IT Infrastructure

Alternate Reality Games

By Katie Ash — June 04, 2008 4 min read
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“Gas in the cheap 24-pump station that was just built here was $3.96 this morning as I drove to work. When I arrived home it was $4.17,” writes a blogger from Michigan.

That description has become a familiar scene for many Americans as gas prices soar across the United States, but the blog post was written over a year ago, on April 30, 2007—the first day of a massive online collaborative game called World Without Oil.

World Without Oil is an alternate-reality game, or ARG. Such games use the actual world as their stage and encourage players to participate by imagining themselves, as themselves, in simulated situations—in this case, during an oil shortage.

“[An oil crisis] is impossible for one person to imagine,” says Ken Eklund, a freelance game designer in San Jose, Calif., and the creator of the game. But with a community of people, “we were able to achieve a rich and really very strikingly real simulation of what a real shock could be like.”

“The game is about the future,” adds Eklund, “but it’s changing people right now.”

Over the course of 32 days, with each day representing one week, 1,800 participants sent in thousands of blog posts, videos, and images simulating the crisis and what they were doing to cope with it.

World Without Oil is an example of what Eklund says could be the curriculum of the future—and he’s not alone in his thinking.

Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning, researches the use of computer simulations and hand-held technologies in science education. Like Eklund, Klopfer believes ARGs have educational potential.

“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” he says. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.”

And although ARGs have almost exclusively been created for entertainment up to this point, World Without Oil has inspired a handful of other educational ARGs, such as Black Cloud. That game, created by researchers at the Center for New Media at the University of California, Berkeley, links up high school students in Los Angeles with students in Cairo to study air pollution.

Teachers as ‘Game Masters’

Since the conclusion of the World Without Oil simulation, Ken Eklund and Dan McDowell, a 10th grade teacher of world history at the 2,300-student West Hills High School in Santee, Calif., have teamed up to build a series of lesson plans for teachers about the game so they can easily guide their classes through the online archives and host mini-simulations.

Allowing teachers to take over the role of “game master” is a natural progression for the game, says Eklund. “We really wanted to make this archive useful.”

McDowell has recently begun to use the lesson plans, which have been aligned to national standards as well as several states’ academic standards, in his own classes.

“Talking about oil can be very dreary,” says McDowell, “so to actually have students become engrossed in it and feel what it might be like … is going to get them more involved and keep them interested longer.”

On his blog, McDowell posts each day’s assignment along with topics for reflection and related videos. Some of his students have started blogs specifically to respond to the assignments, while other students turn in their responses on paper in class.

“This is a prolonged activity that allows [students] to be imaginative while still being able to get content to them,” McDowell says.

In addition to the scientific and historical content of the game, students gain important 21st-century skills, he says, such as how to “act academically and professionally [online] and understand a little bit that these technologies aren’t just for MySpace.”

Educational Connections

Teaching students by immersing them in a game is an idea that has met with some resistance and criticism from teachers, says Eklund.

Gadgets & Games

Read more from our full collection of Gadgets & Games stories.

“There’s a … mind-set against games in general that’s going to need to be overcome” for ARGs to be successful in the classroom, he says. But unlike textbooks and more traditional instructional practices, he says, ARGs have the ability to bridge the divide between what students are learning and how useful it is to their lives.

“When you’re teaching history to a kid, the applicability of that may not be immediately evident to the child,” Eklund says. “But when they’re engaged in a game situation, the utility becomes very clear.”

That aspect of gaming is what most appeals to Brock Dubbels, an engineering teacher at the 850-student Washburn High School in the Minneapolis school district. Dubbels, who also teaches a course about using video games as learning tools at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, admires the concept of World Without Oil.

“I like the way [the game] connects … systems-type thinking back to [students’] real lives,” he says. “That’s really what [educators] have to do—make connections between the game world and our lived experience.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as Alternate Reality Games

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