In an alternate reality game, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday life of the player...In a strange but very real way, the ARG creator is trying, not to create an alternate reality, but to change the player's existing world into an alternate reality.
-Dave Szulborski (2005)
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Recently, scholars such as James Paul Gee (2007), Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe & Derek Van Ittersum (2007), and Jerome Bump (2007) have explored the ways in which the rich digital environments found in computer games present "alternate realities" in the form of rhetorical sites that challenge Johan Huizinga’s (1955) idea of the “magic circle” of play—a protected space (like the composition classroom) separate from, but contingent on, the concerns of the real world. Virtual realities, such as Linden Labs' Second Life and other massively multiplayer online environments where the player is immersed within the game/narrative, have been investigated as effective spaces for teaching composition and rhetoric (Bump, 2007). While promising, such environments present a myriad of technical limitations that raise serious questions about the so called "digital divide." Second Life, for example, requires that students have access to the latest in graphics and networking hardware as well as massive amounts of bandwidth simply to access the game world. Online multiplayer environments such as text-based Multiple User Domains (MUDs) are less hardware and software-intensive; however, like Second Life, they present the additional concern of translating skills learned in the virtual world into practice in the real world, a concern that’s been central to effective education.
Alternate reality games (ARGs) present a useful pedagogical alternative (or adjunct) to virtual reality games and massively multiplayer environments that retains the imminently social quality of the communities these spaces engender. Put simply, ARGs are multiplatform, playable, transmedia narratives that attempt to make the game part of the player’s real world. This is accomplished by using the discourse technologies students already engage with daily—email, cellular phones, weblogs, news media, television, instant messaging, and online social networks—the same technologies that students must be literate in to be critically aware writers and citizens. ARGs invite the player to traverse the border between fiction and reality, releasing the narrative from the confines of the magic circle by expanding that circle to encompass the whole of reality, the “real” space where students must mobilize their skills as writers and rhetoricians to effectively engage with civil society.
ARGs offer an opportunity to foster multiple literacies alongside a critical awareness of the increasingly porous boundary between audience and author afforded by a modern "second generation" World Wide Web (Web 2.0) that is structured by collaborative, user-generated content across multiple sites such as blogs, forums, and other social media. By addressing approaches to these games from the perspectives of both production and play (categories which mirror and complicate traditionally separate ideas of author and audience) this piece will discuss assignments that capitalize on the ludic qualities of ARGs, which allow students to respond and contribute to a variety of rhetorical situations by writing and reading texts in numerous everyday genres and forms. Drawing on my own experiences teaching with ARGs, as well as on sources within game, literacy, and composition studies, this web text will present a primer on ARGs—what they are, how they work, and how they can be useful tools for composition instruction—alongside suggestions for integrating them into composition instruction.