[S]UNY [O]swego [A]RG [P]ackage, or SOAP, is an alternate reality game (ARG) engine. Built on the open source platforms WordPress and BuddyPress, it is a bundle of pre-existing plugins and custom modifications that allow anyone who can install and host WordPress to run “what if” simulations and collaborative storytelling exercises.
SOAP is free software, released under the GPL v.2.0 license. SOAP was created for WordPress 3.5. Because there have been no resources to update the software, we stopped offering the source code.
- Ability to maintain up to three contiguous “scenarios” or story lines, each with as many “acts” or story developments as needed.
- Front page visual menu that organizes the content for each scenario and its corresponding acts and comments in one place.
- Track performance across 5 different goals: Participate, Invite, Attend, Educate and Act. Unlocking each goal is signaled by a golden star that is part of a user’s public profile, so participants can see each other’s progress and compete with one another.
- Ability for participants and instructors to track and monitor goal achievement in more detail through a progress report.
- Ability to schedule events and track attendance by entering user IDs, names, or emails individually or in bulk (one way to collect data is with the iMag PRO scanner and Uniscan iOS app).
- All the functionality, flexibility and stability of WordPress.
- All the social networking features of BuddyPress.
- Ability to post blog posts or announcements outside of the scenarios.
- View newest, active and popular members.
- Easily embed images, audio, and video.
- Generate polls and quizzes.
- ARGs can be private or public, and registrations can be restricted through blacklisting and whitelisting email domains.
- … and much more!
What is an ARG?
ARGs are open-ended narratives that are collectively played by participants in real-time using a variety of interactive tools converging in one social media environment. Based on that idea, SOAP simulations are exercises in collective storytelling, deliberation and planning in which authentic social issues are explored. This kind of exercise seeks to involve various members of the community in analyzing a real-life problem, articulating a multitude of realistic and possible responses to it, and examining the question of what form action should take after the game. The activity combines an online simulation with face-to-face activities where the experience is discussed and analyzed.
As way of introduction, this slideshow from the osw3go.net simulation will give you a good overview of how a SOAP simulation is structured and everything a participant needs to know in order to take part.
Scenarios and Acts
SOAP is designed to run 3 concurrent scenarios, each consisting of any number of acts.
- A scenario is a storyline that unfolds or develops throughout the duration of the game. In blog terms, a scenario corresponds to a category under which various posts are collected.
- An act is a unique development in the story, an event or occurrence that moves the storyline forward. In blog terms, an act is an individual post that provides new story information.
For example, a SOAP simulation about fracking conducted on a college campus might have the following scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Energy Company donates equipment for new science building.
- Scenario 2: Fracking liquid storage facilities near Osw3go become full.
- Scenario 3: Two students injured in fracking accident while doing internship.
In SOAP, these scenarios are displayed in the rotating picture slider below the website banner.
Each of the scenarios would consist of a number of acts. Let’s assume Scenario 1 is comprised of 4 acts:
- Act 1 (Week 1): Controversial donation would fund geological lab in new science building.
- Act 2 (week 2): Faculty support donation, claiming fracking has a place in energy plans.
- Act 3 (Week 3): Students organize teach-in about pros and cons of fracking.
- Act 4 (Week 4): Students asked to vote on whether Osw3go should be a fracking-free campus by not accepting money from energy companies.
When developing the acts, it’s useful to think of them as newspaper headlines. In the above example, these headlines can actually function as the titles for individual blog posts.
In SOAP, acts are displayed and listed in the 3 boxes below the scenario slider. Every time a new act is published, the Featured Image will appear in the corresponding box. Older acts are listed and linked under each box (just the text, without the Featured Image). Note that the most recent comments related to each act are also listed below the box, in a separate section.
Use of Leet
In this day and age when information is easily disseminated and quoted out of context, we have found it is important to have a disclaimer on the simulation website indicating that this is an ARG and that the scenarios are not real.
Additionally, we have found that using leet (replacing letters with numbers) to spell the names of places and people, even if they are fictional, serves as an additional indicator that the scenarios are not real. Thus, we write Osw3go instead of Oswego, or J0hn Smith instead of John Smith.
Participants can shape the simulation in a number of ways:
- by posting comments reacting to the stories;
- by responding to polls asking which direction the story should take (using the example above, participants could be polled on whether the school should accept the donation or not);
- through a number of (online or offline) “alternate reality” activities that use story elements from the scenarios (these can include “fake” media artifacts such as videos or websites, interventions by characters in the scenarios, flash mobs, and so on).
The simulation can run for any amount of time that is desired. We have found that 4 to 6 weeks is the minimum amount of time for participants to have enough opportunities to review and react to scenarios, attend events, etc. But longer or shorter durations are possible, with the appropriate planning.
A combination of online participation with face-to-face activities is ideal for involving participants in the learning process. See the examples of events mentioned in the case study to get an idea of what kind of activities can be planned in conjunction with the simulation.
SOAP requires that participants attend a specified number of events before fulfilling the Attend goal. The number is currently set to 3 events. Attendance can be tracked by entering user IDs, names, or emails individually or in bulk. One way to quickly collect data that can be imported later is with the iMag PRO scanner and Uniscan iOS app.
In addition to the events that the ARG organizers might plan, another possibility is to allow participants to plan and schedule their own events. For instance, participants can organize their own screenings, and get Educate or Act credit for their efforts.
More information on how events can be scheduled so that they are listed on the Events tab can be found in the How To section.
A SOAP simulation team is usually comprised of the following:
- Subject Matter Experts: provide valuable input when developing the scenarios, post links to resources, act as guest bloggers, etc.
- Content Managers: responsible for setting up the website, publishing new acts, etc.
- Participation Managers: provide tech support, schedule events, enter attendance and goal data, send email reports, update social media accounts, etc.
- Puppetmaster Team: design and execute “alternate reality” events
SOAP was created for WordPress 3.5. Because there have been no resources to update the software, we stopped offering the source code.
Funding and Development
SOAP was developed with support from a 2012 Innovative Instruction Technology Grant (IITG) from the State University of New York’s Office of the Provost, plus additional support from SUNY Oswego. The programming was done by Ithaca Content Architecture and Design.
Learn more about ARGs
For more information on ARGs, you may want to consult Wikipedia and the Resources section at the end of this page. Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, is also a good resource to learn more about the gamification of learning. Other resources are listed below:
- Clark, P., Mejias, U., Cavana, P., Herson, D., and Strong, S. M. (2011). Interactive Social Media and the Art of Telling Stories: Strategies for Social Justice Through Osw3go.net 2010: Racism on Campus. In B. Beyerbach and R. D. Davis (eds.) Activist Art in Social Justice Pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Storytelling in new media: The case of alternate reality games, 2001–2009 by Jeffrey Kim, Elan Lee, Timothy Thomas, and Caroline Dombrowski. First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 – 1 June 2009
- Gameful: official collaboration site for Games For Change developers, creators, and play-testers and other supporters.
- ARGNet – good blog about alternate reality game design; includes a list of ARGs currently being played.
- unFiction – another blog about ARGs with some useful resources
- Extensive list of links on Alternate Reality Games and ARG design
- Prof Ritz’s links on ARGs and experience design
Case Study: Osw3go.net 2013: Fracking
Osw3go.net is a parallel universe to Oswego, New York. Specifically, it is an alternate reality simulation. But the participants in Osw3go.net do not inhabit a virtual world where they control anonymous avatars. Rather, they play themselves in the game, interacting with other real members of the Oswego community, and learning about real local and global issues that impact their community.
Osw3go.net simulations have been conducted since 2008, each time exploring a different theme. The ‘alternate’ realities considered in past simulations have included budget cuts to SUNY, racism on campus, the local impact of US-Mexico relations, Islamophobia, and most recently hydraulic fracturing or fracking. During the simulations, students respond to a number of scenarios, accessing resources in order to inform their participation and shape the development of the story. Students also participate in events, or organize their own events.
Osw3go.net 2013 attracted around 70 players who posted a total of 346 comments. While Osw3go.net 2013 was offered as a 2-credit course, most players joined the game on a voluntary basis.
The following slideshow was used to introduce participants to osw3go.net 2013. It describes the registration process, basic functionality of the website, and how to achieve the goals of the game.
Osw3go.net 2013: Fracking included three scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Energy company makes $5.5 million donation to school. “A donation from En3rgy V4ult of the Americ4s would help fund new science labs, but the gift is generating controversy on campus.”
- Scenario 2: Fracking waste facilities in Osw3go become full. “W3st Sid3 storage facility at capacity. Community expresses concerns.”
- Scenario 3: Two are injured in fracking accident. “5UNY Osw3go students injured in accident at natural gas well in V4rick, NY.”
Note: Leet (substituting letters for numbers) is used throughout the game to reinforce the fact that the scenarios are not real. The osw3go.net web site also contains prominent disclaimers to this effect.
An “act” with new information about each scenario was posted roughly every week, as were additional posts outside the scenarios with news, updates, announcements and reports from guest writers.
In addition to participating in the online environment, players had the opportunity to attend a number of on-campus events during the 6 weeks of the simulation (attending 3 of these events unlocked the Attend goal).
- A panel with professors from Geology and Chemistry departments.
- A book discussion of the title selected for 2013: Before the Lights Go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker.
- A teach-in conducted by students.
- A keynote lecture by Maggie Koerth-Baker on the present and future of energy in the US.
- A film screening which showed “documentaries” from the pro- and anti-fracking groups, and analyzed the claims they made.
- A mock press conference by the CEO of one of the companies in the scenarios.
- A wrap-up community forum.
Students also organized their own events, which included film screenings, talks in community organizations, and discussions with campus clubs.
The following assessment was conducted by a party not affiliated with the project.
After reviewing both the quantitative and qualitative data, the following conclusions were drawn:
Pre-test and post-test scores
The average for the pre-test was 5.4 for 37 participants. The average for the post-test was 6.9 for 16 participants. Although the average increased, it is difficult to draw accurate conclusions with the differences in sample sizes.
Question 1 of the pre-test/post-test asked “what is hydraulic fracking?” Fifty-one percent (19/37) of students got this answer incorrect on the pre-test, while 69% (11/16) of students answered incorrectly on the post-test. Question 5 asked “how does hydrofracking work?” Forty-one percent (41%) of students answered this question incorrectly on the pre-test, while only one student answered the same question incorrectly on the post-test. It appears students were less certain about the nature of fracking after the game, but more certain about how natural gas is actually extracted.
Goal attainment during game play
Review of the post-game data showed all 16 participants who completed the post-test and exit survey completed the first goal: participate. Data for the 4 remaining goals follows:
- Goal # 2: Invite – reached by 69% of participants (11/16)
- Goal # 3: Attend – reached by 81% of participants (13/16)
- Goal # 4: Educate – reached by 75% of participants (12/16)
- Goal # 5: Act – reached by 19% of participants (3/16)
When asked whether or not their personal opinions on fracking had changed, there was a mix of responses. Very few students admitted to an attitude change, and in fact, several said their views were reinforced. The most consistent response was an admission of increased knowledge and awareness of the issue. Some participants also stated that they had no prior opinion on the issue, felt more informed now, and recognize the costs and benefits of fracking. Again, nearly all post-test participants stated their knowledge of fracking increased tremendously. One student in response to the question “did your knowledge about the issues addressed in the game increase?” stated:
Absolutely, I learned basically (sic) everything I know about hydrofracking from this class. Since this is a topic that is happening as I go through my college experience, I feel like it is VERY important to have a knowledge and understanding of this.
Many participants also stated they will stay more informed about the issue because of the game.
Their suggestions for improvement included selecting an issue more important to college students, clearer explanations of how to “win,” starting the game earlier in the semester since many participants indicated they felt the game lost momentum as the end of the semester approached, and lastly, to include some “real world” components to balance out the virtual world. Finally, while few participants reported they would take-up full-blown activism related to fracking, many reported they would stay informed of the issue.
Quotes from Students
“I had barely any knowledge on fracking before this class, and now I can happily say I can tell people what fracking is, what it does, and the effects/costs.”
“I was pro-fracking before, and I still am pro-fracking now. I feel that I am better informed about the process now than I did before though.”
“Because my knowledge on hydrofracking has grown so much, I would say my opinion has definitely changed. For the most part I consider myself to be an ‘environmentalist’, so I’ve always just been opposed to fracking. I still am opposed… mostly. Now, I understand how hydrofracking potentially pollutes water supplies and how dangerous accidents can occur without appropriate regulation, so I feel much more comfortable saying that I don’t necessarily support it. However, I also understand how many places have benefited economically from fracking, and why fracking is more feasible than many other energy sources, so after participating in osw3go.net, I certainly understand the other side of the argument (although I still believe that the costs outweigh the benefits).”
SOAP was created for WordPress 3.5. Because there have been no resources to update the software, we stopped offering the source code. For questions about the project, contact Ulises Mejias and Gary Ritzenthaler (first names dot last names at oswego dot edu).