Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) as Mobile Learning

Mobile Apps, Mobile Strategy, Newsletter Comments (4)

Not that long ago that “game” was considered a four-letter word in corporate learning environments.  But in recent years, the idea of using games as a way to enhance learning has become more widely accepted.  Conferences such as the eLearning Guild’s DevLearn even have specific tracks dedicated to developing games specifically as a way of training and performance improvement.  This month’s issue of the Float Mobile Learning newsletter focuses on a specific type of game that is well suited for learning on mobile devices, the Alternative Reality Game.

Overview of Alternate Reality Games

An alternate reality game, or ARG for short, (pronounced by saying the letters ‘A-R-G’, not by sounding like a pirate) is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a stage for telling a story, playing out a scenario or creating a learning experience.  ARGs use diverse media and game elements to help tell and impact the outcome of the story.  In an ARG, participants are presented with clues in an effort to solve puzzles and make informed decisions in the game’s unfolding narrative.  We can locate these clues in different places from physical locations (such as a library, school, office building or grocery store) to media such as websites, recorded telephone messages, videos or images.  In many ARGs the story evolves as the organizers stay one step ahead of the participants, changing the direction of the game based on the response and reaction of those playing.  Because ARGs link a fictional story to real-world object and places, mobile devices are a natural medium to involve in the game play.  Often, mobile specific technologies are employed to enrich the experience and further blur the lines between the game environment and the real world, such as QR Codes, GeoLocation, and using the device’s camera to gain evidence. The emergent technology Near Field Communications or NFC for short will probably also have great potential for ARGs in the future.


ARGs have been used in many areas for several different purposes.  From a marketing perspective, several very successful ARGs have been written as a way to build product awareness.  A very popular ARG called I Love Bees was produced to market the 2004 video game Halo 2. At its height, ilovebees received between two to three million unique visitors over the course of three months.  In 2007, Nine Inch Nails released an ARG called Year Zero as a way to market their upcoming album by the same name. The game was well received and won a couple Webby awards as evidence of its overall success and well-constructed world depicting a crumbling society that echoed the state of the music industry. In perhaps one of the best-known ARGs to date, fans of the TV show Lost could participate in an ARG called the Lost Experience.  The following description comes from The Lost Experience website:


The LOST Experience takes LOST fans on an expansive, international easter egg hunt through websites, commercials, emails, phone numbers, and more, in search of pieces to a larger puzzle, a puzzle which, when solved, will enlighten LOST fans to some of the show’s deepest mysteries!”

ARGs have also been used to solve real-world problems.  An ARG called World Without Oil obtained collective input from players about dealing with the world’s dependency on oil.  World without Oil simulates the first 32 days of a global oil crisis and establishes a “citizen nerve center” to track events and share ideas.  In October 2008 the British Red Cross created a serious ARG called Traces of Hope to promote their campaign about civilians caught up in conflict.

These more serious ARGs like World Without Oil and Traces of Hope are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using “serious games” to enforce learning objectives and help drive key takeaways home for the learners/gamers participating in them. These collective problem-solving efforts promote teamwork, creative problem solving, and responding and communicating effectively in a fluid and continuously evolving situation. Strong stuff, indeed!

The Applicability of ARGs in Organizational Learning

There are many reasons why ARGs are an excellent way to enhance or supplement an organization’s learning program. Let’s examine a few of them here:

ARGs are Immersive – The gaming nature of ARGs naturally has the ability to get people involved, require them to collaborate and solve problems and can be written to tap into people’s competitive spirit.  And if the game is written properly, all of this can be done in a way that ensures learning is occurring and incented.

ARGs Can Ensure Baseline Knowledge – Often, organizations struggle with developing training that meets the needs of people with different levels of expertise and experience with a particular topic.  ARGs can be used to help people build prerequisite knowledge necessary for the next level of learning.  Those who have the background and experience can quickly solve the puzzles and challenges presented, and be rewarded while those who need more background can spend the time and use available resources to build their knowledge base. This helps level the playing field going forward and reduces remediation.

ARGs Help Spice Up Dry Content – ARGs can be used as a part of employee on-boarding programs where much of the information presented is less than exciting, but nonetheless important and in some cases required by law.  By sharing this information through a story and in a game format, the elements of a game, keeping score, competition, problem solving, etc. can be used to enhance content that otherwise may be presented in a presentation or written format. Envision an office park scavenger hunt and you may be on to something here.

ARGs are Helpful in Assessing Knowledge – Well-designed and scripted ARGs can be a powerful way to assess learned knowledge and retention.  Because of the problem-solving nature of ARGs, observing how players react to various situations provides great insight to what they really know.  In addition, those running the ARG can control events as game play occurs, allowing them to adjust the difficulty level real-time. Countless metrics could be occurring behind the scenes, from execution time to accuracy and much, much more.

ARGs are Cost-Effective – ARGs offer a significant amount of flexibility when it comes to their design and complexity.  The writing and story are the basis for a good ARG, not the specific technology.  Very elaborate ARGs can be written with the only tool needed to play is a mobile phone with text messaging. A simple bridge between a SMS gateway and an LMS or CMS is all you would need for tallying and record keeping.

Getting Started

ARGs may seem daunting from a design perspective. As with any form of learning development, success comes from first creating a good plan.  First consider the audience, the message to be conveyed and the resulting behavior.  Use these discoveries to inform your game framework, the writing, the media asset creation and the ongoing gameplay and measurement.

Audience – The audience will have a big impact on the design of the ARG.  Is the audience tech savvy?  Do they know each other well?  Are they located where they can physically work together or will collaboration mean working remotely?  Understanding the users personas will go a long way towards ensuring a solid design that works well for the players.

Messages – Determine the key messages to be communicated as a result of the game.  Is the information to be presented high-level or subtle details of a situation?  Is the subject matter easy to understand or complex? Approach these messages much like you would in creating the learning objectives for your courseware, or crafting the use cases for your mobile applications.

Behaviors – What behavioral outcomes should result from this experience? Maybe the purpose is motivational or team building, or maybe it is to emphasize a point or raise awareness. Whatever your desired conversion point, ensure you have created the interaction points to drive these concepts home and you have placed measurement tools at these critical junctures in order to measure effectiveness. Considering these elements up front are critical to making sure the storyline and the gameplay achieves the desired results.

Environmental Considerations – The next step in developing an ARG design doc is to plan for the setting and timeframe of the ARG.  Will the game space be limited to a specific venue or will it encompass a wider area?  The answer to this question can impact the technology that can and should be used.  Will the game occur over a couple of hours or days, or will it happen over a period of months?  Finally, how will the ARG integrate with other aspects of the training or learning environment?  ARGs are most effective when they are integrated with a larger plan and not just something that is “piled on” as an extra. For example, if an ARG is being used to introduce and get people excited about an upcoming conference, then the ARG should have a direct tie-in to the themes and events of the conference. An ARG used at the corporate headquarters as part of the on-boarding process is going to be doomed to failure unless it is given consideration in the new employees’ schedule. Plan accordingly.

Writing the Story – The story surrounding the ARG should obviously be written to match the audience and environment, as well as meet the goals and objectives that have been established.  However, there are a couple of other considerations to take in to account when designing and writing an ARG.  The first consideration is the game lifespan and refresh cycle.  Will the ARG be played once by a group of people with a specific end date or is the game intended to be ongoing with people starting at different times over a longer period? Will there be a reset at intermittent times in order to start again?  Another important consideration is monitoring and controlling of the gameplay.  Is the outcome fixed and the same for each participant, or will the game be allowed to evolve with no specific outcome identified ahead of time?  These decisions will greatly influence how the story is written and the clues are developed.

Develop Your ARG – Obviously, playing a few ARGs is an important first step to being able to develop a successful game.  There are a number of online resources to help get you started.  Giant Mice has a nice resource page with many links on various ARG development topics.  There are also resources on how to design and organize your ARG.  There are so many ways to design and develop your ARG that explaining them all in this newsletter would easily double or triple its size.  But there are many resources on the web that provide excellent information and numerous ideas. Tandem Learning has a number of great resources at their website as well. From a mobile development perspective there are many easily available tools and services such as SMS (text messaging) and open source and other free tools that can be adapted to serve as a framework for building your game.

Key Components of a Successful Learning ARG

Here are some other qualities you should keep in mind as you craft your masterpiece:

Verisimilitude – The story supporting the ARG, while often fictional in nature, still should have an element of reality and truthfulness.  Because gameplay takes place in the real world in physical locations, the storyline should be informative, engaging, and believable.

Easy to Use – In many cases the players will not be deeply familiar with ARGs and in some cases will not even know what an ARG is.  The technology used to play the ARG should not be the focus; the story should be the focus.  Therefore successful ARGs use technology to enhance the experience by being easy to use.  If players have to spend all their time trying to figure out the technology, they will be distracted from the real intent of the game. In other words, Know Thy Audience.

Importance – Consider the importance of the ARG to the overall learning experience.  Again, thinking about the audience and their receptiveness to this type of experience, many ARGs are designed to be an optional supplement to the real training.  In these cases people should be able to enter and leave the game at any time without real-life consequences.  As an example, The Lost Experience written for the TV series Lost, was not required in order to understand the TV show or to follow the plot.  But for those who were interested in increasing their engagement with the show, the ARG served to provide additional insights to the overall story and enhance the viewing experience. Likewise, other ARGs that we have played at conferences and events add to the experience of the event, but weren’t required in order to have a baseline experience at the event.


Mobile devices combined with a good story and an educational game can be a powerful way to increase engagement and activity level of your learners. ARGs offer an interesting way to bring your mobile technology along for the ride. ARGs are being successfully used in marketing and entertainment as well as to train and solve real world problems. Organizations that are looking for creative ways to engage in mobile learning should consider the benefits ARGs have to offer. By crafting a realistic, enjoyable experience, you’ll be reinforcing behavior that most companies are actively seeking in their employees: critical problem solving, inquisitiveness and creativity.

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John is the Managing Partner for Float Mobile Learning. He has over 18 years of experience in helping clients change to be more successful and helping those clients navigate those changes. He works with Fortune 500 organizations to help them define and design learning strategies with a focus on mobile learning. His client list includes Caterpillar, Anheuser-Busch, Museum of Science and Industry and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.

John is a member of both the E-Learning Guild and ASTD where he is active in speaking about both eLearning and mobile learning topics.

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On February 7, 2011

4 Responses to Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) as Mobile Learning

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Float Learning, Daniel Taylor. Daniel Taylor said: Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) as Mobile Learning […]

  2. […] crafted correctly, as noted by John Feser of  Float Mobile Learning, ARGs  have a great deal of potential as components of organizational learning strategies, […]

  3. […] Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) as Mobile Learning […]

  4. […] a SMS gateway and an LMS or CMS is all you would need for tallying and record keeping. (quote from Alternative Reality Games (ARGs) as Mobile Learning, which gave advices on institutional […]

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