CAT | Alternate Reality Games
0 Comments | Posted by naomi in Alternate Reality Games, BETT, Development, Education, Events, MOOC, Personalised learning, Uncategorized, augmented reality, online learning, online university courses
Running from January 30th to February 2nd last week was the 29th Bett show, the British education training and technology event. This year was bigger than ever before and to accommodate the increasing demand Bett moved to the Excel arena which meant our journey involved an exciting trip on the DLR. There was a lot of hype around the event this year with #Bett_show trending throughout the week:
New this year was the Bett Arena, a 750 seat amphitheatre to host talks from influential thought leaders in education from around the world, including Vince Cable and Professor Brain Cox. The education sector was shaken up in 2012 – ‘The year of the MOOC’ – so it was exciting to see two MOOC pioneers also attended the show – Shimon Shocken and Daphne Koller of Coursera.
In the opening ceremony Microsoft’s VP for education Anthony Salcito’s proclaimed that ‘’Technology will always step up to the challenge we need in our classrooms’’, so let’s take a quick look at what stepped up this year:
Innovation was abundant and it was focused around tablets, apps and cloud technologies. As expected, everywhere you turned to look there was an interactive whiteboard and some were showcasing some impressive improvements – SMART were exhibiting their Short Range Projectors which can be mounted only 50cm away from the board, meaning no more blinding lights for teachers. GloView have launched Any Surface IWB which can be used on any wall to turn it into a touch sensitive interactive whiteboard. 3D projectors like 3D Visualisation by Reach Out Interactives Ltd were another exciting development meaning that students can see objects such as a beating heart in 3D, moving it around to view all angles. Augmented reality apps also featured at the show with Samsung showing an app that scanned codes to show 3D objects that could be moved around on a 2D screen.
The range of interactive learning resources on show was incredible and we particularly enjoyed being shown around the Royal Society of Chemistry’s interactive periodic table:
Big this year was the Cloud; looming and ominous, it looks to be supplying programmers and educators with unlimited possibilities. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 were promoting their cloud based applications. Microsoft Office 365 enables you to run Office applications such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel within your web browser – to launch the program all you need to do is log into a website. Integration with SkyDrive cloud storage and the fact that you don’t need the programs installed on your harddrive to run them means that students can access the programs and their files anywhere.
However, whilst there were lots of impressive technologies on show, this does not always translate straightforwardly into improved learning in the classroom. In November NESTA found that “costly digital technology that has the power to transform education often sits in boxes because teachers do not know how best to use it”. Chief executive Geoff Mulgan said: “The emphasis is too often on shiny hardware rather than how it is to be used.” The technology available offers so many valuable opportunities to educators and students that it cannot afford to be underutilised. The show opened with the message that technology should follow the needs of teaching and this was a theme ran throughout Bett 2013. The slogan “vision before technology” was used by Janet Hayward (Cadoxton Promary School) and Tom Rees (Simon de Senlis Primary School) as they expressed the “need to take an educational perspective as opposed to a technological approach to digital learning by training our best teachers to talk about how it benefits them and their classes’’. This is where Bett becomes all-important; events like TeachMeets allow teachers to share their experiences, favourite resources and to learn from each other. Resources such as Teachers TV, which we were very happy to see in it’s new form at the show, are vital to share knowledge and helping keep teachers up to date and informed. The countless workshops, meetings, breakout sessions and LearnLive talks that Bett facilitates provide a platform to bring together and encourage discussion between the developers, teachers and content providers. Communication on this level is vital to ensure that the exciting technological advances exhibited at the show are used to their full potential and not left clean and shiny in their boxes.
On the internet, keeping up with the times is paramount. The web is practically synonymous with the cutting edge and it wouldn’t do to be caught out lagging. But the problem for those trying to navigate its evolution is that novelty and potential brush shoulders with the shallowness of fashion. When Facebook first grew in popularity in the UK it seemed little more than a sleeve on which superficial teenagers could wear their popularity. But now the site reveals a surprisingly subversive depth, a place for championing causes little and large and organising events both political and playful.
Charities soon pricked their ears up to this, attempting to galvanise supporters in this online hiding place of “youth”. It is not hard to find groups for every major charity, and a few (notably Save the Children and the NSPCC) have even invested in developing their own web applications for activism and fundraising. The NSPCC’s application allows users to sign up to specific fundraising events and to group together to raise the money required. The active connection that these embody is much more inspiring than simply signing up as one member among hundreds in a generic facebook group.
Following its meteoric rise, Facebook overtook Myspace in the Alexa rankings this summer. This had much to do with the Myspace’s failure to sufficiently embrace the use of internal applications on its pages, to synthesise itself adequately with the rest of Web 2.0 technology.
But the embrace of the social network is not without reservations for the charitable sector. At Online, we already commented on Number 10’s fear of the network. Networks are simply antithetical to the privileged centre that dominates in any hierarchical organisation. This is not simply jealous directors clinging on tooth and nail to the control of their brand. What is at stake for the NGO sector is the responsibility a charity feels toward those who give their money and time. If an unofficial group organised by supporters of a charity raises funds by appealing to causes to which the official charity does not actually give, donors have every right to feel duped.
The internet is not simply one channel that charities must be cautious of. It can reach into the heart of how they do business. Kiva is a site where donors can lend capital to people in poor countries who would otherwise find it hard to get a reasonable loan. Many donors feel uneasy about giving to large charities because they use some fraction of donated money to support full time staff. While Kiva does sustain its own bureaucratic framework, it challenges the traditional charity model by producing the feeling of an unmediated social relationship with the recipient.
While social networks usurp central control, and Kiva usurps bureaucratic middle-men, ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) may prove far more successful for activist awareness-raising than traditional pamphleteering methods. Indeed, next to the rise of ARGs, social networking sites seem a little dated in their contemporary online potential.
While some charities are still scrambling to optimise their facebook presence, after months of waiting, Cancer Research UK has finally launched its very own ARG, Operation: Sleeper Cell. Several big names in the ARG business are involved but the main authorship was the outcome of a competition open to all. This follows the success of World Without Oil in proving the ARG a powerful medium for activism. The new Superstruct game looks to fill a similar function in coming months, part of an emerging genre of “ethical” ARGs.
The authors of Akoha, another new project, dub their brainchild “the world’s first social reality game”, seemingly a combination of chain letter logic, social networking and competitive altruism. Whether or not this is a cure to the modern malaise of isolated individualism, these creative collective web-based projects are revealing themselves as powerful means for opening people’s minds (not just their wallets).
It is a tenet of ARGs that it is not necessary to restrict oneself to computer-based media for playing. Phones, live events, television and music are often crucial. Growing portability of web technology, prompted by the iPhone and the scramble of its exasperated competitors, is producing a massively expanded field of possibilities for activism. Being confined to the desk is no longer necessary for using social networks, and the ARG medium is pioneering the furthering of this extension, exploring the consequences of if one had to leave the desk to play.
In ethical ARGs we see an appropriation of the social network for the use of a controlling centre. The puppetmasters who control an ARG are in a position of sophisticated dialogue with the most cutting edge of web technologies, and manipulate these new media toward engaging ends. There is always some degree of interactivity in an ARG, but the story is always held together by the organisers. Akoha is made up of people free to choose their missions, but ultimately all the missions are written by the company.
Here lies massive potential for charities looking to distribute a message, promote their brand, but all the while remaining in control of their own messages. Competing with the big players in social networking is hardly an option, but with the delineation of these new puppetry technologies, piggy-backing certainly is.
When my friends ask me what alternate reality games (ARGs) are, they usually say something like, “Second Life, right?” No, dear friends, no. It’s bigger than that, better! Sometimes they’re a little scared to ask because they know how over-excited I get with the prospect of being the first person to tell them what alternate reality gaming is. I just love the moment when they become goggled-eyed with mouths agape.
ARGs are truly a wonder. When designed and executed properly, they allow ordinary people to enter into a new and exciting reality, giving the feeling that we’re escaping into a parallel world. It’s like when you were 10 years old (or maybe even what you did last weekend) and you played spy games with your friends where you all assume a secret identity and you imagine you have a time-sensitive, life-threatening, enemy-infested mission to complete. It’s just plain riveting and your imagination draws you in. With ARGs, the only difference is that it’s actually happening and, thankfully, you don’t have to be the one to think of the next part of the story (that’s usually when the imaginary world, you’ve tried so hard to create, falls away). More importantly, you have a role and other people (players) rely on you and you rely on them. Depending on how involved you are, or what your role is, the game may not be able to progress, or may take an unknown turn or even abruptly end. Of course, you’re always at the whimsical mercy of the puppetmaster, who has the ultimate control over the narrative and direction of the game.
The beauty of ARG games is that they can span across any and every media platform, from the internet, television and DVDs to billboards, t-shirts and murals. One can only imagine the endless possibilities that a puppetmaster has when developing the narrative for the ARG. In order to begin an ARG, a potential player must first discover its point of entry, which could be found almost anywhere. It must be obvious and subtle at the same time, posing the risk of whether it will actually be found. Last year, an ARG created for the promotion of a new Nine Inch Nails album almost went undetected. It was called Year Zero, the name of the new album, and it all began with the band’s tour t-shirt.
It took fans two days to pick up on the clues that were literally on their backs, in the form of randomly bolded letters, which spelled out “I am trying to believe”. Soon, the unassuming fans-turned-players typed iamtryingtobelieve.com in their web browsers and came across a hoax website claiming that the U.S. government has been adding the drug Parepin to water supplies. From this website, players unravelled more clues and the conspiracy theory narrative continued onto other sources. Using the internet as a base, players followed the narrative looking for clues anywhere they could think of, including one in a mural found on a wall on the south bank of London.
Since clues could be found anywhere and in any form, it’s evident that it would be extremely difficult for one single person to find all the clues themselves. Because of this element of ARGs, a very strong online community of blogs and forums naturally develops. One of the more famous online communities founded in this way is the Cloudmakers, which came together for the first known ARG, The Beast, which was created for the promotion of the then upcoming Steven Spielberg movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).
Generally, ARGs have mostly been used as an outlandish and guerrilla method of marketing. However, I’ve recently discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that ARGs are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for education. My favourite, so far, has got to be World Without Oil, which aims to create a simulated world chronicling the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis. The narrative, described as “a huge, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression,” urges participants to imagine what their lives would be like without, you guessed it, oil. On the World Without Oil website you can see how the ARG is broken down into lessons which are like checkpoints in the game, making it easy to track progress and ensure that the players are moving forward together. In addition to this, the players are urged to write their own blogs in order to express their experiences and reactions (in character) to their new way of life. Stefanie Olsen, of CNET news, puts across how useful a tool an ARG can be in teaching as she states, “If you want to change the future, play with it first.”
Another educational ARG called Black Cloud revolves around the mysterious appearance of a black cloud over Silicon Valley, California.
Black Cloud The game, created by UC Berkeley is aimed at making environmental studies in high schools more engaging and interactive, with the motto: “Suspense is a key emotion to engage players in game-based learning.” Students must track down wireless air quality sensors planted in their neighbourhoods and need to be able to read graphs and associate air quality data with human activities in specific locations with the ultimate aim of developing an understanding of the emission landscape in their neighbourhood. The website is designed to look like a newspaper, called The Daily Polluter, which reports on the mysterious sightings of the black cloud, including fictional stories about the cloud and the people involved, possibly to increase the sense of suspense.
It’s plain to see that ARGs can be a very innovative and engaging way to teach. It incorporates a variety of methods of teaching, whereby players (students) can progress individually and/or in groups, using any resources, facilities or materials provided. Other than the knowledge gained on a subject, it could potentially improve a number of skills. Communication skills are improved as players must work together to complete tasks and investigative/research skills are needed, as players must seek out information themselves. It also works well for long-distance learning as the games are normally internet based, where players interact and share information using forums, blogs, skype and live chat rooms. I believe that something as innovative, exciting and engaging as ARGs, as a format for teaching, should not be left uncultivated and should be looked into as a very viable way to convey certain concepts to any person willing to play and learn. I know that if my GCSE history classes entailed playing a Dan Brown DaVinci Code-esque ARG, I probably would have remembered much more than I do now.