Its 8:20 in the morning and I am sprinting down a small footpath behind the library. I didn’t leave campus until 9 last night and in less than 12 hours I am back again. I’m exhausted. I check my watch, my heart pounding in my chest. Good, I think, no one should be around yet. I bolt up the stairs of the lecture centre and slap a piece of A4 on the door. Somewhere nearby a hoover starts. No! The cleaners. What if they tidy away my clue? No time to think of that now, I gotta get back and hang up the posters which will serve as the trailhead. “The lecture has been cancelled. The lecturer is sick”. The message repeats across a sheet of A3 and the bolded letters form the first clue: check Blackboard. I stick blue tack in the corners and my heart is in my throat. What if they don’t realise it is a puzzle? What if they all leave?
As I slink to my office I re-evaluate my teaching choices for the term. Was running an ARG really the best way to teach students about puzzles and cryptography?
If you for some reason happened to check my blog on the morning of the 5th February, you may have noticed a post entitled ‘the riddle’. This was the final clue in the alternate reality game I ran to teach students what alternate reality games are. Now I fully admit that the narrative of the game was very weak. There was no government takeover, no conspiracy theory, no scientist-gone-missing, just a cancelled (?) lecture. If it would make you feel better to call it a scavenger hunt, then by all means do so. I’m not fussed.
The learning outcomes for this class were relatively straight forward: Learn about cryptography and puzzle making in a 3 hours. Really, that’s all I wanted to achieve. But rather than give the students some readings and a lecture, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn by doing. Solve some puzzles, run around campus on a Friday morning, and have a debriefing lecture with some puzzle-creation activities. So that they could see how I made the ‘ARG’, I made a (condensed) design document and an annotated timeline of events which I distributed in class. I’ve attached jpg scans of each below if you’re curious.
Creating and running an ARG, as small and flimsy as it was, was actually incredibly effective at teaching students the key aspects- and pitfalls- of designing an ARG. Not only did students successfully work together to solve the puzzles, but they did so very quickly. Much quicker than expected. This was a useful teaching moment as it allowed me to point out the difficulties in determining difficulty level for diverse groups of players. In a large ARG, like NIN’s Year Zero, puppetmasters can default to difficult in the knowledge that the global appeal of the band will result in large enough numbers of players to crack even the most obscure puzzles. For a 40-student, first year undergraduate class? That’s a relatively niche population who may or may not have had experience working with cryptographic puzzles before.
There was even a possibility that the students might’ve read the ‘lecture is cancelled’ sign on the door and gone home! I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have been tempted to do similar when I was doing my undergraduate degree. The session is at 9am on a Friday morning… I was prepared for that eventuality. If the students had gone home, then that could’ve been a teachable moment as well. Actually, that would’ve been a compliment to my design skills as the tone of ARGs is meant to be: This is not a game. Combined with the serious aesthetic form of ARGs, there is also meant to be a high barrier to entry. Trailheads are meant to be barely perceptible as anything out of the ordinary. The best trailheads blend in with everyday life and everyday objects. Now I don’t mean to downplay how incredibly clever my students are, which they are, but I think that I made the game-ness of the first clue too obvious in retrospect.
After the students solved the final riddle and found the lecture, I held a de-briefing wherein I explained the ‘game’. I then also defined and explained what ARGs are, This is Not a Game was very useful here, and gave examples of some of the most famous- e.g. I Love Bees. After, I ran a workshop in which I handed out examples of cryptograms and asked students work out the logic of a particular method of encrypting and then, by means of reverse engineering, make their own. The National Puzzler’s League website and Puzzlecraft book were incredibly useful resources and a big thank you goes out to colleagues who pointed me to them.
As a workshop activity, this was met with mixed results. Some cryptograms are incredibly difficult and an hour to solve one, let alone figure out the logic to creating one, is simply not enough time. I think moving forwards, I will limit the types of cryptograms I challenge the students with. Anaquotes, riddles, printer’s devilry, and knight’s tour cryptograms seemed to be the most accessible in the given time frame. As an activity in general, I think it worked really well. Meta-skills like working together to solve a puzzle, using research skills to find auxiliary online sources, self-teaching and peer-teaching were true strengths of the workshop. It ended with students presenting the puzzles they had created to the class and the class (including me!) trying to solve them.
We rounded out the session with a discussion about how what they learned can be applied to other types of games. Since ARGs are niche- super awesome, but niche- it was important for me to highlight the larger applicability of puzzles to other genres. Platformers and RPGs were brought up as being the most amenable to puzzle mechanics, but I’m sure if there had been more time we could’ve discussed a dozen more.
Overall, I would certainly love to run this class again with a few minor changes. It was exciting and fun to shake up the normal lecture structure, and most importantly, I think the students got a lot out of the lesson. It was great seeing the group work and collective thinking going on during the workshop. Questions or comments? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!