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An Overview of The Source (Week 3): Ashlyn Sparrow


To conclude the third week of The Source, Game Changer Chicago Design Lab designer and Source production manager Ashlyn Sparrow reflects on the activities and learning goals of the third phase of this alternate reality game.

Math. Not many youth find this topic exciting.  It’s too hard, too boring, or too abstract. This was the challenge facing us in Week 3.  We asked ourselves two questions: How will a game-based learning intervention be different from school? And how do we make our games engaging? For the first two weeks, players were always asking about the character of Adia’s father and this week, we tried to provide answers.

Adia’s father is a very quiet and secretive person and, in the third part of his game, used cryptography to hide a very serious portion of his life. This week, Adia and the players learned to be cryptographers and detectives in order to piece together the father’s secret.  We also brought in a cryptographer, Dan Weinstein, to help teach youth about code breaking and math. Instead of treating him as a one-time speaker, we embedded him into the narrative, which encouraged players to ask for help and try to learn more about Adia’s father along the way! 

We designed Monday to act as a cryptography tutorial. Through the father’s website we detailed the importance of learning cryptography and created a series of code lessons that included a rebuses, an anagram, a Caesar shifts, and a Vigenère cipher. Each answer leads to the next page with the final puzzle leading to three encrypted letters.   

Tuesday’s activities were created to show why encryption and encoded messages are important. In the morning, youth played Secret Society. At the start of this game, players sit around a table and are given a random card, for example a three of clubs. They must find a matching card without revealing their card to anyone else. During a player’s turn, he or she asks another player one question. The catch is, everyone must tell the truth. Afterwards, the player is allowed to make one guess about anyone’s card.  The player who finds his or her matching pair wins. 

Later that morning, players worked to decrypt three letters from Adia’s father, written in three different ciphers: Caesar, Pigpen, and Substitution. By analyzing the format of a letter and using a cryptanalytic attack, players decrypted these letters that explained that the father was hiding something from Adia. The third letter included a date, 08-12-84. When entered into a password field on the father’s website players were led to a police report detailing an afterschool stabbing that involved the father in 1984. 

These activities led smoothly into Wednesday activities when we brought in Officer Queenola Smith to give a talk about how police respond to a crime, take preliminary reports, and process evidence collection.  Dan also spoke about the math underlying cryptography. These presentations set the stage for the next game, Investigation, which required players to use logic, deductive reasoning, and math. In Investigation, players are given an evidence box and assume the role of a detective/cryptologist to reconstruct the events of the father’s alleged crime. Some information is relevant to the crime, while other data leads to dead ends.

Finally, on Thursday, players continued with the father’s narrative by playing the board game Tales from De-Crypt. In this game, players assume the role of a suspect wrongly accused of a violent crime. To find the evidence, players must break through three layers of encryption located at different hot spots on the game board.  To win, players must break through the encryption without being thrown in jail.  Encryption takes place through crypto-cards that use different forms of ciphers. Once decrypted, these cards gave the players more insight into the father’s crime and why he fled.  The last activity was a scavenger hunt that depended on a GPS coordinate.  Following the coordinate, players found mini-safes buried around the U of C campus, and were ecstatic to find a letter inside with the final details of the father’s crime.

 By the end of Week 3, youth were enthusiastically decrypting messages and finding answers – discovering that math is far from boring!