This fall, orientation at the University of Chicago took on some unexpected dimensions: new undergraduate students found themselves searching for an alternate-dimensional portal while they were finding their way around campus. This new spin on orientation is a new alternate reality game (or ARG) called “The Parasite” designed by Heidi Coleman, UChicago’s Director of Undergraduate Studies in Theater and Performance Studies; Patrick Jagoda, Associate Professor in English and Cinema and Media Studies at UChicago; and Kristen Schilt, Associate Professor in Sociology at UChicago. Alternate reality games are usually played out in both physical and digital spaces, and involve often elaborate stories and puzzles that are presented to players as part of the “real” world or campus that surrounds them. For an overview of the genre, check out my previous ProfHacker posts on ARGs in the classroom and other examples such as Tessera and Endgame.
I spoke with designers Patrick Jagoda and Kristen Schilt about their collaboration and this elaborate, playful twist on a familiar college tradition:
Anastasia: What brought on this design project? Was it always going to be an Alternate Reality Game, or is there some reason you were drawn to this form?
Patrick Jagoda: Kristen and I started to imagine the possibility of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) nearly two years prior this project. Since 2011, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a series of ARGs with several collaborators including Melissa Gilliam, Ashlyn Sparrow, Katherine Hayles, Patrick LeMieux, Sha Xin Wei, Peter McDonald, Ainsley Sutherland, and myriad students at the University of Chicago. Most recently, the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which I co-founded, had completed a five-week game titled S.E.E.D., which introduced high school youth from the South Side of Chicago to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, digital media literacies, and the basics of serious game design. Based on the research we conducted, the project felt successful to us but I wanted to build on what we had learned at a larger scale.
During a long car ride, Kristen and I started to talk about the nature of the social and cultural climates at universities as they impact particularly underrepresented students — for instance, students of color, first-generation students, and LGBTQ students. In myriad ways, these students face greater barriers to success within higher education and social environments than more historically represented students. We had been thinking about these matters for a long time, through our academic work and also through our respective interdisciplinary projects. For my part, I had worked on related transmedia narrative and game projects at the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health.
Kristen Schilt: And I was - and still am - heavily involved with the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality on campus. Teaching gender and sexuality courses, I had talked with students a great deal about how issues of consent and sexual violence were discussed during first-year Orientation. These conversations led to a greater sociological interest in what orientations “do” from an institutional vantage point and from a student vantage point, and how they might be re-imagined in ways that could potentially be transformative for both students and the larger environment/atmosphere. Learning about the transmedia games that Patrick had worked on with high school students, I started to imagine what it might be like to do a college orientation that deviated in some way from the traditional lecture and information-oriented session format.
PJ: As a way to pass the time, during our car ride, we began to brainstorm in a playful, blue-sky manner at first. Gradually, we began to talk about how we might implement an ARG at a university, given that there was already suggestive data and observations that the form might be a useful platform for motivating collaborative learning, teaching digital literacies, sharing resources, and inviting participants to engage in difficult and complex conversations. At their best, ARGs use transmedia storytelling, online and offline gameplay, and social interactions to create dynamic platforms of play that include both designers and players. After talking through the form, we had the idea of targeting first-year college orientation because this is a key moment of habit formation in which young people find themselves in a liminal space where they are not high school students anymore but aren’t quite college students yet. It’s a malleable time during which frames are established for the coming years of a student’s life.
Running a game like this at the scale of an entire incoming university class seemed daunting. But after a couple of hours of conversation, we decided that we should really try to put this idea into action. In the coming months, we teamed up with Heidi Coleman, a faculty member in Theater and Performance Studies and director who had years of experience working on large-scale performances that have targeted issues such as sexual harassment and violence. Together, we began to craft a narrative, gather resources, meet with possible university partners, assemble learning objectives, and recruit a team of designers.
AS: What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting started?
KS: One of the biggest challenges that we faced was getting the university administration and potential collaborators to see our vision for this project - which was, without a doubt, very amorphous at the early stages and, thus, not easy to grasp for people who had not been involved with ARGs. We didn’t have any ready models we could point to and say, “This! This is what we want to do.” We could point, of course, to previous educational ARGs but none of them had taken place at the scale that we were attempting. And, in the beginning, we didn’t have the storyline for the project, so we had to talk in very general terms about what it might be like. In these pitch meetings, we would try to determine if the people we were speaking to had any relevant “in point” for talking about ARGs - for instance, we had a big win when we found out that one of the university administrators participated in geocaching. We could use that and say, yes, it is kind of like that - only it happens on-line, too, and has some performance elements. We also could put it in the context of scavenger hunts, as the University of Chicago has an august annual tradition of the largest scavenger hunt in the world. This “Scav” tradition worked for us when we met with administrators, as it gave them something concrete to attach to when we talked about this untried and fuzzy project.
We had a harder time with other faculty. Because the ARG was going to take place during first-year orientation, many people saw this as taking on extra work for the university - a kind of masochist service obligation that most faculty would want to avoid. People could see what students could get out of this experience, but they weren’t clear on why faculty should dedicate their time and energy to a project that was experimental (e.g. could easily fail), time-consuming (e.g. would take up the precious non-teaching time of summer), and seemingly at out of bounds of what is typically deemed a scholarly project (e.g. a book or article). Once the project was in action and we could show the story line and the sets, we saw more interest from faculty. But, at the beginning stage, it seemed like a few of our colleagues thought that we were making a bad career decision by committing our time and energy to this project.
PJ: A challenge related to what Kristen described had to do with acquiring funding for an experimental project of this scale. Initially, we turned to typical sources for educational interventions, such as the Spencer Foundation grants for pilot research projects. Of course, even though these kinds of organizations suggest they are looking for innovative approaches to educational problems, they tend have a fairly traditional concept of experimental design that relies on random assignment to a control or a test group. There are virtues to this kind of approach, but they can also limit innovation at a pilot stage. Additionally, given the immense scale of what we were proposing, this was a situation in which best practices for research conflicted with optimal outcomes for the university. About a year before the ARG began, we had a number of meetings with colleagues and administrators at the university about the project. After some informal conversations, we met with the Dean of the College and pitched the idea. We asked for a small subset of the incoming student class in order to realize a version of the idea, maybe 200 or 300 students. To our surprise, after hearing our pitch, he said that we could create and run the game... but only with the entire incoming class of approximately 1,800 students!
We were excited by this vote of confidence, but it also meant that we couldn’t have a traditional control group. Working with these new parameters, we undertook an ethnography of the non-gamified 2016 orientation in order to establish a comparison. We also administered general surveys to both the 2016 and 2017 classes to note acquire a baseline about academic interests and student reasons for choosing the University of Chicago, in order to mark the level of similarity between the two classes. Additionally, we planned focus groups to follow the game-augmented version of orientation. Even so, a challenge with an educational intervention at so large a scale and of so experimental a nature is that conventional evaluation methods will not be completely sufficient. This was not a controlled intervention that took place in a closed laboratory setting. That didn’t strike us as a disadvantage, given that our contemporary networked media environment, not to mention an entire university climate, is simply too dynamic to be completely controlled or controllable. Our current media environment calls for alternative concepts and methods of experimentation.
AS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and design this type of game at their own institution?
PJ: A key piece of advice would be to embrace a collaborative and transdisciplinary spirit. Alternate Reality Games require teams consisting of people with diverse abilities and knowledge. To complete the ARG, our team contributed game design, installation art construction, puzzle creation, web design, visual art, sound design, video production, costume and prop development, social media improvisation, live performance, and social scientific research methods. We also hired a few professional artists, such as installation and experience designer David Carlson, and puzzle creator Sandor Weisz. We also hired a group of talented PhD, MFA, and undergraduate students working on degrees in fields including literature, theater and performance studies, computer science, cinema and media studies, music, visual art, political science, psychology, and comparative human development. I’ll be the first to admit that so large and heterogeneous a group brings organizational challenges. It requires a great deal of mutual patience and constant translation across specialist vocabularies. But when it works, the artistic and scholarly benefits of this kind of collaboration can be immense.
Another important consideration is the inclusion of a broad range of not only faculty but also staff. Building the groundwork for this game required a substantial quantity of weekly meetings. During the planning phase, we accepted that this project would be an additional full-time job. We explored any potential collaboration that occurred to us. Some of our most fruitful conversations and collaborations were with university staff who contributed valuable ideas to this game. At every meeting, we asked staff advice about learning objectives. We asked them what capacities they would most want to convey to incoming students, including first-generation students. We collated those responses, converted them into learning objectives, and embedded many of them into gameplay. Overall, the staff role was significant. From early in the design process, we worked with the College Programming Office, which runs the first-year orientation. For particular site-specific challenges, we teamed up with staff in the Athletics department, the Center for Identity and Inclusion, Housing, the Logan Center for the Arts, the Regenstein Library, the Rockefeller Chapel, the Smart Museum of Art, and several other offices. We were amazed when a project manager at the Language Center, Rod Edwards, literally created a fictional language for our game. In my experience, faculty rarely work with university staff beyond the departmental level. Yet the knowledge and energy of folks from these offices proved crucial to realizing this ARG. Though the coordination efforts were extensive for Heidi, Kristen, me, and our entire design team, we hope we’ve established a structure for future large-scale projects.
KS: I echo what Patrick says about the importance of the team. What made this ARG successful was that everyone who came on board really believed in the vision of the project. That shared sense of purpose - of doing something not just experimental but potentially magical - was key to our success. The designers, artists, and actors who dedicated their time and labor to this work brought into being a project that often felt impossible in scale and logistics. And, of course, the willingness of many first-year students to embrace the unknown and, in many ways, to shape and transform the ARG along the way, made the project into the collaborative world we first imagined.
For more insight into their design, check out the game’s postmortem trailer!