I’ve had several encounters over the past few years which have revealed to me the myriad possibilities of conveying history through gaming. As a child at heart who loves to play, Bryan Alexander’s chapter, “Chaotic Fiction; or, Alternate Reality Games,” in his work The New Digital Storytelling caught my attention.

Scholars of history are sometimes hesitant about the benefit history-themed games can have for teaching history. They are concerned that the presentation of history through gaming, where altered outcomes may result, will skew students’ understanding of the past. But Alexander’s chapter has shown me how alternate reality gaming can be an excellent way to teach historical research skills in a National Treasure fashion, compelling players to uncover evidence from primary source material that leads at some points to dead ends, and at others to more information that unlocks more of the story. Users treat the story like a mystery, using their critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills to determine where to look next.

Alexander describes an alternate reality game (ARG), as

a combination of story and game. Its contents are distributed throughout the world, usually online, perhaps with physical locations as well. Users play the game by discovering bits of content and discerning the story to which those items belong, while comparing notes with other players. Collaboratively, collectively, players hunt for new pieces of the story, sometimes solving puzzles to do so. The pieces are usually not formally identified as part of a game, but have been quietly inserted into the world without fanfare or label. Eventually the game ends, often by a formal announcement from the game designers, known as “puppet masters.”

“Welcome to the rabbit hole,” Alexander writes. Many history students are daunted by the prospect of delving into primary source research.  Alternate reality games, however, pull users in as they work to apply their knowledge and reasoning to uncover the next part of the story. They invite readers to pour over the story or material again and again to access more outcomes.

Constructing a historical narrative from research of evidence from the past is much like the “collective detectivework” of alternate reality games that Alexander describes in this chapter. Seldom does this happen in a linear fashion; participants can come in from multiple points of investigation into the story as they find out tidbits about the lives of characters across multimedia. Each minor discovery is a moment of victory and an enticement to find out more. Content creators are hidden until the game has ended, making the participant’s creative interaction with the material largely self-directed. In much the same way that alternate reality game creators have used ARGs to encourage participants to become involved in activism as players make their own discoveries of the material they consume, so too could public historians and educators hide themselves from the narrative for a time, leaving participants to feel they are constructing the narrative through their own investigation. Little will they realize they are engaging in historical research as they revel in their own discoveries, for, as Alexander writes, “creating a sense of mystery is powerful for mobilizing audience interest,” leading participants further down the rabbit hole as their excitement builds.

In turn, presenting history through ARGs teaches historians, the conventional narrators of history, to relinquish some of their control over how users approach the narrative using their own unique skillsets and knowledge bases. Just as historians engage material from different angles, make unique connections between sources, and come to their own conclusions informed by their resources, so too do alternate reality gamers. ARGs further encourage collaboration between players, as users share their findings on forums in order to work collectively to unlock the next part of the narrative, much as historians do.

Historians need not fear however, that the free play of history-themed ARGs will compromise the established methods of historical investigation. Despite opportunities for open investigation and manipulation in ARGs, alternate reality games also operate by established rules. First of all, content creators must construct all components of the narrative before releasing the game, but must be open to adaptation as user participation unveils new ways to engage the material. Much like a history teacher, when users go too far off base, content creators can use their control of the game to guide users back in the right direction. Alexander also writes that, according to Sean Stacy, alternate reality gaming hinges on three axes: authorship, coherence, and ruleset:

Authorship refers to content creation: what proportion of gameplay content is created by puppet masters versus how much players provide. Coherence describes how clear the boundaries of game materials are. Ruleset ranges from strongly determined player options, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, at one extreme, to free play and creativity.

Such parameters allow historians to convey a historical lesson through narrative, while allowing players to take control over their discovery of the narrative.

Until reading this chapter, I’ve been largely unfamiliar with alternate reality games. I’m curious to find out if history-themed ARGs already exist, and I’m excited to see how historians can apply the principles of ARGs to public history. This past summer, I had the opportunity to assist in the development of Colonial Williamsburg’s new room-escape game, Escape the King, which reminds me of the ARG concept, though it takes place in a physical space using old media such as letters, print material, and objects as clues, rather than on the web with multimedia clues. I can easily see the potential for such history puzzle games to evolve into online ARGs and look forward to seeing what public historians will create.

To learn more about the historically-themed room escape concept, check out this great review of Escape the King!

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2 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole with Alternate Reality Games

  1. Alexander’s discussion of ARGs reminded me of my own experiences playing the Assassin’s Creed series. The game allows users to immerse themselves in and learn more about the American Revolution or Renaissance era, for example. Given its massive popularity, Assassin’s Creed might be one of the most well-known public history project in the US, especially among younger people. Or at least one of the most entertaining public history projects around. It’s a reminder that public historians need not limit themselves to traditional narrative vehicles of communication and story-telling.

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  2. I’m glad that you brought up Assassin’s Creed! I wasn’t sure whether it counted as an ARG, but the game kept coming to mind as I read this chapter. I’ve only played Assassin’s Creed once or twice–I played the American Revolution version in undergrad and loved exploring the game’s virtually-reconstructed eighteenth century Boston. The highlight of the experience was that I had the opportunity to meet the historical consultant for Assassin’s Creed a few weeks later at UbiSoft in Montreal. It was amazing to hear his research process and his efforts to convey his findings to the game creators. He described the challenges of stressing to creators what elements of the history they must portray accurately. While they adhered to his insistence on some aspects, such as that they represent Native Americans as accurately as possible, at other times they took minor liberties, such as adding a beard to the villain to make him look more sinister. He said that sometimes he let the minor details slide so that designers would be more likely to implement the more crucial elements of the narrative. Though the game has some inaccuracies, it garnered enough interest in the history of the period among my friends that they desired to learn more. I was taking an American Revolution class at the time, and they would often come to me asking whether something they had learned in the game was, in fact, true.

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