Secret Agent Students: How to Bring an Alternate Reality Game to Your Classroom

Secret Agent Students: How to Bring an Alternate Reality Game to Your Classroom


In the spring of 2012, my Sophomore English class was reading Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug.” In the story, characters decipher secret messages as they attempt to find buried treasure. My kids enjoyed the story, but enjoyed trying to decipher the messages on their own even more.

For fun, I encoded the name of our next Poe story. I was surprised by how hard students worked to decode the message and by the ferocity and ingenuity they showed as they raced to decipher it. I was so impressed I started to wonder if there was a way that I could work coded messages and puzzles into my class as part of the curriculum to harness that excitement. I thought more about it and wondered if I could connect the puzzles to the curriculum with a story to make it even more engaging. I soon realized what I wanted to create was an Alternate Reality Game (ARG).

What is an Alternate Reality Game?

An ARG is a transmedia-driven story featuring codes and puzzles that move the narrative along. Different than a video game, where players use a controller to move a character on the screen, an ARG takes place in the real world, where players become the main character. Players have no superpowers in an ARG, but they do have the ability to alter the course of the story with their actions or ideas: the key to a good ARG is player involvement. Often used to promote movies and video games, what makes ARGs great is how they create a community, as players use the internet to collaborate on puzzles, discuss next moves, or arrange meetups.

What Does a Classroom ARG Look Like?

I launched my first classroom ARG, called “2020,” for the 2013-2014 school year. A girl, Sammy, was in danger in the future and was reaching out to my students for help through their schoolwork. Over the course of the year, my students were on the lookout for coded messages in their work. Decoding these messages would lead them on a hunt to find a puzzle, either on the internet, where I created fake websites and social media accounts for the characters, or in the real world, where students searched for dead drops hidden throughout the school and went on scavenger hunts or geocaching throughout the town. When they found and solved the puzzle, they received a transmedia piece of the story that moved the narrative forward. Sometimes students were even given phone numbers to call, and were shocked when they got to talk to the characters played by my friends and fellow teachers.

Why Construct an ARG in the Classroom?

I started the ARGs with two goals in mind: get my kids to come to class, and make the ARG and related game-mechanics so fun and exciting that they will be more engaged and motivated around the material. Since starting my ARGs, as part of my gamified classroom, my students’ attendance has gone up almost 20 percent. In my bi-monthly surveys, my kids consistently report that they love coming to class and that the ARG makes them pay more attention, because they don’t want to miss a clue. Since engaged students learn, overall averages have gone up around five points, and have increased more dramatically with minority and male students who benefit from the ARG and a gamified classroom the most.

How to Create an ARG For Your Classroom

Creating an ARG, especially as a one man show, isn’t easy; it requires a diverse skill set. I’ve had to teach myself how to use a host of programs like Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere, and Audacity to create plot-driving transmedia. I’ve taught myself how to code (not well), made myself familiar with cryptography and hundreds of ciphers, and become a bit of a puzzler.

To any teacher looking to start their own ARG, I advise beginning by writing a four act story--an act for each marking period--with as few characters as possible. Start with the end in mind: what must students do to win the game by the end of the year. Once you have the ending, even though it may change, you can work backward and plan the rest of your story, clues and puzzles. ARGS are hard work, but it has been worth it.

With ARGs becoming more mainstream through games like Ingress and James Frey’s novel Endgame, people are realizing how powerful a transmedia narrative can be. I’ve recently partnered with Pearson on research incorporating Alternate Reality Learning Experiences (ARLE) and game mechanics into learning. I’m excited to be part of the team and to see the outcome, as I believe placing an interactive narrative overtop of student learning will be a game changer is schools--it certainly has been in my classroom. 

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