Routes was a transmedia educational thriller commissioned by Channel 4 Education in the UK, with additional funding from The Wellcome Trust. It was produced by Oil Productions. Routes launched on Jan. 29, 2009 and ran for eight weeks. The goal was to engage teens, particularly teen girls, with science content.
The experience revolved around a central portal site, RoutesGame.com, as well as several other blogs, websites, and social media networks. The project consisted of four major pieces:
- Weekly minigames demonstrating scientific processes like heredity and the spr ead of an infectious disease through sneezing.
- A documentary piece following award-winning comedian Katherine Ryan as she had a DNA test performed and grappled with what the results meant for her and her future children.
- An alternate reality game that allowed players to help teenager Rachel Burren and journalist Matt Blacker solve the mystery of why bioscientist Marcus Schoenberg – Rachel’s uncle – was murdered.
- Weekly recap webisodes covering the events in the alternate reality game to make them accessible for a wider audience.
- Over half a million unique viewers to date
- Minigames have been played over 23 million times
- 40% of players were in the target audience (teens in the UK)
- The total production budget was £800,000
Routes has taken home a number of awards:
- The 2010 IVCA Gold in the Web 2.0 category
- The 2010 IVCA Grand Prix
- A 2009 BIMA in the Interactive - Content category
Routes has also been shortlisted or nominated for several others:
- 2010 Rockie Award for Original Online Program (not yet awarded)
- The Prix Jeunesse International 2010 Interactivity Prize (not yet awarded)
- BIMAs in the categories of Online - Website, Informational, and Children's - Interactive
- 2009 BAFTA for Best Children's Interactive
- 2010 MediaGuardian Innovation Award for Use of Web Platforms
- UK Writer's Guild award
Routes was launched as a traditional games portal and documentary. The characters of Matt and Rachel attended the launch party in-character; they each had a web presence established well before the run of the game.
During the party, Rachel discovered that her uncle, Markus Schoenberg – one of the science advisors for the Routes game portal – had been murdered, launching the murder mystery component of the experience.
In real time and via several media, Rachel and Matt investigated Markus’s death. The community of players helped them translate Portuguese police reports, infiltrate an unscrupulous private security company, help an informant escape kidnapping, and more.
Ultimately, they pieced together the facts: Markus had stumbled on a plot in which the Prometha, a bioscience company, was paying a field agent to obtain illegal DNA samples of protected plants and animals from Brazil. This agent’s actions inadvertently wiped out an indigenous tribe, the Murutaibo, by infecting them with measles. When Markus found out, he was killed to keep the secret.
In the experience’s finale, players participated in live chat and watched security camera footage in real time as the characters and a select few players broke into Prometha’s labs to obtain concrete proof.
Routes made heavy use of blogs, websites, email, and social media to tell the story. Characters had a social presence on Facebook, Bebo, and YouTube, and responded to comments and emails – usually within a few hours. A few sample links and sites include:
- The main website: http://www.routesgame.com
- Rachel Burren’s weblog: http://www.rachcon1.com
- Matt Blacker’s website: http://www.mattblacker.co.uk
- DEPAA, a fictional environmentalist group: http://www.depaa.org
- Prometha, a fictional pharmaceutical company: http://www.prometha.co.uk
Several Levels of Participation
Throughout the experience, players were given the opportunity to engage with the content and story on several levels, as much or as little as they chose.
- Watching the weekly documentary and ARG recap webisodes
- Playing minigames on the main portal site
- Helping and communicating with several characters as the story unfolded, even becoming another character in the story
- Exploring online content by following clues and discovering new websites
- Attending live events, including a launch party and a comedy show
- Assisting both online and on location with a finale raid on a bioscience lab to obtain evidence of the murderer’s crimes
My role in this project was lead interaction designer. In this role, I performed several key tasks:
- Architecting the structure of the interactive experience
- Designing specifications for the games portal and minigame mechanics
- Scripting the flow and sequence for all live events
- Writing specifications and copy for websites
- Defining all social media elements
- Responding to player activity across all social media
- Tracking audience response to fine-tune the experience as necessary