Finding DJ Mez: How I Built an Alternate Reality Game at my High School (Part Four)
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 fourth part of my article series, I explore more broadly the potential of ARGs as learning and media literacy tools.
To access the first part of the story, click HERE.
To access the second part of the story, click HERE.
To access the third part of the story, click HERE.
Squid Games. The Matrix. Q-Anon. What do they share in common?
All three tell “down the rabbit hole” stories about a lone individual, aided by a small group of allies, who battles against a conspiratorial network of shadowy forces. Each story posits that our reality is an illusion, a prison from which we must escape to discover a terrible “truth”: humanity is enslaved. Q-Anon takes this narrative to an even more insidious level by evolving beyond the confines of media entertainment into a mass-participatory conspiracy theory fueled by dark money and military psyops. To those who “play” Q-Anon, the rabbit hole fantasy has become its own twisted reality, while reality itself becomes the fantasy.
As an educator during the Trump years (assuming they’re over), I had to spend a lot of time thinking about Q-Anon. Any postmodern philosopher will tell you that “reality” is a socially imagined construction that can be critically interrogated by deconstructing the narratives on which it is built. But how do I talk about deconstructionism in a high school classroom? How do I teach my students to defend themselves against mis/disinformation? How do I impart the media literacies that are necessary to navigate the hybrid digital/physical modalities of consciousness that define “reality” in the twenty-first century?
As I struggled to answer these questions, I stumbled upon an excellent analysis of Q-Anon by game designer Reed Berkowitz who argued, in short, that Q-Anon was the “evil twin” or “inverted mirror image” of an ARG. I had known about ARG’s for some time thanks to the work of my colleague Paul Darvasi, but Berkowitz compelled me to think about them in a whole new light. If I wanted my students to build the media literacy skills necessary to combat insidious conspiracy theories, what better way than through an ARG simulation? If I wanted students to develop critical thinking skills to empower themselves against corrosive constructions of reality, they needed practice! And what better practice than a simulation?
But if we’re talking about ARGs as learning tools, not just immersive mixed media experiences, what would an alternate reality game curriculum look like? One of my objectives for developing my own ARG was to develop a “design case” that would allow me to iterate, observe, document, and interpret my design decisions in action. What sorts of learning opportunities would it create, and how can those learning opportunities be harnessed?
In the first and second parts of this article, I presented my “design case” with lots of thick descriptions that documented the artifacts and experiences I created for my alternate reality game. My objective was to learn more about how alternate reality games could be used to teach the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize and combat conspiracy theories. The game that I developed provided two key insights into how one might achieve these objectives.
First, I recognized the need for activities that would encourage the students to critically reflect on how their efforts to unravel a conspiracy led them to over-interpret clues and read meaning into things that were meaningless. While this “conspiratorial thinking” made the game more exciting and mysterious, their over-active imaginations also left them vulnerable to manipulation. What can students learn by reflecting on their own emotions and experiences, and then analyzing how those emotions and experiences colored their perceptions of reality? Can we connect this experience to different forms of media mis/disinformation online?
Second, my ARG demonstrated quite clearly how different media can blend to reinforce false impressions of reality, and how technology can be used to generate these falsehoods. For example, with a few hours of research and setup, I figured out how to pipe a video and audio feed of the dean into Zoom as if he were live and present in the meeting. In what ways can similar media manipulations create or reinforce false conceptions of “reality” in the digital ecosphere? As a homework assignment, students could research and present similar cases on social media platforms and sites online.
Education is undergoing huge transformations right now, and it’s not entirely clear the direction and speed at which things are moving. As learning continues to transition into digital and hybrid modalities, I hope that we begin to think about this transition less as a necessary expedient that stifles learning and more as an opportunity for deeper learning that has yet to be fully understood or implemented. Alternate reality games and simulations are fun and entertaining, but with some creative thinking they can also provide opportunities for deep learning and media literacy. If “remote learning” involved more time with ARGs and less with old-fashioned courses shoehorned into Zoom, would our opinion of remote and hybrid learning be quite so bleak?
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.