Running a module as an ARG a.k.a. The Rufi Franzen Mystery

So the secret’s out. We’ve had the Big Reveal.

#psvtam (otherwise know as the BSc Professional Sound and Video Technology, Advanced Multimedia module) was a game – an alternate reality game.

A game that took so many unanticipated twists and turns that I’m still trying to process everything. For the past 48 hours I’ve been replaying the past 3 months in my mind, thinking about every clue, red-herring, reaction… wow.

Don’t know where to start really – there’s way too much for one blog post. Watersidestudio and JustPressPlay have already blogged their impressions here and here, which I keep re-reading as it’s amazing to re-live the experience through their eyes… thanks guys!

I suppose it all started on 16th Feb 2011, when I met up with Hugh Garry for a general chinwag. We were talking about creativity and curiosity. Hugh is a master of both. I was bemoaning the lack of curiosity in higher education, and having been hopelessly addicted to the LOST experience and read various accounts of ARGs in education I’d been wanting to run a module as an ARG for a while – but I didn’t want it to be ‘just another ARG in education’ – I wanted it to be an unforgettable experience, one which could lead to genuine changes in thinking and could have a transformative effect on the students. I wanted to introduce mystery and intrigue into the curriculum in order to arouse curiosity and to see how far learners would go in terms of driving their own learning/curriculum when they weren’t being assessed. As luck would have it, Hugh had worked on two ARGs for BBC Radio One and being the amazing individual that he is, was up for working on it and that was it – the #psvtam ARG was born.

So, how to sum up the #psvtam ARG? Well, it’s been many months in the making and has involved a huge amount of work – way more than I had anticipated. The sheer logistics of running a module as an ARG and designing the curriculum in a way which would allow this to happen, while ticking all the boxes in terms of content/assessment has been quite a challenge. Personally, I underestimated the difficulty of playing multiple roles (module tutor/programme leader/personal tutor) alongside my role in the game. We would have been quite lost with Huey, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to devise clues and plotlines as the overall puppetmaster.

The students didn’t start playing the  ‘game’ until a couple of months ago when 9 members of the group received letters containing a mysterious sequence of numbers. Although they didn’t know it at the time, these numbers were the date of yesterday’s Big Reveal: the moment when a) some of the students braved the horrible weather and followed the final clues which led them to the centre of Manchester to see their mobile phone films being played on the BBC Big Screen, and b) the identity of Rufi Franzen was finally revealed… as the one and only Hugh Garry.

The ARG has been played out on multiple online platforms and f-2-f in the classroom on a weekly basis for the past 2 months, although I guess it’s longer when we consider that the students have been fed clues from week one of the semester. The overall themes were explicitly covered by Hugh when he came in to deliver a guest lecture in week 5, where he spoke about four elements of the creative process: curiosity, collecting ideas, connecting and getting your work out there. These were the overarching themes for the module, outlined in the ‘module manifesto’ and alluded to on a weekly basis as the group were gradually developing their online identities and producing a range of media leading up to their final mobile films. It’s been crazy, challenging, scary, exhilarating – the list goes on.

There are so many people to thank, so first of all thank you to #psvtam for their participation, and for the peaks and troughs which have kept us on our toes. Secondly, Ben Shirley for being an amazing colleague and friend, and who has known about this since the beginning and has played more of a role than he realised just by being there in the classroom using his iPad – the presence and the tech contributed to one of the most effective red herrings in preventing the students from guessing the identity of Rufi Franzen. I’d also like to thank Jeremy Buxton and Phil Chapman from the BBC, who sorted out the final encoding/compliance testing and making sure the films played at the right time (I’m thinking Phil’s probably never had a weirder set of instructions than “don’t use your phone between 11.15 and 11.45, you will get a call, a voice will say ‘pebbles and boulders’, at this point press play text back and say ‘look at the screen’). Also many thanks to Charles Leadbeater who Huey managed to grab on Thursday evening for this video (throwing in another curveball as suspicions that Rufi Franzen might be Charles Leadbeater were starting to emerge). Thanks to D who addressed and posted the initial letters and has been a listening ear throughout.

But finally, we are indebted to Hugh Garry for his work behind the scenes on the plot (which has had to be changed so many times according to the reactions from #psvtam) and also the amazing content that he has produced for Rufi Franzen’s tumblr – not forgetting Thursday night’s Rufi Franzen live-stream which involved the group being given the opportunity to ask 5 yes/no questions (“best make them good ones!”) mediated via two glittering black skulls and a white fluffy penguin – I kid you not. Thursday night was also the night that the all-important password was revealed, check for the flashes in this doctored Steve Jobs film (again, thanks to Hugh):

Huey is without a doubt one of the most phenomenal people I have ever met and had the pleasure of working with. I’ve learnt so much from him throughout this whole experience. He has been incredible, and has remained good humoured throughout despite some shaky moments – always coming up with fantastic work-arounds and helping to ensure that the game didn’t die, even when it looked as though it might do.

As for Rufi Franzen? Well the name ‘Rufi’ was inspired by a guy I’ve known in  for years, and ‘Franzen’ was taken from Jonathan Franzen who wrote The Corrections. However, Rufi Franzen has taken on a life of his own. None of us will ever forget the ‘Rufi Franzen’ mystery… I feel more obsessed now than ever, obsessing over every twist and turn over the past couple of months and also thinking about the students involved and how amazing they have been. Their commitment and motivation have been overwhelming, and I’ll never forget their reactions to the Big Reveal. As far as educational experiences go, this has been incredible.  To hear students reflect back on the module and recognise how their prior experiences and expectations may have stifled their innate sense of curiosity in an educational setting is testimony to the initial hypothesis that introducing mystery and intrigue into the curriculum could bring back the sense of curiosity that leads to genuine engagement and deep learning.

As one of the students said the other day “I am looking at it as just the beginning…”

26 thoughts on “Running a module as an ARG a.k.a. The Rufi Franzen Mystery

  1. Brilliant. The whole Rufi Franzen thing has been just astounding, you and Hugh have created an unforgettable edu experience for all of us; students, teachers, collaborators and co-conspirators. Many thanks H & H. And thanks to #psvtam for driving many of the plot twists along the way and being such good sports. Now what are we going to do next year? 😉

  2. Hats off to you and Hugh; Your very correct, this is something I’ll never forget. It’s always easy with hindsight, but we should have suspected Hugh a lot earlier given the content of his lecture..
    Just so pleased to have been involved in this ARG, Rufi will live forever!

    • it’s been an absolute pleasure and your contribution has been incredibly important – seriously James, you’ve been a key player throughout the game and quite frankly, i don’t think it would have worked out so well if you hadn’t been involved.

  3. Helen, you now have me pouring over all the blogs. The subtlety and deliciousness of this game and how you all dealt with each issue on a day to day basis is staggering. Even though I stepped back in the later weeks it is good to know that I played a part in possibly the greatest thing I have ever been exposed to, you clearly are a genius in many ways and your all consuming desire to push the boundaries of education content beyond the norm is a testament that should be followed by all how want to create that “something special” for all involved.

    Your knowledge has opened many doors and possibilities to me as a student and more importantly as a person, again I forever in your debt.



    • Paul you’re making me cry! It’s all thanks to people like you that this module/ARG has been such an amazing experience for all involved. As for the ‘genuis’ tag, I like to leave that one for Huey – I’m just the reckless educator 😉

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    • Thanks Liz! It was certainly quite an experience for all – the students who really got involved were amazing, pouring over clues, codes etc. and coming up with their own ideas not only with regards ‘Rufi Franzen’ but also driving the curriculum through their own interests. Great fun.

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