Not an ARG – college coursework as immersive marketing?

I’ve been thinking about this story in Inside Higher Ed all morning — at first because of the academic freedom ideas discussed explicitly, but then the more I thought about the project that the students in this class put together, the more I started focusing on that aspect of the tale —

To recap quickly, about a year ago Hunter College offered a course sponsored by an advocacy group focused on stopping low-cost ripoffs of designer products – the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition.

According to the complaints filed with the Faculty Senate, Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real.

There are real academic freedom issues – the course was apparently created outside of regular procedures of curricular review, and the professor involved (as well as others who reviewed the case) maintain that what was taught in the class was also defined by the sponsoring agency. On some level, the problems with this are so obvious I don’t know what more to say about them – but I do have some things I’m thinking about that have to do with the other part of the story – the what the students in this class actually DID part. Just be aware that this stuff I’m going to be saying about ARG’s is not the only thing that matters here.

(When I originally hit “publish” that said “is the only thing” — not what I meant. Probably obviously)

A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Bridgewater and I gave a presentation at Online Northwest called Lonelygirl and the Beast: Alternate Reality Games as Immersive Marketing, Art and Information. And the student project described here goes beyond the creation of a “fake web site.” It has a lot in common with an ARG. But at the end of the day, this is a bad attempt at immersive marketing, and not an ARG. The more I think about it the clearer it seems that the very issues with how this class was conceived and created mean that it could never have accomplished the real immersive alternate reality that an ARG can. At the same time, I think the ways in which this was much less than an ARG can illustrate why a different kind of ARG experience has really interesting potential for teaching and learning.

Alternate Reality Games lure players in with a whisper – they don’t say “hey! cool game here!” Instead, they put information designed to pique curiosity where potential players are likely to run across it – that the normal desire to know more, to find out what happened, to solve mysteries will push these players down the rabbit holes the game designers provide. At Hunter, students saw leaflets scattered around campus. Fictional student Heidi Cee was desperate for the return of her expensive handbag.

Heidi’s blog further builds up this alternate world. She talks about the handbag here, but also mentions her friends at other schools (though she doesn’t provide links to them), links to videos and silly things — she does what you’d expect a normal blogger to do.

Now, the thing is – as immersive marketing, or as an ARG, this really isn’t very good. The world-building isn’t very compelling. I won’t claim that I read the whole blog, but it doesn’t feel very real. She talks about her friends and events, but doesn’t link out to them. So the blog doesn’t reveal more parts of the alternate reality like it should. The blog doesn’t connect you to her Facebook and her Facebook doesn’t seem to be on the Hunter network? And really, this girl would even create a Blogger blog to complain about this? Of course not – she’d use her Facebook. And if she did create a blog, she’d only use it to complain about counterfeiting — she wouldn’t be talking about that other stuff.

Even more, Heidi herself is seriously annoying. I don’t really see people reading this and getting all worked up about her OMG trauma with counterfeiters. At the very least – the world’s puppy lovers are going to wash their hands of her after this:

Anyway, I’m still gonna continue posting up reward money for my bag. I dipped into my savings (sorry mom) for more reward money, because as I said before, this bag is invaluable to me. If I had a puppy, I would give him up for this bag. Really!

Now do you all understand the PAIN I’m going through? It’s making me CRRRRRAZZZYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!

And it’s not surprising that it doesn’t look like it worked very well. I couldn’t find many comments that looked like they came from anyone not in on the hoax.

So – why do I think that the way the class was conceived and executed meant it was doomed to fail? Because it just couldn’t do some of the things that a real ARG needs — even though a real ARG might be trying to get you to see a movie you don’t want to see or play a game you don’t want to play — as a player in an ARG you have some agency. Players and puppetmasters are partners creating the experience of the game. The narrative itself in an ARG is at least somewhat co-created.

In a nutshell – when you create an ARG, you don’t expect to control everything that happens in the alternate reality you’ve created or in the game. You can’t. In this situation, there were no players, just observers. They had no agency, no ability to co-create the narrative, no control over the narrative itself. Beyond leaving comments and friending on Facebook – was there even anything for the observers to do beyond consuming the message?

And the truly disturbing thing, if the descriptions of this class are accurate, is that even the students responsible for creating the game were expected to consume and repackage the narrative. The power of ARG’s as learning exercises in many ways is in how they create a space that encourages creative problem-solving. There’s no indication that the “problem” in this case was ever treated as something that the students were supposed to solve. Instead, it was an exercise in how do we trick people into hearing a message we had no control over constructing.

And honestly, I think this is one of the reasons Heidi’s so annoying. She doesn’t sound real, but like someone mouthing a party line. And one that’s not all that compelling.

A primary characteristic of the ARG is the idea that the players discover the narrative for themelves; it’s never presented to them as a cohesive whole. It’s spread over a variety of websites and media and the players must find, discover, interpret, synthesize and create something out of what’s there for them to find. That means a couple of things. One is that the narrative doesn’t exist in just one place – part of it will only exist in the memories and minds of the players who engaged with the experience. The other is that no puppet master will ever be able to fully control the narrative. And this is one of the things that makes ARG’s so interesting both as learning environments and also as marketing schemes.

The idea of a marketing scheme where the marketers can’t fully control the message goes against much of what we think of when we think of “marketing.” As learning experiences go – look at the list of what ARG’s ask the players to do above, and then look at the cognitive outcomes listed in Bloom’s Taxonomy — that’s some pretty higher order thinking those players can be doing, no? In this class, it sounds like they never intended to give up any control of the narrative — not to the students outside the class who encountered the story. But also not to the students in the class who were acting as puppetmasters. As a learning exercise, this fact alone cut this experiment off at the knees on both levels.

In an ARG, the partnership between players and puppetmasters is not exactly equal, but it’s not exactly unequal either. The players in an ARG are, in a sense, in on the game while they pretend that they’re not. They engage with the scenarios and situations of the game as if they were real, but they expect a certain amount of good faith from those behind the game. These ideas are sometimes referred to as the “this is not a game” or “this is not a hoax” aesthetics. The Hunter community wasn’t in on anything. To them, this was a hoax and it played out as such. Which is the final reason why I think this project failed as a game and as a learning exercise for the campus.

Just to reiterate, I’m not saying this class produced an ARG, or even that it was trying to. I’m saying that it was trying to tap into the same things that an ARG taps into. And I’m saying that it failed. And finally I’m saying that the reasons why it failed as an ARG are also some of the same reasons why it failed as a learning exercise at all.

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