Welcome to Talking Favourites dot com and the final show for January 2006. And also for our site of the month which is education arcade dot org.


In this last show for January, we wanted to look at something quite new to many people. We are going to look at Alternate Reality Gaming and a new offshoot which is Alternate Reality Learning.

In Education Arcade, Jane McConigal of University of California at Berkeley gives a very interesting presentation in the conference video archive. Her presentation talks about Alternate Reality Learning within a symposium looking at gaming in informal online settings.

This is a very interesting development within informal learning and also within the domain of collaborative online learning. These are social networks almost distinct from learning communities or perhaps a community on a bigger scale.


It could be described as the extreme form of Blended Learning. It combines every kind of media you can think of and it involves people as themselves rather than being a character and they do collaborate rather than compete. It also uses technologies accessed anywhere in the public domain such as regular payphones, newspapers as well as computers.


The trick is to come up with a question that is beyond being something that can be solved easily and that needs help from others. In one example we looked at we noticed that a game started at Collective Detectives. From there was a link to another site that was part of the game. Only when you clicked on that site a message came up saying that this site was only viewable by those living in the United States. So, you could see straight away that you’d need to get in touch with someone over there to access the site and possibly to report back on it. This is how the social network and inter-dependencies are created and developed.


What is interesting about this approach and the presentation about it is that we see a way of researching this kind of informal learning experience through an ethnographic approach. Jane McConigal lived inside the gaming community and watched the development on behalf of the game designers.


The audience and participants number in hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions all over the world. Out of participation came fame and notoriety for some of the participants who even appeared on TV. If we have TV talent shows where members of the public appear singing some song or other in an attempt to become famous and we have newspapers reporting on them and creating new celebreties then you can see the same thing happening through online games.


What has this to do with learning? Well maybe we are learning new skills and epistemologies within the online environment and creating new arenas for new audiences. I don’t know. Some time ago I created a voluntary project for an online community to bring projects of personal interest to the community and to obtain support for those projects from the distributed membership. At the end of the project we created a site to report on the development work we’d done together as a bunch of volunteers interested in learning about each other and the work and interests of each other. Maybe we could re-construct a view of that as Alternate Reality Gaming or Learning. We had a project in India for example that involved someone working with very remote villages and trying to support them. The coordinator worked online with us to gather knowledge and resources in order to help this community. This was quite a simple exercise once we had a structure and some coordination but it did involve people scattered online all over the world working to help some others entirely offline. There was a person in India who proposed the project and coordinated it on behalf of the people in the remote village and that person acted as a bridge between the online community and the offline community.

Jane McConigal in her presentation says that design should involve a requirement to gather information from distributed locations or a need for a lot of people to do something specific. It can also involve story telling around a mystery according to Infocult – an online blog site. Infocult report that people involved in these games are collaboratively researching and reporting issues and findings in an effort to solve the mystery that has sprung up. The informal learning project in India also creates a story and it is a story that people could continue if they were interested. They could carry on searching for resources and even creating new projects. This again is very much in line with characteristics of alternate reality gaming and learning as described by Jane McConigal.


I am really stretching a point in re-conceptualising informal learning projects within online learning communities as alternate reality learning or gaming. It may however be a starting point for getting some sort of handle on this new phenomenon and some of the characteristics. It may be the beginnings of understanding and starting a dialogue around design of these kinds of open ended activities for those that don’t have the skills or knowledge to construct 3 dimensional virtual reality models. In many respects this is a whole new game we need to learn about.


In some respects this was present in the example of the online community helping the offline villagers in India. It needed a lot of widely distributed people to construct the resource collection. We gathered information from all over the Internet. We also did something at broadly the same time. That meant searching and finding and sharing resources for evaluation.


There is also this idea of different audiences here. The gamers mentioned earlier not only participated in TV shows as an external audience to the game or a new audience to the game. They also participated with internal audiences. The example of a community supporting an informal learning project in India also created a number of audiences. There was the villagers as one audience. There was the whole online community as another audience. The project participants who were all volunteers were also an audience and finally the whole internet can access and possibly learn about the projects by viewing the web site that reported on all the different informal learning projects within the online community.


It is easy to see that not only are these communities reporting on the game as part of playing but as with formal online collaborative learning there is extensive negotiation going on around issues, concerns and solutions. Participants also take on roles as they work on particular areas of the game causing them to become online reporters of on and offline game activities. In this way a new world of work and play is created simultaneously. As is a new world of learning too.