Event Writeup: Civic Games


Ethan’s mic comes on and we begin. He says that the Center for Civic Media’s event topics are becoming progressively more fun as the semester continues, especially this week, with Civic Games.

How does the world of games intersect with the world of civic media, with how media and change are intertwined? Ethan started started the semester thinking of media as newspapers, and maybe blogs and Twitter. Then he met Nathan Matias. On Nathan’s first day in the Media Lab, he was sculpting balloons to teach people about DNA structures. After that incident, Ethan had to open his definition of “media” to be much more inclusive.

Games, by some measures, are significantly more popular than other forms of entertainment, and their budgets rival and sometimes surpass Hollywood films. People who play games and identify as gamers don’t fit the usual stereotype anymore.

Ethan introduces the panel (Original event description and full speaker bios).

Colleen Macklin (BudgetBall) (PETLab) teachs at Parson’s School of Design at the New School, but is also on sabbatical, and is taking a break from surfing to hang out with us.

Scot Osterweil is the creative director of MIT’s Education Arcade and has been involved with an incredible array of educational games, looking at how we play, learn, teach, and how we understand complicated concepts.

Elizabeth Lawley is Professor of Interactive Games and Media at Rochester Institute of Technology – a pioneer in the world of social computing, working at the intersection of people and computers for a long time. Lately has been working on a “wonderfully insane project” called Just Press Play.

Ethan: I’m interested in the idea that gamification has become a bad word. If I just tack a game onto something that isn’t otherwise compelling, is that a cop-out?

Everyone here cares about games being fun to play, about games being games.

Liz: “Picture the Impossible: Creating a city-wide ARG on a shoestring budget.”

We were handed an unfunded mandate to produce this social game for the city of Rochester: Picture The Impossible. Our four goals:

  1. Help people learn about the city (especially suburbanites)
  2. Explore Rochester more
  3. Give back to the community in a meaningful way
  4. Make it a social experience

We lined up three charities who would be the beneficiaries of the work completed in the game. Each week saw various challenges tied to a theme, as well as puzzles in the newspapers and online casual games. The central guiding force was that if we didn’t want to have fun playing these games, we shouldn’t do it.

Rochester, NY is home to box cameras, Gannet’s newspapers, the first automobile patent, Western Union, French’s mustard, salon chairs, and many other great inventions. We challenged people to submit photos, and weren’t sure anyone would, but ended up receiving hundreds of creative and humorous submissions. People worked their scavenger routes on weekends with a smartphone. Over 2,000 players, 6,500 forum posts and ZERO trolls or flamewars (!!!). Majority of users were female.

We were asked to tell the story of what the game inspired, so we put it out a challenge to the players: Make a 3 minute video telling how the game had helped them “picture the impossible.” The results were incredible.

But then it ended. Where do you go from there?

New project: Just Press Play. A gaming layer for undergraduate education. We’re not gamifying
education – the word is terrible but it’s not going away. We’re not slapping badges and points on things. That’s a couple of game mechanics,
not a game.

It started by some of us saying, why can’t we get credit for being AWESOME?

FourSquare works not because of the badges, but because it allows you to reflect on all of the great stuff you’ve done.
4sq&7yearsago reminds you where you were last year – I’ll be able to see a year from now that I was hanging out at the Media Lab.

What can we do for our students? Help them see the landscape of where they need to go, what they’ve already done, and reflect.

You start with a great idea, and then the reality hits you, and you’re like, “Crap, this could be terrible!

All the literature on motivation is clear: rewards don’t make things better. In fact, they make things worse. (Drive, by Daniel Pink)

Liz reminds herself with a hanging in her office, “It’s the autonomy, stupid.” People have to actually want to play. Students must not feel like this is one more thing they have to do.

We talked a lot with Sebastian Deterding. Shared a quotation from “Gamification by Design: A Response to O’Reilly

“My point is that the “fun”, the pleasure of these elements does not come
from some extrinsic reward value of those elements, but chiefly from the
experience of competence they give rise to.”

RIT actually started from the Rochester Athenaeum. There’s a tension between the Athenaeum and the Mechanics Society, who merged to found RIT: breadth vs. depth. Liz shows a two axis graph, of Exploration vs. mastery and social vs. individual. This graph is the logo of Just Press Play.

The game requires physical check-ins with RFID tags when you attend talks. Every faculty member gets a collectible card, which you can only collect by fulfilling their stipulation. Liz asked that students make her laugh, another professor hid six cards in his office, and students felt compelled to make conversation before rifling through his belongings.

The game’s trailer:

There are 720 undergraduates in the program, and in the first week, 400 of them signed up. Students went to the Just Press Play website in class instead of Facebooking in class.

The designers put in an achievement: if 90% of the freshmen passed their first class in game design, everyone would get an achievement. “Undying: Bulletproof.” Right before final exams, in the game design class, someone posted a request for help on Facebook. The first post said, “We won’t win the Undying: Bulletproof achievement if this person fails the class.” The upper class students set up a weekend workshop to help out the newcomers, and 91% of the students passed the class, up from previous years.

The hope is to have a game engine to be freely distributed to other educational institutions by the end of this year.

Ethan: These are pretty intricate game ecosystems – hidden RFID readers all over RIT’s campus. Is it go big or go home? Can you implement ideas like this incrementally, on a smaller scale?

Liz: Absolutely. We leveraged the strengths we have at RIT. We got a generous gift from Microsoft, but mainly we relied on resources we had. I brought in a student who was an engineer who had worked with Disney Imagineers for the RFID. But actually, the RFID isn’t working yet. The collectible cards have been really popular and low-tech. It doesn’t have to be high tech. Tracy Fullerton at USC has designed a card game.

We had to scale for 720 students – it killed me – I went into hibernation for a year and had to be lured out of my office with little bits of
cheese. So we’re looking at ways to automate it.
Looking at implementing it now at a law school – a very different set of students.

Ethan: If you want to see competitive, try law students.

Colleen’s talk is titled “The Lifeification of Games” (rather than the Gamification of Life) (see blog post)

Colleen says one of her many motivations for coming here was to get those airline miles, the original gamification. She runs PetLab at Parson’s, a public interest game design and research lab for interactive media.

She also works on Backchatter, a massively multiplayer Twitter game for the backchannel of conferences.

The meta game (“The Meta Game Gets Kickstarted”) was designed for the Game Developers Conference, knowing that everyone’s going there to sit around and geek out about games. Cards inspire debates, like, “Which game is a better way to spend ten years?”

It’s nice to see a resurgence in social games and board games, and games that might not even have a digital component at all.

Colleen quotes Gamer Theory:

“Ever get the feeling you are playing some vast and useless
game to which you don’t know the goal, and can’t remember the rules?”

Gamer Theory argues that gamers might be the best equipped to act and enact change in the real world.

Quote from Paul Krugman on “The War on Logic”.

This is where Colleen thinks games can intervene, since games are mathematic and involve systems. They are the popular medium of systems. They put us in a system, there’s feedback, there are inputs and outputs.

Budgetball is an actual physical sport. We all got in really good shape play-testing this game (review on Games for Change).

The goal of the game was to raise awareness across college campuses amongst undergraduates about the federal debt, and the fact that they’re gonna end up paying it off. We thought, what could we create that would actually be fun to play? We prototyped ten games in the first week. We had a simulation game where you run a country, a Facebook game, a game where you apportion a pizza.

Like most sports, in Budgetball you pass a ball and get a goal, but in between there are these moments where you balance a budget. There are powerups you can purchase, that let you do more, and it feels good – that’s why we go into debt in the first place – it lets us do more. But
you end up having to budget between each period to end up with a balanced budget, while still trying to take as many advantages as you
can and strategize to use your powerups at the right time.

It’s less a game to teach you the literal details of the debt and more to let you feel what the emotions are like.

Re: Activism NYC:
Race through the history of riots, protests and activism in New York City and reactivate sites of political action through play! It takes sites of activism: public acts of assembly and occupations, and it has players between different teams race between sites and complete challenges which memorialise or reenact those moments. It just requires phones to text message and photograph. But in the game, you’re hardly learning the content, because your focus is on the challenges. You might learn in an embodied way about the history. You do learn how to use the phones.

It’s since expanded to San Francisco.

Re:Activism bumped into the actual Occupy Philadelphia while re-enacting protest.

Games have been around for a long time, including dice in Mesopotamia. They serve an important function in our evolution and creative culture, just like storytelling art, visualization do. But in two very different ways. The Queer Art of Failure talks about Chicken Run as a film about the emanicipation of labor in feminist politics. Pixar and Dreamworks’s films are allegories where really political films can happen. Adult (mainstream) films don’t have these messages.

Games deconstruct the idea of the hero and what that means, and unpacks what playing violent games entails. “Stories allegorise, and games verbify”. Thinking in Systems

rules + play = emergence
The idea of games having strict rules, and then the role of play pushing against those rules and creating within them creates emergence, and that’s the beautiful part of games.

In-game mechanics, it’s dribbling a basketball or aiming a gun in Call of Duty. What are the civic mechanics?

Most civic games suck because they have a dominant strategy, because the game designer wants to hit you over the head with the message of the game. Colleen admits she doesn’t actually play civic games. The design challenge is to create games that have emergent, rather than dominant strategies, games that allow multiple strategies to emerge.

Scot Osterweil: Clockwork Orange shows a thug being re-programmed into being a good citizen. It’s a disturbing image, but it’s also what I’d argue most people who make civic games are trying to do. They’ve go ta piece of technology, and they’re going to strap you in and make you change. Aaron Zimmerman calls it instrumentation – the idea that we’re going to instrument people through games.

Scot shows Pieter Brueghel’s Children’s Games, full of games in the public square. We play more games than we ever have, and studies show it’s not entirely isolated, but it’s not as public as it could be.

Vanished, funded by the Smithsonian Institution, was online for middle schoolers (on the Smithsonian site)(https://vanished.mit.edu/). Two goals:

1) Help the Smithsonian show how museums can extend their missions beyond museum walls.
2) Give kids a different understanding of what it meant to be a scientist, and see if kids’ attitudes towards science changed or evolved

The game began with a broken video feed and an appeal for help in the forums. Ten or so kids noticed some strings of code flying by, andworked together in the forum within hours to find out it was a cypher, find decoding websites, collect snippets of text together. Within 3 days, the kids put together the message, synthesized by voice, with a message from the future. Kids were sent down a rabbithole, collecting temperature data, then calibrating location and other units of measure for the future, positing hypotheses

“If you went to a museum, it wasn’t a scavenger hunt. You had to do the research and report to your colleagues what you found there.”

“Scientists were talking to them as colleagues. They also discovered that scientists aren’t just middle-aged white guys.” The kids discovered really early on that this was fiction. They had no trouble distinguishing between the fiction and the science. In fact, they were doing science in order to advance the fiction. “For kids who we thought would not take a leadership role in the problem solving, we made Flash games”.

They compared contribution rates and engagement levels to Wikipedia and Urgent Evoke
and found their participants had significantly higher levels:

The Occupy movement, at its core, is about enacting democracy. What they’re doing on the sites is trying to enact the world we all ought to be living in, and that’s far more important than the policy proposals pundits want. And a lot of it is explicitly playful – the Guy Fawkes mask is play – but it’s serious play.

If we think about the kids who came out of the game wanting to be scientists, I think we can think of all kinds of games that allow people
to play and see themselves in new ways.

Ethan: Talking to a historian who looks at simulated communities for youth that were used as a form of reform for troubled youth, as a prescriptive way of (not figuring out what democracy looks like) but telling 12 year olds what democracy is. This runs into Colleen’s problem of things which are too prescriptive.

Ethan: How do you keep things from being prescriptive and maintaining play?
Scot: Every time it’s different. I don’t think the ciritical thing is narrative, although sparking imagination is a good thing. If you want to get notions of democracy, you might create a game where people have to engage in some form of decisionmaking.

Colleen: Giving people a chance to get from point A to B in many ways. Also, requiring collective play (everyone had different roles, different codes, different locations for collecting evidence). Tere were also different roles tat people could play.

[microphone issues]
Colleen: We could use the human microphone!

Liz: I want to address the issue of not making people feel forced. People are very different. They don’ all want to do the same kinds of things. It was important to have content that students create, as they reached different levels. Older students and alumni are asked, “what do you wish someone had encouraged you to do.” Lots of Alumni ask, “why didn’t you ever encourage us to….” and they’re now able to create quests for students. We can try to make things attractive, the “Nudge” approach of rearranging the food on the cafeteria tray. But as soon as we design a game that everyone has to play, we have failed. Some people won’t play it, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to work for everybody.

Charlie de Tar: Talking about enactment in participatory democracy. There are lots of reasons Occupy uses “Prefigurative politics” you want to enact the world you want to see in the politics you’re doing. Contrast that with Grand Theft Auto, which is a lot of fun to play, but not really what we want the world to become. “What’s the place in civic games for playing the bad guys?”

Someone showed people Grand Theft Auto and said “Here is a game. Play it.” People without any preconceived notion of GTA didn’t realise that you’re supposed to do things like shoot people. They drove around and stopped at red lights.

Scot: I would totally be in favour of a game in which you get to be a dictator. Transgressive games are perfectly reasonable as well. I feel a lot more comfortable letting people play transgressively in a context where they can reflect on something, not that they have to. There’s nothing worse than the Virtuous Player Syndrome. People will do it to get through the game as quickly as possible, and they’ll learn nothing.

Ethan: Could we do an Occupy Game based on being the 1%? Monopoly is a game about the evils of monopoly and the concentration of wealth.

Audience member: A lot of people define serious games as “beyond entertainment.” But everytime I talk to designers, they say that’s not the point.

Colleen: What is entertainment? But there is truth to the fact that a lot of popular media has interesting subversive ideas, but perhaps not so much adult media. Pesonally, as someone working on games like this, as well as games for entertainment. If I wanted to do that, perhaps entertainment is stuff without there being a consequence, when I’m interested in having an outcome.

Liz: I think those are very artificial distinctions. I dislike the category of “serious games.” It’s like saying “this is a serious novel as opposed to an entertaining one.” What I want is a “good novel.”

Scot: Macbeth is a serious play, and it’s also entertainment. Some nights you don’t feel up to Macbeth, but it’s still entertainment. Macbeth, Checkov, Dickens, all of who were entertaining and serious at the same time. We should keep them in mind as we do our work.

Ethan: We just had a conversation where we said how bad these words are, like “serious games.” We were then talking about how hard this is to get right. You produce something, and then say, “that kinda sucked. It didn’t play out.” Is this because this field is so new– because this isn’t actually new. Isn’t it a cop out to say this is new and we don’t know how to do it. What is it about this form that makes it so hard to do it. Is it that the field is not mature, the meta-field is not mature. Is it just a messy and tricky art form?

Liz: I vote for the last one. It’s not easy to write a novel, make a movie. Any complex, rich art form is hard to do well. It requires you to make a whole bunch of stuff, most of which sucks before you get there. “Gamification” removes the process of thinking through the narrative, play, creative experience.

Scot: Games are not new, but there are a bunch of new tools. The idea of playing a game with a cellphone is new. We know what to do with dice and cards and cardboard boards and markers. But something with a computer and a screen and a phone– that’s still new within the last 30 years. We are in-between the Great Train Robbery and Birth of a Nation. We haven’t reached the Birth of a Nation.

Colleen: I think it’s complex. I have a weird answer I haven’t thought too much before. I want to say something about narrative, film, games, cinematic envy. We all know the biggest problem with AAA [budget] games is stories that are epic monomiths which are [Scot: sucky]. The indie games scene has really exploded, and not everything has to be like that. I think that making “these” kinds of games (bringing real world systems into games) is because the world is more complex. You have to abstract and simplify and pull out the most salient parts of that system.

Scot: One other issue is that we used to have a model of the universe being hierarchical and working via obvious laws. Neural networks, quantum physics, evolution are all emergent, not ordered sstems. The more we understand the world that way, the more complicated it is. It’s easy to think about government if you think about laws, that’s fine But as soon as you start thinking about things like conflicting interest

Nathan asks about tools for helping people make games to understand their world.

Colleen: Project Activate, making games that relate to sustainability and (10-12). United States, Abu Dabi, Beijing. It’s wonderful to see how people express what they think are the important systems. Being able to break down a system and turn it into a game is a really cognitively challenging thing. That’s what I’m excited about now.

Scot: There’s always some tension between creating and experiencing. You want kids writing and you also want them to experience great literature.

Colleen: By making games, we learn iterative design methods. This is a valuable civic activity as well.

Ethan: In an explicit way, the game at RIT is a way to encourage people to create their own game, something you could use in a radical way.

Colleen: We can’t just package our game and give it to someone else, because our achievements are so specific to our institution.

Audience member: As you say, we’re still early days. iPhone is the top mobile gaming platform, and no one could have foreseen that. My question is: how do we democratize gaming? Game designers tend to be in a monoculture.

Colleen: It’s getting easier and opening up way more. GameSalad works on iOS and Android (including Nook and Fire)

Question: What makes something civic rather than just collaborative?

Liz: We wanted people to gain a big picture view of their community outside the classroom. We wanted them to expand the range of activities in which they engage. We wanted to give them an opportunitiy to be reflective about it. Using the platform to take a step back and see the map. We talked about it as the hero’s journey for the student. Games as a metaphor for life (c.f. Carse).

Scot: When we met with the paleontologists, we realised that what scientists do all the time is just like what we do when we make games. We got to hang out behind the scenes at the Smithsonian and look at the dinosaur bones. It’s so cool– how can we help other people get that flavour. Just ask: Who out there is trying to effect change? Where’s the fun in that? Then make a game out of it. Make a game that can help people understand what it means to feel good about being part of change.

Colleen: Sometimes we don’t have any goals. It’s not that linear when it comes to design, and trying to be faithful to a particular area (science, engagement, activism, the fiscal situation) just trying to learn it as designers and then extract [game ideas] from the experts that we work with.

“We’re always working with experts” When we try to learn the way others see the world, we’re acting out a form of civics, trying to understand others and move forward in productive ways. Sometimes we say “Oh, activists are using mobile phones in interesting ways! We should do that in the game.”

Question: The gaming divide, and the importance of gaming literacy. As we have more and more civic games, we need people to become civic literate. Library-based game design programmes.

Scot: For some communities, the library is the single most trusted place, and we’re doing projects with them.

Vanish is open source

Grow-a-Game cards!

What’s the best thing you can do to be a game designer? (Extra Credits)

The best answer is to live an interesting life. There’s no one thing. I sound like I had these great goals, because I’m an academic and can make it look good. But it took us six months to come up with our goals.

I read so many books and papers on motivations. We didn’t choose one theory but they all factored into it. It’s like the Renaissance scholars, the eclectic minds who collect all kinds of ideas and bits of theories, because they can pull from a large toolbox. At least that’s what I tell myself, as an eclectic scholar.

Any games that stimulate people to explore media, or be curious of other kinds of media?
Metagame (Colleen)
– A game about looking critically at journalism (Scot)
-Game Dictionary (where you make up definitions for words) – probably a
game where you try to make bad stories, and try to convince them that
it’s true

Ethan: The Nethernet tried to set a game layer onto the Internet. Now open source.

More civic games: