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.
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.
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.
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.