Education Through ARGs

As we talk about the gamification of education, I always come back to my elementary school cafeteria. They came up with a new way to keep the cafeteria quiet. A traffic light hung at the far end of the cafeteria and as long as we were quiet it would stay at green, a bit too loud yellow, and way too loud red. At that point, we were given a minute of silence.

The game was obvious.

How fast can you make the light red without getting blamed.

Although ARGs seek to be less constrained by rules and non-punitive, that traffic light is my best example that no matter what if there is a game element, people will game it.

I’m interested in comparing the summer experiences: Source and S.E.E.D. to the more permanent experience of Quest to Learn. Some key differences and similarities I noted in these programs:

  • Choice: the UChicago programs were short experiences chosen by the players to participate in. In contrast, most middle and high school students have less choice in where they go to school. In many ARGs the choice to play is essential. How do you navigate a group that has not necessarily chosen to play?
  • Time: Typically, ARGs are relatively short lasting in measures of months. In the UChicago programs, each session had a clear narrative. Similarly, Quest to Learn breaks down each class into having its own narrative. Both of these programs must manage the game to fit into a specific time frame, while continuing to engage students in different ways.
  • Success Metrics: ARGs tend to lack clear success or failure, just the progress of the narrative. Summer programs are a great way to engage with this since there is little pressure to prove oneself, and it is a step back from the highly structured school environment. Therefore, the UChicago programs seem more easily suited for ARGs. However, Quest to Learn requires metrics, if only to prove itself. Despite the attempts to shift the perception and punishment of grades, I wonder how you balance a game that measurably effects the outcome of your life without incentivizing “gaming” the game.

Even with best intentions, you can always make a traffic light. The question is how to change the game once you have made it.

3 thoughts on “Education Through ARGs

  1. I feel like your thoughts on gaming and gamifying are really interesting. Since you’re relating this to education through ARG as well as a childhood memory, I was wondering your thoughts on how likely adults or older people are to ‘gamify’ things, or understand the opportunity for games in typically non-game objects? Are children and teens more open to games, and therefore serve as a better demographic for the out-of-the-box and creative thinking that is often linked with ARGs?

    It would be interesting to consider a game design meant for adult/child pairs, such as parents and children, or older/younger sibling pairs, etc. Obviously that is a huge challenge to make something interesting and worthwhile for younger and older demographics, but it’s an interesting thought experiment none the less.


    1. You bring up an interesting question here about generational differences. If we think adults are less open to games and play, why? Is it because they’ve been socialized, like many of us, to see play as a childish thing? Or is that their conception of “play” is different as their life changes? There are merits to thinking about how play is actually not limited to a specific age group, but just might need to appear in different forms and with different motivations.

      As for education, it is hard to consider using games without some kind of metric or success measurements. If the process of gamifying something is to make it a safer and more engaging space for students, how can we balance this while also wanting them to meet certain outcomes? The same goes for the summer programs and even the UChicago orientation ARG, since there are goals that the designers are trying to meet, just like many of the cases we saw on Thursday. Whether it’s community building, encouraging interests in STEM, or fostering problem-solving skills, these cases had certain motivations. So in playing and reviewing the games, part of the question becomes how to design for those goals, whether the goals actually flourish once the players enter and affect the game, and how to measure the success of meeting those goals. Since ARGs, in most cases, afford some room for player/designer interactions and “gaming” the game, so to speak, it’s also fascinating to think about what the player’s goals are in completing the games as well.


      1. I want to add to Riss’s comment using my experience directing and doing puppetry: I think adults are in fact very open to games and play, and will accept it much the same way they would have when they were kids. A puppet show I conceived and directed a few years back was written with a lot of the usual tropes of childrens’ shows: bad jokes, comedically over-the-top acting, audience interaction. One small thing: none of my audience were kids, in fact the first time it was performed it was for my peers here at UChicago. So the challenge was taking this for the most part juvenile humor and presenting it in a way that our seemingly mature audience would just play along with. My solution was to have it performed like a parent telling a story to their child, but not in a condescending way but more “you and I are on the same level of maturity for this moment.” Surprisingly, it worked really well: we even had a moment where we encouraged the audience to scream in terror, and the entire audience participated.

        The key thing about getting adults to play the game is much the same thing that I think gets children to follow along with things: not condescending to them, and treating them on the same level as the game makers. If someone doesn’t feel condescended to in being given this game to play, then no matter their age they will be more than happy to play along.



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