alternate reality games conferences education

ARGs in Charity and Education – Operation: Sleeper Cell

Juliette Culver

Main post on the conference is here.

As ever, errors and omissions my own, and any personal commentary is in [square brackets]

EDIT: updated with some corrections, courtesy of Juliette


Started when the CRUK competition was launched about a year ago, we were the winners of that competition, and made this game. Did it all in our spare time, and the game only finished last week.

To play the game, you signed up as a trainee secret agent on a website – – main site has a grid in the centre, 10×10. Each cell it he grid is an agency sleeper cell that needs to be funded to combat EVIL.

New cells got released gradually over the course of the game.

On release, each cell has to be sponsored with real cash, usually up to around £30, and the sponsor gets to choose the icon that then represents it. The team who sponsored got a 10-hour headstart on the mission (it was free to play – you would just always be 10 hours behind the curve).


Most missions were puzzles of some sort

(example: listening to morse code recording and decoding it)

(example: create a scene from a James Bond movie in lego)

(example: make a cake)

(example: knitted cup of tea and knitted biscuits (angelsk))

As well as the puzzles, we had a story. Key NPCs had their own blogs, and one had a twitter feed. Story revolved around working out which of the NPCs was a mole.

EVIL = Erudite Villains In Leather

EVIL website was available (and ugly) and the players had to work out the password to get in at one point.

The evil mastermind’s pet goldfish had its own blog, and would drop hints to the player, because she hated her owner.

Each time you complete a puzzle you get a reward of some kind from the sleeper cell. Sometimes these were cosmetic / fun / jokes, other times they were bits of a huge jigsaw puzzle, a blueprint for a doomsday mahine. That jgisaw puzzle also had encrypted numbers in it that players had to decode and find a particular book – The field guide to the Birds of the West Indies (which inspirted the naming of James Bond) – and the nubmers from puzzle decoded names of the birds that lead you to cancer research UK shop, where a copy of that book contained a clue to a masterplan kept in Bletchley Park.


If you sponsored the game, you got a certifiate in the mail, and a business card which had a single letter written on it in UV ink. Players didnt quite manage to get all that data together in time to make the message with it, so game ending had to be changed a litle.


amount raised: £3110

donations: 108 (by 66 people)

players > 4000 = 42
players > 1500 = 72
605 reg players
62 people posted to forums

34 twitter followers
5300 visitors
avg time on site 11.5 minutes
num players on facebook group = 135
number of players at end of game social event = 2

forum posts = 1296


Adrian: do you think it was a success, what would you change

Juliette: 4 main things to change: our original plan was amibitious (such tend to win competitions) and we should have scaled back after winning before starting, and added them in as we had time. We had too many people involved in development which made things inefficient and it was particularly hard to make decisions quick enough during the live game. We didn’t think enough about the game design before making it, partly because the team was mostly working remotely, one of the key people at the start was in liverpool when most of the rest were in south east; getting together in real life was the most productive thing but we didnt do it enough.

Dave: the biggest problem was that we relied a lot on skyped, and it would have been a lot easier if we’d been physically co-located.

Alex: either think more creatively about advertising, not enough time thought about how to market it, too much thought about just delivering it.

Marc: spent a lot of time making a game for ourselves, and we could have thought more about who was going to play it, and what they would like, and where they would spend most of their time. Turned out at the end that most players really just wanted the puzzles, and weren’t that interested in the meta-story / mega-meta-puzzle we made – so that time perhaps wasn’t entirely well-spent.

Adrian: what would you try out next time

Alex: we launched at start of school term, but didnt take advantage of that. We had some teachers contact us wanting to do thigns with their kids.

Q: I found the puzzles at the start were so hard that I couldnt get as far as the meta-story. With PXC (Perplex City) there were millions of forums posters who constantly helped you with the puzzles as an individual, so it was OK it was fine, but with this there were very few people helping you.

Dave: a lot of people have said to me that it looked eally good, but the initial puzzles were – perhaps not too hard – but more engaging, maybe some easier, maybe some more attractive. We had a lot of people visit the site who never engaged. Eventually we added a Start Here cell which helped a bit, but it was late. We had no obvious starting point for people new to the site.

[ADAM: very interesting observation here – PXC was a major commercial undertaking, with 1.5 years of warm-up marketing before the main game launched, and then lots of professionally-managed PR etc. Other ARG makers need to be careful when taking inspiration from PXC to note which things were inherent to the genre/game, and which were inherent to the presence of a substantial full-time professional development company]

Q: generally do you think that ARGs are a viable mechanism for charities, not only a resource financially, but also the market – are ARG-players the correct market that charities are trying to reach?

Adrian: during conversations we’ve had with charities, a lot of them want to target younger people because their own demo is skewed too much away from that right now.

The time it took is a red-herring – we didnt spend that many hours over the course of the time we spent.

Adrian: getting a lot more players at the start would help using non-ARG techniques eg CRUK has a lot of marketing it can do itself for such a product. CRUK was such a big organization that there were lots of people inside the org who had no idea of the existence of the ARG.

Q: with 600 people playing, how did they find the game?

Word of mouth, people blogging about it (e.g. the Guardian games blog ran an interview about the game) [ADAM: GGB has a substantial readership, and Aleks Krotoski has featured ARGs quite a few times, so I’m surprised they didn’t get more players than that], about 2 thirds were ARG players already.

We didnt really have anyone concentrating on the PR, which let us down a bit.

[ADAM: I misheard this as “art”, not “PR”. Doh. Getting it right it makes a lot more sense!]

Q: how do you attract NON-ARG players then?

keep the puzzles less cryptic, and have a wider range – that stands out, that different people like different stuff, and the general population really like very simple mass-market puzzles like SuDoKu.

Q: did you have any user-testing

A bit of usability testing of the site, and a little bit of testing of puzzles but not much. A lot of stuff we were doing on the fly as the game happened so there wasn’t a chance to do playtesting

Adrian: spend less time on game desing, more on marketing / promotion?

Spend more time thinking about how to integrate the two

Q: how did you price your puzzles? [ADAM: the sponsorship was priced by the game developers]

really wanted individuals to put small donations and pool it as a team, but werent enough team donations vs personal, so we had to drop the price of cells down to around £30 from having been £50 initially to make it viable for individuals

Q: what about awareness raising, did that add a lot more intangible value than just the small cash raised?

Adrian: we asked CRUK do you want awareness or money, and they said emphatically money.

Q: what was the connection between fundraising and money? did you have to raise moeny to play?

no, it was just a headstart on the missions. At the end, some of the teams were very competitive about this.

Q: a week after sleeper cell there wer elots of other ARG charity launches – is there a danger of too many of these?

[some comments here – and later on throughout the day – from both speakers and audience suggesting that the Red Cross game was a lot less compelling; should check it out]