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On Media Production in an Alternate Reality Game (Philip Ehrenberg)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Philip Ehrenberg, Learning Design Specialist and former Design Lab Fellow. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Serving several roles on S.E.E.D., he oscillates daily between game design, media production, supporting mentors, and documenting the program. As a fellow, he worked on last summer’s ARG The Source, browser-based game A Day in the Life, and Ci3’s digital storytelling initiative South Side Stories. Previously he was Project Manager on the ARG The Project.


As this development blog has noted several times over the past few weeks, the manufacturing of an already-extant world and narrative pervading into our commonly accepted one is part and parcel of alternate reality games (or ARGs). One manner by which ARG designers practice this is to seed transmedia elements throughout our game. As Christopher Russell discussed in his post on transmedia storytelling, we frequently fracture our narratives and distribute them across real world and digital spaces so that no one player (or, as often turns out being the case, designer) has a complete collection of narrative moments or the media produced for and during the game. While S.E.E.D. primarily relies on invisible theater  and extensive set design to convey its narrative, the game is not without a handful of media pieces produced rapidly by our design team.

This year, the Game Changer Chicago designers have tried to ensure these elements flit from innocuous to conspicuous, blurring the line between distinct narrative and gameplay moments, so players are constantly left on their toes. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of our previous summer ARG, The Source, in which the primary manner of driving the game’s story was through a series of video blogs issued by the protagonist and her friends. Filmed in advance, edited during the five weeks of gameplay, and released to players on a fixed schedule and platform, the media plan was fairly firmly established from the get-go. This avenue comes with its own pros and cons, but in either case it dramatically affected our capacity to make large-scale narrative divergences on the fly. Not so this year, with our transmedia being produced nearly immediately before its release and attempting to take into account the latest team dynamics, subtleties of our narrative invented by the players, and the technical constraints that constantly arise in making a science-fiction narrative real.


The ways we use and distribute these media pieces helps us establish particular tones and aesthetics for our narrative’s various factions, the Temporal Archivists that directly oversee the players, the future corporation ProPhyle, and the disruptive resistance movement The Scattering. Communicating across different media, we succinctly establish different logics by which the players can interact with these groups in the course of their day-to-day activities – the Temporal Archivists directly, for instance, versus recordings from the future groups. In order to better demonstrate our commitment to pervasive and varied transmedia experiences, as well as flexibility to how players our gaming our own game, below are a few more concrete examples of the media we have produced and how they tie into our overarching philosophy.


1) Video: For the vast majority of our players, the start of the game was heralded by a screening of the Project Harvest: Orientation video. We had a number of goals we were attempting to fulfill in the very first moments of the game, namely to convey a succinct overview of the narrative, but also to immediately establish the tone for the Temporal Archivists: slightly sinister, prone to corporate oversight, susceptible to goofiness. The first thing they saw on the Monday summer morning on which the game began was a strange performance space filled with odd adults in lab coats and unfamiliar faces. For this reason, we wanted an engaging piece of media that they could watch and even laugh at to diffuse the otherwise tense and uncertain mood. Early research and discussions of aesthetics led the media team to watch an immense number of real corporate orientation videos in order to determine which features of the genre we just had to reproduce and which we could subvert for our purposes.


2) Radio: One of the stranger features of each team’s daily work space is the presence of a clock radio. Players know that these devices may spontaneously turn on at random times (in reality, going off to alarms carefully set by the designers at the start of each game day) to play team-specific messages from “The Scattering,” a future resistance group that communicates solely through audio transmissions. These messages, having broken through the airwaves controlled by ProPhyle and the Temporal Archivists, are highly distorted and stand in contrast to the crisp and perfunctory audio of ProPhyle’s announcements delivered to their Crop. Of course, as we are actually broadcasting these missives over an FM channel, we have encountered a number of constraints that have affected how we produce the messages. For starters, improperly tuning the radios yields terrible static, and even on an optimal transmission the signal can be weak. We try to repeat each message over a limited time span, resulting in players leaping from their chairs, rushing to the radios, and trying to transcribe the glitchy messages, even recording them on their teams’ iPads to play back later. This speaks to our strategy of redundancy in the narrative, in which we are sure to convey important points numerous times across numerous mediums.


3) Digital Media: While we have limited in-game social media presence this year, we have continued to integrate narrative and gameplay moments through digital devices. Using a PirateBox, an offline file-sharing system, teams can covertly communicate with each other past while circumventing the Temporal Archivists. They use the technology for sharing hints and uploading media relevant to gameplay exercises, and we have used it to covertly distribute surveillance footage and in-game documents so that the narrative is placed right into their hands. Moreover, hacking challenges during the third week saw the creation of a remote desktop for each Archivist, which players needed to compromise to find critical information. Designers populated each desktop with in-game and non-diegetic material to create the illusion that this was an actual person’s computer, complete with profile pictures, random applications, and favorite playlists. Such efforts took into account our latest reformulations of the narrative and directly tied into the gameplay and learning goals of the week.

image With such an immensely talented design team - skilled in video and audio production, Photoshop and Illustrator, and random digital technologies – we’re able to consistently produce content from day to day, even as the game is going on, allowing varied media to pervade the game and still reflect all of the immediate developments. Moreover, players immediately connect to these transmedia elements and see the infinite possibilities for creating games and narratives in alternate reality games. These experiments will be especially helpful for them as they transition to producing their own games in the next two weeks of the program.

On Playing with Faith (Seed Lynn)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Seed Lynn. Seed is a gifted listener, writer, problem solver, and game maker who has come to call Chicago “home.” Through a practice that heralds deep listening and sharing, Seed assists communities in the emergence of their most necessary narratives, across social, political and cultural boundaries.At the University of Chicago’s Ci3 (the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual & Reproductive Health), Seed has most recently led workshops in the context of health interventions, leading youth as co-designers of learning experiments. These experiments explore how art, new media, games and live performance combined with a critical attention to authorship can deepen health learning and improve health outcomes for some of the city’s most vulnerable youth, and include the art of digital storytelling and other alternate reality games. Seed’s three years at UChicago have produced innovative research in the fields of sexual and reproductive health and health learning, transmedia games and game design, and the humanities.


Game Changer Chicago co-founder, Patrick Jagoda, suggested to me that Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are as much, if not more, about the creation of belief than the suspension of disbelief. The “suspension of disbelief” is just another way of saying, “I know this is a trick/game/lie, but let us pretend it is real, so we can all enjoy this.” Hopefully, you feel the advantage of the former. Implicit in the magic circle of a game, a film, or even a play, is the agreement that you are accepting a world where the artificial conditions, laws, and boundaries take precedence over those of the real world, or for a term, merge. The beauty and simultaneous challenge of the ARG is to create a narrative that grays those boundaries, laws, and conditions with overlays, making the game feel real. Underlying the critical thinking, problem solving, and skill building involved, is an emotional experience, and even, the possibility of a transformational one. This requires faith from all parties.

For as long as I can remember, I have lacked the consistent capacity to show up that a religion requests of its subjects. But faith? Faith was always easier, in part, because of this very idea of creating belief. Faith, I could embrace beyond religion. I could practice it, even play with it. Be it card tricks, urban myths, or family folklore passed down for generations, dream interpretations or sci-fi film escapes, the act of creating belief (for me) is more moving than not believing — or in the case of the ARG, suspending disbelief.


The act of belief is handing oneself over to the mystery. It is not knowing and not necessarily needing to know. Faith can be a transformational form of experimentation or role-play as it assumes purpose and drives action. It is a dance one intuitively grasps before possessing its vocabulary, and the agreement is this: I can choose to believe and break faith, and I can break faith without being broken. My faith will simply find new objects. 

My group work with narrative (e.g., story circles, organizing, world building, game-making) has always involved degrees of faith, and there is no greater gamifier than time. For example, entering a workshop (understaffed) with 15 young people (full of stories) and 20 hours of production time (40 would be nice!)… you learn how to pray. And when you are leading said workshop, you learn how to project faith, beyond all the doubts you have, hoping the faith you exhibit is just as contagious as the doubts you dare not disclose. Yes, I have stories… and I have stories about stories.


As odd as it is, I cannot begin a conversation about alternate realities, games, or science fiction without first raising the question to faith. This meditation has brought clarity to three things I consistently do in my creative process: 1) As a writer, I must intend belief. I must intend faith in the world I am constructing if others are ever to invest in it. 2) I write as a listener — one who is having shared experiences himself if a shared experience is our desired outcome. As a listener I must intend understanding and connection, and to accept discomfort along with comfort when broaching difficult topics and difficult stories. This type of listening, a witnessing to human experience, implies trust, not just in the story, but a trust in the story’s source. 3) As a learner, I must recall not knowing, not experiencing, to consider how the narrative lends itself to new knowledge and new experiences for players. If emptying oneself doesn’t speak to some spiritual tradition, what does? image

Creating belief, affirming or challenging it within groups, intensifies one’s experience of that group and colors with a workable purpose the meanings derived from those experiences. It reminds us that the world, alternate or current, is always arriving, always near, always possible and realizing at the same time, despite the agendas of ethically shaky multinational corporations misappropriating future technologies at the expense of human and planetary wellness for the continued benefit of the wealthy few. (Breathe)


Ultimately, S.E.E.D. explores the radical potentiality of young people discovering their agency in the world – and asks them to own it. It is not enough for us, the designers, to imagine or re-imagine their worlds for them.  This world-building and world-bridging experience, in fact, is an invitation for all of us to own our current world(s) more presently, intentionally, thoughtfully, artfully, intelligently and compassionately. It reminds us that we share a planet, its resources, one another… and time. Perhaps, there is no better place, no better platform, no audience more primed to alternating realities, than those here on Chicago’s South Side. I find it fitting and fortunate, that here, we are not just exploring alternate realities for a game’s possibilities, but also, gaming our own realities for alternate possibilities.

On Suspended Disbelief and Set Design in an Alternate Reality Game (Keith Wilson)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Keith Wilson, Game Changer Design Lab Fellow and MFA student in Poetry at the Chicago State University. Keith’s recent poetry focuses on social activism through contemporary myth and lyric. His work on this project includes script-writing, narrative, game design, and set design. Previously, Keith worked on The Project, a collaboration of Patrick Jagoda, Sha Xin Wei, and students at the University of Chicago.


Every art form with an expected outcome requires a measure of trust from its participants.  In live theatre, suspension of disbelief is what allows you to immerse yourself in another world—to lose track of time and your sense of embodied experience in favor of the control of a good narrative.  If a play is written and performed well, you are never left to question the whereabouts of the fourth-wall of the stage, but instead take for granted these kinds of tropes: that all the actors will have conversations facing you, and that they will often speak in uninterrupted, pre-scripted monologues.


An alternate reality game (ARG) is a bit different in that its narrative overlaps with the everyday “narratives” of its participants’ lives.  In this way it shares much with invisible theater. It varies with traditional theatre as well in that its action is participatory, and from invisible theatre in its long-form nature. Even so, earning the suspension of disbelief from the audience/players is equally important in an ARG as it is in theatre or any production that depends on artifice.

Part of what facilitates belief is, of course, a willingness to believe.  If you’ve ever tried to play a game with someone who didn’t want to follow the conventions of the game (AKA, a spoilsport), you understand how important belief can be in fostering an atmosphere in which play is allowed to exist to begin with. And for some youth in our S.E.E.D. game this summer, a willingness to play is enough to enter into an imaginative world in which STEM learning exists as 1.) curriculum, 2.) an analogue version of a video game’s “mini-game” challenge, and 3.) as what often ends up being a kind of idealized, participatory Afrofuturist possibility. To quickly summarize, Afrofuturism is an artistic and cultural aesthetic that imagines non-Western possibilities and futures (a kind of “black sci-fi”).


The real design challenge for the Game Changer Chicago team is in creating a game world for the skeptical.  Some players are immediately open to new modes of possibility and play, but a second group exists that needs a bit more in order to compel them to suspend their disbelief.  I have worked on this project in both as a writer and set designer. What sets these two roles apart is that in set design, much of one’s effort is spent hiding the inner-workings of the game itself. A microphone meant to allow its user to speak to the future can’t look like an answering machine attached to a monitor stand, or that is precisely what it will be in that moment. Much of an ARG’s narrative takes place in the same world we have always lived within.  There is no stage to set one’s sights to, no seat to recline within while a set of actors move about your comfortable line of sight. Since nothing separates you from the theater, there is no formal veil to step behind where pretending is private.  Everything in an ARG is pretend, or nothing is, because the ARG is always running.  image

Therefore, S.E.E.D. Technology, the central set of this ARG, has to be impressive enough to earn a player’s suspension of disbelief, transparent enough to embrace its own artifice, and well-designed enough to hide its own machinations so that, at the very least, those youth who already want to pretend can suspend their disbelief.  Pulling in those players who are less willing to blur the lines between audience and actor is an even more delicate process that involves the writing, improvisational acting, and the participation of other players, but the set design is often foundational to all of this.

The S.E.E.D. Technology room, like so much of this project, was conceived of and built in collaboration.  It involved early narrative descriptions composed by Seed Lynn and Patrick Jagoda to sketches and visual designs that included Chris Russell and Ashlyn Sparrow’s drawings, to Jessica Anca’s refinement of those drawings to a beautiful concept poster, to my schematics and ability with a Dremel, to Nate Crumpley’s technical expertise with an Arduino board that simulates a light that pulses like a heart-beat, to the labor of Leslie Gailloud, Megan Macklin, Phil Ehrenberg, Bea Malsky, Peter McDonald, to the labor of everyone else who helped clip out newspapers, draw faux equations, install black lights, carry and install sod, and collect plant clippings and do the other myriad tasks that led to the finished project. I have been happy to have spent so much of my time working on the S.E.E.D tech room. It was humbling to see the youth’s first steps onto grass (and in a windowless basement, no less!). Or to see them interact with the room’s black lights, which have the eerie ability to cause glow-ooze (a material we may have invented using glue, borax, and highlighter fluid) to glow as if irradiated. image

It is strange to think that moments like these end up being so common in an ARG.  The design team has created a world within our world, and the players have access to a place that is as close to context-less as we could imagine: an ARG about a corporation in the future. If we have pulled it off, and I hope we have, it gives the youth an opportunity to experience the kind of play that we are often find ourselves “growing out of.” Make-believe can encourage the kind of risks that foster new and invigorating methods of learning, because kids who are not interested in science as such can be interested in its narrative and world changing possibilities. Set design is only one part of the a speculative whole, but it is also a kind of stepping-off point from which what once seemed impossible seems suddenly within reach.

On Week 2 of the S.E.E.D. Alternate Reality Game (Ashlyn Sparrow)

Our daily development blog series for Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Ashlyn Sparrow, Project Manager and Lead Game Designer. She holds a degree in Information Sciences and Technology from Penn State University with a Masters in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon. Ashlyn also was project manager for the 2013 alternate reality game The Source, and the Hexacago board game suite at Game Changer Chicago.

Last week, over seventy high school students debated over which of four apocalyptic scenarios would be most likely to end our world, as we know it. On July 11th, Team Weberocerus (named after a genus of cacti), stood victorious and determined that the most concerning world-threatening scenario was resource depletion.  In my opinion, the greatest aspect of an alternate reality game is playing back with the audience, taking their thoughts and story ideas and incorporating them, in real-time, into the game design.  At the end of week 1, now that the Temporal Archivists (the historians of the future at the center of our fictional world, of which I am one) knew that resource depletion would be the end of the world, we needed to take the proper steps to prevent it from happening. 



Week two began with a modified lesson from World Without Oil, an alternate reality game created by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal to bring attention to a growing shortage of fossil fuels.  Youth imagined a day where oil usage skyrockets and the oil supply can only meet 95% of it.  This activity required youth to role-play as their future selves and figure out how this shortage affects them and their families.  While the youth were writing journal entries from this future perspective, something strange and unexpected happened.  They started to receive cryptic messages from a resistance group called The Scattering that was standing up to the ProPhyle Corporation in the future. With this new narrative development we were able to transition to our next dramatic beat as well as our next STEM topic: math. image

Similar to week 3 of last year’s alternate reality game The Source, we wanted this week to focus on math. We sought to make math compelling by focusing on cryptography. Over the next two days teams were given different parts of a ciphered message along with a short packet containing the history of cryptography.  This acted as a tutorial through which we detailed the importance of learning cryptography, allowing them to practice Caesar shifts, substitution ciphers, and Vigenère ciphers.  Giving teams new information and skills, also created inter-team collaboration as many of them began communicating and cooperating with one another in order to complete the final message. 

On Wednesday, in the fictional world of our game, S.E.E.D. Technology (which allows communication between 2014 and the future of 2035) was stolen, causing the Temporal Archivists to point the blame at the youth. Consequently, it caused the Project Harvest facility in which we are playing the game to go on “lockdown”.  This was our playful way of encouraging the youth to practice steganography, the art of hiding things in plain sight. As we (or should I say, the Temporal Archivists) patrolled the halls, the youth turned to an emergent behavior: they used their knowledge of encryption and decryption to pass secret messages to one another. Some students drew pictures, while the others made paper airplanes.  Many students struck up conversations with the Archivists to pass flash drives to one another. Teams Arachnis and Digitalis (also named after plant genera) were able to find a letter with the proper codes to end the lockdown.



The week ended with players searching for the SEED Technology and the person who stole it by using D.O.T.S. (the acronym stands for Distributed Ontological Topology System). This locative scavenger hunt had the youth travel around campus solving cryptic challenges using iPads. Our mobile specialist, James Taylor, does a wonderful job describing the process behind the game.


The final activity of the day encourages youth to think about their future selves and how they could be responsible for creating S.E.E.D. technology. They receive 10 nodes in a future timeline from 2030 and beyond. Many of these nodes included names of our youth players. For example, one event read: “2043 - Space colonization put on hold following the Michael Subbarao bill. Space funds reinvested in massive program to rehabilitate earth.” After arranging the nodes, teams worked in smaller groups to write a new series of nodes, describing how they would move, concretely, from the present moment to a future where they are responsible for creating a change in the future.                                      

As week two comes to an end today and we furiously prepare for the third week, I’d like to take a short moment to reflect on the STEM skills and 21st Century Literacies that I believe our youth are gaining throughout Project S.E.E.D.  It’s not often that game designers think in terms of learning objectives.  But this mindset is critical when developing educational games. In addition to basic math skills that we have tried to make engaging through cryptography and code breaking, we have had youth practice organization and collaboration. We have encouraged them to think about their futures and what those might look like if they move into STEM careers. We have given them an opportunity to combine scientific data with creative writing skills not merely to criticize contemporary polices about, say, climate change or sustainable resources, but also to imagine what a better world might look like. image

As Peter McDonald discussed in his post, we use the weeks as an arc. While we never over determine the narrative moments and learning objectives, we are always thinking about the affordances the mechanics of a game can offer and how that can lead to new and emerging behaviors.



On the Locative iPad Scavenger Hunt, D.O.T.S (James Taylor)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with James Taylor, senior game designer and mobile unit lead at Game Changer Chicago. James holds a BA in English Literature from Kenyon College and an MFA in Interactive Media & Game Design from the University of Southern California.

I will provide a brief description of the game D.O.T.S. (the acronym playfully stands for “Distributed Ontological Topology System” in the science fiction world we have created), a locative scavenger hunt that is part of the alternate reality game S.E.E.D., and then describe some of my experiences creating it over the past two months.


D.O.T.S. is a networked game played on mobile devices, including iPads. The objective for each participating team is to find and capture highlighted spots on a shared map. The map of the playing field for the version of the game that we played today is the University of Chicago campus. image

Teams taking part in D.O.T.S. examine the map on their iPad, choose a spot, and then travel towards that location. Once the team is near an important location, an expanding red circle appears. This means that the team can now open the challenge for that location. If the team is able to use the real-world clues in the environment around them and successfully solve the challenge, they will convert that spot on the map to their team color. All other teams are able to see up-to-the-moment information about who has captured each spot on the map.

Teams also receive a token for completing each new challenge. Collecting 3 tokens in the tray (at the top right of the screen) allows the team to open a timeline section that rewards them by allowing them to unlock pieces of narrative. By collecting 3 tokens, a team not only unlocks the timeline, but also receives one new card on the timeline. All teams that have access to the timeline button are able to see new timeline events as other teams unlock them. The timeline gradually becomes complete as multiple teams solve challenges.

imageMy experience of the S.E.E.D. alternate reality game is different from that of most of the other game designers. During the daily exercises, challenges, and games, I’ve been working in the lab basement, very much removed from the core activities. D.O.T.S. is a networked digital game. In numerous ways, it is (or can be) a stand-alone game experience. It has its own grant support attached to it (thanks to the HIVE Network) and we hope to see it succeed on a larger city-wide scale after this summer pilot.

This pilot version of D.O.T.S. will be played over the course of two days and is embedded into the broader S.E.E.D. alternate reality game experience. The winning team – that is, the team that captures the greatest number of locations by the end - will see the location of a “secret spot” on the map, where they will unlock a critical part of the narrative that they will then have to share with the other teams. The spots for today’s game include: Rockefeller Chapel, Hutchinson Commons, The Divinity School, The Oriental Institute, Bartlett Dining Hall, Chicago Theological Seminary, The Center of the Quad, Logan, Ryerson Hall, Harper Reading Room, Regenstein Library and Botany Pond.


There have been two equally ambitious strains of development for this multiplayer mobile game. The first is the creation of 22 unique, location-based puzzles. After a few initial fits and starts, with wildly varied puzzle types, we settled on a standard format so that each puzzle could present images, text, and other clues related to the place, as well as a text entry field for the decrypted answer. Using a standard format, we were able to move quickly. Game designers – primarily Keith Wilson, Peter McDonald, Leslie Gailloud, Bea Malsky, Chris Russell and Nate Crumpley – would go to locations to conceive of riddles and puzzles and bring back the appropriate artifacts. These challenges are meant to introduce students to the University of Chicago campus and enable them to practice the cryptography and code breaking skills they have been learning over the last three days. I then installed each new puzzle in the Unity3D game engine. Note that this was merely the initial installation of a puzzle; user testing of 22 puzzles scattered around a large campus is another matter entirely – requiring many volunteers. In terms of sheer miles clocked on foot our high school intern Julius Stein set the bar, taking careful notes of broken or unsolvable puzzles several days before launch.


The second highly ambitious strain of development for this game was the creation of a dynamic digital map to display a team’s location, their captured spots on the map, and locations owned by other teams. This functionality requires a cellular network for up-to-the-moment game information. This is the glue that holds the game together. This is what enables healthy competition. Petras Kuprys, a very talented recent graduate from the Masters in Computer Science Department at University of Chicago is largely responsible for the networking elements of the game. He worked remotely on the project, but without his code this game would simply not exist. I told my girlfriend recently that my code is comparable to a steam-punk machine, with its gears, latches and pullies, but looking at Petras’ code is like glancing into the transportation system of a highly evolved future society. We spent many evenings in our respective homes pushing github updates to the network. Getting into a good rhythm of development is what I like to call “entering the drift.”


I want to return for one last moment to the dilemmas of testing these puzzles. People wondered why, after the start of the summer program, I would be in the building or running around campus until 2am. This is because players have been using the iPads that I needed for development until 4pm each day. I would get the precious iPads at 4pm and then start my day from there. Overall it was a great project to work on and a great team.

One last note: A special thanks to Ashlyn Sparrow staying around late the night before the game launch!

On Being a Mentor in an Alternate Reality Game (Anna Cohn)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Anna Cohn, a rising senior at Denison University, Double Major in Sociology/Anthropology and Theatre. She worked as a mentor on Game Changer Chicago’s previous summer ARG The Source.

I love working with high school students. However, working with high school students in an alternate reality game such as Game Changer Chicago’s S.E.E.D. is considerably more difficult than it may seem. Usually when mentoring, one has to monitor the youth, make sure they stay on task, and help lead them through various activities and games. However, when you introduce the concept of being in an alternate reality game, this means that each mentor becomes a “character” as well. Although we are playing ourselves, we constantly have to make sure we are aware of the storyline and make sure not to give away any information that hasn’t happened yet, while still making sure that they are up to date on the information that has been dispersed.

For instance, we have radios in our rooms that transmit static and sometimes other messages. These can be hard to hear and if we are really concentrated on our other task, we might miss some important narrative information. This means that we have to make sure we know what was said on the transmission and somehow figure out a way for our group to find out this information, without simply telling them because then they will question why we knew the information even though we didn’t hear the transmission. This is a good time to get our group to visit other groups and ask (or sometimes barter) for the information that was missed. Another option is to find a Temporal Archivist (one of the historians of the future who are walking around in white lab coats) and ask them what was said, however the students are fairly suspicious of the Temporal Archivists (as they should be) and do not know if they are lying to them or not.

My group is “Team Yucca” (named after a plant) and we are about a week and a half into the program and my team has already bonded pretty closely. They really feel they can only trust each other and their mentors (myself and Joseph Dailey), which forces them to get to know each other. My team was extremely passionate about last week’s debate during which they had to convince others that a super virus would contribute to the end of the world. I watched my team go from a loss in their first debate to winning their next two debates and reaching the semi-finals. I also watched them improve in their debating skills extremely quickly. At first, they were apprehensive to talk in front of others and by the end almost everyone in the group was speaking on behalf of the group’s point. I was so proud to watch their growth and see them recognize that they can debate complex issues. I think some of them surprised themselves in the process.

This job as a S.E.E.D. mentor is so rewarding that often times it doesn’t feel like a job. Although I have my set hours of when I come in and leave, I feel like I carry the discussions, ideas, and energy from my team around with me the rest of my day. By being in an alternate reality game, you get to bond with your students in a way that is fun and very unexpected due to the unique experience of participating in an alternate reality game. After being a mentor in last year’s learning game, The Source, I am so glad to be doing this program for a second year in a row and I highly recommend alternate reality games as a form of education.

Photos by Seed Lynn and Nabiha Khan.

For more updates on S.E.E.D., “like” Game Changer Chicago on Facebook.

On Invisible Theater and Acting in an Alternate Reality Game (Bill Hutchison)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Bill Hutchison, Game Changer Design Lab Fellow and PhD student in the English Language and Literature program at the University of Chicago. For S.E.E.D., Bill plays Xander Conway, the ostensible head of the Temporal Archivists and the game’s villain. Bill’s PhD research focuses on animals at the intersection of science and literature from Darwin to World War II, and how animals and other marginalized figures (and genres) are represented in literature and history. He has a background in animal welfare, journalism, and education. Bill previously acted in The Project, a collaboration of Patrick Jagoda, Sha Xin Wei, and students at the University of Chicago.

Everyone takes you seriously when you’re wearing a lab coat.


Stanley Milgram famously highlighted some of the more horrific implications of the lab coat conundrum in 1963, and it’s a little disturbing to realize that the effect persists today. Project S.E.E.D. is an alternate reality game in which lab coat-wearing Temporal Archivists in the present receive and study messages from the future sent by the insidious ProPhyle corporation. When actors and game designers playing Temporal Archivists interact with students, two directives stand above all others: stay in character and stay in your lab coat. A gaggle of white-coated Temporal Archivists can swarm around a student, manipulating broken calculators and vintage cameras as though they were impossibly advanced pieces of technology, spinning the student comically this way and that, and nary a question is asked. 

At least, that’s how the first week started.


By the end of that week, however, Xander Conway left the building at the end of the day with a mob of students barking angry questions at him and filming his avoidant answers with phones and iPads. Milgram might have met his match in our students. Everything was going according to plan.

I’m not an actor, although I play one for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. This is my second foray into alternate reality games (ARGs), and a continuation of an absolutely terrified interest I have in invisible theater. The two mesh beautifully—alternate reality games use a variety of media to fully saturate the player in an experience, and invisible theater blurs the line between spaces of reality and spaces of performance. As game designer Chris Russell has noted, players in an ARG might see videos, receive radio transmissions, get text messages, and receive Facebook updates. The invisible theater aspect allows actors to pose as scholars of matters temporal alongside real researchers studying youth interactions. An argument between two Temporal Archivists about threats to the future can take on an alarming urgency when it’s being shouted in the middle of a bunch of grey office cubicles surrounded by wide-eyed students.


My first venture into other worlds came when I was conscripted into The Project, a collaboration between Patrick Jagoda and Sha Xin Wei, alongside a number of UChicago students, many of whom are now part of the Game Changer Design Lab. An actor was needed to play the part of the Grand Ort of Ortgeist, a hapless buffoon and the leader of a bureaucratic cult of object-obsessed rejects from Kafka’s Castle. Having some experience as a hapless buffoon, I agreed to do it. Looking back on the experience, I am reminded of the title of David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruise ships: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” I loved the idea of being an actor, but I didn’t want to do any of the things real actors have to do, and I didn’t really like publicly performing. Performing myself on a daily basis is tough enough. Moreover, my costume as the Grand Ort consisted of a red terrycloth robe onto which several dozen Beanie Babies had been hot-glued. My contribution to the costume was my grandfather’s winter hat, far too small for my head, and my pants tucked into whichever pair of “fun” socks I chose for the day. And I went out like this. In front of people. In front of people I knew, and who knew me as me, not as the Grand Ort of Ortgeist. People who had no idea of my secret life as an actor in an alternate reality game. I’ll say this: for the paralyzingly self-conscious, acting in an alternate reality game is great exposure therapy. I had to really become that dopey Ortgeist fool because The Project had created a persistent reality, and part of it rested on my shoulders. We were all little Atlases, holding up a soap bubble world. While fun and games aren’t always fun and games, they become at their edges something better, something that knocks on the walls of reality looking for the best place to break through.


If alternate reality games are about world creation, invisible theater is about reality manipulation. The “real” world is already pretty slippery. None of us believe in time travel, because it’s both ridiculous and impossible. I mean, you’d really have to prove it to me if you wanted me to believe in it. But that’s precisely what’s slippery: most of us aren’t completely closed off to wrinkles in our reality. Convince me you’re from the future and I’m in. It would take a lot, but as they say, anything is possible. It doesn’t matter at all if that’s true—that belief is the engine of possibility generation that powers invisible theater.


And that’s the lab coat’s gravitas. The students know that Project S.E.E.D. isn’t real—except for the parts that are. That little bit of doubt is what allows us as actors to seep into the cracks in reality. Just as the tiniest bit of water can freeze in the cracks of a stone and cleave it in two, a successful acting moment in the narrative can break a story open and offer new choices and story-telling moments that the students couldn’t have seen coming. Often, they’re moments that even the actors and designers don’t see coming. Fluidity is key to acting in these games. The more flexible a team can be, the more closely the game can resemble real life in its complexities and opportunities for surprise.


That’s part of the power of something like Project S.E.E.D. That little space on the Venn diagram in which ARGs overlap with invisible theater opens up a space where experiential, practical, and technical learning can take place in radically new ways. (The confluence produces as a strange side effect for players and actors alike: the feeling that real life is always staged and constantly performed, which isn’t too far off the mark.) All of this makes possible the kind of game in which a secret and unexpected student rebellion to overthrow Xander Conway—as may be brewing at this very moment!—is a mark of great success. The staid ground of traditional learning spaces is overturned, and students-as-players have to draw on internal resources that are new or unexplored. Imagination fuels invention—the fact that students’ actions can alter the story in significant and meaningful ways empowers them not to simply play a game in which the stakes are low because it’s “just” a game, but to fully inhabit a world that was made especially for them. They can stretch the game to its limits because the world won’t break. It’s a world that listens to them, responds to them, and asks them to work together to solve its problems. It’s an invented world they learn they have the power to change for the better, and in that way, the imaginary world starts to look a lot like the real one.


On Mentorship (Megan Macklin)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Megan Macklin, GCC Design Lab Fellow and PhD student in the Comparative Literature program at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on sciences of the mind and literature in the mid-18th through 20th centuries, in particular the emergence of experimental psychology and its cultural as well as literary resonances. More broadly Megan enjoys working to promote educational equity and ongoing learning. With GCC she previously contributed to A Day in the Life and The Source.

This summer, our S.E.E.D. mentors carry a number of responsibilities. During the rest of the year, they are undergraduate and graduate students at institutions like the University of Chicago, Bowdoin College, and Denison University, and their diverse studies include game design, social work, education, environmental studies, and theater. But for the five weeks of S.E.E.D., they occupy a unique position as mentors in an alternate reality game (ARG), a genre where that role is practically nonexistent. S.E.E.D. was designed with an entirely new audience in mind: our players are high school students largely coming from Chicago’s South Side and other underserved neighborhoods, making them significantly younger and less experienced than the typical ARG player. As such, it was clear that our players would best thrive under the leadership of a character class new to the ARG model. Yet in an ambitious and experimental project like this, the usual demands of a youth leader are amplified, and often are recreated anew.

As a part of S.E.E.D., our mentors are called upon to manage not only the energy of their teams—which often oscillates unpredictably between excitement and apathy, or even exists simultaneously among various members of the group—but mentors also must mediate, manage, and themselves enact the intricate and nuanced aspects of our game’s narrative. While set design and on-site actors help to world the alternate reality of S.E.E.D., it is the encouragement and enthusiasm of our mentors that is the program’s most consistent intervention. For one, our mentors literally play a part in the game: on Day 1, youth were told that their mentors too went through the rigors of Project Harvest in their youth, although that group ultimately failed to prevent the world-ending scenario that continues to threaten our current players today. In addition to their role in the meta-game of S.E.E.D., the mentors also act as game masters for the various games-within-a-game that contribute to the connected learning model that Patrick Jagoda outlined last week, which Nate Crumpley specifically addressed in his description of Nickel Dime, a game that across play demonstrates the snowball effect of persistent global inequality.

In this spirit of promoting learning through gameplay as well as role-playing, training for our S.E.E.D. mentors focused on hands-on game experience, where mentors had the opportunity to play both as players and as leaders. Like their future team members, mentors gained the experience of learning games from scratch, and they were encouraged to channel the challenge of encountering a new game towards the creation of team cohesiveness, a healthy competitive spirit, and curious inquiry into the realities that inspired our games. Additionally, mentor training included ample time for mock games. This activity simulated the mentors’ upcoming task of teaching new games, but probably the most important outcome was our exploration of youth personality types and play styles. From the shy and reclusive to the overbearing and boisterous—and also, to our collective worst nightmare of a player singularly set on derailing an activity—we exaggerated what we imagined to be the most demanding players possible. Although our caricatures were sometimes in jest, we understood that in the coming weeks we might meet such characters. The name of the game here was preparation, but equally important was a sense of compassion, and an ongoing sense of agency that we hoped to foster in our participants: What would cause a player to be so utterly or obnoxiously disengaged? What factors make gameplay fun for some, and frightening for others? What could we do to create a safe, progressive environment where the stakes are high (for example, when facing the figure known as the “World’s End”), but where team support in times of failure would be even higher?

As Peter McDonald mentioned in an earlier post, the program model of S.E.E.D. takes advantage of one of the most promising outcomes from last year’s alternate reality game The Source. In addition to how compelling a game narrative may sound, or how impressive a set design piece may look, we know that perhaps one of the strongest reverberations of a program like ours is the positive relationship that develops between player and mentor. While we hope the lessons about global inequality or other possible world-ending scenarios stick—and in Week 2 of S.E.E.D., that information about cryptography and code breaking prove the real-world applications of mathematics—we are confident the personal gains that emerge from caring and thoughtful mentorship contribute to the development of the crucial 21st-century literacies that both Dr. Jagoda and Bea Malsky expanded upon previously. Intrapersonal management and motivation, as well as interpersonal collaboration and communication are all important skills that S.E.E.D. and gameplay more broadly actively promote. These abilities, along with an understanding and appreciation of STEM topics, form the cornerstones of a forward-thinking, multifaceted program like S.E.E.D. Equally important are the mentors whom we so fundamentally rely on and appreciate, who stand as the enforcers and gatekeepers of our most ambitious goals. 

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On Week 1 of the S.E.E.D. Alternate Reality Game (Peter McDonald)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Peter McDonald, Game Changer Design Lab Fellow and PhD student in the English Language and Literature program at the University of Chicago. He studies the way that play and games become meaningful when they are discussed in different contexts, and what kinds of rhetorical features are present in game rules or mechanics. His dissertation looks at play in literary and anthropological theory after the second world war. Peter has worked on previous Game Changer projects including Lucidity, The Source, and Hexacago.

Today the first week of the alternate reality game Project S.E.E.D. comes to a close, and the whole game lab has been steadily at work on the puzzles, narrative twists, and invisible theater for the next week. It can sometimes be difficult to find time, in a project of such a large scale and rapid pace, to reflect on our design decisions, particularly when the players seem both engaged and actively learning. So, I’d like to use this space to mark some of the lessons, and design philosophy we learned from the alternate reality game we ran last year, The Source, and how we translated them to the present game.


First, though, allow me to catch you up on the play as it has developed so far. The week began with over seventy high school youth arriving for a summer program, but confronted with the Temporal Archivists, our group of not-quite-mad scientists who run big data analyses on the future. After watching a training video about how to prevent the end of the world, they were broken into eight teams and interviewed by both our real research team and the in-world Temporal Archivists. Xander Conway, the head scientist, asked such pressing questions as “If you have a ladder with no rungs, do you have a ladder or two sticks” (the correct answer: you have a ladder), or “It is your 5th birthday, and you are wearing your favorite shirt, what color is it?” (the correct answer: purple). While it was sometimes difficult to keep a straight face, each question made the world they had entered a little more enigmatic. The day ended with the players seeing the SEED technology room that contained a time travel contraption complete with black lights, a glowing bonsai tree, and a grass covered basement floor. Our goal at this stage was to introduce an alternate world hiding within our own, and convince the players that we, at least, took it seriously so that the transmedia storytelling that Chris Russell describes in an earlier post could take over.


The next day the players were given their role in the game: to stop the end of the world. As Nate Crumpley discussed in his post, each team received a large packet of games, academic articles, science fiction narratives, and real world statistics describing one of four scenarios threatening the earth today (global warming, resource depletion, antibiotic resistant super viruses, and global inequality). The players were charged with learning this information, organizing their collaborative research process in a limited time period, and facing each other in a series of debates. We explained that the winning team  would give us the data necessary to predict which scenario was the most likely to happen in the future. Communicating this information to the future would, in turn, change it. With the debate semi-finals and final looming in the coming hours, I can say that it’s already a success. Every team has achieved a provisional expertise not only on its own topic, but also on the ways humanity might successfully prevent the other scenarios from occurring.

Learning from a somewhat rocky start in last year’s game The Source, we made three design decisions that seem crucial in retrospect. In both of the summer programs run from the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab we have broken the running time into weeklong sections, but this year we have treated each week as a single continuous arc, much like a season of a television series. This week the arc was crafted around a culminating moment of debate, and rather than deciding beforehand what narrative or learning objectives had to be accomplished, we used this game-like mechanism as our central constraint. Next week the constraint will shift to code breaking and cryptography, and away from a narrative of inter-team competition to one of collaboration.


A second major change has been the incorporation of professional actors into each day of the program, which both creates a stronger sense of the world, and allows us to react in real time to our player interests. Last year we gave over some control of the ending and large-scale narrative to the players, without it translating into a feeling of control. This year our central characters are learning each player’s name, pulling players aside to deliver secrets, and reporting back what the players think is happening or where they want to take the story. Finally, last year our research pointed to the team mentors as one of the most positive influences on the youth, and this year we have tried to expand their roles.  We have designed this year’s game with their roles more consciously in mind, given them more training, and incorporated them as a part of the story.

There are also some more abstract qualities about our lab that lend the design its characteristic oddity and panache, things that are part of the process by which we dream up science fiction narratives and decide to annotate and mount three foot tall flowers.


As a lab we now have more than two years of experience working on alternative reality games, and as much as our knowledge of the art-form, the culture and knowledge of each other we have developed has made our games possible. We have built up a space where it’s easy to play with ideas, but to give up on them when they are not working – knowing that they may come back again in the future. Being able to let go of a good idea is tough, especially among a group of highly creative people who want to feel their contribution to a project is meaningful, but it’s also essential to allow new ideas to bubble up. The reverse side of this is that we trust our designers’ passions to inspire passion in other people. Several team members were skeptical that high school students would be excited about debating, but Patrick Jagoda’s experience and enthusiasm with debate won us over. With the whole lab trusting in his enjoyment, and elaborating it, we’ve also won over our students. Similar things could be said about the set design, or any of our board games, or the narrative.

For the players, this process is often opaque, disappearing into the final version of the game. But as designers we have the privilege of walking a building over, watching a game in action, and altering the next game in response. In that exchange, the process of experiment and trust makes all the difference. In two more weeks our players will themselves become designers, and as they work together on projects we will be helping them think through the same questions of creativity.


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On the Science Debates (Bea Malsky)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Bea Malsky, Game Changer Chicago Design Lab fellow and undergraduate student in Sociology at the University of Chicago. She is interested in the construction of narratives and their shaping force in society, as well as the educational possibilities of new and alternative media. She is the editor-in-chief of the South Side Weekly, and has previously worked on Hexacago and The Project.

This afternoon, seventy-five South Side high school students will participate in a debate over which science-oriented apocalypse scenario is most likely to devastate our world: climate change, global inequality, super viruses, or resource depletion. The whole affair is couched in a fantastic science fiction narrative; teams will be presenting their arguments to a cohort of judges made up of the “Temporal Archivists” — historians of the future who are decked out in white lab coats and serving as mediators for a shady corporation from the future. At the end of the week, students will receive their first transmission from a future resistance group and the plot will thicken. For this afternoon, however, the players of S.E.E.D. will conduct a debate on issues firmly based in reality, for which they have spent two solid days preparing.

In addition to being an alternate reality game and an immersive dystopian narrative, S.E.E.D. has some pretty serious learning objectives: to interest and motivate its players in STEM fields, to provide them with the tools and drive to seek out positive mentors, and to expand their notion of literacy to include digital, cultural, and inter- and intrapersonal fluencies. Wednesday afternoon, groups met with professionals, including University of Chicago faculty in fields related to the disaster scenario they’ve been studying. Presenters included a University of Chicago Hospital epidemiologist (Jessica Ridgway) speaking about disease, an English professor of postcolonial literature (Sonali Thakkar) discussing global inequality, and a member of the University’s Office of Sustainability (Freddy Izguerra) talking about climate change. Students were given time for a direct conversation with these STEM professionals, all members of fields in which women and people of color are underrepresented. Through this glimpse up a potential career path, youth also met a positive role model and continued working toward conceptualizing and understanding a complex system such as the environment or the global economy.

In this afternoon’s debates, teams will take the information they learned from these adults as well as papers, articles, videos, learning games, and pieces of flash fiction they have been given. Groups have assigned the roles of opening speaker, rebuttal speaker, two cross examiners, and closing speaker. Using scientific fact, real-world statistics, and creative storytelling, they work to convince a set of judges why the numbers, figures, and stories they’ve been researching are of the gravest importance.

Even in its first week, S.E.E.D. has provided proof of the fact that not all fun is frivolous, and not all that is both educational and fun is a trick or a trade-off. Today’s debates are not so much the “hide the spinach in the cupcakes” approach as a method of showing students how to use fantasy to understand nuanced issues, to participate in their own educations, to become active, inquisitive, playful learners, and to let their worlds become, for a moment, strange and wondrous enough to be enthralling. In a few short weeks, S.E.E.D. participants will be through the gameplay portion of the program and actively creating their own serious games about STEM and social justice topics. Today, they are along to learn from the ride.