Secret Agents in the Schoolroom: The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry ARG

[This is a guest article from Amanda Visconti, a Literature Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. In addition to her work on the UMD iSchool ARG Team, she serves as Webmaster for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and is co-organizing a humanities game unconference, THATCamp Games ( to be held in Spring 2012.]

How often can you say the government paid you to go down the rabbit hole?

For anyone who believes that games are an undervalued method of teaching, I and my research teammates were in a most happy position: through a generous NSF EAGER grant, we had a chance to study how alternate reality games (ARGs, whose entry points are termed “rabbit holes”) could help students enjoy a full plate of lessons too often served up dryly: skills critical to STEM, information literacy, and historical thinking. It would be disingenuous to claim that our secret ingredient was gamification; without gamification, though, we might never have convinced the students to ignore the usual constraint of the classroom and have fun with learning.

The trappings of gamification can be nothing but window dressings, but game elements can also act as a signal that the classroom has become a space for play and discovery and non-penalized error, rather than its too habitual round of performances and assessments. You don’t want to be stuck judging what your game did for your players on how many badges they earned; you want your game mechanics to beckon your players towards comfort with play and experimentation, and to have that comfort translate into stronger learning of the skills your game requires.

The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry (AGOG), our ARG, is a sort of interactive wunderkammer, a “cabinet of curiosities” combining a rich and oftentimes mysteriously fragmented historical tapestry with what Rob MacDougall has called “playful historical thinking.” We designed AGOG hoping to lead players into a newly enfranchised relationship with history, teach them STEM and information literacy skills, and help them discover the secret stories outside most history books. After our ARG experience, I have to agree with Shawn Graham’s Play the Past response to Ian Bogost’s “gamification is bullshit”. Graham cites Tim Burke’s metaphor for assessing gamification success: “when the tide recedes, the sand is still there”. In this post, I’d like to share the sand of our educational ARG.


A timeline of AGOG’s major elements. Events above the diagonal line are factual, those below it are counterfactual (created by Elizabeth Bonsignore).


Falling Into the Past

In spring 2011, players entered the game through a rabbit hole, an amateur historical enthusiast’s site with an intriguing name: The site details the history of the Junto, a real but secret philanthropic society founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1727. Although the society no longer exists, the rabbit hole includes some curious rhetoric about the secret side of the past that resides beyond history books; about different ways of interpreting historical events; and about the possible dangers of digging too deeply into the historical record… Following a lesson on wordplay, the students discovered that the site’s mysterious title, Just No Evil, is an anagram that contains another site keyword: Junto Lives. After typing in the words, they were suddenly redirected to a new site: What was going on? Could the history books be wrong about the death of the Junto?


Players exploring the secret JENIUS member community.


The Game Narrative

Players discovered that within the world of AGOG, Junto does indeed live–except that during the early rumblings of the Civil War, the group split into rival factions which both went underground: JENIUS (the Junto of Englightened Naturalists and Inventors for a United Society) and the nefarious SCAR (Scientific Confederate Alliance for Revolution). Players trained to become certified members of a special online academy of JENIUS formed to tackle a secret and sensitive mission. After working on their talents in one or more of four “orders”–Archivists, Surveyors, Cryptographers, and Inventors–the players were equipped to help JENIUS through a week of dramatic events, a week in which they would gradually come to learn that their understanding of the past was key to the survival of the present.


In a climactic moment of the ARG, the game character April uses a “spiritual telegraph” to prevent a time paradox. Players watched the sequence as a video posted to the player community site.

The Study

AGOG is part of a larger research study on the design and educational use of ARGs led by Drs. Kari Kraus and Derek Hansen. The game’s first season involved approximately sixty eighth-grade students and ran for two weeks during April 2011, while a second season built for undergrad and adult players will run next year. In addition to writing and implementing the ARG, the research team focused on studying the design process of ARGs; we interviewed a variety of ARG and educational-games experts (including Sean Stewart, Ken Eklund, and James Paul Gee) and also documented the creation of ARG mini-puzzles by a group of novice designers. For a complete overview of our research, visit


April shared photos of her notebook with the players.


Game Goals

In creating AGOG, we were inspired by Jane McGonigal’s vision of harnessing the joy and devotion people experience while playing games and applying them to real-world tasks. We had extra challenges, though: how could we foster these emotions inside a traditional classroom setting, and how could we design a game experience that could be replicated by teachers in the absence of generous funding from a grant agency? The ARG format let us build self-motivation and intrinsic assessment right into gameplay, something games and education theorist James Gee supports:

You could actually view a game as nothing but a continuous assessment… we find it completely reasonable to give a kid a twelve-week algebra course and then to assess them on Tuesday at four from a test made in Illinois to see if he learned. But if a player played Halo on “hard” and finished, you would never be tempted to give him a Halo test afterwards because you know the act of finishing Halo is a guarantee that he knows how to play it. It’s built to be sure he couldn’t have finished it if he didn’t master it. If we built algebra that well, we would find it equally silly to have a test system that judges people at four o’clock on Tuesdays.

We wanted to create a game where students would want to learn how to decrypt a code or read a map or edit a wiki in order to discover and piece together more of the story.


A player sends a Morse code message on the telegraph he helped build.


Research Goals

The AGOG study tried to create a game with the following features:

  • Replayability and scalability. How could we make our game reusable and extensible without investing a lot of money and effort in it every time it’s run (e.g. release a teaching pack)? One solution to this issue is to develop a core mythology, with each season based around a different invention in the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry (the game’s imaginary collection of retro-futuristic objects that at one time allegedly resided in the US Patent Office).
  • Mobile technology. We created a wiki of mobile apps appropriate for educational ARG use, which should figure more prominently in Season 2 when more players own mobile devices.
  • Information literacy learning. The emphasis is on literacies rather than facts; the game offered players practice in skills such as wiki editing and blogging as well as conceptual abilities like group brainstorming and counterfactual thinking.
  • STEM learning. Cryptography, map-reading, building a working telegraph, creating LED bracelets, and exploring historical inventions were all part of the player missions.
  • Historical counterfactuals. The game design encouraged viewing the past multi-vocally; Dr. Kari Kraus describes the AGOG vision of the past as “more malleable than it is in history books.”

My next post will look at the ethical issues that arise when counterfactual methods, historical ARGs, and educational games collide. Please visit our new AGOG publicity website at to read more about the game and our research or become part of the next season of the ARG!

Work Cited

Gee, James Paul. Personal interview. 14 October 2010.

The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry and the research study surrounding it are generously supported by the National Science Foundation through an EAGER Grant. Drs. Kari Kraus and Derek Hansen are PIs on the study, Elizabeth Bonsignore and Amanda Visconti are graduate student investigators, and Ann Fraistat is the ARG’s creative writer. Visit to find about more about the research study, read about Season 1 of the ARG, or sign up to hear from us when we begin Season 2.


  1. AGOG looks very interesting indeed! However, I do think a caveat should be mentioned about continuous assessment: it only works well if the later assessments incorporate some testing of retention of earlier material, plus testing of the student’s ability to integrate materials from different elements of a course curriculum.

    For that reason, there are strong advantages to a “four o’clock on Tuesdays” end-of-course exam. Having found all through graduate school that I could read the readings for one week and safely forget them a few weeks after (unless they pertained to my comp field exam), I even use an old fashioned end-of-term exam in my MA and PhD courses.

    1. Rex, do you think that the exam means that the material won’t be forgotten 24 hours after the exam?

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