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The ABC's of ARGs: Alternate Reality Games for Learning

By Koreen Olbrish / August 2011

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You're a wine salesperson and have just been assigned to a new territory—the Roots Hotel. There are four potential customers within the hotel: a fine dining restaurant, a casual restaurant, a bar, and the hotel catering service. Each customer has different menus, clientele, price points, and of course, their own unique personalities and biases. You need to know your product portfolio inside and out and determine which of your wines would be best to position for each of these four customers.

This may appear to be a typical challenge for a wine salesperson, and you'd be correct. It was also the plot of Constellation Academy of Wine's alternate reality game (ARG) for learning, Que Syrah Syrah.

The Art of Storytelling

ARGs are games that are driven by storyline and typically supported through some type of online game portal that manages the game. Playing the game, however, requires that you interact with characters, other players, and storyline elements that might be online, but may also be found in aspects of your "real" life. Websites, social media tools, media broadcasts, phone calls, text messages, and sometimes person-to-person interactions are all potential elements that move the storyline along.

ARGs are sometimes called pervasive games or transmedia storytelling. What is consistent among all of these definitions is that a story drives the game play and players are performing activities that mirror their real life.

There tends to be confusion in the term ARG—some people use "alternate reality games" and "augmented reality games" interchangeably. For a point of clarification, alternate reality games refer to game play that integrates real life and online game play through a storyline that seeks to engage learners in an experience that seems real; augmented reality games refer to games where there is a technology overlay on reality that contributes to play (think the first down line on televised football games). The really confusing part comes in when augmented reality is used as part of an alternate reality game. To keep them straight, think about the word meanings; alternate reality seeks to create a different reality for game play purposes, whereas augmented reality adds additional information on to real life environments and objects.

For Constellation Academy of Wine, an ARG was the perfect format to address their learning goals in conjunction with their National Sales Meeting. The game storyline required learners to practice their selling skills, refine their use of internal sales resources, and improve their product knowledge in order to maximize their sales potential to their customers at The Roots Hotel.

So what does an ARG look like? That's a tricky question to answer, as the structure and format of ARGs can be as varied as their goals.

There are some key terms related to ARGs that differentiate them from other types of serious games.

  • Puppetmaster. In an ARG the puppetmaster is the master controller of the game experience. Usually, the puppetmaster is also the game designer. As part of the responsibility of managing the game play, the puppetmaster watches how players are engaging and interacting with the storyline and makes adjustments to the story, scoring, or game mechanisms as necessary to keep players focused and addressing the goals of the game. Because ARGs are played with the real world as the game environment, the puppetmaster's role is absolutely critical to keeping the game and players on track.
  • The Curtain. Much like the curtain behind which The Wizard hid in "The Wizard of Oz," the puppetmaster operates behind a theoretical curtain that separates the game management activities from the game play environment. The curtain is the veil that provides the illusion that the game is playing out naturally, and when it is managed well, the curtain masks the existence of the puppetmaster.
  • Trailhead. This is a clue that leads players into the game. For marketing and media brand ARGs, lots of such clues are typically provided to attract as many players as possible. For learning ARGs, the same theory could be applied, especially for event-based ARGs.
  • Rabbit Hole. Another name for trailhead, this term is more commonly used when there is one specific entry point for an ARG.
  • TINAG, or "This Is Not A Game." TINAG is commonly used to describe the tone of an ARG. The goal in the design is to create an experience in which the players don't necessarily feel like they are playing a game. The actions they take, the decisions they make, and the puzzles they solve shouldn't be extraneous to the storyline. That said, many ARG themes have a more fantastical feel, so the designer's responsibility is to create a game experience that mirrors realistic activities as part of the game play even when the storyline makes it clear that the game is not "real."

ARGs and eLearning

It is difficult to make generalizations of what an ARG is or looks like for learning. Just as there are an unlimited number of games and rules for game play, the same is true for ARGs. Designs could range from something very simple (e.g. a scavenger hunt) to something very complex (e.g. large scale, problem-based learning experience).

ARGs have been around for many years, although predominantly in the entertainment industry. One of the first widely recognized successes was I Love Bees, a game developed for the release of the video game Halo 2. In this game, the rabbit hole was a fairly poorly designed website,, which triggered a message screen to open, which "began" the game. The success of I Love Bees can be attributed to its design: a puzzle-based game that required players in different geographical locations to work together to collect clues that, when put together, helped players to win the game.

Think about how this type of design translates in the corporate learning world. Players on a team that all possess different knowledge, skill sets, and expertise working together to accomplish tasks sounds a lot like most project-based work, right?

There have been numerous other examples of entertainment industry ARGs, but a second wave of ARGs began to focus on games for raising awareness and educating people about social issues. Urgent EVOKE, first launched in 2010, is a game that facilitates partnerships to develop creative solutions to urgent social problems. Developed by the World Bank Institute and directed by Jane McGonigal, EVOKE is a recent example of an ARG whose players have translated their game play into real projects, businesses, and efforts to save the world.

ARGs aren't just for entertainment or to address social issues. Because of their unique design elements, ARGs are a perfect solution for organizations that want their employees to not just be exposed to new content in a classroom setting or an e-learning module, but to practice applying that knowledge in an immersive environment. The storyline-driven nature of ARGs allow for the creation of engaging scenario-based learning, and with the overlay of game mechanics to drive motivation and learner engagement, ARGs create opportunities for authentic practice in realistic contexts.

About the Author

Koreen Olbrish founded Tandem Learning to demonstrate the untapped potential of immersive learning design. Applying her background in experiential learning and technology for education, Olbrish advocates new ways of leveraging technology for enterprise learning with emphasis on performance improvement and behavioral change. She has strong ties to education, having received her M.S. in curriculum and instruction from Penn State University and helping start Freire Charter School in Philadelphia in 1999. Her recent experience has been in the development of enterprise learning solutions, with particular expertise in simulations, games and the application of virtual worlds for learning.


  • Tue, 11 Jun 2013
    Post by Pedro

    Hello, Koreen. I´ve been incessantly on the search of a concept that would match my plans for an extraclass course I have in mind. Finally, I don´t feel that extravagant anymore given the many texts on ARG written by you that I found on the net, since yesterday. Those, aligned with Rick Raymer´s "Gamification: Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning", wich I strongly reccomend, brought me to a rush (and as expected, brought me more insecurity feelings to solve!). I would like to thank you for all that sharing and say that you have a new and excited reader. Greetings from Brazil!