Creating Technology for Social Change

Intro to Civic Media 10/31: Games, newsjacking, and the great Kony debate

Civic Games

This week in class, we were visited by Scot Osterweil of Education Arcade.

He started out by challenging us to play a few quick games of tic-tac-toe with our seatmates. This generated a fair amount of noise, laughter, and intensity, despite the fact that, as Scot pointed out, “tic-tac-toe is a stupid game.” He explained that play is more important than it seems, and that it says something “about the way we engage more thoughtfully or interactively with the world.”

Tic-tac-toe was one of Scot’s many different examples of play, which included:

  • Brueghel’s 17th century painting of children’s games
  • mountain goats playing at jumping from mountain to mountain, at risk of possible death
  • kittens playing to learn social skills
  • a personal story about playing with blocks before kindergarten and discovering the blocks’ additive property of square block. “Who knows what inspired me to play with the blocks? The arithmetic came along for the ride.”

According to Scot, there are four freedoms of play:

  • freedom to experiment
  • freedom to fail, since failure in play generally has a low cost
  • freedom of identity
  • freedom of effort — the ability to play at our own pace, often without conscious choice

Using golf as an example, Scot explained how games “are the voluntary acceptance of inconsequential challenges.” We willingly submit to arbitrary rules and structures in pursuit of mastery, but only if we can continue to be playful. For example, think about the difference between a spelling bee and a game of Scrabble. In a spelling bee, you often spend time thinking you’re going to fail, and you don’t spend time discussing the experience when it’s over — just like in school. Traditional education helps identify what you’re good at, but encourages you to hate everything else. Scrabble is different. You move your tiles around, trying to figure out what’s possible. There’s always the joyful moment where someone puts down a fake word as a bluff or as an honest mistake. Players have many points of feedback and many skills to potentially master. We can all go into a game of Scrabble with dramatically different goals, but still have a shared social experience.

Unfortunately, civic games (or “games for change”) often follow the spelling bee model rather than the Scrabble model. This makes people think that what we need is something like Grand Theft Calculus. Without playfulness, the game is just going through the motions. “It’s gym class.”

Unfortunately, “serious games” is the current term of art. People are struggling for a term that suggests games that have some higher purpose. This doesn’t match up with other types of art. For example, “serious books” is not a useful taxonomical category. We do have buckets like “literary fiction”, “genre fiction”, and “chick lit”, but in the end, fiction is all about pleasure—playfulness. “As often as not, those categories tend to confuse things rather than illuminate.” Another example is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was written as entertainment. “Shakespeare knew that it was a powerful commentary on the human condition, but he also wanted to make money and give people a ripping good time.”

Games for change are too often based on the proposition that we’ll simply re-educate players in the vein of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ without acknowledging their agency. Most of the games for social change have been about our distant relation to events in the news rather than civic engagement or actual everyday experiences.

One of the most notable examples of games for change is Darfur is Dying. In the game, you play a person in a refugee camp in Darfur who is trying to get water. You’re almost guaranteed to fail. However, there’s no evidence that the game led to further interaction with the issue. These games tend to reinforce a colonialist narrative — “These poor people are helpless, and we have to do something to help them” — rather than encourage us to try to understand the problem on a larger geopolitical level.

[ASIDE: Sasha’s friends at Take Action Gamesmade the game, they took this critique seriously, and games they have built since then have mechanics that are more directly tied to social engagement with partner organizations that work in the issue area of the game – like violence against women, teen relationships, and more.]

Another example is the McDonald’s Game, in which you have to run a successful McDonald’s restaurant. You have to make different choices about how to run your business, reinforcing the idea that an individual’s choices affect the system. Yet another exampe is Sweatshop, a tower defense game based off the assembly line of a sweatshop. You are asked to be complicit in the system and think critically about it.

However, these games offer no social reinforcement. People tend to them games in isolation. “No matter how awesome it is… only 10% are going to turn around and apply it.” As a result, Scot and his team try to develop all their games with a social component. He says we should not only think about games, but also the environments around them.

  • In MIT FAT(Friday After Thanksgiving) at the MIT Museum, families have to build a Rube-Goldberg machine—seemingly silly contraptions to accomplish a certain task, much like a game. Families come together to apply physics concepts to a project.
  • Colleen Macklin created the game “Re:Activism. This got lots of people to travel around the city recreating social movement moments like Stonewall. However, afterwards, the gamemakers realized they’d made a mistake. Because the game was posed as a race, players didn’t take the time to actually engage with the material. It’s easy and worthwhile to get people to play together. The next step is to actually get at some higher meaning.
  • Vanished, originally announced as a science game with the Smithsonian. Upon launch, however, there was no game—only a video of MIT students claiming that the game they created had been hacked, calling upon players to investigate further. It only took a few hours for kids to figure out the video contained a hidden message, encoded by a rotation cipher. It was a message from the future, encouraging them to help future scientists figure out what had happened to trigger climate change. The point is that in the course of playing the game, kids understood they were playing in this fictive space. The approach that encouraged kids to “play scientist” was effective, while asking them to just “do science” may not have elicited the same level of excitement and engagement. Sasha suggests a case control using each approach (traditional/game approach to the same learning material) and comparing outcomes would be interesting.

Games are a subset of hands-on activities, which makes them useful in education.

  • In one study, people were divided into four groups: hands-on activity only, read a book only, hands-on activity + formal instruction, and book + formal instruction. People in the first group did the least well. People who read a book performed the same regardless of whether they received formal instruction or not. However, people in the last group did significantly better than anyone else, suggesting the key is to do an activity and then formalize it through learning.
  • In the “floundering” study, the same problem was given to two groups. One group received a set of structured interventions, while the others were simply left to “flounder” with the problem. The people who had received the structured interventions performed much better than the flounderers did in an immediate skills test. However, when the groups were faced with the same task six months later, the flounderers performed much better. Scot sees the floundering part as the play component; he wonders what it would look like if people were left to flounder first, and then given an intervention afterwards.

Scot encouraged us to think about learning rather than school — Games for Learning rather than Educational Games. He said the American public education system in some ways has nothing to do with the activity of learning. At best, it is one setting that promotes learning, and at worst it stifles it.

For more examples of games + civic action, check out:
* Games, Learning, and Society conference (University of Wisconsin research group) , Kurt Squire
* EdArcade: Eric Klopfer, W/Scot. Learning Games Network.
* New School / NYU – interesting games and innovations
* USC – great games program (Games Desk)

KONY2012 Debate

We (arbitrarily) divided into two sides: Kony2012 defenders (D) and Kony2012 attackers (A). Teams had five minutes to prepare their arguments. Team-D communicated via an etherpad, quietly typing their strategy. Team-A huddled up and prepared in a hushed tone.

Team A argued that:
* the primary issue = misrepresentation of facts and exaggeration
* the LRA used to be a significant force in Uganda, but now not as strong
* KONY 2012 preys on an American self-perception as saviors, masking larger issues
* the video is glitzy propaganda that supports problematic politics, including military intervention
* the video is packaged in an excessively simple way, empowering outsiders without encouraging critical thought
* the money and resources put into the campaign could be used in a different way to address the roots of inequity
* the audience is literally spoken to as a child, using a simple narrative and an unworkable solution
* the video is not a drillable media form; it seems dangerous to mobilize interst and represent yourselves as the authority w/o providing more info
* the goal of reaching a lot of people is a neoliberal assumption about audiences

Team D argued that:
* the Invisible Children is still trying to get rid of an important issue.
* the video was intended to reach youth and to start a conversation, and, as there is so much conversation still about this video, shows that it was able to draw attention to this problem, even among youth who have short attention spans.
* it’s very difficult to convey the politics in such a short video, which was meant to be more of an entry point, mobilizing the youth who could relate to it
* there is real value in educating people in the west about the global impact of the LRA
* a conversation about policy wouldn’t engage people; the video was meant as an easy introduction
* the campaign was constructed in a clear way, offering numerous ways to get involved
* the western-centric nature of the video was purposeful, as it was targeted toward that audience
* the organization didn’t mean for the video to spread so quickly. IC has been around for a long time building a network of young people engaged in the issues. KONY2012 overshadowed the screenings and in person organizing they’ve been doing for years.
* the video is spreadable; Gladwell wrote about strong ties being necessary for social engagement, and the video’s aim was to have some fraction of the viewers engage in action

This was followed by a long group discussion, which is best summarized by looking right at the notes.


We finished up by playing with and remixing the news! Here are a few of our creations:
Gangnam Rain Dance:
Both Candidates are Wrong:
Taking over Mars:
Romney and Obama Resign from Races- |
Turning sandy coverage into a military coup/police state:
Kony 2012’s Jason Russell opens up about breakdown, masturbation, and “gettin’ paid.” Plans to buy Uganda if Military Doesn’t Intervene.==>
Fox News Supports Obama
Drill Baby Drill