In Cipher Force, players work together as teams of freedom fighters trying to outsmart a wily and oppressive enemy—the aliens from the first game, who by now have conquered much of the Earth. Students are tasked with creating a unique code that will stump their fictional opponents. Most resistance fighters have been captured, and the players’ goal is to free them.

The premise is that the alien invaders have been very successful at breaking the freedom fighters’ secret codes. Knowledge of the fighters’ plans has given the aliens the ability to foil the resistance’s rescue missions. But the resistance leader has learned that the invaders have a weak spot—they do not share the human ability to “read” images. Since the aliens lack image-processing skills, the leader has asked code-making teams to create an image-based communication system that can’t be deciphered by the enemy.


kids playing
The game begins with the teacher setting up missions for groups of students. Each mission requires a team to create a certain number of “image codes,” and successful code making leads to the freeing of prisoners.

The teacher chooses which words will be active in a mission (picking from sets of 24 science, 24 social studies, or 24 cross-content words) and decides how many image codes teams should create and decipher. Finally, the teacher determines the number of prisoners the class is collectively trying to rescue. The outcome of the mission will depend on how many image codes the students successfully create and decipher.

Creating the Code
cipher force image

This player used the game’s drawing tools to bolster his image code.

Students play the game as homework. After logging in to the Wordplay Games site, players are randomly assigned definitions of words selected by the teacher and then create image codes for these definitions. Picking from a large gallery of photos, they assemble a set of three images to convey their definitions to their teammates. They can alter the images using simple shapes such as arrows and circles to highlight certain features. The evocative nature of the photos nudges players to consider the meaning they are trying to communicate rather than searching for literal representations of a particular word or definition. Players also can create their own images from a selection of pre-determined shapes.

Once a player has completed an image code that she thinks best conveys her definition, the code is stored in a database along with all other players’ codes for the mission. A typical evening’s assignment is to create 2 to 4 image codes.

Deciphering the Code

At the hardest level, decoders must pick the correct word and definition from a choice of three words/nine definitions.

The next day’s homework involves solving the codes. After logging on, each player receives an image code created by a teammate. Now the player tries to decipher the code in order to determine whether the player’s images effectively communicate the intended meaning. The player’s goal is to solve 2 to 4 image codes per session.

At the game’s easiest level, the player is given three definitions of a single word from which to choose. One of those is the definition the teammate is trying to communicate. The player must decide which definition is best represented by the image code.

At the hardest level, players have nine possibilities to choose from—three words with three definitions each. If they choose correctly, their skill as decoders is rewarded when a successfully transmitted coded message results in the rescue of dozens of captured freedom fighters. More prisoners are rescued if the game is set to a harder difficulty level with six or nine definitions to choose from instead of three.

In class, the teacher shows samples of image codes students have created, using them to prompt a discussion about what makes an effective code. The conversation provides an opportunity for the teacher to prompt students to think about how to clearly communicate a specific definition. It is also an opportunity for the class to explore and discuss the various definitions of the multiple-meaning words in that mission. Over time, students discover that they need to help their teammates discriminate among the various possible definitions from which they’re choosing. This leads players to move away from trying to present illustrations of the target word (associating pictures to meaning in a one-to-one relationship) and toward strategies such as eliminating options (illustrating a different definition and crossing it out), illustrating concepts associated with the target definition, or highlighting specific features of pictures that illustrate elements of the target definition.

Cipher Force is played in short sessions over the course of several weeks, and ends when teams have completed three or four missions. It is a collaborative and social game, with teammates working together to create codes that communicate meaning clearly. But there is also the possibility of competition if teachers divide their classes into teams to see which one can free the most prisoners.

Cipher Force In Action

If you are interested in how to integrate Cipher Force into your classroom, check out these Video Walkthroughs