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Using Alternate Reality Games for Employee Engagement

It takes a lot of work to create an effective training programme. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day routine and forget the opportunities that exist when you think outside the box.

If this sounds like you, let us tell you about something that will absolutely blow your mind wide open! Today, we’re looking at the wonderful world of Alternate Reality Games.

We’ll talk about your learning programme later, but for now, just enjoy the ride!

What is an Alternate Reality Game (or ARG)?

An alternate reality game is an interactive narrative set in the real world, designed to blur the line between fiction and reality. While most of the content is online, elements of the game such as posters and phone numbers are often placed offline, encouraging the impression that this is part of our world.

The film, The Matrix, describes a vivid simulation created by artificial intelligence to keep humanity imprisoned in a dream that they can’t discern from reality. The heroes of the story are those chosen few who have found a way to escape this construct – they have woken up and they see what nobody else can. Though not an ARG, the movie’s picture of reality is a good way to picture the mind-set of an ARG player.

That’s a very brief definition, but this video sums it up a lot better.

Applying ARG design principles to L&D

Wikipedia defines the following design principles common to most ARGs:


In an Alternate Reality Game, fragments of the story are placed across various platforms and media. This employs a tactic common to many of the most engaging video games – the Easter Egg. These little surprises are deliberately hidden, meaning only the most dedicated players will ever find them.

When you see other players making these discoveries, through dedicating themselves to the game, you’re naturally inclined to assess your own level of dedication.  The sense that you might be slipping behind can be a powerful motivator.

In terms of a learning programme, you don’t want to hide vital training materials from your employees. You can however create exclusive badges (if your LMS is gamified) that can only be earned by those who are willing to dig a little deeper.


To truly qualify as an ARG, the game needs to transcend the web and find its way into the real world. One of the most famous (and first!) examples is the promotional campaign for the 2001 film A.I which began when eagle-eyed fans noticed a strange job title on a poster advertising the film; “Sentient Machine Therapist – Jeanine Salla.”

A few online searches later, they found themselves investigating a murder and encountering various characters, both online and offline. Strange websites, links to film trailers and emails from these characters all formed a narrative that engaged these players and turned the alternate reality game into a viral marketing strategy.

One of our clients, GAME Retail, created a similarly tantalising poster campaign of their own prior to the launch of GAME Learning Zone, their new social learning platform. This whipped their employees into a frenzy of excitement which added to the programme’s momentum before it had even launched. The lesson here is that you don’t need to tie your learning programme exclusively to an online platform and that plenty of opportunities for engagement still exist in the real world.


You could conceivably try to play an ARG on your own, but the chances are you wouldn’t get very far. These games usually include a variety of cryptic puzzles and mammoth tasks that require collaboration from many players if they are to win.

On a typical ARG journey, each player will encounter something that’s outside of their area of expertise. To get over this hurdle, they need to find somebody else with the expertise to find that solution. This creates a collaborative culture where the players work as a team to solve the mystery and win the game.

When you think about it, career progression is a difficult game. The average person can’t just walk into your office off the street and become a department head by lunchtime.

Employees will always run into obstacles on their journey, and if they can’t find an expert to help them, they’ll have a hard time getting where they need to go. Just like an ARG, a culture of knowledge sharing can be the key to success.


vr and ar

ARGs are often used as a viral marketing strategy to create intrigue ahead of a product or film release.  However, even this definition doesn’t quite fit, as one of the common factors of all ARGs is that they aren’t publicised. In fact, many ARG creators go out of their way to hide their existence – the players have to just stumble across them.

Again, the creators engage the players’ curiosity and instead of pushing information, the air of secrecy pulls the players towards the story.

Aside from hiding the game from prospective players, another common tactic is to actively dissuade the player from accessing the game, warning them that to do so would be to invite trouble.

We’re not suggesting that you email all of your employees telling them not to access training content, but there is a certain power in curiosity.


As we’ve mentioned, to play an ARG, the players need to accept an alternate reality that the game proposes. Similarly, the game itself shares many properties with the real world; the rules are largely defined by the players’ experiences, they happen in real time and there’s no opportunity for a replay.

To apply this to a learning and development context, the pattern needs to be reversed. Employee training is very real – maybe too real to be anything other than mundane. We suggest adding a further layer of narrative to the learning experience and framing your learners as contributors in the ongoing story of your organisation.

All organisations are different and there’s no definite formula, so to do this successfully, you need to know your vision and values inside-out and apply them to the training at all levels. This means branding your LMS, using terminologies that reflect what you stand for and doing so with consistency and absolute confidence.


When someone starts playing an ARG, they become a part of the game. They don’t need to create an imaginary warrior or assume the identity of a princess-rescuing plumber – they are themselves, just in another reality.

Since many of the clues are hidden in the real world, each player becomes the eyes and ears of the community as a whole. In a very real sense, the actions of one lone player can mean the difference between success and failure.

It’s a fact, sadly often overlooked, that the individual efforts of each employee contribute to the overall success of the business. One of the simplest things training managers can do to improve performance, reduce attrition and encourage knowledge sharing, is to find ways to acknowledge every employee’s contribution, whether that’s with extrinsic rewards, or just a simple ‘thank you’. 


Most ARGs start with the skeleton of a story, and this is a conscious choice of the creators. The intention is to use the players’ contributions to adapt the narrative depending on the actions of the community. This is one of the most powerful attributes of an ARG and it’s the reason the really successful ones attain cult status.

Since a large portion of all work-based learning comes from peer-interactions, basing your entire training programme solely on training manuals and eLearning units seems very inefficient. More to the point, there’s little incentive for the learner to engage with the platform if it appears to be little more than a glorified library of PDFs.

A collaborative online learning platform lets your employees ask questions, share insight, discuss topics in greater depth and in some cases, it can help clarify grey areas in your formal material, giving it a much greater value.

In Conclusion…

There we go, your mind should be open wide enough to drive a bus through by now! It’s easy to think of games as frivolities that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. In reality (alternate or otherwise), games can teach us a lot about keeping people engaged with an activity – even something as unsexy as employee training.

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