Alternate Reality Games and a Cure for Cancer?

Before taking my current class, Gaming and Transmedia Storytelling at Full Sail University, I had never heard of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). As I explored this phenomena it occurred to me that this very interactive and engaging way of storytelling and media could be used to solve real world problems. The following is my first exploration into ARGs and how they might be used to promote a non-profit organization and solve a problem that has eluded humanity for millenia.


The Smithsonian launched an alternate reality game called Vanished in April 2011. This game was designed to engage middle school students to use the scientific method to solve clues in a curated science-fiction mystery game. The game lasted eight weeks and also involved older players as “watchers.” The Smithsonian offered video conferences with scientists to illustrate concepts and these conferences also included additional hidden clues. Players needed to explore their own communities searching for data. The Smithsonian also provided clues at affiliated museums that delved deeper into various scientific fields. MIT students moderated forums where players could discuss their findings. The motivation for creating the game was to engage more students to explore the study of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). Educators are turning more toward alternate ways of reaching students by reaching kids where they are and engaging them, as opposed to lecturing and book based study. STEM festivals and STEM activities have sprung up all over the country in an effort to broaden interest. The Vanished game was an attempt to engage students in this ARG to spark creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, and group thinking. The game was designed to be flexible and to change as needed based on what the players engaged in. This learning in the real world was designed to help kids dig deeper into science and the adult “watchers” could connect with kids, but kids were the driving force in the game. Helping kids to learn more about science, becoming engaged in the families, schools, and communities, and using problem solving to solve real world problems in fun and engaging way were the cornerstones of this game.

The Exploratorium

In 1969, The Exploratorium opened. Frank Oppenheimer developed and designed The Exploratorium to be transformational in science education. The first location for The Exploratorium was built within the Palace of Fine Arts which was standing abandoned and empty for years after the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. The museum was not a wander about and look museum, but a hands-on and engaging way of exploring multiple science disciplines. Currently, The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The Exploratorium has been a tremendous success in reaching generations and opening the doors of scientific study. The Exploratorium could use the lessons learned from the Vanished ARG launched by the Smithsonian and partner with local and national universities and other science learning centers like the Lawrence Hall of Science to engage not only middle school students, but students from pre-K to graduate level. Some of the experiences offered in the ARG could be found online at each of the participating institutions, while others could be found in each student’s own back yard. The story could be that we are on the verge of creating a cure for cancer. Players would conduct scientific experiments on food and environmental agents to see how these impact cancer and cancer fighting. Perhaps the idea of curing cancer would ultimately lead to a cure for cancer. The game would engage students from around the world, and build interest not only in The Exploratorium and their hands on approach to science, but in STEM education and careers.

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