Reality Ends Here: Educational Fun
ARGs (alternate reality games) are a transmedia genre that are typically run to promote a greater idea or event (e.g., Why So Serious) or for simple fun. What isn’t common is to see an ARG run for educational purposes. Reality Ends Here, originally created as Jeff Watson’s Ph.D dissertation project, was designed by Watson, Simon Wiscombe, and Tracy Fullerton, all associated with the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The game has been run for every freshman class since its creation in 2011. It combines aspects of alternate reality games with card game mechanics to give students a new, different, and exciting way to begin their time at USC. The game begins when the “Reality Committee” communicates with students during orientation and given a set of puzzles to solve. Once those are completed, players can find a secret office where they are sworn in with an oath and given a deck of cards to begin their game. Students must combine cards to generate creative prompts for media projects, known as Deals, and then create a project based around those prompts. Their projects are scored by the Reality Committee and given points to be tallied up online. Students get the opportunities to make new friends very quickly as alliances immediately begin to form, to explore themselves both creatively and academically, and to potentially meet with industry leaders and alumni.
The game brings an interesting concept to typical ARGs – putting it in an academic setting for the sake of being academic. Being a school for the cinematic arts, running this kind of ARG at USC makes perfect sense. It begins the students’ educational journey into film and media studies through participation in a game that encourages them to be creative and be team players. They are learning aspects about working in film and media before they even begin to take their classes at the university.
Henry Jenkins interviewed the co-conspirators of the game and posted it on his blog, showing that this game was important enough and big enough to constitute the attention of one of the top transmedia analysts. In the interview, Watson mentions that his goal in creating the game (and in his doctoral research) was to connect theory and practice. In this way, he must be successful – the cards present theories to the students, and they enact those theories through creative output via Deals. They’re bringing ideas to the students before they have to act on them in class, giving them a headstart on those of their peers who do not participate in the game.
It is especially interesting that the object of this game is to simply prepare students for their years ahead of them at the university, rather than to promote or advertise for some event or other on campus or around the city. Educational ARGs are not terribly common; ARGs run on college campuses are typically for fun or some promotional purpose. Reality Ends Here also isn’t completely an ARG; it has components of ARGs (the invitation to join, the online leadboard, the process of completing puzzles to achieve the next level of the game) but the inclusion of the card game and the educational-based purposes makes it somewhat unique. Watson comments in his interview with Jenkins that they “wanted [their] game to emphasize an active engagement with media-making,” meaning that they didn’t just want the students to be solving puzzles and playing games. They wanted this to be something more.
In almost every sense of the word, they succeeded. Reality Ends Here is an IndieCade 2012 Impact Award winner. IndieCade awards these to those games that have expressed the best artistic and technical ability. The Impact Award is given to the game that has a significant impact on the gaming scope, either by presenting a message or influence people or cultures in some way. Basically, this award is a big deal for small time games like this one, and sits as evidence that this game has done something new and influential.
Reality Ends Here takes the idea of an alternate reality game and shoots it to the next level. Its co-creators are innovators in their own right by creating and continuing this game every year. While one wouldn’t typically think of playing an ARG for any kind of educational purposes, this particular game covers the central idea behind the game with enough fluff of fun and puzzles and creative input that players barely realize that they’re learning something beyond the rules of the game. Almost every ARG creator hopes to have an important influence on the players or the world around the game; the creators of Reality Ends Here have achieved this influence and gone above and beyond to get their message across.