Playing for Real: Designing Alternate Reality Games in Learning Contexts

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Alternate Reality Game (ARG) represent a new genre of transmedia practice where players hunt for scattered clues, make sense of disparate information, and solve puzzles to advance an ever-evolving storyline. Players participate in ARGs using multiple communications technologies, ranging from print materials to mobile devices. However, many interaction design challenges must be addressed to weave these everyday communication tools together into an immersive, participatory experience. Transmedia design is not an everyday process. Designers must create and connect story bits across multiple media (video, audio, text) and multiple platforms (phones, computers, physical spaces). Furthermore, they must engage with players of varying skill levels. Few studies to-date have explored the design process of ARGs in learning contexts. Fewer still have focused on challenges involved in designing for youth (13-17 years old).

In this study, I explore the process of designing ARGs as vehicles for promoting information literacy and participatory culture for adolescents (13-17 years old). Two ARG design scenarios, distinguished by target learning environment (formal and informal context) and target audience (adolescents), comprise the two cases that I examine. Through my analysis of these two design cases, I articulate several unique challenges faced by designers who create interactive, transmedia stories for – and with – youth. Drawing from these design challenges, I derive a repertoire of design strategies that future designers and researchers may use to create and implement ARGs for teens in learning contexts. In particular, I propose a narrative design framework that allows for the categorization of ARGs as storytelling constructs that lie along a continuum of participation and interaction. The framework can serve as an analytic tool for researchers and a guide for designers. In addition, I establish a framework of social roles that designers may employ to craft transmedia narratives before live launch and to promote and scaffold player participation after play begins. Overall, the contributions of my study include theoretical insights that may advance our understanding of narrative design and analysis as well as more practical design implications for designers and practitioners seeking to incorporate transmedia features into learning experiences that target youth.