ARGs in academia, or, gaming for health

via ARGnet – researchers at Indiana got a big ($185K) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation to study how digital, interactive games can improve students’ health.  They’re studying this by creating a Lee Sheldon-designed alternate reality game called Skeleton Chase, “to help college freshmen develop healthy habits for life.”

While the game will contain the same kinds of mysterious, creepy elements found in lots of ARGs, there’s not much secrecy about the game’s existence.  Given the legal and ethical restrictions involved when a college does research on, or provides services to, its own students it’s not too surprising that TINAG would be one of the first things to go.

In any event, new Hoosiers will find announcements about the grant and game (and associated research) on the webpage describing faculty research projects, on the Department of Telecommunications webpage, and in the local media.

It also looks like the traditional “rabbit hole” mechanism for allowing players to come across and ARG won’t be in play here.  The designers are, obviously, not disclosing a lot of plot points, but in an early press release about the grant they explained some of the game’s structure:

Sheldon is designing The Skeleton Chase, which for eight weeks will pit 30 teams of three students each against each other as they solve an “undisclosed” mystery and learn about nutrition, stress management, physical activity and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle along the way…

…Students participating in the study live in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center, one of seven specially themed environments in IU Bloomington residence halls. Johnston said Residential Programs and Services is supporting a pilot project designed to examine the impact of participation in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center on health and well-being within the college student population.

One of the things that is interesting about this to me is that research and assessment about the learning impact of this game is built into the project.  The researchers in this case, like principal investigator Jeanne Johnston, are focusing on whether participants’ health and wellness related habits change by looking at physical activity, health and wellness outcomes at the start and the finish of the school year in question.

They also plan to look a little more deeply at the gaming experience and what people like about it.  Researcher Anne Massey (Lilly Faculty Fellow for Information Systems) developed a “a psychological attractiveness metric and procedure to assess not only the strengths and weaknesses of design elements embedded in The Skeleton Chase, but assess other games as well.”

I hope this research also parses out some of the experiential aspects of this kind of “alternate learning environment” – something a little different, or at least not pretending to be, an alternate reality.

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