A group of educators gathers at a retreat. They’re introduced to two high school students and given a mission: Figure out which student cheated on an exam. Over the next couple of days, the teachers get snippets of information, find clues, solve problems together—and learn a whole lot about the myriad ways their students might be cheating. The original two students? They’re part of a “puppet master” team running an alternate reality game.

Alternate reality games, or ARGs, move simulation into a new dimension, providing real-life experience solving fictional—but realistic—problems. Some ARGs, like World Without Oil, imagine solutions for real problems, within the controlled environment of a game. Unlike a simulation, the players influence the developing story, create content, and solve problems. “A simulation typically has a predefined outcome, whereas an alternate reality game often does not. It can, but it is supposed to really mimic real-world feelings for the player,” said Jeff Borden, chief innovation officer at St. Leo University in Florida. Players should feel like they are in a real position or role as they try to achieve tasks or goals, Borden explained.

ARGs differ from augmented reality games

ARGs are often confused with augmented reality (AR) games, like Zombies, Run! or Pokémon Go. Both are based on real-world environments, unlike virtual reality, which brings players into a digitally created environment. But there are key differences between alternate and augmented reality games:

Alternate reality game

Augmented reality game

Players have a lot of control over content and story development. Game designers prepare the initial content, and they might have an ending in mind, but the players’ actions and responses can change the story.

All content is predetermined and created by the game designers.

ARGs are based in the existing world but might add a fictional story layer on top of the players’ regular daily existence. Elements might be created for the story—evidence and clues in a murder mystery, for example.

Augmented reality is highly computer-dependent; the game or exercise changes the view that somebody has of the world, usually with a computer-generated overlay of information onto a real environment.

Story or narrative is critical; it is an integral element of an ARG. Players solve real or realistic problems, conduct research, or act as they would in real-life roles.

The game can exist without a story; it can be action-focused (e.g., capturing Pokémon or shooting a harpoon at sharks). A story or narrative is optional.

Research indicates that ARGs are extremely effective at getting participants to hone essential soft skills, such as communication, collaborative problem-solving, critical thinking, and negotiation. They can teach “harder” skills as well, such as digital media literacy or context-specific skills. ViolaQuest was an information literacy game played by incoming students at Manchester Metropolitan University. Over eight weeks, students worked together to solve a series of challenges; in the process, they learned to use the university library, got oriented to university life, became familiar with Manchester—and got to know one another. Corporate onboarding and training teams could apply this idea, using an ARG to teach new employees skills and processes while also building teams and cultivating collaborative relationships among the new colleagues.

ARGs used in university or high school settings are designed around existing learning outcomes, Borden said. Instructors do not alter their learning goals to accommodate the game. An ARG might be designed to meet learning outcomes for one course or several, and students participate in lieu of or as part of a course. For example, in a mock trial, law students and criminal justice students might participate for a full semester instead of a more conventional trial law course, but forensic science students might be called in as witnesses or to study and evaluate evidence, a short-term role that is integrated into one of their courses.

Certain elements of the story are “forced,” or required, Borden said, while others evolve as the story develops. “While we’re going to force them to go to trial, we’re not going to force them to make certain arguments; we’re not going to force them to have certain people be witnesses or not be witnesses,” he said. “That is up to the defense and that’s up to the prosecution to put on their best possible trial, just like they would have to do in the real world. Afterward, you can certainly say, ‘I think that was a mistake.’ The teachable moments are rich, but the students really do guide the direction.”

Borden described the possibility of using an ARG in a corporate setting. “One thing that a lot of ARG strategists use is the notion that people start playing a game and they don’t even know they’re playing it until they are playing it,” he said. “With corporate training, people that are adopting this notion, they are doing things like sending emails out that are strange or weird or have some odd consequence. People start reacting to it, and it’s that reaction that pulls them into the game.” The employee is then sent content—the game designers will have content for the first two or three weeks—and the content will send the employees somewhere or have them start working on a problem, and they will “uncover” something that they may think they were not supposed to find.

The content depends on the learning outcomes and goals of the game; it’s all part of the learning exercise. For compliance training, the initial email might tell an employee that she is out of compliance on some issue, Borden said. She might respond that no, she’s not—and she’s been drawn into a game without knowing it. When she digs into the challenge that she’s sent next, she’ll be learning the ins and outs of compliance in a much more engaging way than repetitive or text-heavy traditional eLearning courses tend to offer.

While many ARG designers strive for a realistic feeling, “there is absolutely a fourth wall,” Borden said. The “fourth wall” is the imaginary line between acting or actors and reality; how completely players buy in might be a determining factor in which ARGs succeed. “The fourth wall is the ‘alternate’ in ‘alternate reality,’” he said. “In an augmented reality, that is almost exclusively done through a video augmentation. You are showing someone exactly what to see. But in alternate reality, a person is defining what it is they choose to do.”

The blurring or merging of fantasy with reality can be particularly successful at keeping people engaged in training. According to Borden, a 2012 war games training exercise the US Navy and Marines conducted in San Diego, a zombie apocalypse ARG, “was so authentic and so real; people were so into it, they got so excited by it, that it was the most successful experience that they’ve ever had.”


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