Alternate Reality Games and Large-Scale Learning Interventions

Patrick Jagoda,
University of Chicago

I create and research games that have social or political orientations — what are sometimes called “serious games” or “games for change.” In collaboration with medical researchers such as Melissa Gilliam and game designers such as Ashlyn Sparrow, much of this work has unfolded at the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which is based at the University of Chicago. This lab uses games to impact sexual and reproductive health, especially through work we do with youth of color on the South Side of Chicago. Instead of targeting health in a narrow medical sense, these labs approach public health from a broader perspective. Issues such as unplanned pregnancy and the spread of HIV stem from structural inequalities in the lives of disadvantaged young people, including poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, low-quality health care, underperforming schools, and the lack of guarantees of personal safety. Even in the face of such inequities, our research draws on theories such as positive youth development that focus on learning, making, and skills development. Since the lab opened in 2012, we have used games as a medium for exploring this more expansive version of health.

The games that I have helped to design and study belong within three overarching categories: digital games, board games, and alternate reality games. First, we have created digital games and prototypes such as Bystander (a narrative-oriented game that aims to increase skills, attitudes, and awareness to help youth combat sexual violence and harassment) and The Test (a mobile videogame about HIV testing that targets young men who have sex with men). Second, some of our projects include board games, such as Smoke Stacks (a game that seeks to shift player attitudes about the tobacco industry and behavioral intent to engage in tobacco use) and Babytown (a game that explores the consequences of unplanned teen pregnancy). Though it may be slightly more difficult to learn how to play a board game than a videogame (which automatically enforces rules for the player), board games carry the advantage of being easy to transport into classrooms and afterschool programs that might not have the technologies necessary to play digital games.

Among these projects, I have been perhaps most excited by the results and research opportunities suggested by a third category that may be the least familiar to many people: alternate reality games (ARGs). ARGs resemble scavenger hunts that lead players through a series of on- and off-line challenges and roleplaying tasks. They use a unified narrative and incorporate multiple activities and media, such as photography, video, email, social media, and theatrical performance. Unlike challenges in many popular video games, which are designed for individuals to solve, most ARG puzzles mobilize a range of specialized knowledge across disciplines, and a pooling of collective effort. Unlike screen-based videogames, ARGs break down the spatial, temporal, and social boundaries within which people ordinarily learn and play by blurring absolute distinctions between everyday life and the game world. In the past, most ARGs served promotional and commercial ends. Recently, however, educational ARGs have been used in the classroom and within academic curricula. Such games have been used to promote critical thinking, teamwork capacities, problem-solving skills, and content-specific knowledge. Designers such as Jane McGonigal have attempted to harvest large scale collective intelligence for practical ends through “forecasting games” such as Superstruct in which players proposed restructurings of current political and economic organizations.

I have served as a creator and co-director of a series of experimental ARGs that have included games about financial literacy (Speculation, 2012), public play (The Project, 2013), STEM education (The Source, 2013), and political engagement (S.E.E.D., 2014). Building on this work, in 2017, I collaborated with a team of faculty, staff, and student collaborators to create an ARG entitled the parasite, which was scaled for the approximately 1,750 incoming student class at the University of Chicago in order to serve as a portion of their orientation. The game (see: postmortem trailer here) presented a continuous narrative that unfolded across multiple media, including emails online chat rooms, websites, social media, videos, augmented reality, and live performance. Furthermore, the parasite encouraged incoming students to develop capacities linked to collaboration, leadership, inclusivity, digital media, and twenty-first century literacies. Other learning outcomes from this experience included time management, body awareness, asking for help, identifying resources, and conflict resolution.

ARGs are a promising form for large-scale interventions in learning. Preliminary research suggests that ARGs might be a useful platform for motivating collaborative learning and teaching 21st-century literacies that include cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal capacities. Specifically, ARGs have a capacity to bring participants together to engage in shared speculation and planning about environmental futures. A novel or film requires a reader or viewer to engage a representation of a world. By contrast, an ARG invites players to co-create that world by developing its narrative and characters.

Thus far, my work on ARGs has involved the feasibility and acceptability of scaling ARGs for increasingly larger groups of players. Future work in this area can move us into even more rigorous research about the learning potentials of such games. Already, our initial research about the parasite included an ethnography that compared the non-gamified versus gamified University of Chicago orientation from one year to the next, as well as focus groups with members of the first-year student cohort that played the game. However, ARGs are much more than games. They serve as out-of-school educational programs, practice-based digital humanities experiments, research platforms that juxtapose alternative learning forms, and scalable social interventions. ARGs invite myriad possibilities for rich data collection and quantitative analysis. Given their modular composition, ARGs can be designed as a series of experiments, each of which can offer data about different forms of human decision-making, learning, skills acquisition, community building, and more.

One challenge for this kind of work has to do with bringing artists, social scientists, and humanists together to build, analyze, and collect data about such games. Given the range of collaborators we have brought together at the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, however, suggests that this kind of work is possible. At the Lab, we have included researchers in fields such as media studies, medicine, reproductive and sexual health, economics, psychology, literary studies, and social work, as well as practitioners coming from fields as wide-ranging as computer science, game design, film production, creative writing, and digital storytelling. Even so, continuing to build these types of teams is the key to strengthening game-based research that yields rigorous data and robust analysis.


Bouris, A. Mancino, J. Jagoda, P. Hill, B. and Gilliam, M. (2016) Reinvigorating adolescent sexuality education through alternate reality games: The Case of the source.” Sex Education 16(4). pp. 353-367.

Ehrenberg, P. Jagoda, P. and Gilliam, M. (2018). S.E.E.D.: Creating and implementing an alternate reality.( Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 22(2).

Gilliam, M. Jagoda, P. Fabiyi, C. Lyman, P. Wilson, C. Hill, B. and Bouris, A. (2017). Alternate reality games as an informal learning tool for generating STEM engagement among underrepresented youth: A Qualitative evaluation of the source. Journal of Science Education and Technology 26(3). pp. 295-308.

Jagoda, P. Gilliam, M. McDonald, P. and Sparrow, A. (2017) From alternate to alternative reality: Games as cultural probes.” Book chapter for Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay. Ed. Antero Garcia and Greg Niemeyer. pp. 31-55.

Jagoda, P. (2016) Participatory Aesthetics in Network Aesthetics. University of Chicago Press.

Jagoda, P. Gilliam, M. McDonald, P. and Russell, C. (2015). Worlding through play: Alternate reality games, large-scale learning, and the source. American Journal of Play 8(1). pp. 74-100.

Hayles, N. Jagoda, P. and LeMieux, P. (2014). Speculation: Financial Games and Derivative Worlding in a Transmedia Era. Critical Inquiry. pp. 220-236.

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