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Language Arts > Media Literacy


Students are introduced to the United Colonies mystery and solve the first set of puzzles

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Mike Minadeo


An alternate reality game (ARG)is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions.

The form is typified by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants' responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game's designers. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together with a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail but rely on the Internet as the central binding medium.”- Wikipedia

The physical component of ARGs is similar in many ways to geocaching. Those who are familiar with this recreational hobby will be especially drawn to this storytelling method.

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Experience breakdown

United Colonies Educational Alternate Reality Game

GameDesk's sixth grade PlayMaker School cohort at New Roads School in Santa Monica was not expecting to be a case study for one of the first trans-media and pervasive ARGs run in a middle school. However, over the course of the 2012-13 school year, their classroom and campus environment, lockers and class website, soon ignited with new meaning and compelling mysteries connected by secret clues and objects hidden within plain sight. It was a secret and wholly elective experience seemingly outside of the bounds of the school day. Using symbols and clues inside and outside the classroom, the "United Colonies" ARG explored how learning opportunities could be presented through a transmedia platform that inspired associative learning, gritty persistent learning, cross-disciplinary thinking, and critical analysis.

As a "hidden" learning tool, students were constantly on the lookout for clues embedded in everyday life and often had to rely on collective problem solving to advance further in the game's narrative. The school's long-neglected web-based message board soon became a nexus of activity as students shared what they had learned, asked questions, reported results, and even created their own riddles. The ARG made school an anytime, anywhere experience, a thread running between and within classes and carrying through to the home. As a result, a unique student learning culture developed that provides us with a snapshot of a radical educational future that challenges what we think of when we think of learning.

United Colonies Highlight Reel

lesson plan overview

Imagine you are a student starting your normal school day, with a predictable routine that is just like every day. However, today is different because when you open up your locker, you find a letter with a cryptic message inside! This note is full of hidden meaning and ignites your imagination.

Later in the day, you notice an UV bulb in one of the lamps in your classroom and hold the note up to it. A puzzle written in invisible ink jumps out at you and leads you on an educational scavenger hunt throughout the school.

Without knowing it, you’ve just started playing an educational ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that will reinforce the concepts you are learning in the classroom and stretch your mind in ways you haven’t dreamed of before.


Flowchart for all of the activities during the year that the students participated in.


    1. UV Puzzle

    2. Caesar Cipher Scytale

    3. American Sign Language Puzzle

    4. Book Safe

    5. Pig Latin Puzzle

    6. Bacon Puzzle

Learning Objectives

1. Solve various cryptographic puzzles through knowledge of history, science, and media literacy concepts explored in class.

2. Develop creative-problem solving skills through deciphering a variety of cryptographic puzzles, including ones that employ invisible ink, Caesar Ciphers, Pig Latin, and American Sign Language.

3. Formulate working solutions to the various puzzles, revising them along the way through communication with peers and analysis of textual, visual, and physical evidence.


TIME REQUIRED: Year-long participation


MATERIALS: Paper, Computer, Photoshop, Illustrator, Oven Baked Clay, Burlap, Canvas, Pencils, Paper, Red Film, Pinecone, Smartphone or Tablet, AURASMA Augmented Reality software, Hollowed out book, Ultraviolet Ink, Ultraviolet Bulb, Stamping Kit (Alphabet), Permanent Black Ink Pad



"In Game Marker"

The students were introduced to the United Colonies ARG when all 38 of them received a mysterious piece of paper in their lockers.

The paper note was printed with “UV got a message” and nothing else. (One of the key components of ARG’s is the initial drop and the willingness to wait for player to find the rabbit hole on their own. This creates a true sense of mystery. This can also be AGONIZING! At this point, you have no way of knowing if your intended players will be interested enough to play the game.)



When students noticed an ultraviolet light bulb in their classroom and placed the note next to it, secret instructions were revealed. Students had to demonstrate self-directed learning and search online for the answer. They identified the author quote that was written in invisible ink. [Wordsworth-“The stars of midnight shall be dear to her; and she shall lean her ear in many a secret place”].

Upon finding the invisible ink and giving the answer to Lucy, the school’s admin secretary, they were given a canvas package.


This is completely invisible in normal light.

Inside the canvas package was a piece of paper with a substitution code that lead to the “United Colonies” Database. This webpage contained a cryptic symbol (the Eye) that represented the “In Game” marker

Underneath this logo was a text box for inputting a password. That is the only information the students were given.

(Each time students saw "the Eye", they were cued that part of this secret game was taking place and that there were further clues to be discovered. )


2. Caesar Cipher Scytale Puzzle

The password was discovered by combining the other objects in the canvas package- a translucent pen and a pencil. Hidden inside the pen was a thin fabric strip of letters. Students had to figure out, based on a previous week’s history lesson about Roman secret codes on the battlefield, that the strip must be wound around the pencil to unravel the first clue. “POST TENEBRAS LUX.”

This is a Latin Phrase that means “Out of Darkness, Light”.


An example of how the answer is revealed by wrapping around the pencil.

As new contextual meaning began to appear all around them, the students gained a new awareness of their classroom environment.


Online code book to archive the codes for futher student reference

A database and code book were introduced to keep the kids from getting overwhelmed and to provide a reference point for future ciphers.


Online Database and Hall of Fame


3. American Sign Language Puzzle

    This clue appeared one day on the online forum.

    Students had to first identify that this was American Sign Language. When deciphered, it reads “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” A second prompt was given online that told them to find the book written by Samuel Johnson.

    A large part of the game was enhancing the schoolroom environment. One of these books contained a hidden compartment.


4. Book Safe Puzzle

A book safe had been hidden in the classroom since the beginning of the semester. On the outside, it looked like a regular dictionary, but inside was a locked container that needed a key to open. It’s important to note that Samuel Johnson’s name does not appear anywhere on the cover or spine.


Inside the cover of the book safe

In order to obtain the key to open the book, students had to first figure out what their next clue represented and which code to decipher. The puzzle contained 26 different pigs and each stood for a letter of the alphabet. There was a secondary layer of encryption in pig latin.

The pig latin puzzle revealed the location and the day the key would appear.

(An interesting anecdote: the students figured out the alphabet substitution code, but couldn't make sense of the meaning. An 8th grader walked by, heard them sounding out the clues, and said "that's Pig Latin!" This was one of the many examples of spontaneous cross-pollination that occurred throughout the year.)


5. Pig Latin Puzzle


6. The infamous Bacon Puzzle

The "Bacon" puzzle was never solved. It included aspects of math that the students were still in the process of mastering.

Participation sharply dropped off for about a week, so we hastily revealed a different group puzzle.

This was a key learning moment for us. From this moment onwards, we made sure that the puzzles referenced specific material that the students had learned in their other classes. We found that this scaffolding approach was an extremely important part of continued activity.

If the students felt overwhelmed, they would stop playing.


This was a hint to the bacon puzzle.

The students then went on winter break, however, we wanted to have a memorable day to continue the game when they returned. We opened up the second round of the game on Valentine's Day.

See United Colonies Module 2 for the more descriptions about the second half of the ARG.


Common Core - English Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA. R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Speaking & Listening
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

ISTE NETS - Digital Age Skills

1. Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes
Create original works as a means of personal or group expression
Identify trends and forecast possibilities
4. Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.
Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation
Plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project
Collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions
Use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions

self-directed learning

Cognitive Actions That Promote Self-Directed Learning

  1. Make an observation
  2. Draw a conclusion
  3. Revise a question based on observation & data
  4. Observe something
  5. Transfer a lesson or philosophical stance from one situation to another
  6. Compare and contrast two or more things
  7. Test the validity of a model
  8. Identify the primary and secondary causes of a problem
  9. Adapt something for something new
  10. Study and visually demonstrate nuance
  11. Identify and explain a pattern
  12. Study the relationship between text and subtext
  13. Extract a lesson from nature
  14. Record notes during and after observation of something
  15. Form a theory & revise it based on observation and/or data

Alternate reality game-glossary

Components of an ARG

Trailhead/Rabbit Hole - A deliberate clue which enables a player to discover a way into the game. Most ARGs employ a number of trailheads in several media, to maximize the probability of people discovering the game. Some trailheads may be covert, others may be thinly-disguised adverts. These entry points are also referred to as “Rabbit Holes”.

The Curtain - The curtain is generally a metaphor for the separation between the game runner and the players. This can take the traditional form of absolute secrecy regarding the identities of those involved with the production. In an educational setting, this would be teachers and support staff. Instead of talking about the game, game runners interact instead through the characters within the game.

Game Runner- Person who creates the ARG storyline and manages the progression of the players towards the end of the game narrative.

Avatars – Certain characters will need to interact with the players of an ARG when questions arise or they get stuck with a clue. Game runners usually create several avatars of online characters who enhance the plot and can help guide the players. This keeps the illusion of the ARG intact, and allows a teacher to facilitate an ARG without admitting to being the game runner.

“In Game” Marker- This is a logo that signals players that they have discovered a part of the ARG. It is usually unobtrusive so as to be undiscovered by non-players. “In Game” Markers can take the form of a secret symbol, word, portrait, or object and constantly reappear throughout the game.

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