The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry: A Design Case Study of an Alternate Reality Game

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Beth Bonsignore

    College of Information Studies - University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Georgina Goodlander

    Smithsonian American Art Museum

  3. 3. Derek Hansen

    College of Information Studies - University of Maryland, College Park

  4. 4. Margeaux Johnson

    University of Florida

  5. 5. Kari Kraus

    College of Information Studies - University of Maryland, College Park

  6. 6. Amanda Visconti

    Department of English - University of Maryland, College Park

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The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry: A Design Case Study of an Alternate Reality Game
Bonsignore, Beth, College of Information Studies, UMD,
Goodlander, Georgina, Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Hansen, Derek, College of Information Studies, UMD,
Johnson, Margeaux, University of Florida,
Kraus, Kari, College of Information Studies, UMD,
Visconti, Amanda, Department of English, UMD,
This DH2011 paper describes and analyzes the design process and delivery for The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry (AGOG), a “mini Alternate Reality Game,” that has become the seedbed for a larger ARG currently under development by the authors with a planned launch date of spring 2011. With generous two-year support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the multi-disciplinary team is conducting exploratory, qualitative research at the University of Maryland on the use and creation of ARGs as participatory design spaces, information literacy systems, and vehicles for scaffolding student learning. The collaborators also include Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and Margeaux Johnson, Science and Technology Librarian at the University of Florida.

An Alternate Reality Game is a form of interactive storytelling whose narrative elements are distributed over multiple "real-world" platforms, including books, mobile devices, and networked computers. They often require participants to solve puzzles, answer riddles, and track down information in order to advance the storyline. Examples of popular commercial ARGs include games such as “The Beast,” “I Love Bees,” and “The Lost Experience.” Although ARGs have been used primarily for entertainment, they can also provide unique and powerful educational opportunities. World Without Oil and ARGOSI are among the growing number of ARGs created with educational, “serious game” goals in mind.

The case study of AGOG focuses on a distinct aspect of ARG design that is well positioned to benefit from theoretical insight and methodological inquiry: namely, embedding counterfactual story bits into a larger historical framework.

The challenge of counterfactual design is to decide how to purposefully, meaningfully, and responsibly depart from the historical record when developing ARGs within the context of libraries, schools, museums, and archives--cultural institutions that place a high value on trustworthiness and accuracy of information, including digital information. The slippage between fiction and reality that is the sine qua non of the genre should be just as much the result of premeditation as any other aspect of game design. To that end, we propose a theoretical and methodological framework for counterfactual design that draws on the neuroscience research of Ruth Byrne, the object-oriented philosophy of Ian Bogost, and the cooperative design techniques pioneered by Allison Druin in the context of Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

Design Case: The Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry (AGOG)
The design attributes of AGOG, a number of which have already been implemented and play-tested, can be conveyed in part with the help of scoping notes:

Place and time period: Civil War and Post-War Reconstruction United States. While the Civil War (understood broadly to also include antebellum and post-war periods) helps anchor the ARG temporally, geographically, and—if only tangentially—thematically, these parameters are intended as guidelines, made flexible by the game’s liberal use of time slips, motivated anachronisms, and counter-factual scenarios.
Thematic features: The game includes the following narrative motifs: historical figures communicating across space and time, messages and artifacts intended for posterity, and secret societies whose members may act as stewards of these information-bearing artifacts.
Activities, puzzles, and history hacks: AGOG incorporates player-created/-curated artifacts, scavenger-hunt like missions; information search and retrieval exercises; and cryptographic challenges.
Aesthetic: The game is steeped in a nineteenth-century retro-futuristic, steampunk style.
Learning objectives: A primary objective of AGOG is to use the machinery and conventions of ARGs to scaffold information and new media literacy instruction, as well as to teach subject knowledge in history, science, technology, and math.
Tools and technologies: The extended version of AGOG will make use of the technological affordances of smartphones--such as camera, phone, GPS, texting, and web-browsing functionality--to enhance interactivity and integrate the offline and online worlds in creative ways.
The game’s mythology is grounded in the history of the U. S. Patent Office. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Georgina Goodlander works, is housed in the Historic US Patent Office Building. During the time it functioned as a “Temple of Invention” (1836 to 1932), thousands of patents were submitted, along with miniature models of the designs, which were put on display. The building also variously served as a place of employment, curiosity, ministry, and sociability for a number of historically significant figures and personalities, including Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Clara Barton. The stately halls and galleries of the Patent Office were transformed into makeshift barracks and hospital rooms during the Civil War, the grim realities of which were temporarily overshadowed by the repurposing of the space for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in 1865.

Collecting all of this historical data in a document, the design team began looking for events and places through which it could dig a fictional or counterfactual tunnel. In 1877, “the noblest of Washington buildings” was dealt a severe blow when a fire broke out and destroyed the collection of 12,000 rejected patent models in the attic and damaged another 114,000. It is the fire that provided us with the means to traverse fiction and reality, functioning as a joint in which we could embed a “rabbit-hole” that would draw players into the game: a mysterious document allegedly dating back to the fire of 1877, which cryptically refers to a “Cabinet of Curiosities.” Out of the notional fragments of patent models and other mechanical remains that ostensibly survived the conflagration, players are asked to help reconstruct and curate the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry by imagining what sorts of wondrous, retro-futuristic inventions might have populated it and then creating those artifacts using found objects (in the spirit of assemblage art) that have first been identified in a database of historic patents. Possible categories of inventions include but are not limited to communications devices, weapons and ammunition (think secret Civil War technologies), cryptographic devices, and medical equipment. Figure 1 shows the chronological and conceptual relationships among the factual and counterfactual narrative elements in AGOG. Other resources relevant to AGOG, including video footage of player-created artifacts for the gallery, can be accessed online at

Figure 1. Chronological and conceptual relationships among factual and counterfactual narrative elements in AGOG.

Full Size Image

Counterfactual Design
The DH2011 paper triangulates between the neuroscience research of Ruth Byrne, the object-oriented ontology (OOO) of Ian Bogost, and the HCI cooperative design techniques developed by Allison Druin, distilling from them the following set of principles and practices for counterfactual design.

Cognitive Science: In The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality, Ruth Byrne explores the “faultlines” or “joints” of reality, those “aspects of reality that are more readily changed in imaginative thought.” Byrne’s premise is that there are patterns or regularities in terms of where we locate those faultlines: some attributes of reality just seem inherently more “mutable” to us than others. When we partition, classify, and organize our world, for example, we readily invent new instances or members of a category. In the case of AGOG, the design team identified a real category—patent collections lost (or presumed lost) in the fire of 1877—and created a new member for it: the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry.

Object-Oriented Ontology: In his forthcoming book Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost offers a practice-led approach to philosophy, one that challenges the notion that the inevitable product of philosophical inquiry is a paper, article, or book (“Latour Litanizer”). Instead, Bogost describes and models an alternative approach, carpentry, which “refers primarily to the construction of artifacts that illustrate the perspectives [or inner lives] of objects” (“Latour Litanizer”). As he puts it elsewhere, “as critics, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways” (“Interview”). Having co-authored Racing the Beam with Nick Montfort in 2009—an MIT platform studies book on the Atari Video Computer System--Bogost compellingly speculates on how carpentry might help us better apprehend the system’s internal hardware design: “What’s it like to be a [Television Interface Adapter]? Or a MOS Technologies 6502 microprocessor? How would one characterize such a thing? Would it even be possible?” (“Interview”).

The DH2011 presentation describes how this “pragmatic” mode of OOO might be applied through circuit-bending—characterized by artists in a popular YouTube video as “parallel worlds within a circuit”--to the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry.

Cooperative Design: Inspired by the prospect of what we might learn about ARGs and associated technologies by including children in the design process, we partnered with KidsTeam at the HCIL in summer and fall 2010. Adopting an exploratory question related to AGOG, we asked the children how they would collaborate with other in-world players, especially if they had certain in-game constraints, such as only being able to use found objects or materials from a certain time period. Preliminary findings suggest that the joints or faultlines of reality exist across multiple semiotic domains, and that the gap separating fiction and reality is often managed through recourse to metaphor. The DH2010 presentation will elaborate on these findings and their implications for the design of tools that support ARGs.

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Nicola Whitton 2010 “ARGOSI :: Alternate Reality Games for Orientation, Socialisation and Induction, ” , Manchester Metropolitan University, Project Manger. April (link)

Bogost, Ian. “Latour Litanizer, ” 16 December 2009 (link)

Byrne, Ruth M. J. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality, 1st ed The MIT Press 2007

DrRek What is Circuit Bending? YouTube 10 March 2006 (link)

Gratton, Peter Ian Bogost: The Interview Philosophy in a Time of Error (Blog Post) 26 April 2010 (link)

Ken Eklund (Game Designer, Creative Director and Producer) World Without Oil (link) 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2010

Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System The MIT Press 2009

Robertson, Charles J. Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark Scala Publishers 2006

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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