These days, if there’s a big video game, TV show, science-fiction movie, or kids’ spy novel on the horizon, there’s probably also an alternate-reality game promoting it. Alternate-reality games (or ARGs) typically start at a standard-enough (if a little weird) web site, but can spill into video, radio plays, email, telephone calls, and real life theater-like events. Players need to solve fiendishly difficult puzzles, and that encourages collaboration -- because the object isn’t actually to win the game, it’s to immerse yourself in the story that the game delivers. Let’s see...hard puzzles, highly-collaborative, need to learn things on the fly to play effectively... sounds like science to me. It was only a matter of time before someone tried to use an ARG for science education.
Enter Vanished, a “curated” ARG developed by the Smithsonian and MIT’s Education Arcade. Billed as a “science mystery” aimed at 11 to 14 year old kids, the game promises an environmental disaster scenario with a science-fiction twist (the creators aren’t talking, but I’m betting on some variety of time travel here). Part of the draw will undoubtedly be the online games and the Facebook page, but players will also be asked to visit museums, collect data in the real world, and collaborate with other players as they advance through the 8-week-long storyline. The 'curated' aspect of the game means it's a bit less freeform than a standard ARG: its online discussion forums will be moderated by adults, and it also includes a series of videoconferences with scientists from the Smithsonian to provide expert feedback on each series of puzzles. Sounds like it could be a blast.
The signup page went live today. The game starts April 4th, 2011.