Following the title of this blog in the discussion of edutainment (educational entertainment) versus education, we should look at an interesting phenomenon that has been around for quite a few years now. Alternate Reality Games (ARG) are akin to treasure hunts that can happen by leaving a series of connected clues in the physical or cyber space. According to article from Online Innovations Journal, the history of ARGs started with the promotional ARG for the Blair Witch Project movie launched in 1998, a year before the release of the movie itself.


To make it possible for as many people to follow modern ARGs they are quite often published exclusively or almost exclusively on the Internet. They are often asking questions of cryptic and cryptographic nature that require very high levels of expertise and persistence to solve. While some players choose to pursue these games on their own, often large communities are naturally created around solving these puzzles. These communities share knowledge, create and self-organize libraries of resources for learning techniques required to solve the puzzles. These communities are formed on public forums and people collaborate in them asynchronously and from all parts of the world.

While at the moment ARGs are primarily driven by marketing campaigns because solving a series of puzzles tied to a media property is strong promotional mode and also strong incentive for players, people are investigating applications of ARGs for education. For example Argology has a list of relevant resources.

Here, I will just briefly try to summarize the reasons why ARGs are effective at forming PLNs (besides the obvious gamificiation elements).

  • Widely accessible: while the prizes tend to be limited to the country from which they originate, the puzzles of most ARGs are usually accessible to anyone who speaks the language of the games. And even with limited grip on the language, ARGs are usually accessible since they do not require significant amount of expression.
  • Unknown, yet speculated upon prizes: many ARGs have implications that there is some reward at the end of ARG, but quite often there is no specific information about what that prize is. This provides additional motivation for players to participate.
  • Very high difficulty of puzzles: difficult puzzles in combination with mysterious prizes seem to be the most effective at creation of online communities for solving them.
  • Asynchronous participation: the games often implement milestones – events or dates when parts of the games become unlocked. This makes it possible to re-engage with the game even after taking a break from the game due to external reasons. The forum format of online community also makes it possible to catch-up after arbitrary amount of time.
Are ARGs PLNs?