Edlf 704 Seminar Paper Peeling back the onion skin

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J. M. B. Craig

November 30, 2006

EDLF 704 Seminar Paper
Peeling back the onion skin:

The educative potential of layered reality games

Game playing is an activity that is compelling, fun, and great way to spend free time – but does it facilitate learning? According to Roschelle et al. (2000), “cognitive research has shown that learning is most effective when four fundamental characteristics are present: active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connections to real world contexts” (p. 80). These four fundamental characteristics are also present in the game play of Mystery at the Museum (2003), Frequency 1550 (2005), and The Beast (2001). These games are representative of a new set of experiences I collectively refer to as “layered reality” gaming. This collection consists of roughly three different categories of games – Augmented Reality Games, Hybrid Reality Games, and Alternate Reality Games. There is great potential for children to learn through gaming of this nature.

In this paper I will show that layered reality games not only embody the characteristics identified by Roschelle et al. (2000) for promoting effective learning but also facilitate collaboration and situate meaning making. First I will present a brief discussion on the selection of these particular games. Next I will give a short history and description of each of the three categories that comprises layered reality gaming. I will then address how layered reality games can be used to promote and foster higher order thinking skills. Finally, I will conclude with some ideas for future research.

Layered Reality Games Defined

The three categories of games that I’ve selected (see Table 1) as layered reality are by no means an exhaustive list of possibilities. Rather they are representative of the enormous variety of exciting new ideas percolating in the game design sphere.

Table 1: Features of Different Layered Reality Games

Augmented Reality Games

Hybrid Reality Games

Alternate Reality Games


Mystery @ The Museum (2003)

Frequency 1550 (2005)

The Beast (2001)

Location Aware?



Not specifically

Game Space

Museums, College Campuses, Nature Areas

Pre-defined physical and virtual

Every day places





Mobile Technologies

PDAs, Pocket PCs, cell phones?

GPS, PDAs, Pocket PCs, cell phone, walkie talkies

cell phones

Everyday Technologies

File exchanging and data sharing are everyday but overall interface is an extraordinary use of everyday tech

For virtual players, everyday computer use. For physical players, extraordinary uses of everyday tech.

Everyday digital

technologies as virtual reality devices.


Depends on game specifics, often required



These particular three were also chosen as they embody Roschelle et. al’s (2000) characteristics for effective learning. Table 2 presents brief examples of the significant learning characteristics across each game category. Again it would be nearly impossible to capture the multitude of ways these ideas play out within layered reality gaming, so I merely note a representative idea from each category of game.

Table 2: Effective Learning Characteristics of Layered Reality Games

Augmented Reality Games

Hybrid Reality Games

Alternate Reality Games

Active Engagement

Because players can test a number of solutions and evaluate their relative merits, they are actively engaged in complex problem solving.

Peer-to-peer interaction in sharing privileged space specific information fosters engagement.

The “always on” pervasive nature of AltRGs suggests that players must remain actively engaged.

Participation in Groups

Aspects of game play can only be realized by the unique role each member of a team plays – the detective checks for prints while the biologist analyzes DNA. (Klopfer et. al, 2005)

As the game board is neither wholly physical nor virtual, participation in groups is required to play the game.

The scale and scope of the puzzles in an AltRGs require group participation. no one individual can play or solve the game on their own.

Frequent Interaction and Feedback

Interactive mobile devices used in AugRGs provide constant interaction and feedback. Also from other players in your team.

Real-time interaction and feedback between physical and virtual players allows them to jointly play in the hybrid space.

AltRGs include responsive designs that can be modified “on the fly” based upon player feedback and performance. (Sebastian & Kinzie, 2006)

Connection to Real World Contexts

AugRGs are virtual experiences playing out in real-world spaces. This cultivates a strong contextual connection.

HRGs are strongly location based (often a cityscape), and as such foster the connection to real-world spaces.

AltRGs game board is (superimposed on) the real world, and game play occurs through use of everyday technologies.

Augmented Reality Games

The term “augmented reality” conjures up images straight out of futuristic cyber punk novels. In actuality, Augmented Reality Games employ the addition of a digital, location-based, and context-sensitive dimension to a concrete, physical space. Also known as enhanced reality, this term is used to refer to virtual experiences being played out in real-world spaces. While there is some variety in game approach, this genre is typified by detective games. Contextualized clues can only be discovered via the digital interface when a player and her mobile device have arrived at the correct physical location. Virtual fingerprints, for example, can be lifted from a concrete item like a museum display case. Players also gather clues, typically, by interacting with virtual game character by way of their mobile devices. These types of games can be played individually, though usually play occurs in pairs or small groups. The game board consists of the physical space related to the task at hand.

This is a new type of game, only recently made feasible by the tremendous advances in mobile consumer technologies. Many of the games in this genre target high school and college students studying environmental science: Environmental Detectives (2003), Charles River City (2004), and Mad City Murder (2005). Savannah (2004) addresses ethology and ecology. Mystery at the Museum (2003) presents players with the challenge of discovering which priceless object has been stolen from Boston’s Museum of Science. While much of the content is science-related, this particular game was designed for informal, multi-generational learning (Klopfer et. al, 2005).

Learning through Augmented Reality Games

There are several affordances of Augmented Reality Games for learning– portability, social interactivity, context sensitivity, connectivity and individuality (Klopfer & Squire, in submission). The primary interface to an AugRG is generally a handheld computer. Handhelds offer portability and therefore players can move freely within a particular physical location or in between locations, such as moving around between exhibits in the Boston Museum of Science. AugRGs also promote social interactivity as players can exchange data or beam clues on their handheld devices and collaborate in situ with other players. This affordance helps promote Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, which holds that children can achieve a higher level of cognitive development when engaged in social behavior.

Because AugRGs use either GPS or WiFi for location awareness and take place in real time, context sensitivity is a third affordance. This allows players to gather data that is time or place specific, resonating with Lave and Wegner’s (1990) theory of situated learning. Handheld computers can be used independently, or in conjunction with other data collection devices such as digital temperature probes. Handhelds can also be networked together to create a shared environment harnessing the affordance of connectivity. Finally, individuality can afford game interactions that are differentially scaffold to guide a particular person’s path of investigation.

Hybrid Reality Games

A hybrid reality game is defined as a game that occurs, simultaneously, in both physical and digital spaces. Players adopt one of two general roles in this type of game - either running through the physical streets of a city or sitting at a computer playing online. While the game board in an AltRG runs in parallel to the real world, the game board in an HRG bridges the space between the physical and digital worlds. Such a game cannot occur without the real time interaction between physical and digital players. Collaboration is not only desired but also necessary to win this genre of game as each type of player is given space specific information.

Much like AugRGs, HRGs are a recent game development. Despite the giant advances in consumer technologies, however, HRGs still require massive amounts of infrastructure and only truly work in urban areas, where there is ample cell phone connectivity and GPS coverage. The earliest example of an HRG is Blast Theory/Mixed Reality Lab’s Can You See Me Now (2001-2006), a variation on the game of tag that pits digital players against physical ones on the streets of assorted cities. This same collective also produced Uncle Roy All Around You (2003) and I Like Frank (2004). Both of the latter games required cooperation between the digital/physical pair of players. Finally, game play of Waag Society’s Frequency 1550 (2005) centers around the history of medieval Amsterdam. It was the first HRG developed with an explicit educational purpose in mind (de Souza e Silva and Delacruz, 2006).

Learning through Hybrid Reality Games

The primary affordances of Hybrid Reality Games include mobility and location awareness, collaboration/sociability, and the configuration of the game space (de Souza e Silva and Delacruz, 2006). Mobility, like portability addressed in AugRGs, affords the player free reign of their physical domain. Location awareness facilitates situated learning (Lave and Wegner, 1990) by bringing the learning activity back to its original physical context. In Frequency 1550 (2005), for example, players explored the history of medieval Amsterdam by walking through churches, reading plaques and comparing styles of architecture.

The other two affordances are discrete aspects of HRG design, but they work in conjunction with each other from a learning theory perspective. A virtual player, for example, may find a clue in the 3D representation of medieval Amsterdam that causes her to communicate with her physical counterpart on the street. The physical player receives the clue, locates a particular bridge, and communicates back to the virtual player the space specific information she has just discovered. Players in the two game spaces negotiate meaning through the social context of game play (collaboration/sociability). They do this through the co-construction of knowledge (Brown & Campione,1994 as cited in de Souza e Silva and Delacruz, 2006) as each type of player is privileged with space specific information (bridging physical and digital game space).

Alternate Reality Games

One of the unique characteristic of game play in an Alternate Reality Game is that the game world is ubiquitously superimposed on the real world. Clues are dispersed by means of real world media channels – the Internet, movie posters, billboards, the newspaper, telephones, emails, faxes, and even rallies. The goals, rules, and rewards of play are likely unapparent to the players in the beginning; In fact the very nature of the game itself may be called into question. The mantra of this genre is “this is not a game.” Yet this explicit denial reinforces the very fact that the experience is a game, further fostering the collective expansion of belief - and subsequent suspension of disbelief - in the parallel world of the game. The Beast (2001), also known as “The A.I. Game, ” is widely acknowledged to have been the first AltRG (Hon, 2005). Other examples include Perplex City (2005) and I Love Bees (2005).

An AltRG may be more accurately described as an interactive narrative that unfolds in distributed fragments as players solve enormously complex puzzles. The puzzles are so complex that collaboration is required in order to solve many of them. Puzzles vary greatly depending on the particular AltRG, but include elements like steganographic messages (text hidden in such a way that no one apart from the intended recipient knows of the existence of the message), cipher text, anagrams, and binary codes. The eventual solution to these intricate puzzles yields the reward of yet another snippet of story.

Learning through Alternate Reality Games

Sebastian and Kinzie (2006) identify several affordances of Alternate Reality Games that are well suited to learning – challenging levels of game play that necessitate collaboration, engaging and immersive storytelling, and responsive designs that can be modified “on the fly” based on player feedback and progress. Collaboration in AltRGs serves, much like in the other types of layered reality games, as a conduit for players to jointly construct meaning and understanding.

Engaging and immersive storytelling is an affordance of AltRGs that is not particularly present in the other types of layered reality games. Reiber, Smith, and Noah (1998) assert that all learning comes through stories, as all understanding is best conceived as narrative. Adopting this theoretical stance casts AltRGs as an especially compelling learning environment. In addition, the responsive design of AltRGs speak to Bruner’s (1966) idea that “the will to learn becomes a ‘problem’ only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where curriculum is set, students confined and a path fixed” (p. 127). Both of these facets contribute to an environment that capitalizes on player’s intrinsic motivation to learn.

Complex Problem Solving and Higher Order Thinking Skills

In today’s educational climate of accountability, falling standardized test scores as compared with China and Japan (Stevenson and Stigler, 1992) and concern over American competitiveness in the global market, many policy makers advocate for a curricular push to strengthen students’ engagements with information and communication technologies. In particular there has been a shift towards the development of complex problem solving and higher order thinking skills.

Education in the 21st century will need to go beyond the notion of technology competency… students need to know how to use technology adaptively to solve problems and accomplish complex tasks. ICT literacy —which acknowledges the need for students to develop learning skills that enable them to think critically, analyze information, comprehend new ideas, communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and make decisions—recognizes that technology is essential to realizing these learning skills in today’s knowledge economy (Kay and Honey, 2005, pp. 3-4).
Layered reality games contain implicit technological components. According to de Souza e Silva and Delacruz (2006) , “to function successfully in society, higher order skills such as collaboration and problem solving are emphasized in today’s classrooms. The very nature of HRGs fosters these skills by making them a crucial part of the task” (p. 246). By situating learning in this game culture that relies on technology for problem solving and collaboration, teachers can address this call for “21st century skills” in a potentially meaningful way.


Layered reality game play embodies effective characteristics for learning. While a few affordances are unique to a particular category of game, all three types have characteristics that promote collaboration and situated, socio-cultural learning. As such, there is definite educative potential for layered reality games. While most scholars agree that children learn something from playing games, there has been very little research to date on how they learn through game play, what exactly it is they are learning, and if the situated knowledge will transfer to the world outside the game.

One particular idea for further research suggests the conceptualization of layered reality games as a cultural environment. As these games, most notably AltRGs, are situated in the real world, perhaps the games themselves could help promote transfer? A game could mediate the tension of the culture of school learning as an artificially constructed set of tasks and the culture of problem solving as a real world set of tasks. Paradoxically then, the fantasy world of the game might bridge the gap between school-based artificial learning and real world authentic learning.


Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Can You See Me Now? [Computer software]. (2001-2006). United Kingdom: Blast Theory & The Mixed Reality Lab. Retrieved November 29, 2006, from http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_cysmn.html
Charles River City [Computer software]. (2004). Cambridge, MA: MIT Teacher Education Program & The Education Arcade. Retrieved November 25, 2006, from http://education.mit.edu/ar/crc.html
de Souza e Silva, A. & Delacruz, G. (2006). Hybrid reality games reframed. Games and Culture, 1(3), 231-251.
Frequency 1550 [Computer software]. (2005). Netherlands:Waag Society. Retrieved November 26, 2006, from http://freq1550.waag.org
Hon, A. (2005). Through the Rabbithole: ARG Lecture. Retrieved November 23, 2006 from http://mssv.net/2005/11/21/through-the-rabbithole-arg-lecture/
I Like Frank [Computer software]. (2004). United Kingdom: Blast Theory & The Mixed Reality Lab. Retrieved November 26, 2006, from http://www.ilikefrank.com
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Klopfer, E., & Squire, K. (in submission).  Case Study Analysis of Augmented Reality Simulations on Handheld Computers. Retrieved November 30, 2006 from http://www.media.mit.edu/~mikhak/courses/tsr/readings/klopfer-05-2.pdf
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Perplex City [Computer Software]. (2005). London, UK: Mind Candy. Retrieved November 25, 2006, from http://www.perplexcity.com/
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Savannah [Computer software]. (2004). Bristol, UK: Futurelab. Retrieved November 25, 2006, from http://www.futurelab.org.uk/showcase/savannah/index.htm
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Uncle Roy All Around You [Computer software]. (2003). United Kingdom: Blast Theory & The Mixed Reality Lab. Retrieved November 29, 2006, from http://www.uncleroyallaroundyou.co.uk
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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