Nick Barclay was a man on a mission: re-define the opening week of the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Management at Warwick Business School. The Diploma is an entry-level business management qualification targeting the Exec Ed market. Designed to give a solid grounding in business for graduates without a business degree, the course already had a successful seven-year track record, but it was time for an update. Nick stalked the corridors of the business school, keen for new ideas. He was no stranger to experiential learning and when he’d gone looking for ideas for the diploma, one key message had come back to him: gamification.

Gamification is a hotly debated term within the game design community. Many traditionalists believe the term to be derogatory – they feel that claiming that it is possible to change an experience into a game by adding a few features like the right to earn badges is an insult to their art. But, increasingly, it is being seen as an all encompassing term for the implementation of game mechanisms into an experience.

All games are built on a familiar concept; taking the gamer on a journey towards mastery of the task. Games employ different tactics to achieve this. Some act like puzzles to be solved, some give out experience points as a measure of effort and completion; others award medals as part of a recognition package needed to “level up” and progress to higher levels. Gamification works best when it is implemented from day one of development. If you try to shoe-horn these tactics later in development, the result is often messy and nonsensical. It is important to set out to make a game, and then look to make it serious, rather than setting out serious and ending up with a game.

Nick Barclay appreciated all of this and wanted badly to implement such things into his solution, but he had a problem. He didn’t have fifty grand. Bespoke computer games, above all other attributes, are expensive. Nick’s dream solution involved groups of learners playing a game that simulated the complete running of a business while he pulled the strings behind the scenes. Nothing available “off-the-shelf” was up to the task; the games were either far too simplistic, or perversely, far too complex. For his budget this simply could not be done. Or so he thought until I introduced the concept of the Alternate Reality Game, or ARG.

A brief explanation of the Alternate Reality Game concept

ARGs create a fictional scenario in which your learners interact with people and information to play out a story in the form of a game. Imagine a role-play on steroids, where the participants don’t have to pretend to be anyone else, it’s the world around them that changes. For learners immersed in an ARG, it becomes increasingly difficult to define what is actually real and what is faked. For example, you might give your participants a task that will involve them researching something online. You know they will almost certainly Google for the answer, so you’ve rigged the system so that a Website of your creation comes up first for the term they will search for. This game is as real as it gets. Participants in an ARG can take actions and approaches they might be too afraid to pursue in the real-world. But an ARG is an environment for safe-failure and experimentation.

ARGs grew up as a part of viral marketing campaigns, but today they are increasingly popular in the world of learning. However, I hadn’t heard of a face-to-face course that was previously delivered in a lecture/seminar format being converted into an ARG. This didn’t stop Nick going for it; the idea appealed to him too much to let it lie. What was even better was the price tag; less than a tenth of the cost involved in building a computer game.

Building the experience

The induction week of the diploma is an immersion week, designed to get participants fired up to learn more about the models and theories that they need to leverage in order to create better businesses. As such, we had almost free-range to craft an experience that would highlight the need for participants to know more about marketing, finance, operations, and strategy. Initially we formed the basis of the narrative around a case study scenario; a failing water cooler company in need of rescue. We took this premise and made it epic; jobs would be lost, lives ruined, and a town left destitute if the participants failed to save the company during the course of the game.

The game would be played over the course of four days of the five-day induction week. HT2 (the author’s company) would act as remote puppet masters; controlling telephone lines, e-mails and other Web-based assets, while Nick and his colleague Mark would act as puppet masters “on the ground,” manipulating the game in response to players actions and responses. While the case study acted as a foundation for the game, we were flexible enough to change the environment as we needed to push participants in a certain direction.

We worked hard to make our ARG a “fully-realized world;” the company in question had a Website that worked, with links to other Websites that really existed (see: Employees had e-mails that worked and that were responded to “in character.” Workers also had exposure elsewhere on the internet; Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and personal blogs were all included. While all of this involved a level of effort to set up, none of it cost any real money. The company’s Websites were built with WordPress; the telephone number was actually a Skype number to be answered on my laptop, the social network presences were all free of charge. We took time over developing our key characters, making sure their names were realistic but unique so that if our participants were to search for them, our entries would come up first (try Rebecca Dellingford). All of this online work was augmented with real-life actors brought in to play select company roles in the face-to-face environment as and when we required their intervention.

Running the ARG

On the first day of the ARG, participants were shown a “flash forward” video that showed the potential future of the company: bankruptcy and disaster. Split into groups, the participants were then issued a brown paper envelope with a USB thumb drive inside. The thumb drive had a range of materials on it, including a briefing from the chairman of the company, detailed company information, and a range of additional services that they could purchase, should they need a helping hand to piece the story together.

The teams then had three days to put together a rescue plan in time for a big presentation to the board on the fourth day. They needed to research, to question, and to analyze their findings to come up with a coherent plan of action. As they researched and probed, further new clues were unveiled that helped participants to piece the story together. At the end of each day the teams were pitted against each other in games designed to expose elements of each team’s knowledge to the rest of the group. Many of the clues we left utilized QR codes as a means of communication. QR codes are 2-D bar-codes; square patterns that are readable by smartphone apps and can store information like a Website URL. None of the participants had, to their knowledge, seen one of these QR codes before. By the end of the first evening one of the groups figured out that what the QR codes were, captured one and used it to find an “employee’s” Facebook profile. By day two, all of the groups knew what they were.

All of this amounted to a hugely immersive induction week to the Diploma. Running the experience was busy, fast moving, and fun according to Nick, but he also thought the format really excelled because it was both exciting and capable of being flexed in real-time. Participant feedback was stunning, with players commenting that they really enjoyed “discovery through doing,” which helped to highlight things not always seen in traditional style courses. Others commented that the experience was “very refreshing;” that they “really learned a tremendous amount,” found the ARG “extremely enjoyable” and “very realistic,” and that the whole experience “challenged you to think in different ways.” The winning team also had the honor of becoming the namesakes of our ARG: Spring Revival.

I firmly believe that this approach to game-based learning is both affordable and sustainable. We’ll be running the ARG again for the next cohort of participants at Warwick Business School in the coming months and we fully expect the second play-through to be even better than the first.