finding each item is revealed sequentially. In other words, the clue for item 2 is revealed when item 1 is found. Many ARGs do follow the structure of a scavenger hunt, but the ARG experience is much deeper than a recreational scavenger hunt. The goal of the ARG is to solve a problem or overcome a business or societal challenge, not just to find all of the items on the list. The ARG is also a mix of real world and computer or virtual experiences. In most cases, scavenger hunts are all about finding and collecting physical items. The story element of an ARG also differentiates the experience from a scavenger hunt. An ARG includes context, characters, antagonists, challenges, decisions, and outcomes that are driven by a story that themes the entire experience.

5. An ARG Is Not Live Action Role Playing

LARPing or Live Action Role Playing is a form of gaming where the players participate in gameplay by physically acting out their character’s actions in the game (often in full costume). The player interacts with other live characters in a scenario that is bound by gameplay rules determined by the players. An ARG may contain live characters, often included as elements of the storyline. But, the ARG players do not play as a character in the game. They play the ARG as themselves in their real-life professional or personal role. For example, Principal Wiggins was a character that handed out gameplay material at an educational technology conference for the I Love Trees ARG. The Principal Wiggins character was part of the ARG storyline via video, tweets, and in attendance as a live actor at the event. The ARG players interacted with the Principal Wiggins character, but only as part of gameplay. The players themselves did not play a character role.

Principal Wiggins

Principal Wiggins Character from the I Love Trees ARG

6. An ARG Is Not (Just!) Social Learning

The term “social learning” often represents short, digital interactions between individuals to support research, problem-solving, content curation, and collaboration that results in learning and performance improvement. Businesses are using discussion forums, employee profiles, search mechanisms, community perception, and crowdsourcing as part of social learning initiatives. The goal is to connect employees for peer learning and learning from Subject Matter Experts in a way that is integrated throughout the workday, versus training as only a single, scheduled event. Online social learning is often an element of an ARG and face-to-face interactions are also a part of the social learning in the game. ARG players not only get updates and participate in gameplay through Tweets, forum posts, and other social learning tools, but they talk, meet, and work together face-to-face to plan gameplay strategy and play the game. The social aspect of ARG gameplay, digital or otherwise, can be primary or complementary in the pursuit of information, skill-building, and critical thinking through other gameplay elements.

So, What Is An Alternate Reality Game?

There can be elements of eLearning, computer games, geocaching, scavenger hunts, live action role playing, and social learning in an ARG. But, an ARG is not one of those activities exclusively. An ARG can be what you need it to be to fit your audience, your goals, your culture, and your creativity.

That’s the great thing about ARGs: They are flexible and blended gameplay environments that not only can be custom designed, but can be adjusted during gameplay to react to the way in which players play the game.

An ARG Is (Sort Of!) Gamification

Gamification is the application of game thinking and game mechanics to non-game contexts to promote behavior change. It has grown from frequent purchaser clubs and other collection-based marketing programs to include rewards for recycling, making healthy decisions, and effectively managing finances. Gamification is often generalized as the rewarding of badges and points in a competitive, non-game environment.

Points are awarded in an ARG and badges can also be incorporated for completing increasingly difficult tasks at various levels. An ARG for business is also focused on behavior change. But an ARG is a game. It is not a traditional game, but it is a game. The players may not know it’s a game to begin with or even describe what they are doing as playing a game. But, an ARG for corporate training is the application of game thinking and game mechanics in a game-like context.

However, ARGs do intersect the boundaries between playing a game and performing daily activities. So, an ARG is sort of like gamification.

An ARG Is Transmedia

An ARG can contain elements of all media types. As such, ARGs are a transmedia experience, an experience that takes place across multiple platforms, formats, and locations. As new mediums evolve, like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, an Alternate Reality Game format is one in which new activities and experiences can be blended with traditional, more widely used mediums for the benefit of designers and learners alike.

Consider how the training mediums you use now can be leveraged to create an Alternate Reality Game. Also consider how an ARG format might allow you to introduce new mediums into your training blend.