alternate reality games conferences education

ARGs in Charity and Education – Summary + Keynote

This week, I was at the tiny one-day conference on Alternate Reality Games, and their use in charity and/or education, at Channel 4’s offices in London. All proceeds from the conference went to Cancer Research UK (I think it was mainly organized by the team that this year won the competition to get funding for their idea for a charity ARG, sponsored by CRUK, with help from the guys at Six to Start).

As with all other conferences I go to, here’s are writeups of all the sessions I attended. Unfortunately, Channel 4’s offices are a bit … um … 20th Century: their auditorium has no power points. It has sockets that have been covered over with screwed-on metal covers to prevent you using them. Pretty amazingly dumb, considering how funktastic the rest of the building is. So, I ran out of power halfway through, and couldn’t cover all the sessions. Sorry!

As ever, errors and omissions my own, and any personal commentary is in [square brackets]


Adrian Hon, Six to Start

Check out the mailing list we’ve started –

[ADAM: …and make sure you join the more general ARG development list at ]

One of the very first puzzles in the Beast was based on elements in the periodic table. People quickly realised that the picture (of things added up) looked like elements. They summed to an irrelevant number, but if you used the two-letter names of the elements you got a sentence of mostly nonsensical, but partly sensical, characters. With a bit of tweaking, we got [ADAM: you should know this already if you’ve read the post-mortems from the Beast, but … image showed transition – with some subtractions you get something like: Co R O Ne R S W E B O R G). Of course, some people got hung up on trying to find a person called Coroner Sweborg.

One of the keys about ARGs is that they can really motivate people to learn about a huge range of subjects. They dont employ any one specific technology [ADAM: actually: look at what’s happened and they depend so far almost entirely on the internet, but maybe that’s being pedantic], but what they do is weave these disparate new technologies into a story.

First example

I Love Bees (ILB) – Payphones. Creators rang 4,000 payphones around the USA, players had to be at each phone at the right time to answer them all [ADAM: again, if you don’t know about this, google it – there’s been loads of coverage]. The questions asked on the phone were not terribly interesting or educational. But towards the end of the game, they changed it.

[ADAM: again … read the post-mortems]

Operator: Tell me something only you know

Player: “I really like hollyoaks”

O: In 30 minutes, Bob needs to know that (bob is at phone X, 2000 miles away)

30 mins later, at a different payphone thousands of miles away…

O: What is the phrase?

Player 2: “I really like hollyoaks”

Over the course of the game, the relay time kept being reduced, until it reached 10 seconds. Although at first a forum or mailing list was more than good enough, the challenge became really difficult.

The challenge for the community was to somehow solve this problem, via teamwork, innovative use of software tools, etc.

(they did it through a combination of: IRC, email-to-SMS, database-driven multicast phone calls)

This is something that you can’t really teach through a book or through a mainstream computer game, and yet is taught very well like this.

Second example

Perplex City (PXC) – one of the fictional characters had to get a book out of a fictional library, but could only do so if they were a published author. The library had a website that the players looked at, tried to hack, etc. Meanwhile, other players decided simply to go and write a book and get it published. So they setup a wiki, assigned one chapter to each player, and over two weeks they wrote a book and self-published it on LuLu – therefore solving the puzzle. We knew they could do it this way, but we hadn’t been absolutely sure they’d do it this way, we were prepared for them to do it other ways.

[ADAM: I remember there was quite a lot of excitement within the company when some of the players decided to do the book-publishing route]

ARGs and Charity

Cancer Research UK

The PXC book, written in 2 weeks, was what caught the imagination of CRUK – if people can be motivated to write books, can they be motivated to raise money for charity?

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