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English department explores alternative reality gaming

By Alec Jennings
University News Service
October 14, 2008


With the help of a grant for instructional technology, English 1320 students at Texas State University-San Marcos will soon be learning writing and research skills through alternative reality gaming.

The idea behind this relatively new teaching method is that students will use skills they learn in class to advance through the game.

"In the case of English 1320, students are supposed to learn to read texts critically, search for and use information, and write about it," said Kendall Kelly in the Department of English. "So I'm going to set the game up so they'll have to read texts critically, search and use information, and then write about what and how they found the information to their peers so that they can work the game together."

The way it will work is that a fictional character will be created and placed in a scenario in which they have to solve a problem or complete a puzzle, for example, finding a lost item. Clues will be in bound journals at the Alkek Library, in weblogs or articles and they will coincide with the fictional character's diary or blog. Students will collaborate and work together to solve the character's situation and write about the progress.

Kelly said ideally, the game should be too complicated for students to manage it effectively by themselves, which is intended to encourage working together to improve writing and communication skills. Further, if it proves to be successful, they hope to be able to implement it as a part of other fields of study at the university.

"You could easily set the game up so that geography students have to use GPS coordinates and ARC View software to share the information.  A math alternative reality might focus on one of the great, unsolvable math problems and work through various strategies to solve it," Kelly said.  "Basically the key component of any alternative reality game is a mystery constructed by the game and players must solve elements puzzles of various kinds to solve the game.  Those puzzles can be history puzzles or literature puzzles or biology puzzles or whatever."

Though projects of this type are relatively new, being used in their early stages at other colleges and universities around the country, its goal is to work with younger generations, or "Millennials," due to their experiences growing up with all forms of gaming technology either simply for fun, or through instructional games such as Leap Frog. Beyond gaming, younger generations have also experienced learning through multiple forms of media which alternative reality gaming also takes advantage of.

"If it works, I'm hoping we'll roll out a new game every year and that other departments might use it too, but we'll have to see how it goes," Kelly said.

The first English 1320 students are expected to begin participating in the spring semester of 2009.