Society for the Teaching of Psychology

Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Evaluating Alternative Reality Games for Introductory Psychology

15 Dec 2016 7:11 PM | Anonymous
Evaluating Alternative Reality Games

for Introductory Psychology

J. Mark Cleaveland and Rachel Abril

Vassar College


                Game-based learning refers to the use of games in pedagogy.  We typically use game-based learning to increase a learner’s “engagement,” however operationalized, with a problem or content area.  The game in question might explicitly model a particular set of contingencies or do so implicitly.  For example, in the board game, “Freedom: The underground railroad,” players take on the roles of abolitionists who are attempting to aid slaves on their passage to freedom. In doing so, players interact with cards that detail historical events and personages (see Cleaveland, 2014).  Conversely, a game such as “Mastermind” is not explicitly about scientific reasoning, but we can use it to teach aspects of the scientific method implicitly, and then, with discussion or targeted responding, bring out these points explicitly (see Strom and Barolo, 2011).  Another form of game-based learning is given by the “Reacting to the Past” consortium begun by Mark Carnes (see Carnes, 2014).  In these sometimes semester-length games, students role-play the personages and debates of particular historical periods.  Regardless of the specifics however, a fundamental goal of all instances of game-based learning is to re-contextualize traditional pedagogy in creative ways.  Games or texts are no longer passive objects, but repositories of opportunities.  “Mastermind” is no longer a collection of pegs and a board, but also a physical metaphor for the scientific method.  A speech of Demosthenes is no longer only something to learn for a test, but also potential leverage for a team in an upcoming roleplaying debate.  In other words, the best examples of game-based learning can create a pedagogical narrative that naturally blurs the distinction between what happens in the classroom and the student’s day-to-day life.

            In April of 2015, we experimented with game-based learning in an Introductory Psychology class at Vassar College.  Specifically, we designed and ran an “alternate reality game,” or ARG, that we called “Backtrack.” The story, thematically centered on memory and used material covered in earlier lectures. Participation in its narrative was offered as an extra credit opportunity. Students who signed up for the game received an email with a request for help from one of the characters, and by replying to this email began a narrative journey in which their knowledge of memory-related concepts would be highlighted.  Before going into the details of the game, itself, we’d like to explain why we attempted this experiment, and what we mean by “alternate reality game.”

            Introductory Psychology is taught as a single semester survey course at Vassar College. Typical classes are limited to 30 students and meet for approximately 2.5 hours per week across the semester.  We are fortunate in that small classroom sizes allow for more in-class flexibility than is typical of many academic institutions. Nonetheless, the overwhelming amount of content in an Introductory Psychology course, especially if taught in a single semester, places severe constraints on pedagogy.  By necessity, class-time must focus primarily on the systematization of “facts” that will tend, of course, to appear on tests.  As a skill, systematization has its place, however what psychologists actually do is use this systematization in the service of open-ended exploration, constrained by methodology.  It is this latter activity–open-ended exploration with the intent of uncovering heretofore unnoticed contingencies–that is missing from many Introductory Psychology survey courses.  Our goal therefore, was to see if we could come up with an activity that explicitly targeted and reinforced the creative detective work that undergirds our field.  For this reason we turned to ARGs.

            Alternate Reality Games (or ARGs) are games that are based around a single, cohesive narrative. The narrative is constructed by an individual or a group of so-called “puppet masters,” and then then broken into interactive elements that make use of a variety of media. For example, a story might unfold through texts, images, audio, video, or even real-life interaction. Players uncover the narrative through interaction and investigation, and can even have an impact on the outcome of various in-game events.  Given that the narrative of an ARG is “found” more than it is encountered, the lines between reality and fiction tend to blur in this narrative medium.  Some ARGs go so far as never overtly to acknowledge the events as being part of a game. Both players and the game makers are expected to behave as though everything that happens in the game is true.

            The blurring of reality that lies at the center of an ARG narrative creates a uniquely immersive experience. Players are led to believe that every action that they make in the game is significant, that they have a direct impact on the events that transpire and, perhaps most importantly, that they are forming real relationships with the characters that they interact with in the narrative. This illusion creates a level of engagement that may be unmatched by any other kind of game, and can offer a special benefit to education. Using an ARG as a teaching tool can provide students with “real world” applications of psychological concepts. Interaction with concepts from class outside of a classroom setting requires students to draw on their knowledge of course material to puzzle out the story without feeling like they are being formally tested. The hope is that this will provide a stronger connection to the source material, and reinforce the concepts in the minds of the players.

            We ran “Backtrack,” our own ARG, in April 2015.  Because our game was only meant to cover one section of material (i.e., lectures specifically centered on memory), we decided that the game would last five days.  Ultimately we extended this time frame to a week because the players had difficulty determining what they were supposed to do.  The general plot was as follows.  It began with a message to the players from a fellow student identifying herself as “K.” This person claimed that her friend, “J,” was having memory problems, but that he refused to believe her.  “K” asked the students to validate her concerns by directing them to a recording of a memory test that “J” had taken (  Players were required to characterize “J’s” memory deficiencies before “J” contacted them via Skype.  This interaction led the students to an online journal of J’s that was filled with puzzles, coded sections, and general information that provided background on “J.”  For example, a linked paged entitled “CBT” led to a description of a simple cognitive behavioral technique.  By figuring out how to work through the journal, the players ultimately came to a confession that “J” had fatally struck a dog with his car and disposed of the body.  The players then learned that the owner of the dog, a daughter of a family friend, had disappeared in the search for her dog, and that “J” blamed himself for her disappearance.  The game concluded with the players determining that “K” was actually encouraging some of J’s memory problems (e.g., via attempts to plant false memories) in a misguided attempt to help her friend through a difficult time.  The game concluded with an in-person meetup with “K,” and a scavenger hunt to locate an object that would hopefully aid in the retrieval of some of J’s lost memories. 

            The participating students were asked to fill out a questionnaire at the conclusion of the narrative, so that we could obtain a qualitative sense of their experience.  From this questionnaire we learned that students overwhelmingly enjoyed the collaboration with their fellow students that the ARG afforded.  Students also appreciated the central mystery of the narrative and interactions with the story characters. All reported at least some explicit awareness of course concepts embedded in the narrative.  After the game had concluded, one student even sent a follow up email to “comfort” one of the characters.  For these reasons, we feel that an ARG provides an interesting pedagogical tool that deserves further exploration.  That said, our recommendation of this tool comes with certain caveats. 

            First, workload.  An ARG is not an undertaking that can be put together at the last minute.  Creating as much of the material in advance as possible is vital. Whether this entails outlining character interactions to avoid being sidetracked in a chatroom, drafting content to appear in an email or blog post, or creating web pages will vary depending on what media are being used to present the ARG. In most cases, ARGs contain at least one central website and one point of interaction with characters and players. For “Backtrack,” we opted to use a single static website, and contacted the players through email, Skype, text messages, and one in-person character meeting. All of the content for the website was finished and uploaded before the game began. This proved to be immensely helpful once the game itself was underway, because it allowed the puppet master to focus on guiding the players through the narrative itself rather than having to worry about producing new content. For longer games, producing all content may not be as feasible, but at the very least an outline of the planned events and core concepts to which they’re tied should be created before the game is launched.

            Furthermore, the preparatory workload in our case was matched by the work required of the students.  “Backtrack” only lasted for a week but still had to tell a complete narrative and incorporate an assortment of pre-determined course concepts. For this reason, the workload required of students was high, and multiple participants noted this in their feedback. One potential remedy would be to have the game last for a longer period of time to allow students to play once they have dealt with their other commitments. Players also noted that they felt that course material should have been more vital to the advancement through the story rather than utilizing classic ARG ciphers. Several of them mentioned the puzzle that required the players to teach the characters psychological concepts as a memorable instance of the course material being used, indicating that puzzles of this nature would be a wise choice for anyone considering making an educational ARG in the future. Such specificity of puzzles, of course, only serves to increase the potential workload and creative requirements on the part of the game makers. 

            Finally, it should be pointed out that some students found the engagement that is central to ARGs to be difficult.  As mentioned above, our players had difficulty at the beginning of the story in determining how to play the game.  We eventually used both character prompting and feedback from the instructor to teach the students how to engage with the story.  This need to teach the students how to engage via self-generated exploration was interesting and perhaps unsurprising given how little it is emphasized in most Intro Psychology courses.  Our hope, moving forward, is to further amplify this element of the ARG experience, while working to further embody psychological skills and concepts in the narrative, itself.




Cleaveland (2014). professors-playing-games-freedom-underground-railr

Carnes, M. (2014). Minds on Fire, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Strom & Barolo (2011). Using the game of Mastermind to teach, practice, and discuss scientific reasoning skills. PLOS Biology. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000578.

J. Mark Cleaveland is an associate professor in Vassar College's Psychological Science department and Neuroscience and Behavior program.  At Vassar he teaches courses in the areas of comparative psychology, learning, and introductory psychology. An inveterate gamer, he has long possessed an interest in how games have been used in behavioral modeling and how they might inspire pedagogical frameworks.

Rachel Abril graduated from Vassar College in 2015 with a Bachelor's of Arts degree in Psychology. She has long been interested in immersive fiction, and has been an active ARG player and designer since early 2010. Backtrack was part of an independent study at Vassar, and creating the website for this project inspired her to continue her studies. She is currently pursuing an accelerated Bachelors/Masters degree in Graphic Information Technology at Arizona State University.

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