EFL Gamification 6: ARGs

This is the 6th post in a series exploring the use of gamification (to use the buzzword) or gameful design (to more accurately represent my intentions) in the teaching of English as a foreign language, particularly in secondary school settings. Earlier posts  dealt with (1) motivation, (2) habits, (3) mechanics, (4) pitfalls and misunderstandings, and (5) turning your course into a game. This post will look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, and for a definition I’d like to turn to Whitton & Moseley from their 2012 book, Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching, the best resource I’ve found for designing this type of game activity:

“ARGs use narrative, community and problem-solving in a game that unfolds over weeks and months, combining the real and virtual worlds. The players work together to solve the puzzles and develop the story themselves through [the interaction with and/or] the creation of artifacts, both digital and real world, and the mythologies that surround the game” (pg. 143).

ARGs are often interactive narratives in the form of a mystery/treasure hunt (see National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code if you are somehow unfamiliar with the genre) and players work together to unravel  clues or collect items. The AR part is that the story is just a story, while the clues are placed in the real world in the form of e-mails, websites, letters, maps, audio tapes, graffiti, or just about anything that can convey information. In the book, Ms. Whitton discusses what ARGs are and  how to set one up, and mentions several examples. She  describes her involvement with the ARGOSI project, the design and creation of an ARG at a UK university. The purpose was to help new students get used to an unfamiliar new city, the campus, and the library system. In terms of process, they first decided on the learning outcomes they wanted to aim for and considered the limitations they had to work with (time, money, etc.); then they drew up the initial concept for the game and sketched out a narrative; next they designed the challenges (puzzles) and created the artifacts (letters, maps, etc.). In some ways, the process is similar to Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter (covered in this earlier post–you’ll need to scroll down a little). Both are organized by narrative. If you have a gripping story, the rest should flow along. For SuperBetter, the story was personal recovery. It is obviously important to the player. For an ARG, the artifacts (and how they fit in the story) will probably be key.

And for language learning, the artifacts are what you’ll be directing your learners towards and so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions as you plan and create them:

  1. Are they intrinsically interesting? Do they have good ‘face validity’? Do they fit with your narrative?
  2. Are they accessible/doable for your learners in terms of level?
  3. Is feedback built into each task so learners know when they are successful?
  4. Are they in the right mode (reading, listening) for the skills you want learners to practice?
  5. Are they accessible to learners inside and outside of class (web-based, snail-mailed, copied)?
  6. Will interaction with them result in learning? How? And how will you know?
  7. Where will learners interact with artifacts? Will it be homework or group exploration and/or discussion in class?
If we think about the content we need students to learn, it shouldn’t be hard to design the artifacts. You can use textbook language (or even the textbook itself) for puzzles. You can make recordings on cassette tapes  to make clues seem quaint or dated (and so students need to use school players!), and you can create letters and websites using target language that students will need to read and re-read. The only limitations are your creativity and the amount of time you can dedicate to the project. For the sake of keeping appearances real, it will really help if you have a graphics designer or some graphic design skills yourself. But with a few tools (MS Word, for word processing and image processing, Audacity for sound recording and editing, WordPress.org, Edublogs.org or some other blogging service), you should be able to make most of the artifacts you want. Ms. Whitton’s team based their story on the blog of a fictional character. The other artifacts they made and used are available from the ARGOSI website (click the Resources tab). And you can see the blog and game itself at violaquest.org (if/when it is available again–it wasn’t at the time of writing). Other ARGs can also be found online and they may provide you with some ideas for creating your own. One similar to the ARGOSI project, Who Is Herring Hale?, is presented as a case study here. And another ARG, created to raise money for cancer research, can be found here. For something more language-focused, please take a look at the work of Paul Driver, an educational designer based in Portugal. At his website you can find information about his Spywalk game and other “location-based urban games.” There are links to academic presentations and articles and Youtube videos showing the game in action.

 

An important point to consider is learning outcomes. The ARGOSI project had a fairly short and straightforward list. The designers wanted the new students to learn a little more about Manchester and how to use the university library. As a language teacher, you’ll need to decide where to put your focus. ARGs are probably best for introducing learners to content or behaviors. In order to maintain the illusion, novelty and fun of the game, you can’t really add drills or require repetitions of behavior, though if you get the challenge level right, you can get learners to repeatedly interact with the text. In contrast with a game like SuperBetter which could be used to establish positive learning habits, an ARG might best be used to have learners explore resources and language. Of course, you could in your design of artifacts steer learners to all sorts of practice–intensive listening or reading, skimming or scanning, dealing with different accents or genres, etc.). How you design the artifacts and how learners will interact with them in the game are really crucial for pedagogic success. This is especially tricky given that you are trying to balance the narrative and fun with the pedagogy. It all comes down to design in the end. Without a clever story and appropriate-challenge-level artifacts, the game won’t fly; without pedagogically sound tasks with appropriate language level/skill focus/strategy focus, the game won’t teach.

 

To finish here, I’d like to add a few cautionary words (summarizing from Ms. Whitton’s unit on ARGs from her book). You really need to test out your games. Get feedback from everyone you can and plan on tweaking it for all eternity. You also need to have realistic expectations. All of the ARGs mentioned above–funded, backed by unis, and made by teams of talented professionals–were underutilized (to be polite). The Herring Hale game saw only 42 people play even one task and only 12 participants finish the game. Violaquest was similarly ignored en masse. As a teacher you have a captive audience. You’ll likely need to build participation into your course instead of relying on the Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come). That said, one of the most successful (highly rated and attempted by the largest numbers of people) activities/tasks were those that were designed for action–planning and taking pictures and uploading them, for example. These tasks drew more interest, engaged more participants, and got them to collaborate and share more. Make sure you include some of these; don’t just make your ARG a series of puzzles. This may beg the question of whether you want to aim for more of a game with project-based elements or project-based activities with more game-like elements…

 

This leads to the final question of whether it is worth it. If done right, I guarantee  you’ll give your learners an education experience they’ll never forget. But it’ll cost ya. It will take a lot of planning and production time.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

 

Photo Credit: Detail from Look at the Map, or Play Some Checkers by Dr. Roy Winkelman,  at http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/look-at-the-map-or-play-some-checkers.html

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