Finding DJ Mez: How I Built an Alternate Reality Game at my High School (Part Three)

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 third part of my article series, I offer some key “takeaways” from my experiences designing and running an ARG for ninth-grade students at the New Jersey independent school where I was teaching during the 2020–2021 academic year.

To access the first part of the story, click HERE.

To access the second part of the story, click HERE.

If my ARG was a giant mixed-media game, was it possible to “win?” Did any of my students manage to complete the challenge? Sort of, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but first I want to note something even more important: more than half the grade tried actively to solve it, and some of the most active students were remote. In terms of remote students, approximately 15 or 20 (from a total group of approximately 80) played active roles in the ARG, of whom a majority had been otherwise disengaged with group activities on Zoom throughout the year. So, while the game didn’t engage every single student in the same way, it certainly engaged many of them, and it also engaged kids who were usually disengaged. I realize now, upon reflection, that if another colleague had been focused exclusively on the Zoom channel, we might have been able to facilitate and organize a more coherent structure that would create better opportunities for engagement. Lesson learned!

What I found most challenging about the game, from a design perspective, was structuring the game to preclude “hacks,” known among game designers as emergent game-play — a term for the serendipitous discoveries made by game players who exploit specific rules within a game system, usually by pitting one rule against another, to achieve unexpected results in the game world. Emergent game-play can be delightful, but in worst case scenarios it can break or ruin a game. For example in an ARG, if a player is able to access a password or a puzzle sooner than expected, they might be able to skip other puzzles or ciphers and advance through the game more quickly. My greatest fear was that someone would figure out a way to skip the early puzzles and ciphers altogether and solve the final puzzle in five minutes. To prevent this worst-case scenarios, it was absolutely essential to prototype and play-test the game as much as possible, to better plan against any possible interactions that might emerge unexpectedly to ruin the challenge.

Ultimately we failed, but not miserably. A group of clever students figured out how to bypass the password for a locked Google Doc by viewing the page’s source code and accessed a clue early, allowing them to skip the difficult rail fence cipher. The Google Doc contained a link to an online audio file of “Robo-Dad,” the bot that tells corny Dad jokes. Robo-Dad provided two related clues. First, it hints that the ciphers emailed to the thirteen advisors were in fact coordinates that they could punch into Google Maps and then follow to find a hidden clue on campus. Second, it hints that the spot leads to the bulldog statue. I realized that it might be obvious to at least a sizeable minority of students, once they cracked the cipher, that the advisory codes were in fact satellite coordinates, but I couldn’t be sure. So Dad-Bot was intended to provide additional help just in case I was wrong.

The problem is that Dad-Bot was too obvious. The kids managed to figure out that some of the things Dad-Bot says, like “underside” and “woof woof” meant that the final clue was hidden on the underside of a giant concrete bulldog statue. I’m still not 100% sure how they figured this out AND how to crack a password on Google Docs, but lightning struck twice. When the students triumphantly entered Jeremy’s office brandishing the registration forms about 35 minutes into the activity, we had to beg them to keep their victory a secret until the end. Fortunately they did, and the game managed to continue. Beyond this group, one lone student managed to solve the game later in the day. The school librarian would later describe in vivid details how the kid approached him and awkwardly mumbled the password: “Chuckle Patch.” I consider this a signature achievement on a variety of levels.

So, lessons learned! We failed to safeguard against all types of emergent game-play, but it’s almost impossible to eliminate anyway, and it bears repeating that it’s not always undesirable. Nevertheless, we managed to create a fun interactive experience that traversed physical and digital platforms with a mixture of digital and physical puzzles and ciphers that required students to interact and cooperate across digital boundaries.

In sum, the ARG was a success. The students had a lot of fun playing it, almost as much fun as I had designing and implementing it. From a skills perspective, we even managed to teach them how to access the school’s online guidebook and find course numbers — skills they would need to successfully register for their classes later that week. And DJ Mez is still out there… although the students retrieved the registration forms, Dwight “The Bulldog” managed to escape with DJ Mez!

Perhaps we’ll need a sequel to figure out what happened…

To continue the article, click HERE.

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 shawn.clybor@gmail.com or through LinkedIn.

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Shawn Clybor, Ph.D.

Shawn Clybor, Ph.D.

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Educator, Game Designer, and Instructional Designer who specializes in learning theory, game-based learning, and world history.