11 Jun

Local Engagement Games

There is extensive literature documenting the benefits of games for learning.  Educators are beginning to embrace the use of games for teaching history, science, or math it is becoming clear that they provide a mechanism through which content can be made fun and relevant to learners.   There is also evidence that games enable learning outside of formal educational environments.  The work of James Gee and others reveal that everyday or casual gameplay creates a context for players to exercise skills in community building, collaboration, problem solving, and design.  Consider the various levels of mastery required for a successful raid in World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.  These games frame their war-themed content within what Ian Bogost terms a procedural rhetoric.  In other words, gameplay requires an understanding, if not a mastery, of the procedures underlying the content.  The meaning comes from the tasks of gameplay movement, collection, collaboration, and strategy more so than they do from the specific themes of the games narrative.

            When considering games in this light, the possibilities are endless.  They can provide a mechanism for teaching content, and they can provide a mechanism through which learners can reframe content by scrutinizing their underlying systems.  As such, there has been a surge of interest in designing games for civic learning.  Noteworthy is the suite of games called icivics, which incorporates games for teaching about all branches of the American government.  Justice Sandra Day OConner is a big supporter of this initiative. Players can be a senator, or a judge and solve problems inherent to those positions, while learning about the structure of government.  As Justice OConner said at the recent Games for Change conference in New York City, kids today dont know much about civics.  Employing a game, fun and engaging, is surely a useful way to make them know more. 

            But when we get into the realm of civics and games, there arises the inevitable question about the outcomes of learning.  What does learning about civics do and is there a correlation between learning, engagement and action?  This is nearly an impossible question to answer, as it would be foolhardy to assume that one act of gameplay can result in a distinct action.  However, it is worthwhile to interrogate how gameplay can be integrated into a social context and establish a framework for existing engagement.   Can a game reframe actual civic participation in such a way that the participation is better understood and/or more sustainable?  This is the question that is driving my work in what I call local engagement games games that 1) scaffold an existing form of engagement, 2) create an ethical context for engagement, and 3) open up cooperative spaces both in and out of the game.   Our recently completed Participatory Chinatown game was designed with this in mind.  It is designed for the specific context of an existing framework of participation the community meeting.  It is designed to augment the individuals conception of their neighborhood through roleplay.  And, it requires dialogue, conversation and collaboration within the game and invites the same on the website.  The goal is not to teach civics, but to scaffold an existing civic activity in such a manner that takes full advantages of the affordances of digital games and social media.

            Local Engagement Games are games whose primary objective is to make players attentive to their local environment and community.  They are geographically specific in orientation and their objectives move beyond participation to active and sustained attention to local matters.  While there is a lot of discussion about games and civic engagement, it is clear that to arrive at this goal we need to consider a game a situational component to existing forms of participation as opposed to thinking that a game (or any technology) can, in isolation, build platforms for civic engagement.  Being engaged in local life, whether its participating in a community meeting, or simply planting a flower in a sidewalk tree basin, requires first a sense of connection and ownership to a locality, and second, a framework for real-world action.  Just as violent video games will not compel me to act violently, civic games will not compel me to act civically.  Whether we want violence or local engagement, for a persuasive game to result in physical action, we need to build on top of the structures of social encounters that already exist.