Alternate Reality Games: The Learning Connection

Alternate Reality Games: The Learning Connection
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Summary: While Alternate Reality Games are engaging and fun, as a tool for learning they must also help learners achieve objectives and improve their performance. This article will explore how learning is more deeply constructed by learners as they interact and collaborate with peers to complete activities in an ARG.

Using Alternate Reality Games For Learning

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.


The active, problem-based, and social experience in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) supports Constructivist learning theories, representing why ARGs (and many serious games in general) make great learning environments. Active learning occurs in the learner-centered ARG experience through interpreting clues, solving puzzles, completing scenarios, and engaging in other problem-based learning activities.

Some ARGs also present opportunities for participants to create content that impacts the experience of other players. The “player as author” concept connects with the “learner as teacher” concept that is based on Constructivism. Essentially, participants learn the most when they are constructing learning (or presentation) for other learners. As any Instructional Designer can tell you, the person who often learns the most is the creator of the instructional solution. There are still concepts from training on Autism monitoring, heavy equipment features, drug formulation, and [insert your topic] designs created as an Instructional Designer that can be recalled many, many, many years later.

The Multimodal Alternate Reality Game Environment

In an ARG environment players can experience and interact with concepts in a variety of formats; text, audio, animation, video, social media, etc. The multimodal experience creates variety, which can enhance learner attention and motivation, as well as present opportunities to meet the learning preferences of all participants. The multimodal ARG design also presents opportunities to use the best medium for the message; perhaps even print or live actors depending on the communication goal and gameplay environment. An ARG can be a powerful learning tool regardless of the domain and level of learning that you are targeting. The most popular model for representing desired learning behaviors and outcomes is Bloom’s Taxonomy. The most highly referenced domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy is the cognitive domain with the remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating levels represented in a pyramid. While not as widely referenced, there are Bloom’s Taxonomies for the affective (feeling) and psychomotor (physical) domains as well. The table below indicates how ARGs can potentially have an impact on learning across Bloom’s Taxonomy levels of learning and learning domains. While it’s unlikely that a single ARG will provide experience in all levels of learning across all domains, the table is intended to present the possibilities of addressing Bloom’s Taxonomies’ levels of learning in an ARG.

ARG Gameplay for Cognitive

(Mental Processes)

ARG Gameplay for Affective

(Emotion and Attitude)

ARG Gameplay for Psychomotor


Creating: Building new models, processes, or interpretations as part of gameplay. Characterizing: Performing with a new attitude in situations in the game where reverting to previous  attitudes may be easier. Originating: Creating new, more efficient or effective physical approaches  (individually or as a team) to complete tasks or achieve goal.
Evaluating: Critiquing artifacts, examples and case studies to consider alternate solutions and/or identify future outcome. Organizing: Creating an individual or team-based action plan for implementing and monitoring attitude change. Adapting: Modifying
physical actions based on variables presented within the context of gameplay.
Analyzing: Determining the best solution among multiple solutions in case studies within the game. Valuing: Debating an alternate point-of-view from either another player or team in the game or a 3rd party non-player debater. Mechanizing: Combining separate movements into a contiguous physical
movement (either individually or as a group).
Applying: Practicing concepts in real-world or digital mini games or simulations. Responding: Pledging to challenge convention and explore new possibilities within gameplay. Guided Responding: Modeling the physical activity required to perform (e.g. painting the fence in the Karate Kid movie) in a game activity.
Understanding: Solving puzzles and cryptographs, or playing simple games. Receiving: Listening to pro and/or con stories from those who have adopted/adapted the targeted attitudes. Setting: Preparing for physical activity by completing a scavenger hunt to gather all of the tools needed.
Remembering: Recalling facts in clues as part of gameplay. Perceiving: Identifying the most effective and efficient steps and actions by observing.

Better than meeting the expectations of traditional models of education based on Bloom’s Taxonomies, is the ARG’s ability to connect to new learning design paradigms. One such paradigm shift is represented in the Schrock’s Gears interpretation of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy (see the figure below). Whereas traditional applications of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy put emphasis on remembering before understanding; before applying; before analyzing; before evaluating; before creating, Schrock’s gears represent Creating as the primary cog around which all other levels of learning can be experienced. The gears represent a more fluid movement among the levels of learning throughout the learning experience, versus a linear approach to learning, one level before the next. The problem- and story-based nature of ARGs create opportunities for a more fluid movement among the levels of learning, versus starting with didactic learning and ending with creation of new concepts or products (if there’s time left for participants to Create at the end of the training).

Shrock's Gears image used with permission

The Business Applications

Beyond the ARG connection with learning theories, an Alternate Reality Game should be connected to business performance. As such, an ARG for corporate training or performance improvement should start with... a goal!

Establishing a performance goal and learning objectives is the key to any behavior change solution. An ARG is no different. The goal and learning objectives should drive the design of the ARG experience. The game should be fun and unique, but it also needs to be efficient and effective. Don’t lose track of your goals and objectives throughout the process. Why would your business want to implement an Alternate Reality Game? It depends:

  • What challenges are you trying to address?
  • What is not working with your current orientation or training formats?
  • What benefits can you realize from collaboration among employees?
  • What challenges are you facing with engaging your customers?

Overcoming Time, Distance, And Isolation

Almost every organization is struggling with overcoming the challenges of time and distance for training initiatives. Many have turned to eLearning or online learning to overcome the challenges that are part of modern business where employees are spread across the globe and time for training is difficult to manage. However, most online learning is very content-focused and a very isolated experience. Organizations looking to get more out of their eLearning initiatives might consider ARGs for developing and practicing skills in training and for promoting the collaboration and networking that takes place in an ARG. In addition, developing skills takes time. By embedding the learning throughout the workday in an ARG, participants have more time to practice over an extended period of time, versus sitting down for a one (1) hour online learning experience only.

Increasing Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is another challenge that most organizations are facing. Games can engage employees in the organizational goals and their own development in ways that other mediums cannot. Games present incremental challenges and ongoing feedback that increase motivation and self-efficacy. An Alternate Reality Game can be an embedded experience that extends the life and benefits of the game-based approach, resulting in longer-term engagement and success. An ARG cannot be the only tool in an engagement strategy, but it can be a very immersive way to kick off an engagement campaign or onboard new employees to increase the level of engagement at the beginning of employment.

Encouraging Innovative Thinking

Innovation is another challenge in today’s workplace. An Alternate Reality Game can free the workplace from the shackles of the established training design, implementation, and completion; potentially inspiring innovative thinking at all levels of the organization. The design team will think differently about training solutions. Employees will think differently about learning. New connections will be made throughout the organization as a result of networking in the game. The game itself might even focus on solving a real business problem, leading to idea generation in the game that can be applied to improve the organization.

If you are negotiating with aliens during Sales training someday, you are most likely participating in an ARG. Otherwise, the invasion has begun! ARGs are dynamic, transmedia experiences that can be channeled for increased engagement, learning, and collaboration. ARGs for learning are rooted in Constructivist methods and can enable a dynamic way in which to address Bloom’s levels of learning. They can be singular, focused implementations or organization-wide initiatives used to address the employee skill and performance challenges that most organizations face.