Finding DJ Mez: How I Built an Alternate Reality Game at my High School (Part One)
Last winter, the ninth grade class at my high school attempted to thwart a digital kidnapping conspiracy. It wasn’t real. They were playing an “Alternate Reality Game,” or ARG, an interactive mixed-media experience that incorporates games and puzzles across a range of virtual and physical spaces. An ARG is a mixed reality game, sort of like a virtual escape room, that can be played individually or cooperatively in groups. ARGs tell stories, often semi-fictional, through fragments of digital media and physical objects with embedded videos, audio clips, and texts that players must “collect” or “assemble” to build the story, solve the puzzles, and “win” the game. In the first part of a four-part article series, I explain how I designed my first ARG for ninth grade students at an independent school in New Jersey where I was working during the 2020–2021 school year.
Building Alternate Realities
Last winter I spent two months collaborating with a group of colleagues at my high school, an independent K-12 day school just outside New York City, to build a large-scale ARG for our entire ninth grade class.
The game took place shortly after the winter ‘20–21 COVID surge. To reduce the number of students on campus and limit the risk of community spread, our administration had divided every grade into A and B cohorts, allowing only one cohort per grade on campus at any time. While these modifications were necessary to keep the campus community safe, parents and students began raising concerns that the grades were too divided and the cohorts lacked any sense of community. Additionally, many students were permanently remote, which left them feeling even more socially isolated. As a school, we needed to develop activities that could bridge the gap between students and bring them together.
In this context, I initially approached Jeremy, the ninth grade academic dean, with an idea for an ARG that would allow his grade to interact organically, regardless of whether they were on campus or remote. Jeremy enthusiastically agreed and offered his time to help design something.
We had six weeks to design our game. The goal was to roll it out during a class meeting shortly before Spring Break in late March. We would have about 75 minutes of free time for students to play the game, although our hope was that it would extend into the school day as students continued working to solve the puzzles at their own pace.
Our early brainstorming sessions focused on developing a solid narrative. We settled on a kidnapping plot. Several years before, Jeremy had come to a class meeting in costume as Dwight “The Bulldog” — a wacky alter ego whose name was based on the name of our school’s bulldog mascot. Dwight wore a Dr. Suess hat and plastic lei, and spoke with a terrible English (occasionally Australian) accent. The kids didn’t find it funny, which to me made it absolutely hilarious. I started to pretend that I had no idea who Dwight was, and by the time the class graduated “Who is Dwight ‘the Bulldog’?” had become a long-running inside joke in their grade.
Faced with a new class of freshmen in the midst of the pandemic, I had suggested to Jeremy that he revive his old alter-ego to lighten the mood a bit. Ever the good sport, he dusted off his Dr. Suess hat and gave it a go, but the student response was once again… mixed. Undeterred, Jeremy showed up to the next class meeting with a new alter-ego: the hip-hop loving bad boy “DJ Mez.” The kids loved him, and I joked to Jeremy that DJ Mez’s popularity was probably making Dwight jealous.
This inside joke about a fictitious rivalry between Jeremy’s alter-egos became the seed from which our ARG would grow. We decided that DJ Mez would “disappear” and Dwight would be blamed for kidnapping him. The students would then have to solve various puzzles to find his location and rescue him. To involve off-campus students, we would embed some of the clues online and make it necessary to solve them in order to solve the puzzles hidden on campus. Additionally, we would email clues to remote students that on-campus students needed to finish the game.
To develop the game, we reached out to our principal and several colleagues, including an upper school math teacher who specializes in cryptography, a middle school teacher who builds digital escape rooms, and the school librarian, who played a key role as I shall reveal below. (And kudos to them for helping us out at such a stressful time!) In the early stages of design, I also drew heavily upon Paul Darvasi’s comprehensive ARG toolkit, which is available through his blog Ludic Learning.
After weeks of planning, designing, and prototyping, we had developed an overarching trans-media narrative with a detailed master plan outlined in a five-page script with prerecorded video and audio clips, and nearly a dozen different puzzles at various difficulty levels that would be embedded in emails, Google Docs, Google Slides, and flyers on campus.
The game began with a class meeting on Zoom— remote students would join from home and on-campus students would be watching on projection monitors in small groups with their academic advisors in socially distanced classrooms. I was supposed to be with my advisory, but I brought them to my department chair’s classroom under the pretext that I had to take care of “an emergency.” Jeremy began by reading announcements and explaining upcoming deadlines for next year’s course registration. Meanwhile, I logged in with my regular school account and from a second laptop with a dummy account created by our school’s IT team. Instead of running my own camera and microphone from the fake account, I set up OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), an open source software that streams videos as a live feed through a computer’s camera input, and a VB-Audio virtual cable that patches a prerecorded audio feed through the live microphone input. This allowed me to patch a video of Jeremy dressed up as Dwight into Zoom as if it were “live” while the real Jeremy feigned shock. In essence, we Zoombombed ourselves.
As the video played, our principal Joe quietly joined the meeting without announcing his presence. When the video feed ended, Joe delivered an Oscar-worthy performance as “angry principal” and demanded to know who was “the guy in the hat.” As Jeremy stammered an answer, Joe announced that earlier in the morning he had received an email from someone named DJ Mez “in a strange code.” We had written this message in binary — an intentionally easy puzzle that would help immerse students in the game.
At this point, the game had reached a critical moment: students would now begin transforming from “passive” consumers of a theatrical spectacle to active players in an ARG. I was incredibly nervous. What if the students don’t want to play? What if everyone sits there staring at their screens?
Thankfully, my anxieties were unfounded. Two students immediately spoke up to explain to Joe and Jeremy that the message was written binary. In less than a minute, several different students had decoded the message using an online translator and read it aloud to the group. The message contained a plea for help from DJ Mez, who (according to the story) was on his way to the class meeting to give Jeremy the students’ course registration forms when he was suddenly “kidnapped.”
Their goal was now clear: they had to rescue DJ Mez and return the stolen forms.
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Dr. Shawn Clybor (Ph.D. Northwestern) is an educator, author, and instructional designer with fifteen years of experience teaching in high school and college classrooms. He is currently working as a freelance consultant and “ludic instructional designer” at Gold Bug Interactive, which develops immersive game-based experiences and alternate reality games. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and leadership summits. He can be contacted at email@example.com or through LinkedIn.