Multimodal Mondays: Using Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) to Teach Multimodal Literacies

1 0 797

This blog was originally posted on April 6th, 2015.

Today’s guest blogger is Eric Detweiler, a PhD candidate specializing in rhetoric at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as an assistant director in UT’s Digital Writing and Research Lab. His interests lie at the intersections of rhetorical theory and writing pedagogy, and his dissertation puts those two in conversation with the rhetorical ethics of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He also produces a podcast called Rhetoricity and is a student and practitioner of odd puns. More details about his work are available at

From 2011-12, I helped plan and implement Battle Lines, an alternate reality game (ARG) designed to teach multimodal literacies in an undergraduate rhetoric and writing course at The University of Texas at Austin. In most cases, ARGs require players to work collaboratively in order to solve clues and puzzles, shifting back and forth between digital and physical environments as they do so—in our case, students moved from hidden wikis to campus landmarks, from scrambled video files to the Texas Capitol. For example, using a computer program to discover a muted track in an audio file led students to a poster in an on-campus music venue. That poster, which promoted a fictitious Janis Joplin concert, included QR codes that took students to the sinister-looking website of a secret society called the Friends of Texas. And so on and so forth.

The design, implementation, and results of that game are described and demonstrated in an article that theBattle Lines team—a group of graduate students working in The University of Texas at Austin’s Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL)—composed for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. That piece,“Crossing Battle Lines: Teaching Multimodal Literacies through Alternate Reality Games,” is also available in the Parlor Press anthology The Best of the Independent Rhetoric & Composition Journals 2013.

Since the article itself provides explanations and examples of the game’s various challenges, I won’t rehash them here. Instead, I want to suggest something a bit more ambitious: having students design their own ARG level. Let me clarify that I’m not suggesting students design and implement an entire ARG. From idea to article, Battle Lines took over three years and hundreds of hours of work (the article alone had nine coauthors). But designing an individual clue, perhaps within the framework of a preexisting game, provides students with opportunities to think about procedural rhetoric, audience, the relationship between physical and virtual environments, and a variety of other rhetorical variables.

Sample student work from Battle Lines

While such an assignment might be especially relevant for courses focused on games and/as rhetoric (cf. Dr. Justin Hodgson’s Rhetoric, Play, & Games or Battle Lines project leader Chris Ortiz y Prentice’s Rhetoric of Video Games), it could also be a relevant part of first-year writing courses that incorporate multimodal assignments (cf. this lesson plan that the DWRL’s Lily Zhu developed for an introductory rhetoric and writing course).

To provide students a situated, collaborative opportunity to explore the rhetorical possibilities and constraints of multimodal composition.

Advance Preparation
This assignment particularly depends in a thoughtful consideration of audience (and predicting audience challenges and habits). Ask students to plan by reading relevant content from your handbook:

Have students familiarize themselves with an extant ARG: in addition to Battle Lines, the ARG that preceded the release of the film The Dark Knightas well as the one that occurred between the second and third seasons of the TV show Lost could provide useful and particularly robust templates. Guide students’ attention to procedural questions about the game:

  • What technological or other resources does this game require or presume on the part of players?
  • How or to what extent does the game lead players from one step to the next? How much room does it leave for error, confusion, or misinterpretation—whether intentionally or unintentionally?
  • In what ways does the game require collaboration, and/or to what extent could players proceed individually?
  • How does the game try to keep players invested and invested? In other words, how does it try (successfully or un-) to persuade and affect its players?

The following could unfold either over the course of a class period or as an assignment between course meetings.

  1. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4 (given the collaborative ethos of ARGs, as well as the challenges of designing them, a multitude of voices can be both appropriate and useful).
  2. Assign or have students pick a particular point in one of the ARGs with which they’ve familiarized themselves.
  3. After reminding students of the questions listed above, give them the remaining class time to design a clue for insertion at that point in the game. This could be a side quest that departs from the game’s primary trajectory, or it could be an extra step added between two of the game’s extant challenges. Students don’t necessarily have to execute their clue (given the complexity and temporality of ARGs, this could be a time-consuming if not impossible task)—just explain it. This could be as simple as a step-by-step written description, or include storyboarding and other multimedia and/or digital components.
  4. At the start of the next class meeting, have each group offer a five-minute presentation on their clue. (If time doesn’t allow, they could also read each other’s outside of class or present their clues on the same day they design them.) You might prompt them to address the questions from the Advance Preparation section above.

After all groups have presented, give students time in their small groups to revisit their clue. How does it differ from the other groups’? What particular strengths or weaknesses are they noticing now that some time has passed? (Again, this could take place inside or outside of the classroom, written or orally.) What limitations or affordances—technological, temporal, etc.—influenced their process and product?

If this is as far as you want students to go with the ARG assignment, have them explore connections between their ARG clue and the other modes and media in which they’ll be composing. For instance, in what ways might the degrees of freedom or constraint that their clue allowed players inform the relative flexibility they’re willing to grant the audiences of other texts they compose—even the level of explication or ambiguity they might allow in an essay or research paper?

In a games-oriented course, the assignment could be taken further: students could actually make their clues playable, or—if you’re willing to make it a major collaborative project—students could design and/or implement an ARG for their classmates, the student body, or other communities of which they’re a part. There are a host of pedagogical and ethical considerations that come with such an assignment—accessibility issues, the extent to which players and non-players might misread game elements as real dangers—which, depending on specific course goals and the scope of the assignment, could be worth addressing in advance.

For more on the pedagogical, academic, and rhetorical possibilities at play in ARGs, see the work of Jane McGonigal or Frostburg State University’s Jill Morris, this blog post by Henry Jenkins and Jeff Watson, or Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.