Down the Rabbit Hole

An introduction to history and alternate reality games

Your secondary school history teacher shows your class a poster that has unexpectedly arrived from a museum in Pennsylvania; the poster displays both a web address and a QR code. Following either link leads you to a website discussing a recently discovered ‘bizarre document’ dating back to the US Civil War, and which contains a string of writing that appears to be in some sort of code. Banding together with your classmates, you decrypt the document, and become embroiled in an investigation that encompasses puzzle-solving, historical fact-finding using the museum’s collection of digitized primary sources, and the hunt for a mysterious jewel.

Intrigued? That was certainly the idea when the US National Civil War Museum launched this alternate reality game (ARG), titled The Jewel of the Valleys, in 2011. The ostensible objective of the game was to find the titular jewel, but in order to do so, students were required to learn about a real historical period and the people who lived in it. Their curiosity and desire to solve both the game’s puzzles and its broader mystery propelled them towards a more active understanding of this topic than they might otherwise have gained. Jewel of the Valleys is one of the more prominent history-themed examples of a game genre that has grown increasingly sophisticated and popular over the last decade, and whose educational potential has barely begun to be tapped.

Alice reloaded

Alternate reality games vary greatly in appearance, content and level of interactivity, and the format resists precise definition. In essence, however, ARGs are ‘games that do not acknowledge that they are games: they pose as alternate realities hidden away in streams of dormant internet code’.1 Rather than explicitly choosing to start playing them, players often begin by stumbling across one of the strands of their narratives, masquerading as a real-world website, email or forum message. This initial point of contact is designed to inspire and possibly unnerve players, but above all to entice them to follow its clues and delve deeper into the game’s universe. As a result, it is often referred to by ARG developers as the game’s ‘rabbit hole’. In addition to their online component, ARGs are generally distributed across as wide a variety of media as possible, using phone calls and text messages, posters, public spaces and even clothing to unfold their storylines. For that reason, they are occasionally also referred to as ‘pervasive’ or ‘ubiquitous’ games.2 Their stories are related in a non- or semi-linear manner, relying on player initiative to move the plot forward. The intended effect of all this is that the player treat the game and its story as part of the real world, and approach its characters and challenges accordingly.

The genre grew out of closely related, though broader, ‘transmedia experiences’ such as Ong’s Hat (developed from the 1980s until 2001), though the ARG proper began with more recent games such as The Beast and Majestic, both of which launched in 2001. Other prominent examples include Perplex City, EDOC Laundry, a range of murder mystery and horror-themed titles (notably In Memoriam and the ongoing Ben Drowned saga) and various games linked to film, television and video game franchises (such as the Halo-based I Love Bees).

While the majority of ARGs are of course designed for entertainment (or marketing) purposes, the genre’s value as an educational tool is also being explored by teachers and researchers – including a number of pioneering historians.

Where sourcework meets cybersleuthing

ARGs offer a host of advantages to those attempting to teach people about and engage people in history, particularly school students and other non-academic audiences. Indeed, many of the history-themed ARGs run over the last decade have been developed as part of wider public outreach projects, frequently in conjunction with museums, universities and heritage organizations. This was the case, for example, with The Jewel of the Valleys, in addition to the MIT-based Reliving the Revolution (2005), focused on the Battle of Lexington, and Das Geheimnis der Krone (The Secret of the Crown, 2012), covering the history of the Austrian city of Linz. Several ARGs have also adopted wider perspectives, presenting national stories (such as the Italian game Aequilibrium in 2013 or The Ups and Downs of Polish History, run from 2006 to 2008) or even multi-national debates (such as the primarily Canadian game Tecumseh Lies Here, run from 2011 to 2013).

Aside from the specific historical lessons such games provide, they have also proved useful for teaching history-related skills to their players. In order to progress in an ARG, participants need to develop their ability to search for, use and critically evaluate sources, as well as to guide their own investigation independently. When making such judgements about the utility of a source or the direction of their research, they have to consider a variety of competing narratives, and assess each to decide which is the most plausible – to ‘peel back the layers to see beyond a single authoritative voice and learn how history is constructed from fragmentary and conflicting evidence’.3 Furthermore, they are almost always required to work collaboratively in these efforts. This is an especially valuable skill to cultivate, since ‘many historians can attest that sharing is not necessarily our strongest suit’.4

In short, ARGs have shown themselves ideally suited to encourage in their players what Rob MacDougall terms ‘playful historical thinking’: an imaginative and flexible way of relating to the past and its study that even professional historians employ, whether or not they acknowledge it.5

Just as importantly, however, ARGs are also likely to be effective at enthusing players about history. By drawing them into a captivating world and narrative, and giving them a sense of agency within that narrative, the games may render their historical content more memorable, and may even make the work of a historian look more appealing.

Historians as playtesters

The history ARG is scarcely a decade old, and the games developed so far have thrown up a number of questions, both theoretical and practical, that will need to be considered as the genre matures. Perhaps the most interesting concerns the balance of creative power between ARG players and developers, or the extent to which an ARG should be a player-guided or a developer-guided experience. It is not without reason that ARG developers are often referred to as ‘puppet masters’ in the industry: their control of the game’s information, and the rate at which it is doled out, give them a dominant role in the crafting of the narrative.6 Such an obvious imbalance is hardly desirable in a game, however, particularly in a genre that aspires to greater player agency than most.

In the case of history ARGs in particular, concerns about historical accuracy also become relevant. When attempting to inform about real historical events, in a medium that is expected to allow for player interpretation and the possibility of alternative outcomes, what should ARG developers prioritize? How, in other words, can they avoid compromising either the educational or the entertainment value of their games?

Some history ARGs have engaged with such questions rather ingeniously, extending the genre’s ‘alternate reality’ conceit to present their stories as part of a hidden or forgotten history, concealed between the lines of recorded history. This framing device allows developers to tell a story with specific historical content, while incorporating fictional elements that make the game’s plot more compelling and grant the players greater freedom to discover the story in their own way and draw their own conclusions. As various historians working on ARGs have pointed out, moreover, all forms of history leave this sort of interpretive space; historical games merely make it more visible.

There are a variety of other questions of less theoretical import: the relationship between ARGs and other physical history-themed games, such as reenactments or the increasingly popular ‘escape the room’ activities; the extent to which history ARGs can be replayed; whether their online components damage their verisimilitude (the inclusion of patently digital ‘Civil War’ documents in The Jewel of the Valleys, for instance, was less than convincing); and whether there are limits to the type of historical topics that can be presented in the ARG format.

The shape of things to come

These concerns in no way detract from the considerable, and as yet largely untested, advantages of teaching history through ARGs. The genre has great potential for informing and enthusing non-academic audiences about history, and is continually developing in ambition, complexity and self-reflexivity. Its theoretical foundation and creative limits need to be more clearly defined, but this will be possible only if historians engage with the medium in greater numbers. The ARG is a fascinating sign of the direction in which history learning may develop, and historians have the chance to be at the forefront.

This is a (slightly revised) version of a post I wrote for History to the Public in 2016. The completionists among you can give the original a read here.

  1. ‘This Is Not a Game: Rise of the ARG’, GamesTM, May 2013, 90. [return]
  2. Jane McGonigal, ‘This Might Be a Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century’ (PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2006), [return]
  3. Timothy J. Compeau, ‘Tecumseh Lies Here’, Timothy J. Compeau (blog), 29 June 2015, [return]
  4. Adriana Ayers, ‘Tecumseh Lies Here’, Active History (blog), 2 May 2012, [return]
  5. Rob MacDougall, ‘Playful Historical Thinking’, Rob MacDougall (blog), 8 March 2010, [return]
  6. Jane McGonigal, ‘The Puppet Master Problem: Design for Real-World, Mission Based Gaming’, in Second Person, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 251–65. [return]