Keegan ran an entire module at her University as an Alternate Reality Game; a game which is based upon real life to use trans media to tell a story which players interact with using real world objects.
These games create an immersive experience which takes place in real time and cannot be re-played. Helen discovered these games through the first season of LOST, where each episode ended with a web link to information regarding the on screen story which appeared to be real. Those participating were unsure which elements were real and which were not; a powerful mechanism to drive players into the game.
Keegan wanted to harness this immersive experience in an HE setting, but conceded the ethical issues of deceiving students. She found many of her students taking a consumer driven approach to their education, with little regard for the learning that was taking place and a concentration on what they needed to do to get a first, Often this undermines the love of learning and curiosity required for really deep learning to happen.
The resulting ARG, #PSVTAM, was designed to create a deep sense of digital identity in the students, through exploring participatory media production, remix culture and transmedia storytelling. This game was based around a mysterious character communicating with the students.
It began with a ‘rabbithole’, a series of numbers ‘91211’. This was the date booked for student’s films to be shown on the big screen in the centre of Manchester, but students were not aware of this when they received these numbers in an anonymous letter at their home addresses. Students were deliberately disorientated by this. Tweets from students showed they were scared, some citing a stalker as the possible sender. There was a flurry of activity on social media sites speculating what these numbers could mean, slowly revealing Rufi Franzen, a mysterious character who began communicating with the students through YouTube videos of a remix of a speech by Steve Jobs.
The initial reaction was more paranoid that they had expected, and the letters were reported to the student’s union, the police, and one student issued threats of violence on twitter. Helen’s thoughts turned to possibly being sacked from her job for this, but decided she was doing it for the right reasons and she would stand by it. She sent them an email assuring them there had been no breach of personal data, but not taking responsibility for the letters and undermining the game. The trust relationship she had with them caused this to pivot the game, and the players started to take control of the game with their actions and drive the curriculum.
They decided to answer back, and began creating similar videos to try to confuse their confuser. Collaboration began through google docs and other online tools. At this point Helen and her colleagues began to become paranoid about some of the responses, they had become immersed in the game themselves.
By this point the learners had worked out where they needed to be on the 9th December, but they had no idea why. They drove the narrative towards finding out who Rufi Franzen was, taking control of the direction. Helen and colleagues closely monitored the engagement of students, throwing out hooks to pull in those who had not engaged recently.
The night before the event Rufi got in touch with them and offered the opportunity to ask 5 questions with yes or no answers. These answers were given by a plastic bird flying between two black skulls, one for yes and one for no. At this point students had been delving into Keegan’s reading list and looking for clues as to what was happening. They uncovered mentions of ‘I love Bees’ in Charle’s Leadbeter’s work, who in a twist of fate happened to be in Manchester and was nabbed by one of Helen’s colleagues to produce a further video clue.
The morning of the event Keegan admits she was frightened as to whether it would work; she had become a player in the game and was taking risks along with her learners. Students were instructed to find a QR code at the location, leading them to a mobile number of the controller of the big screen. If they called this number at the right time they would be told to turn around and their videos would be played on the big screen in the centre of town.
The students were stunned and excited to see their videos on the screen, and they were later told it had been an AR game. Keegan was surprised that their were stunned at the revelation it had been a game, and many of them went home and spent considerable time going back through every video and tweet to work out how it had all happened.
How often do learners go back through their learning post assessment for fun?
The aim of the activity was to engage the ‘casual’ learners who didn’t usually engage with their courses. Unfortunately this was not entirely successful, the learners seemed to split into the enthusiastic, active and casual participatory groups, although those who engaged did so highly.
The big issue with this sort of activity is the ethical issues, ARGs must involve a degree of deception. The big question is can we justify lying to our students and making them feel uncomfortable in the name of education?
To Keegan the answer is ‘Yes’. The experience was transformative for many students and encouraged them to ask questions and develop an openness and criticality. It heightened their awareness of the world around them and encouraged them to ask questions; surely a key tenet of education.
- Helen Keegan on engaging students with immersive gameplay | PELeCON 2012
- Alternate Reality Games – My reflections from PELECON12 | Seriously Virtual
- Towards the future-building education institution – Professor Keri Facer (@kerileef) #pelc12 | Oliver Quinlan: Live Blogs
- New Media Consortium Summer Conference | Stepping Stones
- ‘Into the wild’ and ‘Embracing The Anarchy’ reviewed by Karen Rowe Plymouth University « hellerandthat
- Live blogging highlights for 2012 | Oliver Quinlan