Designing ARGs

Conceptualizing Space and Place in Learning through Augmented Reality Games (ARGs)

(part 2 of a two-part doctoral preliminary examination by John Martin, November 22, 2005)

Part II. Designing Games for Place: The value of playing and designing ARGs

Greenbush game

The question of place in learning has been troubling me because while I see technology allowing for an increased understanding of the global and appreciation of the local, I see trends in education turning away from the significance of place in learning, and turning instead towards electronic learning in cyberspace where physical place is generally considered less significant. Instead, what becomes important is shared activity in the artificial place of cyberspace. As a student of educational technology, I recognize many of the advantages of online learning, and promote many of the opportunities for major advances in sociocultural learning methods such as video gaming, chat, wikis, blogging, and others. But as an outdoor educator and environmentalist, I see dangers in the increasing disconnect with the land and physical places we live in and rely on.

I believe that augmented reality games can be another place-based tool to counter the increasing loss of a sense of place. I anticipate that as these tools become ubiquitous, the opportunities to use them in learning will further increase. ARGs are an early part of that wave.

The value of ARGs in learning

In order to answer questions of value, let me lay out my stance on learning. I am a firm believer in pedagogy through curiosity, active participation in the world, and reflective design. In this, I follow John Dewey’s postulation that “the curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought” (Dewey 1910/1997: 31). Dewey finds this material in activity “that reflect the life of the larger society and permeate throughout with the spirit of art, history, and science” (Dewey 1900: 29). Maxine Greene also sees conscious and imaginative engagement with art and the world, and reflective encounters, as a way for people to “locate themselves in an intersubjective reality reaching backwards and forwards in time” (Greene 1978: 165). She speaks to the importance of people being allowed to “see, shape and transform” their worlds at a tangible level (p. 193). Given these pedagogical prescripts, what value does augmented reality gaming offer?

In the first part of the paper, I likened ARGs to the mediated physical environments that Elizabeth Ellsworth (2005) considers powerful pedagogically charged places. ARGs are social learning opportunities and can be designed to be played alone or with others. But learning as a player is only one way that ARGs can be pedagogically utilized. Greene also speaks of the importance of being able to “see, shape and transform” one’s world at a tangible level (Greene, 1978: 193). It is the agency-through-design that I look to, for the greatest impact of ARGs in learning.

Learning by playing ARGs

Good ARGs are essentially video games that use geographical space as a foundation for the game space. They have most or all of the thirty-six learning principles that James Gee argues are in video games (2003), Beyond these, they draw on the compelling power of geographical place I discussed in the first part of this paper. As placed-based activities, ARGs situate their players in hybrid worlds created by the handheld’s augmentation of the existing physical places players occupy — worlds that, in some respects they may be familiar with, but in other respects will be foreign to them. Players interact with and explore these worlds, discovering and following processual paths, and emerge with a new sense of identity (Ellsworth 2005).

When John Dewey considers games, he highlights how they elicit “social control of individuals without the violation of freedom” (Dewey, 1938: 54). In well-designed ARGs, players have a degree of control regarding time, identity, and embodiment. They can move quickly or slowly as they like, although time constraints may be imposed. There is generally room for embodied exploration of the space, for taking a direct path or a more scenic route. They have opportunities to develop and customize the character through their play. I feel that it is this sense of agency that attracts people to games. One typically is not allowed to skip in a classroom, but in game space the choice is typically the player’s. The focus on physically active engagement in and with geographical space, situated decision-making, and practical (as opposed to theoretical) occupation of the whole being matches up nicely with the calls of educators from Dewey to Latour to Suchman to Vygotsky.

Having taken on a role in the playing of an ARG, players begin to build an understanding and expertise of the practices of both the character in the ARG and of ARG players. David Shaffer refers to this as an epistemic frame — “the ways of knowing, of deciding what is worth knowing, and of adding to the collective body of knowledge and understanding of a community of practice” (Shaffer, in press: 2) — and also argues that it informs players’ perspectives in other areas of their lives (2005). But what can happen if, in addition to playing the ARGs, players also design them?

The introduction of design

Let me take three paragraphs to break down and present the trajectory of the game. Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire (in press) developed the Environmental Detectives ARG at MIT then introduced it to Ming-Fong Jan, one of Squire’s graduate students in Madison, who quickly developed a local proof-of-concept version. That project attracted the interest of a few other graduate students (including myself) who are currently working together in developing various applications of it. Although it was originally conceived of as an educational game where the learning takes place primarily as a player, it seems to be evolving into a game where the learning is split between the playing of the game and the creation of a customized subsequent game. Currently, there are four augmented reality games in development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that are based on the game engine Environmental Detectives was built on — MadCity Murder, Dow Day, and Greenbush History and The Mystery Trip.

MadCity Murder was the first — a proof-of-concept environmental murder mystery game that takes place on campus and explores the ecological effects of chemicals in the food chain. It has gone through a number of revisions. Taking on the roles of a medical doctor, an environmental specialist, and a government official, over fifty people have played it and positively reacted to it, including a class of middle school students who have decided to design another ARG, dealing with a very different topic, but built off of the same game engine.

Figure 4. Playing MadCity Murder ARG, and screenshot of map.

The middle school students’ version, Greenbush History, focuses on creating an embodied understanding of one of Madison’s oldest neighborhoods. To design the game, they have to understand how it works. They got a taste of that, and began to develop an epistemic frame of it, by playing the MadCity Murder version of it. Ming-Fong asked the students to critique that version, and in giving him feedback on his design of the game, they also entered into the development and design process of their version. They can now use their played understanding and critique of MadCity Murder to inform their design of Greenbush History.

Learning by designing ARGs

John Seely Brown, and Paul Duguid (2000) suggest that learning requires more than content; it requires active social engagement in the practice of the content. In this, we hear the ghost of John Dewey. In fact, in “Pedagogical Praxis,” David Shaffer (2004) suggests that new technologies offer the opportunities of Deweyian-type laboratories where “the focus is on learning and the conditions and processes that facilitate learning in technology-rich contexts writ large” — in other words, opportunities for kids to learn how learning environments work (p.1402). When we consider that video games are learning environments (Gee, 2003; Kafai; 1995; Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, Gee, 2005; Turkle, 1995), we can easily understand that designing games can be an exceptionally powerful learning experience. And, based on the potential significance of place in learning I would argue that this is especially the case for designing placed-based ARG games. Engaging in the process of design of a place-based ARG not only situates a person more deeply in a place through the embodied understanding that is needed to design a good game, but it also offers the agency that Greene argued is necessary in learning — the ability to “see, shape and transform” one’s world at a tangible level (Greene, 1978: 193).

Designing ARGs for Place

Of the four ARGs that I am familiar with, let me examine the design processes, currently underway, for three of them — the Greenbush History ARG, the Dow Day ARG, and The Mystery Trip ARG. All are deeply entrenched in questions of cultural space (place), and built with lessons gleaned from experience with previous ARGs.

Place in Greenbush History

Earlier I contended that the middle school ARG designers could use their played understanding and critique of MadCity Murder to inform their design of Greenbush History. As an example of this, consider that there are a number of decisions in the MadCity Murder game design that were constrained and compromised by the exploratory nature of a proof-of-concept game. In the students’ feedback, according to Ming-Fong Jan, they addressed the distribution of non-playing characters (NPCs) in place, asking why, for example, a non-student mother would be nursing her child in a central area outside of a campus administration building. Questions like these lead to similar questions and design challenges for the students as they build their Greenbush History ARG. To get questions of place right (or conceivable) the students are getting a feel for the Greenbush neighborhood through physical exploration and interviews of the people who have lived and worked there, and know the neighborhood well.

Place in Dow Day

Jim Mathews also drew on lessons of the importance of place learned from his experiences with MadCity Murder and conversations with other participants. The requirements inherent in the ARG design process forced him to thoroughly research many aspects as he created Dow Day, an ARG that situates its players on the UW-Madison campus across the time surrounding the Vietnam-era protests against Dow Chemical in October 1967. Moving through the current campus from Library Mall to the Chancellor’s Office to the hallway in Ingraham Hall where protesters were beaten and hauled away, players get glimpses of the pandemonium surrounding that day through video clips, photos, maps, interviews, and other documents. Through the game they meet people on all sides: protesters of course, but also ROTC students, campus police, and students who had no idea what the chaos was about. From the design document:

During the course of the game students role-play as either a journalist or an historian who has been called upon to investigate the root causes of the protests and explain how and why they turned violent. As the game progresses, players gather and analyze primary and secondary resources, develop historical arguments, and present and defend their conclusions (Mathew, unpublished).

The game questions the players, and encourages impossible answers that take into account multiple historical perspectives. It pulls from primary and secondary resources from the Wisconsin Historical Society, video documentaries, and the university archives.

Figure 5. Playing the Dow Day ARG, and screenshots of photograph, map, and video.

Place in The Mystery Trip

The ARG I am involved in designing is The Mystery Trip. I consider it an attempt at recreating, for a contemporary generation of campers, a wilderness camping experience their grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have had in the 1920s and 1930s at a wilderness camp in Maine that I have been involved with since 1992. According to Harrie Price III, who experienced one of the original mystery trips, they went something like this:

Towards the end of each summer, while the older boys were doing manly things on the Allagash or at Katahdin, we others took part in the wild pursuit of thieves, kidnappers, and other nefarious individuals.That first summer of mine, quite unexpectedly, as we were about to set out on our regularly scheduled trips one Tuesday morning, we were all called together and the cold facts were put before us. Something terrible had happened; I am sure that I don’t remember what. Plans had to be changed at the last moment, and all our energies were to be devoted to helping the local authorities, whoever they were, hunt down the criminals and bring them to justice. At the same time we would uphold the honor of the camp, and in all probability bring fame and fortune to ourselves and our counselors. …

I can’t remember much of that first Mystery Trip except that it rained. It rained all the time. The villains, whoever they were, had left clues and trails as they challenged us to track them down. Coded messages were found and deciphered. The net was slowly tightening. In tracking those undesirables, we learned more than we at the moment wanted to know about following trails in the woods. I clearly remember looking for stone cairns on the mountain side under what were certainly not the most favorable conditions. …

Somehow or other we were all led to a remote spot to dig for treasure two days later on the final day of the trip. There had been codes and more codes to the point that we felt that none would ever be too much for us in the future. I don’t think that I had ever bothered very much about codes before that Mystery Trip, but now I fancied myself an expert. It was the next winter that I was to read my first real adult book, a long account of German codes in World War II was one of the select; I knew what they were talking about.

Digging at the suspected spot began with anxious campers standing about. … waiting for the moment when the smallest boy in camp would unearth the treasure. … chocolate wrapped in gold foil to resemble pieces of eight. (Price, 1986).

My goal in this ARG, is to capture the feelings expressed in this excerpt, but to use the ARG engine instead of running around and physically planting codes and clues.

To design such a game requires an understanding of the lore of the place — jokes, clues, and insider knowledge that the older campers will understand and that the younger campers are on the verge of comprehending — the Vygotskian (1978) zone of proximal development for the Discourse of the community. It requires knowledge of the physical and cultural geography of the landscape, an awareness of places that the current campers’ brothers and fathers may have told stories about. It involves a loose narrative in the stylistic vein of Harrie Price III, the dry wit that has been associated with the camp since its inception. In short, it requires the situated experience of the camp culture.

Because I have not experienced the camp from the viewpoint of a camper, I cannot design a game that speaks directly to that experience. That is why a key feature of The Mystery Trip ARG is the involvement of the campers in its design. In 2005, I approached returning campers with the idea and they spent a four-day trip mapping out potential game space, creating potential characters, and building a loose narrative line for the ARG. In spring of 2006, I hope to use these elements to construct a prototype game for that summer’s campers to play, critique, and build upon.

Implementing ARGs

Implementation of ARGs vary from place to place as much as the customization of ARGs varies according to place. This is one of the primary tenets of place-based pedagogy, that the one-size-fits-all mentality in many packaged curricula does not necessarily fit the needs of different places — implementation, like design, needs to fit the affordances and constraints of the setting. In the case of the Greenbush History ARG, the instructor for the middle school class was approached, recognized the potential for learning, and with the help of a grant, was able to partner with university researchers in working it into a full year’s project for the class. In the case of Dow Day, a graduate student and alternative school teacher involved in the testing of MadCity Murder largely designed the ARG on his own and is still working on how he will implement it.

I plan to implement my own version of the ARG, The Mystery Trip, in the context of a four-day camping trip. Campers currently go on two types of trips — moving trips where they get dropped off at point A and end up at point B, and stationary trips where they entertain themselves for four days by going on day trips, swimming, fishing, etc. The major difference of the ARG is that campers would have specific rewarded tasks to accomplish in the four days, and could tweak the game for the next trip. The campers already reflect on their trips by writing a trip article for the weekly camp newspaper. They also create a skit, often based on their trip adventures, for the weekly ‘Opera Night.’ There is a socially competitive aspect to these processes as groups try to out-entertain other trip groups in the camp. In many respects, tweaking the ARG for the next group to play based on their own experiences playing it is a form of graffiti — leaving their own distinct, semi-permanent mark on the game for the next group to experience. I expect it to take on a similar tone as the trip articles and Opera skits — rife with inside jokes, ribbing and banter, and the general silliness of whatever is ‘cool’ or ‘in’ that summer.

 Studying and Evaluating ARGs

The recursive cycles in the trajectory of ARGs as it has thus far occurred, and as it is designed to continue — where playing the game leads to designing a new game — matches nicely to the tenets of Design-Based Research (Barab and Squire, 2004). Moreover, the views of Design-Based Research resonate well with my own pedagogical underpinnings, founded in the ideas and work of John Dewey. This is not surprising, since, as Ann Brown (1992) and Kurt Squire (2005) both note, the ideas in Design Experiments and Design-Based Research are also found in Dewey.

Methods to study engagement

There are many methods I could employ to study the engagement with The Mystery Trip, and as a student, I learned to look for at least three ‘legs’ of support for arguments. Over the past five summers, campers have become acclimatized to giving spur of the moment video interviews for me, as I gather footage for the camp videos. They are comfortable and look forward to having me as their trip leader, documenting the trip through video, interviews, and photographs. Most importantly, because I encourage them to speak with ‘attitude’ in these sessions, they have generally been not only honest but challenging in their comments. Video, then, would be one method of study.

Ann Brown (1992), speaking of her use and study of design experiments, and commenting on the shortcomings of any single method of study, says she used a host of methods to capture and describe the multiple facets of the events that occur in her studies. Bolstered by my experience and comfort with technologies and different mediums, I can examine and pull apart what Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen (2001) call multimodal discourse to look at multiple forms of representation of what the ARG players get from their experience, not only within their design ideas for the ARG, but within things like their trip articles and Opera skits, and their counselors’ reports.

There is another very important benefit I have living and interacting with the players and their peers in the camp environment for three to seven weeks in the summer, and knowing many of them over the course of several summers. According to Barab and Squire, “design-based research suggests a pragmatic philosophical underpinning, one in which the value of a theory lies in its ability to produce changes in the world” (2004: 6). So, simply by listening to the ‘talk’ around camp, I can pick up on undercurrents of interest or disinterest. How do they talk about it to their tent-mates? Are others coming forward and volunteering for the trip? Are they giving up popular trips to do so? All of these sources feed into a fuller understanding of their experience and engagement.

 Questions to evaluate effectiveness

There are several gauges for measuring the effectiveness of design experiments in learning. Of the several that Ann Brown (1992) discusses, let me pull on a few and tailor them into questions for The Mystery Trip ARG. In doing so, I will keep in mind Barab and Squire’s observation that this type of research ought to, “generate and advance a particular set of theoretical constructs that transcends the environmental particulars of the contexts in which they were generated, selected, or refined” (2004: 5). Essentially, the question of “effectiveness in learning” then comes back to the theoretical constructs of John Dewey, and Maxine Greene, informed too by Lev Vygotsky.

Readiness to learn. Are the ARG players/designers stretching their limits? Are they coming up with new ideas, or rehashing old ones — or tweaking and refining old ones? Are they working together, playing off each others’ ideas, or is it a process that only one or two are really involved with? The use of a single handheld computer for a group of 4-5 players forces a certain level of collaboration; are they pulling each other along, or are some simply lost and abandoned?

Discovery learning. Are the ARG players/designers motivated in their engagement? Do they follow the most minimal of paths, or does their curiosity pull them ‘off course’ — and does the trip leader allow it? Do they wait for guidance or bound forward and explore both the game and the possibilities for revision. Do they want to design things that the game engine doesn’t support, and are they letting that stop them or are they looking for other ways to manifest their ideas?

The curriculum and society. Does their experience build on and add to the culture of the camp? Is there, and what is the nature of, chatter about the ARG in camp, and between participants and non-participants? Do subsequent designs pull from and speak to experiences on other trips? Does the trip seem to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the camp philosophy, values, and consciousness?

The reality principle. Does the ARG experience have a lasting effect? Do the players write about it in their trip articles? Are there skits based on it? Do they refer to it afterwards on the camp blog? Do their parents mention it — favorably or not? Will there be designs planned and perfected over the course of the off-season for implementation the next summer? Will they come back sixty-five years later and gush about the time they had with it, as a 1939 camper did in 2005 regarding his original Mystery Trip experience?

In addition to looking beyond the specific design environment, Barab and Squire look to design-based research “to lay open and problematize the completed design and resultant implementation in a way that provides insight into the local dynamics” (2004: 8). Building renovation of the ARG into the experience as part of it, the critical eye of the player is turned on the process itself. By examining the reiterations of the game, and tracking how they evolve, we should be able to observe and trace which sorts of ideas work well, and which do not. This knowledge, while not absolute, may suggest more and less effective paths in the learning environment of ARGs.


I recognize that this paper is merely a preliminary examination of the topics of space and place and augmented reality games. As an introduction, it can only touch on general over-arching problems and ideas, with little option to flesh out the details — where the devils in research operate. While it lays out general arguments, and offers brief broad-spectrum examples, there is much more work that needs to be done.

What has been done

In the second half of this paper, we have begun to investigate the potential that ARGs may have as tools for learning — specifically focusing on place, design and ARGs’ joining of the two. I started by explaining my interest in, and the importance of, a need to connect ourselves more tightly to place, and a concern that the general discourses of education seem to be moving further from the idea that place is important.

Arguing that many of the tenets of learning of Dewey, Greene, Latour, Suchman, and Vygotsky. could be achieved through the process of playing and designing ARGs, I laid out the beginnings of evidence that this is already occurring. I briefly outlined the processes, as they had occurred, and are still occurring, in MadCity Murder, Greenbush History, Dow Day, and The Mystery Trip — four ARGs currently in development.

In the section of implementation, I argued that there is no universal method of implementation for ARGs, that each needs to fit the situations of the place it is developed for. I briefly looked at the implementation paths and strategies of three of the ARGs, specifically outlining my plans and hopes for the implementation of The Mystery Trip.

Recognizing that aspects of study and evaluation are crucial in any study, I turn to the experiences and methods of study and evaluation of other design-based researchers. Here, I again concentrate particularly on The Mystery Trip, considering and customizing methods that, based on an informed knowledge and understanding of the setting in which I am studying the particular ARG, I feel will fit most seamlessly and offer useful results.

I borrow from John Dewey, via Ann Brown (1992) four general topics with which to formulate evaluative questions to gauge learning, and for each of those areas, generate questions — no doubt to be refined — that may guide the specifics of my further inquiry in augmented reality games.

 What needs to be done

Rather than offer grand prescriptions for the field of educational research, let me specify particular tasks that at this stage of research I feel I need to be personally engaged in, and on tasks that, if I cannot accomplish myself, I need to ‘push the agenda’ on.

I need to build The Mystery Trip. Right now it exists only as a vision, and the partially fleshed out ideas of some campers, stored on a few pages of their journal and an hour of videotape. To do this I will draw on other members of the research groups at UW-Madison and MIT who are developing and working with the ARG hardware and software. I hope to finish a prototype in the Spring 2006 semester, and have a playable ARG for interested campers to experience during the summer.

The ARG software needs to be polished. The stability issues seem to be the major roadblocks in the creation and revision of the games being developed by Mingfong Jan and Jim Mathews. Rather than join in their frustration, I have been focusing on theoretical aspects of the game and of ARGs as a tool of place-based pedagogy. I have hoped, and continue to hope that by the time my attention shifts to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of designing and building a prototype, many of these issues will be addressed and solved. Realistically, they will not be, and I’ll have to learn to work around them — itself a wonderful lesson in design and life.

I would also like to encourage the programmers to create a simpler web-based version of the game editor that requires far less of a learning curve than the current editor. In order for learning tools to be more useful, they need to be more accessible. While we can train people to act as intermediate processors in turning the design intentions of the players into ARGs, that extra processing lessens the power of the learning experience for the player-turned-designer, and frankly, it’s a bother.

Beyond the practical components of building the ARGs, I need to write my dissertation proposal, where I expect to expand some of the issues briefly addressed here. I need to get the Human Subjects IRB re-approved to continue the project, and conduct the research this coming summer. At that point, I analyze and write up my findings. It’s all so simple, isn’t it?


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