Images courtesy of the MIT Education Arcade
Scientists from the future reached out to present day scientists as part of Project Phoenix to investigate a natural disaster that wiped out the historical record as part of Vanished, an alternate reality game designed exclusively for children. The game was a collaboration between the MIT Education Arcade and the Smithsonian Institution, and sought to engage kids and teens in the role of scientific detectives and inspire scientific learning through an epic story. Prior to the game’s launch, ARGNet provided a sneak peek at the upcoming campaign. Now that the game has come to a conclusion, I followed up with Caitlin Feeley and Dana Tenneson of MIT’s Education Arcade to take a post-mortem look at the game.
The true heroes of Vanished were the players, who uncovered the mystery by making scientific progress week by week. The game was also populated by a full cast of characters; the most prominent was Lovelace, an artificial intelligence who traveled back in time to assist in the investigation. Moderators had in-game personas, like Storm and Megawatt, who played the roles of guardians and guides. The journey also involved interacting with real-world scientists from a variety of fields, and players even encountered a few villainous trolls and hackers among their own ranks before reaching the end.
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.