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Teaching ARG Design to teenagers

April 29th, 2008 · 15 Comments

The vision: Eager teens, listening quietly and attentively as I led a discussion about alternate reality games.

The reality: Thirty seconds into my prepared spiel, there were four hands waving in the air and the kids at the back were already talking. “Oh boy,” I thought, hoping to make a quantum leap out of here, but it didn’t happen.

Three exhausting hours later, and what might be the world’s first ARG Design Workshop for teenagers was over. I was pretty happy – but even happier that there had been four other people there to help.

Before I get into any details of the workshop, I should provide some personal background. I’ve always enjoyed explaining things, whether it’s through educational websites or in person at conferences. I’ve never done anything aimed solely at teenagers – and I don’t think I have the energy or temperament to be a teacher – but I have occasionally worked with some really interesting and smart teens before, and I’ve long thought that it would be fun to expand and formalise that.

A few months ago, in the course of some work with Channel 4, Six to Start got talking with Roundhouse Studios. Roundhouse is an organisation in north London that gives teenagers the resources to make music, film videos and design computer games, all using some very respectable facilities and equipment. They wanted more multimedia and game design classes, we wanted to talk to some teenagers – it was meant to be.

Planning

When Claire (also from STS) and I sat down to plan the workshop, we had two big problems: we had no idea how many teens would be in the workshop (other than ‘definitely more than two’), and even worse, we didn’t know how old they would be. Our listing in the Roundhouse brochure was for teenagers aged from 13 to 18 – that’s wide as it is, but we knew that kids as young as 11 might turn up. No doubt they’d all be smart and at least somewhat engaged, but there’s a world of difference between 11 and 18.

From this tricky position, we came up with the following structure. We were well aware that it wouldn’t fully survive contact with reality and that we’d have to improvise, but it looked something like this:

INTRODUCTION TO ARGS – 15 minutes

Show Lost, Heroes, Lost Ring, Perplex City (maybe video), Batman

MODULE 0: HOW TO BRAINSTORM – 5 minutes

MODULE 1: ARG IDEA FOR TV SHOW – 15 minutes

Split into groups. Ask:

How would it tie into TV show – would it involve any characters? Or just beside the show?
Where would it appear?
What kind of puzzles?
Who’s it aimed at?

15 minutes for groups to present.

BREAK – 15 minutes

TALK ABOUT CHANNEL 4 GAME – 10 minutes

MODULE 2: RESEARCH SOCIAL NETWORKS – 20 minutes

Compare big SNSes – who uses them? (shout out)
What different features do they have; video, music, games

Design your own SNS – but it can only do six different things
How is yours different from other SNSes?
Why would people use it?
Who would use it?

15 minutes presentation

SHORT BREAK – 10 minutes

CASE STUDY: I LOVE BEES – 15 minutes

Show video on YouTube

MODULE 3: DESIGN AN ARG – 25 minutes

Appeal to ???

20 minutes presentation

Fairly sensible, we thought. And in fact, by and large, the overall structure survived.

Fourteen teenagers, with an even distribution of ages from 11 to around 16, turned up to the workshop. All were boys. None of them knew the slightest thing about alternate reality games.

Introduction to ARGs

I began with a standard spiel about ARGs being games that took place on websites, etc etc, and realised with mounting horror that many had absolutely no interest or understanding of what the hell I was going on about. I decided to abandon all of my slides and skip to the good bit – the games.

“How many of you guys have watched Lost?” I asked. A forest of hands sprouted up, and I gave a silent prayer of thanks to J. J. Abrams. I loaded up the Oceanic Airlines website (part of the Lost Experience ARG) and asked them what they thought.

Opinions were divided. Some thought it was cool, some really didn’t see the point of the website. “What’s this SFO stuff, why would I want to book a flight?” It was like hearing the internal monologue of some confused TV exec suffering from future shock. Claire quickly came to the rescue, asking the teens if they noticed anything strange about the website. Any hidden words, perhaps?

A quick trip into the source code and highlighting of text elicited some impressed-sounding noises, and some random clicking around the front page made all the numbers change to the Numbers (4, 8, 15, etc) and a hidden message appear. Cue lots of teens pronouncing themselves freaked out. Here was the answer, I thought – freak them out!

Next up was Heroes. Unfortunately, the Primatech Paper website wasn’t all that interesting, so we moved quickly on to The Dark Knight Returns ARG, specifically The Gotham Times. They were all quite impressed with this, although I spent a little too much time explaining who Harvey Dent was (all that time on Wikipedia reading about comic books wasn’t wasted!) and not quite enough showing the other sites. But it did the job, along with The HaHaHa Times – the teens were sufficiently intrigued to avoid mutiny for at least two, maybe three minutes.

Module 0 – How to Brainstorm

As it turned out, they all knew how to brainstorm and do mindmaps. I blame it on our progressive, liberal education system myself. This was all in preparation for…

Module 1 – ARG Idea for TV Show

We split the teens into three groups and asked them to pick a TV show to make an ARG about. The first team picked Spongebob Squarepants, a decision they would later come to rue. The second picked Reaper, which I’d never heard of but was apparently about some guy being the Devil’s assistant. It emerged that the group knew hardly anything about Reaper either, and switched to Torchwood. The final group picked The Simpsons – you can never go wrong with them.

The first task was getting the groups to write down everything they knew about the shows. Understandably, this took rather longer with The Simpsons than the others. That completed, we asked them to come up with a story that they might want to tell through an ARG, and think about how it could tie into the show. Would it involve the show’s characters? How would viewers find the ARG? What sort of people would play it? What kind of puzzles would there be? This required a little bit of handholding and Claire, Izzy and Marc were all helpful here. I have to say that they all got the idea very quickly, even the youngest kids.

I have to recount a terrible story at this point. One guy said that the entire concept of doing an ARG for a TV show was ’sad’. I sat down next to him and said, “Well, you know, the Nine Inch Nails did an ARG.”

The kid looked at me blankly and replied, “What are the Nine Inch Nails?”

I literally gaped. I practically stumbled out of the room, mopping sweat from my brow in the realisation that I was, in fact, sixty years old and likely soon to die. I suppose it’s not surprising – it’s not like I listen to NiN either, and why would a teen even know about them, but it’s still a bit of a shock really. Anyway, I recovered and moved on, hugging my woollen cardigan around my decaying body…

Enough digressions – here are their ideas. I feel they were significantly better than an awful lot of ARGs I’ve heard about lately.

  • Spongebob: Okay, this one was rather weird and involved calling up a sponge factory, ordering character-shaped sponges, looking for clues on MySpace and some frankly disturbing ideas about Tony Blair. I pointed out that they might have wanted to go for South Park if they were going to do something like this, and some of the other groups mentioned that Spongebob’s core demographic clearly weren’t MySpace users. But I definitely liked the sponge factory.
  • Torchwood: These guys came up with practically the same idea as the real Torchwood ARG (which they had no idea existed). In fact, I thought it was a bit cooler, since it involved going to an Army website to join a new elite division, which turned out to be Torchwood, etc etc. Everyone liked this idea.
  • The Simpsons: I can’t remember how this one began, but the core concept was solid gold – you were completing a series of challenges and puzzles in order to join The Stonecutters. Everyone loves the Stonecutters episode, and the structure fits the story perfectly.

I was feeling rather better at this point, and so we declared a 15 minute break, upon which all the teens began playing Flash games on the web.

I Love Bees

“How many of you guys have played Halo?” Stupid question – all of them had. They were in a games design workshop! I showed them the I Love Bees Phenomenon video, which they liked. An interesting discussion about how believeable and scary ARGs could be ensued, during which one of the teens mentioned ‘War of the Worlds’ (I hadn’t even paid him to do that, either). I chatted a bit about how WotW had fooledan awful lot of people, but also mentioned that most people were rather savvier than that.

Talk About Channel 4 Game

The workshop had partly been sold to the teens as a way of influencing the ARG we’re designing for Channel 4 – which was true – so I began talking about the focus of the game, social networks. No sooner had the word ‘MySpace’ left my mouth than some guys said, ‘Oh, it’s all about paedophiles then is it?’

Suffice to say that these kids were far more clued up about online dangers than the vast majority of adults, and they certainly knew about ‘cyber-bullying’ (the mention of which – not by me – elicited various giggles). We had a good discussion about other kids who were ’stupid enough’ to meet with people they didn’t know, and they talked about their parents’ attitudes to social networks as well.

One interesting finding was that none of them used Bebo – or at least, would admit to it. I grant that this wasn’t a representative sample (although they were from a whole bunch of different schools and social backgrounds) but I am really at a loss at figuring out who the hell uses Bebo. These kids didn’t. The 18-24 year olds I talked to in a BBC focus group didn’t. So frankly, I don’t know who does. Everyone seems to think it’s a poor cousin to MySpace (’better personalisation’) and Facebook (’I want to get on that’).

Design Your Own Social Network

The teens split up into different groups this time, to come up with novel ideas for social networks.

  • Webcams and subscriptions: Most of this group’s idea was based on making an SNS ‘better than MySpace’, which wasn’t terribly original. They did have a cool idea for subscriptions providing credit towards webcams and microphones though, a business model probably worth a few million in the Bay Area.
  • Games: A social network for gamers. Certainly fills a need, and it incorporated a ladder-style league system with prizes and promotion; they did some good thinking about balancing the reward structure and the problems of verifying high scores.
  • Planets: A really fantastic idea for a social network that reminded me of Spore – everyone gets their own planet that they can personalise. The rest of the ideas flow from there…

So, some good stuff. Now came the hard part – they’d been doing a lot of thinking for over two hours, and now we were going to ask them to…

Design an ARG in your Social Network

I tried to explain this as well as I could, but it’s a complex problem at the best of times. Most of the groups ended up just elaborating on their social networks more and incorporating narratives into them, although they were pretty cool. One of the groups actually had an idea that was disturbingly close to a real idea we pitched to Channel 4 a while ago; another had a really nifty community-based story for the Planets SNS. It was an impressive presentation, and a nice note to end on.

Wrapup

Most of the kids said that they found the workshop fun, and even the most recalciltrant of them (the guy who thought ARGs were sad) admitted that he thought they were interesting. A number of the kids expressed an interest in being more involved, which was really gratifying.

And then we went to the pub. Without the kids.

Lessons Learned

I will probably write up a new lesson plan at some point, but here are some unordered thoughts:

  • Don’t even try to explain what an ARG is. Just show them one. Preferably a scary one with cool graphics. Even better, get them to play one, if you have time.
  • Three hours was only just enough to get going. A whole day would have been better.
  • The ‘Design an ARG for TV’ was the highlight of the workshop – they really liked this one and it combined imagination with their own interests.
  • Be prepared for all sorts of hostile questions about the most fundamental premises of ARGs (e.g. ‘What’s the point?’). These are the questions that most adult are just too polite to ask, but secretly mutter behind your back, so it’s good experience to hear them.
  • Bring along assistants. I was really glad to have the help of Claire, Izzy, Marc and Luke.
  • This is not what the kids will be expecting. The guys in our group were expecting to do game design and programming – i.e. sitting in front of computers. We had next to no computer work.

And if you want to see my laughably naive and quickly abandoned slides, here they are!

And here are my significantly more useful del.icio.us links for the workshop.

I’m certainly interested in doing this again, so watch this space.

Tags: adrian · arg · edu · games

15 responses so far ↓

  • rach // Apr 29, 2008 at 2:17 am

    wow, it sounds like it was a lot of fun! wish i could have been there too :) as someone who works with kids/’young people’ full time, i can totally sympathise with the NiN incident. and the lack of quiet attentiveness and the challenging questions!

    i do know who uses bebo though – irish people. my irish friend who is 26 is on there, as are all his mates and work colleagues, it seems to be the biggest thing over there. however it does seem to be skewed towards younger kids, even though it’s hard to imagine people being too young for myspace.

    sounds like it went well though in the end, are you planning on doing any more of the same, or following up with a part 2 or anything?

  • Nathan // Apr 29, 2008 at 3:35 am

    Sounds like an interesting workshop; good job with it!
    For a group of 14 teenage boys who were interested in computer games programming/design, it is rather shocking that none of them had heard of ARGs before. Obviously it isn’t as large a niche as I’d envisaged.

  • Rachel // Apr 29, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Loved the story. Had to laugh at the reaction to NIN. It’s true how the knowledge of teenagers using SNS’s is usually better than the adults around them expect.

    I was surprised that it was all boys though, until I read about their expectations – a different marketing approach may have changed that gender balance.

  • Melinda // Apr 29, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Great post! I also had to laugh at their reaction to NiN, but I’ve had same reaction with certain things with my sister. At 18 she’s only 5 years younger than me, but that still makes quite a difference with the “known” pop culture.

    I agree with Rachel; I think another marketing approach might have gotten more girls involved. Especially if they realize that in a lot of cases ARGs are an extension to existing TV shows or movies. I think most people when they hear Alternate Reality Game for the first time, they think something along the lines of Roleplaying Game; just another term for some type of video game. At least that’s what I remember thinking when I heard it for the first time.

  • Matt // Apr 29, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Adrian – fyi, this is matt who used to work at Idea Generation and helped out on the PR for the cubefind, and then around FIA…hope you’re well.

    Just thought I’d say how interesting this was, and how many of the difficulties you described in communicating the ARG concept were very, very similar to the ones we faced when trying to explain the idea to journalists. Philistines… Keep up the good work.

  • Andres // Apr 29, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I have to prepare a class about ARGs for advertising students, university students, but still teenagers! This will come in handy!

  • Ro // Apr 29, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks for posting this Adrian. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Missed the girls though.

    Remember a tv show called Eco-Challenge? It was a race through various terrains around a country using different modes of transport, like kayaking, rafting etc. Anyway, one of the rules was that when you entered your team of four people, one of them had to be female. (Or in the case of a mostly female team one of the four had to be male.) That probably wouldn’t work in a workshop setting, but how to get girls interested. Oops, gotta go, may write more later.

  • Adrian Hon // Apr 30, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Thanks for the comments everyone! Some quick replies:

    rach: If you mean, am I going to do another workshop, the answer is yes, but I don’t know when that would be. It would be interesting to work with the same group, or with a new group; I have some ideas for either direction.

    Rachel: You can download a copy of the Roundhouse Studios brochure here:

    http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/studios/projects-courses

    We were listed as a ‘Digital Media Event’, with ‘Help to design a major new game for Channel 4! Be the first to hear about it, learn how a project like this is put together, and have your say in shaping its story, characters and gameplay in this one-off session with game designs from new company Six to Start.’ I only noticed just now that it didn’t actually say anything about ARGs, which probably accounts for, well, all of the confusion. Not sure how that one happened!

    Melinda: Yeah, it certainly could have been better marketed and I would be really interested to see how girls would approach ARG design. An experiment for the future.

    Ro: I haven’t heard of that show, but I definitely like the idea. I really don’t know why there were no girls there – it’s not like I expected parity, but none? Really bizarre. I’m happy to say that all the ARGs I’ve worked on have had teams that were roughly split between the sexes, and I know that balance helped.

  • Nighthawk // Apr 30, 2008 at 2:45 am

    Nice! Now if you’d only do these things for us OLD FOLK…

    “Nine Inch Nails”? Hardware… Aisle nine.

  • Rachel // Apr 30, 2008 at 10:24 am

    I can see the confusion. Back to the immediate thought that ‘game’ in this context usually means ‘video console game’. A long way to go before that perception changes. Or a new word required.

  • Aaron // May 1, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Wow, sounds like fun! I’d love to go to one of these if you’re ever in the Chicago area, although I don’t know of any locations like Roundhouse in the states.

    Nice job on being able to explain what an ARG is in 15 minutes. Usually, it takes me at least that long just to give one example to someone!

  • Mags // May 7, 2008 at 4:48 am

    Thanks for the advice re arg stuff!..I have now read the blog and will take it all on board for the project. Definately glad I am a) working with an older bunch of teenagers b) am shoving them into a game first c) will not even attempt to talk about any pop culture because I don’t need reminding of my age

    ….and actually New Zealand seems to be Bebo capital of the world as I found out in the process of designing this game.

    I hate Bebo.

  • Sarbjit Bakhshi // May 27, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Instead of an ARG based around a television show, how about a TV show that eminates from an ARG?

    I know user generated fiction normally is not known for its quality but could seeds of an idea of a TV show be sown into an ARG, and then the the strongest idea made into a TV show with a pre-built fan base?

    It probably has been done already though…

  • Adrian Hon // May 27, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    It hasn’t been done yet. I think there are two things to address here.

    The first is that you are correct in saying that user-generated fiction is not known for its quality. That said, some of it is really very good. The issue is that I don’t know of any ARG that incorporates user-generated fiction into the plot, for quality and control issues.

    The second is that I don’t doubt that a TV show will emerge from an ARG in the future. At present, however, no ARG has produced original content *and* attracted a large enough audience for this to make sense.

  • Sarbjit Bakhshi // Jun 3, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    What about creating and ARG ‘inspired’ by popular fan fiction? That way you side step the quality issue and that of control but keep the fanbase.

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