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The Tessera: a ghost story to spark computational thinking

Inspire yourself and your teens to try something new during Teen Tech Week. Today’s guest post for #TTW17 comes from the team that designed The Tessera, an Alternative Reality Game (ARG) that introduces computational thinking concepts and computer history to teen players who solve challenges to defy the chaos triggered by the sinister “S.”

by Elizabeth Bonsignore, Katie Kaczmarek, Kari Kraus and Anthony Pellicone from the University of Maryland; and Derek Hansen from Brigham Young University

dark room with chest of drawers and old typewriter holding paper
The Tessera “Wunderkammer,” or Cabinet of Curiosities, and its card catalog that holds a ~500-word “book cipher” players must decode.

The following scenario offers a glimpse into gameplay for ARG The Tessera:

Ms. Edmunds is a middle school librarian running a #ReadyToCode after-school club that has been playing The Tessera, an interactive online mystery that introduces teens to foundational computational thinking concepts and key individuals from the history of computing. Her 8th graders have just entered a room within the game world that contains materials curated by members of a secret organization called the Tessera. Here, they discover an old library catalog whose cards contain “book ciphers” that, once decoded, will reveal a letter from Ada Lovelace, a Tessera leader who is known today as the author of the world’s first computer program. The teens must work together to find the books listed in the catalog cards, then follow the encoded clues to locate the words within those books that comprise the contents of Ada’s letter. Ms. Edmunds helps her club members to find several of the books in their media center or online via resources like Project Gutenberg. They page through the books together, compiling a growing list of words that disclose the letter’s contents. Once complete, Ada’s letter rewards players with key details about the Tessera’s secret mission against the evil “S.” During after-school sessions, Ms. Edmunds shows her teens how they can share their questions, frustrations, and successes with others in-game, through the Tessera players’ forum. She also encourages them to contribute their own findings and musings on the public-facing Tessera community wiki. Like the teens in her club, Ms. Edmunds has a player profile, which she uses to respond to players’ questions and share her own thoughts. Over the course of 8-12 weekly after-school sessions, Ms. Edmunds facilitates online and face-to-face meetups with teens in her media center as they tackle the multi-level computational thinking challenges in this interactive, multiplayer mystery.

Vintage catalogue card
A card from the catalog, with the ISBN, page, line, and word location from a published book that will lead players to the “right word” for this particular Tessera puzzle.

What is an Alternate Reality Game?

An ARG is a multi-platform interactive story that empowers players to tackle real-world issues in a fictional scenario. In an ARG, players must work collaboratively to uncover clues and solve puzzles that can be hidden in multiple media and physical spaces, such as text messages, print novels, museum exhibits and the Web. Instead of assuming the role of a fictional character or guiding the actions of an avatar through a controller, ARG players play as themselves, using everyday tools (e.g., phones, desktop/laptops). ARGs should not be confused with video games; while most of the dialogue and storyline in a videogame is contained within one game interface (e.g., console), the dialogue and backstory for an ARG character could be presented in a blog post or graphic novel installment, shared secretly with players via online chat, or even staged as a live, interactive scene with players. Because ARGs naturally invite players to search for and share information to solve a mystery, they can engage teens in collaborative, analytical problem-solving.

Vintage letter with catalog card. Text follows:
A Tessera caretaker’s logbook, containing hints on how to use the card catalog to decode the words in Ada’s letter.

What is The Tessera?

Brigham Young University, the University of Maryland, and Tinder Transmedia have collaborated with the Computer History Museum to design The Tessera, an educational ARG for middle school and early high school students. The Tessera is funded by the National Science Foundation. We designed many of The Tessera’s interactive features with teens, for teens. The Tessera is designed to expose teens to computer history while engaging them in computational-thinking activities. However, it’s important to note that The Tessera does not include explicit “learn-to-code” activities like those hosted by (Hour of Code) or the Scratch community. Instead, its goal is to introduce teens to foundational computing concepts like problem decomposition, pattern recognition, and abstraction as they explore an interactive ghost story. The activities themselves are similar to those found in online spaces like CS-unplugged or similar logic puzzle game sites. In many ways, The Tessera’s education philosophy echoes and promotes ALA literacy learning goals like “Dispositions in Action” (i.e., ongoing beliefs and attitudes that guide thinking and intellectual behavior). Our design team creates immersive, interactive narratives like The Tessera to help teens who don’t think of themselves as “computer scientists” to realize that computing concepts can be relevant to their lives and interests.

The Tessera’s story revolves around a mysterious collective of historically significant innovators, known as “The Tessera,” hunted by the inscrutable, sinister “S.” Players navigate real-world and online computational thinking puzzles with the help of the ghosts of these famous men and women who are trying to save everything their think-tank stands for from S’s destructive tendencies.

The online game is known as The Tessera: A Light in the Dark. It includes an in-museum component, The Tessera: Ghostly Tracks, which is hosted by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. In Ghostly Tracks, teens solve puzzles related to the museum’s exhibits to identify Tessera members who are “haunting” the museum. Players can also interact with in-game characters through social media, to reinforce the sense that the gameworld has spilled out into the “real world.” There’s a character-based Instagram account and a pair of twitter accounts, too: one for the Tessera’s nemesis, S, and one controlled by the ghosts of the Tessera. We also host a Tessera Facebook page for parents and educators.

Currently, The Tessera’s live game is in full swing. Teen Tech Week may be the perfect time for public libraries and school media centers to register their teens and get started!

After the live launch ends, a replayable version will be available for classroom/home use. The replayable version can be played in modules as a semester-long after-school club, as part of a summer reading program at a public library, or condensed into smaller teaching units. Librarians and educators who are interested in the replayable version of the game should contact the Tessera design team for information on how to facilitate the game and how its activities relate to curricular standards on computational thinking. More information can be found on our Educator Guide/FAQ, linked here.

Whether you’re interested in registering and joining forces with The Tessera during Teen Tech Week, or need to wait a bit for the replayable version, here are some ideas for how librarians and educators can best support teen players as they take on “S” in computational thinking activities and assume active roles in preserving the history of computing!

What does a Tessera Gamerunner do?

A gamerunner acts as a facilitator for players, encouraging and sustaining their participation throughout the game. Although gamerunners are privy to the overall storyline and puzzles, they participate alongside players. As you might imagine, librarians can make the best gamerunners! Tessera gamerunners engage their players by:

Giving clear calls-to-action and promoting player contributions: Gamerunners can use the in-game chat room and forum to help players manage tasks, share resources, and give positive feedback.

Moderating negative/unproductive behavior: Like any other online forum, The Tessera can spark heated debate. In these instances, gamerunners can reinforce community norms about respectful responses to other points of view.

Collaborating in world-building: ARGs are participatory narratives, meaning that players can contribute to the story. The public wiki on Fandom provides a platform for players to share their research about the lives of The Tessera members, to imagine how these real-life innovators might have contributed to their secret society, and to describe how they may have encountered “S” in their own lives.

Give The Tessera a try with your teens. Act quickly, though. Time is running out. “S” is moving in. We need help. We need you. We are The Tessera. We’re waiting for you.

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Marijke Visser

As of November 2018, District Dispatch is no longer being updated. It is now being archived for future use. Please visit for the latest news.

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