Educational Alternate Reality Game Design Framework

An educational alternate reality game (ARG) is a social learning experience consisting of a series of scenarios that lead students to collaboratively solve puzzles and accomplish activities. As players complete each task, the game presents new scenarios and eventually takes players through an entire storyline.

In an ARG, players do not play a fictitious character as they do in most videogames. Instead, players play as themselves in the storyline of a game. For example, in the World Without Oil ARG, players were put into a storyline where they had to react (as themselves) to a world in which oil began to become scarce. Players participated by creating videos, blogs, and other media showing how they were reacting to each new piece of news about the oil shortage.

Educational ARGs present a fun way to learn about practically any subject matter. In addition, the games help students develop valuable 21st century learning skills, including collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking. Another great benefit of ARGs is that they are relatively inexpensive to develop compared to educational computer or video games.

ARGs have their roots in marketing for movies and television shows. There also have been various ARGs created to market consumer products and services. Now, educators are finding that ARGs can also be successful educational activities and games that they can design themselves even if they do not have strong technical skills.

The following framework is a general guide to designing an educational ARG. The design of an educational ARG differs from that of a traditional (entertainment) ARG because of the focus on learning goals rather than entertainment or marketing.

Learning Goals

  • Academic content (Common Core State Standards,  state or national standards)
  • Career Technical Education skills
  • 21st century skills
  • Social-emotional skills
  • Character skills


  • Create a general story concept that can incorporate various puzzles and activities related to learning goals
  • Storyline can be dynamic, static, or both depending on various factors
  • Dynamic storyline
    • Storyline adapts to players’ actions (emergent storyline)
    • More like traditional entertainment ARGs
    • Exciting for players to have control over story direction
    • Can be difficult to guide players to achieve learning goals
    • Can be difficult to design new story ideas “on the fly”
    • May take additional time to implement
  • Static storyline
    • Pre-set story
    • Less exciting for players if they know that they have no control over story direction
    • Less like traditional entertainment ARGs
    • Easier to guide players to achieve learning goals
    • Easier to implement
  • Both dynamic and static storylines: A mix of dynamic and static storyline elements. For example,
    • Have an overall static storyline but use dynamic elements when possible
    • Start with a dynamic storyline but have backup static storyline elements ready when necessary to steer players toward learning goals
    • Can be more challenging and time-consuming to design
    • May take additional time to implement
  • Create fictitious characters or use real-life people (e.g., another teacher who’s agreed to play a role)
  • Players can be the protagonist or can be aiding/advising/controlling a fictitious protagonist character
  • Have an engaging start  to the story to quickly immerse players into the story environment
  • Players start the story through a “rabbithole,” a media item (digital or physical) that provides them with an intriguing piece of information
  • Ensure that each story segment pertains to one or more specific learning goal

Puzzles and Missions

  • Design to help players learn and/or assess content/skills/values while simultaneously moving the storyline forward
  • Design to require collaboration among teammates
  • Utilize various media (e.g., websites, social media, email, texting, non-digital media)
  • Design tip: Make Scenario-Puzzle-Mission sequences

Game Environment

  • Game information (e.g., game main website)
  • Team/Player communication (e.g., discussion forums)
  • Social media
  • Websites
  • Real-world media (posters, hidden clues, etc.)


  • Game start
    • Provide players with (or have players discover) rabbitholes
    • Depending on the content and players, it can be OK to let the players know it’s a game, but should only be mentioned at the start in order to maintain an immersive environment
  • Introduce new puzzles and activities at appropriate times
  • Constantly monitor player progress
  • Constantly update game environment


  • Formative
    • Discussion board feedback
    • Mission/puzzle completion feedback
    • Commenting phases
    • Reflection periods
  • Summative
    • Presentations by teams (e.g., final mission deliverable)
    • Post-game test or questionnaire
    • Reflection period


Alternate Reality Games (Wikipedia)

The Ultimate Alternate Reality Gamified Transmedia Classroom Toolkit

How to Transform The Odyssey into an Epic Game in Alternate Reality

Go back to the main Educational Alternate Reality Games page