Tag Archives: ARGNet

Alternate Reality Games: The Work Behind the Play

Alternate reality games (also called pervasive or mixed reality games) use the real world as the backdrop for a story or learning experience. Clues to a problem may be seeded in different locations and in different media elements and left for players to piece together, usually as part of a team. Behind the scenes, game organizers (aka puppet masters) control the flow of tasks and technology use.  Unlike role-playing games (RPGs), ARGs do not require players to imagine another identity.

Alternate reality games generate a number of different interactions to explore:

  • Player-technology interactions (typically involving mobile devices, and potentially including QR codes and Augmented Reality applications)
  • Player-player interactions
  • Player-non-player interactions

Complicated fun

Creating a fun experience in an ARG is challenging. Montola (2011) notes that people describe ARGs as enjoyable mainly because they are novel, but finding fun in an ARG may be more elusive. Montola describes a number of factors that impact creating a fun ARG.

Social framing and awkwardness

Alternate reality games are different from other games because they tend to reject the construct of a magic circle, that boundary that separates the game from “real life” (Montola, 2011). This can provide an extra element of surprise as a player finds elements of the game in his/her real life at unexpected times. However,  it also can lead to a reduced sense of security when the player has to consider his/her presence in the real world while playing the game.   Players have reported concerns over appearing “ridiculous” and loss of safety when interacting in dangerous  or very populated areas of a city (aka “out of frame action”) (Montola, 2011). A sense of connectedness with other players can help mitigate this anxiety.

Enjoying a limited view

ARGs can:

  • Involve diverse people
  • Take place over diverse locations
  • Take place over a relatively long and interrupted period of time

However, a single player typically only sees a fraction of the game. How does this limited view lead to a perception of fun? If the game is properly constructed, players may feel that they’re part of a team effort and that their interactions matter. Social engagement also can lead to a sense of fun.  Finally, players may feel a sense of liberation in not having to explore the entire game space by themselves. There’s a sense of adventure in the unpredictability and spontaneity of the game.

Importance of location

Alternate reality games may be more or less tied to the particulars of a location. For example, they may be:

  • Dependent on props
  • Dependent on local environments (e.g., tourist games)
  • More dependent on online communications (global games)

The more location dependent a game is, the more challenging it may be to create a sense of immersion in the game as real-world variables intervene.

A question of pacing and balance

As you might imagine, creating a game that’s appropriately paced and which creates a compelling narrative is challenging.

Good ARGs balance seemingly contradictory elements. They:

  • Have a narrative that fosters a sense of immersion
  • Are flexible and not too wedded to a particular linear storyline
  • Are interactive
  • Allow time for reflection (e.g., via social networks and online communications)
  • Are not too slow-moving
  • Are not overly reliant on technology (or, there’s always a Plan B when technology fails)
  • Implicate  multiple media types
  • Are not perceived as too much work

When crafted correctly, as noted by John Feser of  Float Mobile Learning, ARGs  have a great deal of potential as components of organizational learning strategies, creating  engagement while allowing players to explore meaningful problems with a sense of play.

Examples of ARGs

To keep apprised of new ARGs, you also may want to check the Alternate Reality Gaming Network, or ARGNet site.

A related post: Transmedia: A new instructional literacy


Montola, M. (2011). A ludological view on the pervasive mixed-reality game research paradigm. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 15, 3–12.