Familiar with alternate reality games?  Basically, players interactively participate in an in-depth story that is revealed as a series of puzzles in the real world.  ARGs are usually open-ended as the players create the content and influence the development of the story arc.  One person or a small group serve as the puppet masters who steer the game that other players happen into through the rabbit hole – the game’s conceit.  Read a whitepaper on ARGs here and even check out one of the best “serious gaming” ARGs, World Without Oil, here. 

Alternate reality games, in my opinion, are the natural evolution of simulations, which have proven invaluable in learning environments.  We know that simulations provide learners safe contexts in which to practice real-world skills.  Now imagine the level of immersion we could provide our learners if they were involved in a larger story, while simultaneously learning and developing those new skills.   

Recently, I experimented with alternate reality gaming here at the library using one of our bi-monthly Quality Book Discussions as fodder.  Here is the situation: 

Thirty staff members signed up to discuss the book, “Branded Customer Service: The New Competitive Edge.”  The staff members were expecting the same let’s-gather-together-in-a-circle-and-discuss-the-book format, but what do you really take away from that kind of discussion?  Nothing.  Instead, I, acting as the puppet master, sent all 30 participants an encrypted email message from the character I would portray in the game, Dr. X.  Over the next few days, the staff members deciphered the code, which ultimately sent them to a hidden discussion board inside our intranet, Sharepoint.  During the course of a week, participants (now dubbed “field agents”) gave themselves silly pseudonyms and contributed to discussion questions I rolled out every other day. 

When the actual face-to-face discussion occurred a week later, Dr. X met with the field agents and instead of me leading an unguided discussion about “Branded Customer Service,” I had the participants complete a series of creative exercises to stimulate further discussion and to maximize transfer. 

I had two-fold learning objectives for this ARG: to have staff members demonstrate on-brand customer service behaviors at several touch points in our branches and to have staff members utilize the web parts of Sharepoint 2007, which we just implemented about two months ago.  While I have not formally assessed the learning goals, the early signs seem promising for this pilot project.