There is a mystery afoot, and scientists at MIT and the Smithsonian are investigating. But they project that before the next full moon, they will need the help of middle-schoolers across the country to understand an impending environmental disaster, secrets that they alone can uncover.

Vanished is a science-fiction themed alternate reality game launching on April 4th, created and run by MIT’s Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution. Vanished invites kids and teens 11-14 to participate in the role of scientific detectives, although older participants can also follow along with special “watcher” accounts. Players will uncover clues, form and test scientific hypotheses, collaborate with their peers, engage online with scientists, and learn about a broad range of scientific fields. Over the course of eight weeks, they will encounter multiple scientific mysteries that require real scientific methods to solve.

Each of the eight weeks of Vanished comprises a chapter with its own activities, scientific content, and another layer of a larger mystery. Online, players will engage with scientists from the Smithsonian via video conferences, play games that will help to illustrate concepts, and unlock clues and hidden messages. Offline, players need to explore their own neighborhoods for scientific data. Journal entries from in-game characters will lead players to visit Smithsonian-affiliated museums for exhibits to gather clues and learn more about each scientific field.

Players will share their offline discoveries with others online to advance the story. They might document what plants are blossoming or what animals live in their area. Contributions are shared so that other kids can see the differences across the country. In forums, moderated by MIT students, players can discuss their findings and how they might apply to solving the mystery. The participating museums aren’t being used for scavenger hunts; rather, they are a way for kids to explore subjects further as the game progresses. Museum staff at the Smithsonian have been warned to expect anything from Vanished players, as participants may have questions the creators did not anticipate.

The inspiration for Vanished came as a project to promote interest in science.  Scot Osterweil, Creative Director at MIT’s Education Arcade, had been discussing doing a project with the Smithsonian for several years. “We spent time talking with the scientists at the Smithsonian about what they were doing, talking about how important the social component was in science, the sharing of information, the collaboration, the debate. We started thinking about that and it pushed us towards an ARG.” Vanished is entirely funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and was constructed by a small team starting in August, 2009.

The team feels that a time limited, “curated” game done in conjunction with the Smithsonian, much like a museum exhibit, is a natural extension of the Smithsonian’s function. Instead of occasionally putting a Flash game on a website and allowing people to find it, engaging the audience directly with Vanished is closer to fulfilling the museum’s mission.

Defining and measuring success of the project, as with most ARGs, cannot be accomplished through simple metrics. At the outset, the team hopes for 25,000 players, of which 2,500 will be actively engaged. But most measures of success will take analysis by the team. “What we hope to see here is evidence of kids being able to engage in true scientific practice, whether it’s arguing with data, forming clear hypotheses, being able to prove speak about the evidence would prove their argument. That and identification with science,” says Osterweil. They hope to see kids demonstrate learning, improvement over time, and thinking more like a scientist after eight weeks than they did at the start. Even increased interest in science is a success. “When you teach kids science informally, one of the best things you can do is to encourage them to have a passion for the subject. If you can foster a long term interest in it, then it’s the whole ‘teach a man to fish’ principle,” says MIT’s Caitlin Feeley.

Gameplay won’t be limited to video chats, “field work” and discussions forums. Each week, secret messages will appear on the site to be decoded, images will need to be analyzed and Flash games will reveal additional clues.  Players earn badges and achievement points when they solve puzzles or demonstrate scientific thinking, such as revising a hypothesis based on new information. The range of material should engage players at their own level, and keep the interest of those who may only want a smaller slice of the science, story, or points. Previous chapters will be recapped in graphic novel/comic form, so that kids can recruit their friends and catch them up quickly, but all the content will still be available. The past video chats with scientists and MIT graduate students will end up on YouTube.

The team has designed Vanished with the flexibility to adapt to the players’ behavior. If they uncover scientific evidence that wasn’t planned for, or don’t discover the solution to a puzzle, the story can change. Video messages by characters will be recorded each week, re-written as needed, in order to keep a cleaner narrative that fits player actions.

The content in Vanished is meant to model what is possible for learning outside of schools. While the Smithsonian is preparing materials for teachers who want to encourage students to play, it isn’t designed to be a classroom activity. The team assumes adults will follow the game, but a core design principle has been directing the game to be played by kids rather than driven by adults, including teachers. They also recognize that schools have pressure to meet mandated curricula; in part, the game is timed for the period after most standardized achievement tests are completed, for the most possible flexibility.

As a first-of-its-kind project for the Smithsonian and MIT, the team will publish a handbook with the results, and release a package with the open-source content management tools built for the game. This package of tools will allow other institutions to put together a quality game for low cost and without a high level of technological expertise, with only a small group of content experts, writers, and actors. Some content, such as building Flash games, are labor intensive and will require extra time and expertise.

The most promising benefits of Vanshed will be the most difficult to assess; after the project ends, the players will return to the anonymity of Internet. At its most successful, Vanished will demystify science, make it cooler and more approachable, and players will recognize the real impact science has on the world. They will have new skills to apply in school and some may pursue scientific careers. Players will also learn a lesson familiar to many ARG veterans: that everyone involved has something to contribute.

The game may launch on April 4th, but registration is already open at once registered, players can access a short video that introduces three MIT students who will be the hosts of the Vanished experience.