Finding DJ Mez: How I Built an Alternate Reality Game at my High School (Part Two)
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 second part of my four-part article series, I explore what happened when we “played” the ARG that I designed for ninth grade students at an independent school in New Jersey where I was working during the 2020–2021 school year.
To access the first part of the story, click HERE.
We had decided to divide our ARG into three “rounds,” with each round involving a puzzle or series of puzzles posted online or hidden somewhere on campus. Once the students successfully solved the puzzles they would receive a password or phrase that allowed them to “unlock” the main puzzle for the next round. The third round would end when they recited the secret phrase “Chuckle Patch” to the school librarian, who rewarded them with the missing registration forms and a handwritten note from Dwight, who, as it turns out, escaped with his hostage at the last second. Drats!
The game was designed to encourage conspiratorial thinking. For example, I carefully organized and scheduled email drops at different times to random ninth-grade students and advisors. To the students, these drops appeared “random” and generated intense bursts of excitement. They were also mysterious. Students wanted to know why certain individuals got emails when others didn’t, or why certain advisories didn’t receive an email, or whether there was any pattern or logic to the emails.
These interactions occurred across a range of private and semi-public channels online. Some students texted with each other, others posted video clips on TikTok, while others spoke or used the text chat function directly on the main Zoom channel, which ended up running for nearly 75 minutes continuously. Once the game had begun and my presence was less integral, I was able to leave my office and visit two different advisories to observe how the students were interacting, and to offer suggestions and clues if they got stuck.
Zoom became an essential social forum that allowed remote students to engage directly and organically with their peers. On-campus students were noticeably less engaged with the Zoom channel; however, the advisories that I saw kept it on for at least an hour. For them, it functioned like an informational hub akin to a ham radio channel running in the background. When someone on Zoom shared an important discovery a few students in the classroom would quiet down and pay attention. Then, if it was important, they would share the information with other students in the classroom, creating a “telephone game” effect. Similarly, when students made an important discovery in the advisory I was observing, I would encourage them to share it with the rest of the grade on the Zoom channel.
The puzzles were designed to grow more difficult as the game progressed, allowing students to conceptually orient themselves in the game and learn the rules gradually. The initial puzzle was sent to the advisors in a password locked document while Joe was yelling at Jeremy. The document contained a short string of 6–8 numbers written in code. Known as the “pigpen cipher,” it was a well-known and relatively simple system of graphical symbols assigned to corresponding letters and numbers in the alphabet according to a key that is drawn like a diagram. The pig pen cipher is quite old, possibly rabbinical or even Kabbalistic, and was most likely used by Christian knights during the Crusades. Variations of the cipher have been used by Christian monastic orders, the Freemasons, and Napoleon.
To help students unlock the document and identify the message as pigpen cipher, we emailed a few kids from each advisory two different clues: The first was a simple quiz show question that provided them with the password to unlock the document (every advisory had one of three passwords). The questions were simple and oriented towards pop culture: the Mandalorian, Billie Eilish, or one of several other references that honestly I’ve forgotten because I’m not fifteen. Second, we emailed various pictures of a cartoon pig, a cartoon pen, the Peanuts character Pigpen, a Jacques-Louis David portait of Napoleon, and a Freemason pyramid. These were visual puns, that we hoped, could provide some visual link or pattern if students began sharing them.
We were relieved and delighted that so many students engaged with the puzzles, since at this point they were either fully remote or huddled with a small pod of four to six classmates in their advisories. Collectively, the grade was able to decode all of their ciphers, allowing all 13 advisories to advance to the second level. What the ciphers contained were thirteen different sets of symbols in a second cipher, an encoded string of 6–8 numbers and letters that when combined in the correct order would give them a set of satellite coordinates leading them to a hidden location on campus. But to access the coordinates they had to crack the second cipher and then figure out the correctly order to organize the fragments of coordinates.
The satellite coordinates were encoded in the complicated rail fence cipher — undoubtedly the most difficult puzzle in the game. We decided to hide this cipher in plain sight: that morning before school Jeremy and I had covered the campus with dozens of flyers of random images and encoded messages. Shortly after the students began cracking their pigpen cipher, I sent another email to every student in the grade from Dwight that read: “Why do you like DJ Mez when Dwight is flyer? You’ll find evidence all around campus, but can you crack their codes??? They contain the instructions for those weird symbols you got!!! You’ll never guess what those numbers are… or where they lead… woof!” This opaque message was followed by some general clues explaining how to solve the puzzle and use the information from it to locate DJ Mez.
It took the students a few minutes to figure out what this meant, but once they did, they began setting out across campus in socially distanced teams to find and decode the flyers, which they also began screen-shooting, sharing on social media, and displaying on the main Zoom meeting.
The first flyer included thirteen random sets of numbers, and the second flyer included a 3x24 grid of squares partially filled in with letters, a picture of a bulldog and a fence, and a message at the bottom (in comic sans): SCSDOSM OTOEBAVSRATAE RDYILN.
Once decoded with a rail fence cipher, the message instructed them to order the thirteen sets of numbers according to the numbers on the first flyer. The critical link here was to connect these numbers to the grade’s thirteen academic advisors. The email message Dwight sent to the students introducing the flyers also linked them to their online course catalogue, where similar numbers were all prominently displayed — they were class codes that corresponded to a popular class taught by each of their advisors.
This part of the game sparked some deep conspiratorial thinking, with students trying to decode the meaning of the numbers like it was kabbalistic mysticism. I also had to intervene a few times with general questions and clues on the Zoom meeting to keep them on track. Once the students were able to organize the 13 sets of satellite code from the original pigpen cipher, they could punch it into their GPS, which led them to a giant statue of a bulldog, the school’s mascot, on the campus quad. That morning Jeremy had taped a piece of paper to the bulldog’s underside with a QR code that led to their final puzzle: a digital escape room that I built using Google Slides and Google Forms that, once solved, provided them with a secret password and instructed them to recite the secret password to the school librarian.
Throughout the game, I stayed active on DJ Mez’s Google Mail account and offered hints to different students who figured out that they could contact me on chat or reply to my emails. I received some hilarious messages. Meanwhile, I was also chatting with other groups of students as myself over Zoom, helping them out wherever needed. Did they know it was me pretending to be DJ Mez all along? I’m certain. About halfway through the game I ran into a student in the hall. When I said hello to her, she smirked at me and said: “I don’t know how you’re doing this. But you’re doing this.”
“What do you mean?” I asked innocently.
“Oh, you know,” she said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn.