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17 Things about Alternate Reality Games(#GBL)

from : Motivation in alternate reality gaming environments and implications for learning

Alternate Reality Games(ARG) are being used increasingly in Higher Education as a way of providing a stimulating context for student learning. However, several instances have shown that students are not as motivated to take part in this type of active learning activity as might be imagined. This paper draws on four case studies of the use of learning activities inspired by alternate reality games to examine what can be learned about student motivation, and how this could be used to influence student engagement in learning.

Alternate Reality Games combine an unfolding narrative with puzzles that are solved by a collaborative community, both online and in the real world. They offer the opportunity to create engaging problem-based learning experiences in which students can work together to discover secrets and solve mysteries. Some players become highly engrossed in these games to the extent that they put large amounts of effort into solving challenges or creating artefacts to further the game. In the context of education, however, while high levels of engagement are seen in some students, it is certainly not universal.

This paper explores the literature on motivation with games and learning, drawing on evidence from problem-solving research and collaborative gaming communities, and presents a model for understanding motivation with Alternate Reality Games as a distinct genre.

7 key ARG features

Moseley (2008) found seven key ARG features which might be useful in higher education contexts to bring some of the high levels of motivation and engagement:

  • problem solving at various levels;
  • progress through the game and rewards (players were rewarded with gifts for solving a certain number of puzzles, for submitting the best video, and so on);
  • narrative element (story/plot);
  • regular delivery of new challenges;
  • large active community;
  • influence the players had on the game outcomes (in an ARG there is often no fixed path or ending; the designers respond to the players’ actions to develop the story line beyond a core skeleton);
  •  independence from any particular technology.

6 Motivational elements

Whitton (2009) describes six motivational elements of ARGs, saying that, while each of these elements are not mutually exclusive, each factor will motivate different players to different extents.

  • Completion – being able to complete the game and achieve all the tasks or challenges.
  • Competition – by competing against others and winning prizes or moving up a leader board.
  • Narrative – discovering what is happening in ongoing story as it emerges.
  • Puzzle-solving – the ongoing puzzles, riddles and challenges.
  • Community – collaborative elements, discussion boards and completing challenges with others in the real world.
  • Creativity – an opportunity for players to be creative, either through problem-solving or the development of game artefacts.

4 Demotivational elements

As well as the motivational factors of games, there As well as the motivational factors of games, there are also characteristics present in ARGs which players may find demotivational. In research about demotivational factors regarding games in general, Whitton (2007) describes that four key factors:

  • difficulty in getting started without having to spend too much time setting up and learning rules and etiquette;
  • getting stuck at a point in the game and being unable to see a path forward;
  • lack of trust in the game system or perceived unfairness of the game; and
  • an intrinsic lack of interest in the game or subject matter itself.

Alternate reality game


Not all of the four ARG games became universally popular, so this study is helpful to learn both positive and negative factors in the game design and implementation. One observation that can be made from an analysis of these four case studies is that creating a motivating, engaging game may be less about providing a range of motivating factors (although this is still important) and more about ensuring that there is a clear rationale for students to engage with the game (be it intrinsic or extrinsic) plus – crucially – a lack of demotivating factors. By ensuring that games have a range of elements, including (but not necessarily all of) competition, something to complete, puzzles, narrative, creativity and community; are designed in a way that allows easy initial take-up and participation; include ways to avoid getting stuck; and are seen as being fair, then the chances of creating an environment in which students will be engaged and autonomous will be greatest.

The right balance of motivational factors will depend on the student group, the nature of the subject matter and learning outcomes, the skills and preferences of academic staff, the environment in which the game is played, and a variety of other factors.


Proceedings of ECGBL 2009, the 3rd European Conference on Games Based Learning, Graz, Austria, 12-13 October 2009, pp. 279-286

photo credit: sipazigaltumu via photopin cc

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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