Ghosts, ghouls, and computational thinking: BYU creates educational alternate reality game

Imagine a ghost leading you on an eerie journey through history all while learning computer-related skills. Several BYU professors and students have created an alternate world where you can do that.

The Tessera” is an educational, alternate reality game created to help teenagers get interested in computational thinking. The game takes players on a journey to fight off the evil powers of entropy by solving online computational thinking puzzles, some of which bleed into the real world.

Ghosts of famous men and women help the player on their journey. For many levels in the game, multiple students must work together to solve problems that help them escape the room they are in and advance to the next level. Some levels will lead players to a real world place, like a library, to find a cypher-code hidden in a book. The game is meant to get students excited about learning and solving problems together.

“We want players to recognize that computer-related skills are not just for ‘geeks,’” said Derek Hansen, associate professor of information technology and BYU’s project lead. “We also hope to introduce them to new ways of thinking and solving problems that leverage computer technologies.”

The University of Maryland, Tinder Transmedia, and the Computer History Museum teamed up with BYU to create the game with the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding the project. BYU partnered with NASA last year to create “DUST,” another NSF-funded alternate reality game focused on scientific inquiry.

The Computer History Museum in California will also have an exhibit opening soon where students can play the game. Lexie Bradford, a junior studying information technology at BYU, is the student lead for the museum experience, helping design and play-test educational puzzles and elements used in the exhibit. She also helps with quality assurance on the online component of the game. The game is meant to get girls just as excited about STEM subjects as boys, something Bradford thinks is important

“We need women in STEM so that other girls see that tech isn't just for boys,” Bradford said. “Every person, male or female needs a role model to aspire to be. For a long time, women were (and still are, less so) underrepresented in STEM fields. This gave off the impression that these were non-female professions, and it's not true. “

Jorge Diaz, a junior in information technology at BYU, also felt passionate about getting involved with the game. He is very interested in game development, so when he heard about a professor looking for students to develop a game, he jumped at the opportunity to get involved. Now, he is the lead programmer for the game.

While the project has been spearheaded by students in the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, other colleges have gotten involved, too. Advertising professor Jeff Sheets has coordinated with the College of Fine Arts and Communications to get students in communications, animation, music and other majors to help develop the game. Technology Engineering Education professor Steven Shumway and his students have helped evaluate these new types of games in formal educational settings. Hansen has loved working with all these students and seeing them all come together to bring the game to life.

“By far, my favorite part of being a faculty member at BYU is working with the creative, self-motivated, and highly talented students at BYU,” he said. “It's great to see them stretch themselves and play such pivotal roles on projects with real impact. Our partners at other universities and institutions have been amazed at the aptitude and maturity of BYU undergraduate students.”

The game will launch January 17 with a kickoff celebration from 5-7 p.m. in the Amber Room at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point, which will be open to the public. More information about the game can be found at http://thetessera.org.

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