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On Perspectives in Project S.E.E.D. (Lauren Whalen)

Today’s post comes from Lauren Whalen, JD, Communications Manager for Game Changer Chicago, Ci3, and the University of Chicago Section of Family Planning. Lauren’s first major assignment when she began just over one year ago, was to organize a communications plan for Game Changer Chicago’s summer alternate reality game The Source. In the past year, Lauren has learned a lot about alternate reality games, and many other things.

Recently, I’ve started reading comic books. One of my closest friends, triumphant that I’ve finally succumbed to years of his prodding, crowed, “I knew you would love them! See, I told you, it’s just a different way to tell a story.”

Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about forms of storytelling. My job as Communications Manager is to tell stories of academics, medical professionals and artists doing exceptional work that will help many who need it. Sometimes the “many” are those who also practice medicine, or fellow academics, or health care and social service providers who work with women and youth. In the case of S.E.E.D., it’s the youth themselves.

Each of the youth, game designers and staff behind S.E.E.D. has a story, and S.E.E.D. itself is a story. It’s a challenge to tell each of these stories in the right way to the eyes and ears who should be hearing it most. And though, thanks to last year’s The Source, I’m not a total ARG newb, I still don’t think in “games” the way our fantastic design team and lab fellows do. When I’m not at the office, I’m a theater critic – I have to tell a story to theatergoers, illustrating each aspect of a play so they can decide whether to see it for themselves.  I’m also a trained actor and dancer: I can tell stories with my voice and body. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully probe the mind of a game designer (sounds vaguely extraterrestrial, right?) but every day, I try.

The wonderful thing about a program like S.E.E.D. is that everyone’s perspective, their story, will be a little bit different. Some may connect with the game aspect, deciding whether or not to destroy time travel technology to save the future. Some may have felt a spark while engaging in the Week 1 science debates. After the next two weeks, which focus on game design, some may take away a brand-new passion. As for the designers, mentors, and staff behind S.E.E.D., their stories could be about the rewards of working with teenagers, the trials and tribulations (and triumphs) of playing a role in an ARG, or how to examine and solve a problem in a whole new way. The great thing about stories is, the possibilities are endless.

When I interviewed with GCC co-founder Dr. Melissa Gilliam for this position, she told me about Ci3’s South Side Stories, a Ford Foundation-funded project that compiles “digital stories” of Chicago youth of color. She asked me what I thought about that, and I replied, “I think every person has a story.” Dr. Gilliam chimed in, “And every story is important.” Combined, our two thoughts serve as my mantra for S.E.E.D., my job and every word I write: every person has a story, and every story is important.

Addressing Social Issues through Games and Game Design (Melissa Gilliam)

Dr. Melissa Gilliam is a physician and researcher at the University of Chicago. She is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, practicing Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecologist, Section Chief of Family Planning, and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Chicago Medicine. Dr. Gilliam is Founder and Head of Ci3 and co-Founder of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab.

When the youth arrived at the University of Chicago this morning, they were no longer heroes in an apocalyptic drama. Nonetheless, they arrived full of excitement and enthusiasm because today was the beginning of their time as game designers. For the GCC Design Lab, these next two weeks are also exciting as we will take practices we have established in the Lab (e.g., researching social issues, co-designing with youth, iterative design and playtesting) and use them in a completely new way. We have created short tutorials, maker sessions, game play and modification exercises, with the goal of helping young people design games to address major health and social justice issues ranging from homelessness to bullying to sustainable agriculture to sexual equality. At the end of the two weeks they will present their projects to GCC staff, university faculty, and their parents in a mini-maker faire. But as always there is a larger purpose to this workshop.

Patrick Jagoda and I started the GCC Design Lab because we believe we can make inroads on intractable social problems through making and playing games. This statement often raises eyebrows—using games to solve major social problems? Aren’t games simply fun pastimes? Often drawing from the practice of medicine can help me explain an idea. Learning through making is inherent to training-especially training to become a doctor. This month is an ideal time to think about this topic, as July is a particularly anxious time in hospitals as the newly-minted medical students return as medical doctors. They are so early in their career and most of what they have learned is mediated through books and observation. But starting in July they carry a pager, write prescriptions, and take meaningful roles during surgery. Thus, in medicine we solve problems through making and educate through hands on activities. 

Indeed, many of the GCC Design Lab practices are anchored in Patrick’s experience designing games and my experience practicing medicine. Consider the operating room, it is an amazing setting where diverse teams of people of different ages, disciplines, training levels, come together to collaborate in solving a problem. We shed our street clothes, put on surgical scrubs, greet each other, sometimes for the first time, and magically enter into the complex collaboration that is surgery. Being shoulder-to-shoulder, working largely with your hands, around an operating room table is a unique learning environment. There is something special about coming together in complex teams and using our hands to fix a problem.  So in the next weeks, youth will crowd around a table and make things. Yet, design offers a unique approach to problem solving-the goal is to create and mistakes are welcomed. They can take one approach, scrap it and try a new one, learning to iteratively design solutions, gain feedback, and try again. Games allow them to focus on exploration and safe failure — not perfection. 

In the first three weeks of our program, youth learned about major apocalyptic world changing issues. Yet, over the next two weeks they will take a look at some of the critical issues that lie closer to home. We have chosen about 10 topics relating to health and social problems: sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, immigration, violence and others. These are topics that disproportionately affect young people, people of color, and/or low-income families. We will ask young people to look at the problem in a collaborative team, consider the systems and relationships that perpetuate it, and design possible solutions or learning experiences. Just as they were told they could prevent the end of the world, now they are learning that science, technology, and math can be used to address problems that affect their lives. 

These weeks are intended to be empowering. We want young people to understand that they have the ability to make something from start to finish. It may start with a paper model that represents an idea, a short bit of code that makes an object move, or a story that draws in an audience. But the lesson is simple and profound; their actions can make something change. If so, is it too far a leap to imagine that they will begin to believe they can make a difference regarding the problems they see in their own lives, or in the world? Whether it is a test, or a difficult relationship, or a complicated issue, they can make a difference.

One of the most exciting things about the Game Changer Design Lab is that a story or narrative makes any place a learning space.  As described in our past posts, youth took on amazing learning challenges because it felt like a game. Yet, these young people will return to their schools and their neighborhoods and face many truly challenging problems. Eventually the magic created during the summer dissipates. The agency, confidence, and skills they gain through game play and game design may not sustain them across the school year. Thus, we have thought hard about the postgame experience and how to continue supporting young people in the future.

We have known for a long time that mentoring is a critical component for supporting the growth and development of young people. Young people need to be surrounded by caring and knowledgeable adults. Our colleagues, Jean Rhodes PhD and Sara Schwartz PhD, at the University of Boston Massachusetts are teaching us that mentors are critically important but there simply are not enough mentors to go around. This summer they are teaching us about a novel and promising intervention: youth initiated mentoring (YIM). There is a persistent dearth of volunteer mentors, particularly male mentors and mentors of color. YIM focuses on natural mentoring relationships that arise from within youth’s social networks. They are more durable, with average relationships lasting almost 9 years. Almost half of youth in the U.S., however, do not have natural mentors (mentors who natural arise from their daily contacts).  Some young people may lack the confidence or social skills to identify and form close relationships with adults in their community. The goal of YIM is to provide training to youth on help-seeking and recruitment strategies, YIM goes beyond forming a single relationship, offering training in how to identify, recruit and draw upon support from non-parental adults. This important skill can promote positive development across a range of contexts. 

Thus, our larger purpose emerges. Our intention is to expose young people to critical sexual/reproductive health and social issues, empowering them to find solutions as designers and makers. Designing should garner agency about their personal health and a sense of civic engagement about concern about public health. It will teach them to negotiate and collaborate with others on ambitious projects. Moreover, this summer they have met amazing young college students and graduate students. These near peer mentors have guided them through the summer. Subsequently, our hope is that young people will value the relationships they have established through S.E.E.D. and use skills gained through training in YIM to identify those adults who can help create a scaffold as they build on these summer experiences.

Photos by Nabiha Khan and Lauren Beck.

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On Science Fictions and Ludic Realities (Patrick Jagoda and Melissa Gilliam)

The first phase of our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. concludes with lab co-founders Dr. Patrick Jagoda  and Dr. Melissa Gilliam.

On Wednesday, July 23, 2014, something unexpected happened.

Approximately 70 of the high school youth who were playing the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s S.E.E.D. alternate reality game decided to stage a protest to free one of the main characters, Pel. This rogue “Temporal Archivist” (a fictionalized “historian of the future”) had been imprisoned a few days before for attempting his best Prometheus impression and stealing time communication S.E.E.D. technology from his more hierarchical colleagues. In response to Pel’s incarceration, the players made signs, penned rhyming slogans, and marched in front of the Mott building on the University of Chicago campus. The writers, designers, and actors of the game did not plan this event — and we only found out about it a few hours in advance. But we quickly improvised a response and adapted the narrative to accommodate the negotiation that took place with the protesters.

imageThough the cause that led the players to protest was fictional, youth were actually organizing in public and negotiating for what they thought to be just. In a sense, the science fiction narrative and the alternate world that we had designed for them began not simply to spill over into our world but to change their habits, desires, and actions.

Now that the first phase of our summer program — the alternate reality game S.E.E.D. — has run its three-week course, we’d like to reflect on how “science fiction” and an “alternate reality” have helped us approach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) interest and twenty-first century literacies among youth in ways that depart from a standard, in-school curriculum. The pairing of the fictional and the real, the playful and the serious, the theatrical and the genuine, may seem counterintuitive or confusing in a curricular context. But there are several ways in which we found these juxtapositions generative.


So what led us to create a science fiction game? In his 1979 book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, literary critic Darko Suvin offers the canonical definition of science fiction as a literary genre that depends on “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition.” Science fiction, thus, combines a quality of realism (cognition) with an element of fantasy (estrangement). The combination that Suvin describes appealed to our project for at least three reasons. First, science fiction draws from the very STEM subject areas that made up the core of our curriculum. Second, as a popular genre, science fiction was instantly familiar to most of our youth participants and allowed them to take part in and co-create the world of our game without a great deal of upfront instruction. Third, science fiction allowed us to defamiliarize topics that might otherwise be uninteresting, abstract, or difficult for our youth to encounter. These topics included STEM but also complex social and political problems that players explored throughout the game.


Throughout S.E.E.D., we used a science fiction framework to confront players with four core topics that we dubbed “apocalyptic”: climate change, resource depletion, viral spread, and global inequality. These are all serious real world threats. However, they lack a sense of urgency for many people; they appear theoretical rather than concrete, everyday threats. Through our narrative, we attempted to infuse these critical topics with the urgency we think they deserve. Some of our youth noted that they had never learned about climate change, for instance, prior to this summer. Through our game, many of them came to realize that just because adults have failed to address (some have even failed to acknowledge) these problems does not mean that these problems will not impact, and potentially make unlivable, the world these youth will inherit. image

These apocalyptic scenarios, however, did not just direct youth toward bleak or dystopian realities. Early on, youth were told they had the power to change the future. Throughout our game, we encouraged players to imagine concrete alternatives to present day technologies and habits of living. The shared threat of these scenarios helped our players imagine themselves in various STEM and media careers. The enormity of these problems also made them realize the multiple modes of expertise and collaboration that are needed to address large-scale problems from fossil fuel depletion to epidemiology. Across various roleplaying and world-making exercises, they tried to envision and simulate modes of governance and relationships to technology that might bring about a more sustainable world.

During Thursday’s finale, youth gave passionate speeches on science policy and ethics topics. In the final moments, they also had to make a major decision about the future of the fictional S.E.E.D. technology that enabled communication with the year 2035 but had been assimilated for exploitative ends by ProPhyle and the game’s villain, Xander. In the end, the youth decided to destroy the technology, severing the connection to the future forever in favor of greater attentiveness to the present. This moving and unexpected ending — selected by the players from a group of possibilities — pointed to their desire for self-determination. image

During the three weeks of the game, the actors in S.E.E.D. never explicitly stated that youth were playing a game or attending an experimental summer program. Every detail, including the existence of time communication technology, was presented as if it were real. One of the most remarkable aspects of the last day of the game came when the core designers walked around to each team, following the finale, and announced officially that the last 3 weeks were all part of an alternate reality game. Though we anticipated exclamations of “We knew it!”, several of the players revealed to us that they believed that the narrative and world they had inhabited during this period (or at least parts of it) had been real. Some of the players thought the Temporal Archivists and the ProPhyle Corporation and the communication with the future via S.E.E.D. technology actually existed. It is amazing to us that these youth, many of whom lead difficult lives, could give over their belief completely to an alternate reality. They were not naïve nor did they view this other reality as an escape. Instead, through this fictional overlay, another world, more just and imaginative than the one we often take for granted, became possible. This reality was realized in a shared community, if only for a few weeks.


Now, our game world ends. For the next two weeks, youth will become the designers and create their own worlds from the ground-up. They will learn to create serious games about topics such as resource preservation, employment security, immigration, sexual health, and contraception. Though we are still in the midst of research, S.E.E.D has implications for 21st century learning. Much of our work is guided by the idea of a connected learning ecology that is distributed across multiple setting and people. In this vision, education becomes indistinguishable from the most absorbing and serious form of play.

Photos by Philip Ehrenberg, Seed Lynn, and Nabiha Khan.

On Week 3 of the S.E.E.D. Alternate Reality Game (Leslie Gailloud)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Leslie Gailloud, former Game Changer Chicago Design Lab Fellow. During her time at Game Changer, she worked on last summer’s ARG The Source and the Hexacago board game suite, digital storytelling initiative South Side Stories, web-based transmedia game Lucidity, and role-playing card game InFection Four. Leslie holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago, and is continuing on to New York City as Community Ambassador for education startup



Today marks the last day of the alternate reality game portion of this summer’s S.E.E.D. program. For the past three weeks, over seventy youth reported to the New Graduate Residence Hall at the University of Chicagofor 7 hours a day and chose to enter a world of suspended disbelief for approximately 100 hours. If only for a little while, they left their daily lives behind and became members of Project Harvest, a boot camp led by the multinational and decidedly evil technology conglomerate, ProPhyle. The GCC Labgame designers doubled as Temporal Archivists: historians of time and keepers of a mysterious S.E.E.D. technology that allowed for communication between the past, present, and future.

As Peter McDonald explains in his blog post last week, the narrative of this summer’s ARG was broken down into three weeklong arcs, resembling seasons in a television series. Last week’s story major story arc involvedthe S.E.E.D. technology being stolen with our young protagonistPel as the thief. The shocking cliffhangers that the youth were left with on Friday, and that initiated the narrative for week three of the game, was the reveal of Xander and Anan as the World’s Ends, and the capture and imprisonment of Pel by the Temporal Archivists. The players, understandably, did not approve of their peer’s imprisonment. This disgruntlement led to an interesting split in the storyline and resultantly in the design for this week.


In contrast to the previous two weeks, where the members of Project Harvest would diligently work on all tasks that the Temporal Archivists/ProPhyle assigned them, a spirit of rebellion began to work its way through the group. As designers, we intended for this to happen, and essentially created activities for two separate plots. One set of activities came directly from ProPhyle’s instructions to rebuild the now altered S.E.E.D. technology. For this we used Arduino Boards, through which the players learned about the fundamentals of circuits and electricity.

These activities weremerely a smokescreen for the second, more absorbing storyline of intentionally turning the players against the Temporal Archivists in order to free Pel from jail. In order to pull off the heist, players had to hack into the personal computer of each Temporal Archivist and retrieve valuable information on where Pel was being held. Each team was given two IP addresses and instructions on how to hack into the computers they belonged to. Once they were able to get in via a remote desktop application, the players were free to filter through the files of each person to search for intel. Since each team was only able to view a limited amount of information, they had to use the cryptography skills they learned during the second week to communicate with each other, compile the information, and form a plan of action. Since this intelligence could not come from the Temporal Archivists, we as designers had to find undercover ways of accessing the players. For this we turned to Anan, an established neutral character, to help us leak details (such as the IP addresses, profiles on every archivist containing hints about passwords, etc). My character, Leslie Von Neumann, also began to pull away from the core values of Temporal Archivists, a role that I highly enjoyed playing, and was instrumental in ensuring that all teams were able to carry out the hacking.

One of the more important matters I participated in as a Temporal Archivist turncoat this week, was with a player-led protest. Dissatisfied with Xander’s treatment of Pel, the youth came together and organized a demonstration in front of the building where the Temporal Archivists operate S.E.E.D. technology (aka where the game designers work). They spent a good portion of the afternoon creating signs and coming up with chants. At 1:55 pm they all gathered together and set out to assemble across the street from the S.E.E.D. technology headquarters. As Temporal Archivists we were concerned with the commotion, but as game designers we were thrilled. Not only was it exciting and rewarding to see how enthusiastic the players were about the game, but the protest actually solved a narrative dilemma of how to involve the youth in the finale, a Temporal Archivist Annual General Meeting. We came up with a compromise with the protesters that we would allow Pel to attend the meeting if they helped us create proposals for a new charter. These proposals were a mix of various scientific, political, and ethical topics, which included issues such as risk management, how to encourage STEM education, and when, if ever, violence was justifiable.



Though they agreed to the settlement set forth by the Temporal Archivists, the players nonetheless decided to follow through with their plan to set Pel free, so as to guarantee his attendance at the meeting and expose Xander’s corruptness. With Anan’s help, a representative from each team went out, cracked open a safe, broke into the Temporal Archivist headquarters and managed to successfully rescue Pel. This triumph was not only a delight to the players who rejoiced to see their peer free, but was also one for the designers, as it provided a materially rich setup for an drama finale.  

On Media Production in an Alternate Reality Game (Philip Ehrenberg)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Philip Ehrenberg, Learning Design Specialist and former Design Lab Fellow. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago. Serving several roles on S.E.E.D., he oscillates daily between game design, media production, supporting mentors, and documenting the program. As a fellow, he worked on last summer’s ARG The Source, browser-based game A Day in the Life, and Ci3’s digital storytelling initiative South Side Stories. Previously he was Project Manager on the ARG The Project.


As this development blog has noted several times over the past few weeks, the manufacturing of an already-extant world and narrative pervading into our commonly accepted one is part and parcel of alternate reality games (or ARGs). One manner by which ARG designers practice this is to seed transmedia elements throughout our game. As Christopher Russell discussed in his post on transmedia storytelling, we frequently fracture our narratives and distribute them across real world and digital spaces so that no one player (or, as often turns out being the case, designer) has a complete collection of narrative moments or the media produced for and during the game. While S.E.E.D. primarily relies on invisible theater  and extensive set design to convey its narrative, the game is not without a handful of media pieces produced rapidly by our design team.

This year, the Game Changer Chicago designers have tried to ensure these elements flit from innocuous to conspicuous, blurring the line between distinct narrative and gameplay moments, so players are constantly left on their toes. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of our previous summer ARG, The Source, in which the primary manner of driving the game’s story was through a series of video blogs issued by the protagonist and her friends. Filmed in advance, edited during the five weeks of gameplay, and released to players on a fixed schedule and platform, the media plan was fairly firmly established from the get-go. This avenue comes with its own pros and cons, but in either case it dramatically affected our capacity to make large-scale narrative divergences on the fly. Not so this year, with our transmedia being produced nearly immediately before its release and attempting to take into account the latest team dynamics, subtleties of our narrative invented by the players, and the technical constraints that constantly arise in making a science-fiction narrative real.


The ways we use and distribute these media pieces helps us establish particular tones and aesthetics for our narrative’s various factions, the Temporal Archivists that directly oversee the players, the future corporation ProPhyle, and the disruptive resistance movement The Scattering. Communicating across different media, we succinctly establish different logics by which the players can interact with these groups in the course of their day-to-day activities – the Temporal Archivists directly, for instance, versus recordings from the future groups. In order to better demonstrate our commitment to pervasive and varied transmedia experiences, as well as flexibility to how players our gaming our own game, below are a few more concrete examples of the media we have produced and how they tie into our overarching philosophy.


1) Video: For the vast majority of our players, the start of the game was heralded by a screening of the Project Harvest: Orientation video. We had a number of goals we were attempting to fulfill in the very first moments of the game, namely to convey a succinct overview of the narrative, but also to immediately establish the tone for the Temporal Archivists: slightly sinister, prone to corporate oversight, susceptible to goofiness. The first thing they saw on the Monday summer morning on which the game began was a strange performance space filled with odd adults in lab coats and unfamiliar faces. For this reason, we wanted an engaging piece of media that they could watch and even laugh at to diffuse the otherwise tense and uncertain mood. Early research and discussions of aesthetics led the media team to watch an immense number of real corporate orientation videos in order to determine which features of the genre we just had to reproduce and which we could subvert for our purposes.


2) Radio: One of the stranger features of each team’s daily work space is the presence of a clock radio. Players know that these devices may spontaneously turn on at random times (in reality, going off to alarms carefully set by the designers at the start of each game day) to play team-specific messages from “The Scattering,” a future resistance group that communicates solely through audio transmissions. These messages, having broken through the airwaves controlled by ProPhyle and the Temporal Archivists, are highly distorted and stand in contrast to the crisp and perfunctory audio of ProPhyle’s announcements delivered to their Crop. Of course, as we are actually broadcasting these missives over an FM channel, we have encountered a number of constraints that have affected how we produce the messages. For starters, improperly tuning the radios yields terrible static, and even on an optimal transmission the signal can be weak. We try to repeat each message over a limited time span, resulting in players leaping from their chairs, rushing to the radios, and trying to transcribe the glitchy messages, even recording them on their teams’ iPads to play back later. This speaks to our strategy of redundancy in the narrative, in which we are sure to convey important points numerous times across numerous mediums.


3) Digital Media: While we have limited in-game social media presence this year, we have continued to integrate narrative and gameplay moments through digital devices. Using a PirateBox, an offline file-sharing system, teams can covertly communicate with each other past while circumventing the Temporal Archivists. They use the technology for sharing hints and uploading media relevant to gameplay exercises, and we have used it to covertly distribute surveillance footage and in-game documents so that the narrative is placed right into their hands. Moreover, hacking challenges during the third week saw the creation of a remote desktop for each Archivist, which players needed to compromise to find critical information. Designers populated each desktop with in-game and non-diegetic material to create the illusion that this was an actual person’s computer, complete with profile pictures, random applications, and favorite playlists. Such efforts took into account our latest reformulations of the narrative and directly tied into the gameplay and learning goals of the week.

image With such an immensely talented design team - skilled in video and audio production, Photoshop and Illustrator, and random digital technologies – we’re able to consistently produce content from day to day, even as the game is going on, allowing varied media to pervade the game and still reflect all of the immediate developments. Moreover, players immediately connect to these transmedia elements and see the infinite possibilities for creating games and narratives in alternate reality games. These experiments will be especially helpful for them as they transition to producing their own games in the next two weeks of the program.

On Playing with Faith (Seed Lynn)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Seed Lynn. Seed is a gifted listener, writer, problem solver, and game maker who has come to call Chicago “home.” Through a practice that heralds deep listening and sharing, Seed assists communities in the emergence of their most necessary narratives, across social, political and cultural boundaries.At the University of Chicago’s Ci3 (the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual & Reproductive Health), Seed has most recently led workshops in the context of health interventions, leading youth as co-designers of learning experiments. These experiments explore how art, new media, games and live performance combined with a critical attention to authorship can deepen health learning and improve health outcomes for some of the city’s most vulnerable youth, and include the art of digital storytelling and other alternate reality games. Seed’s three years at UChicago have produced innovative research in the fields of sexual and reproductive health and health learning, transmedia games and game design, and the humanities.


Game Changer Chicago co-founder, Patrick Jagoda, suggested to me that Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are as much, if not more, about the creation of belief than the suspension of disbelief. The “suspension of disbelief” is just another way of saying, “I know this is a trick/game/lie, but let us pretend it is real, so we can all enjoy this.” Hopefully, you feel the advantage of the former. Implicit in the magic circle of a game, a film, or even a play, is the agreement that you are accepting a world where the artificial conditions, laws, and boundaries take precedence over those of the real world, or for a term, merge. The beauty and simultaneous challenge of the ARG is to create a narrative that grays those boundaries, laws, and conditions with overlays, making the game feel real. Underlying the critical thinking, problem solving, and skill building involved, is an emotional experience, and even, the possibility of a transformational one. This requires faith from all parties.

For as long as I can remember, I have lacked the consistent capacity to show up that a religion requests of its subjects. But faith? Faith was always easier, in part, because of this very idea of creating belief. Faith, I could embrace beyond religion. I could practice it, even play with it. Be it card tricks, urban myths, or family folklore passed down for generations, dream interpretations or sci-fi film escapes, the act of creating belief (for me) is more moving than not believing — or in the case of the ARG, suspending disbelief.


The act of belief is handing oneself over to the mystery. It is not knowing and not necessarily needing to know. Faith can be a transformational form of experimentation or role-play as it assumes purpose and drives action. It is a dance one intuitively grasps before possessing its vocabulary, and the agreement is this: I can choose to believe and break faith, and I can break faith without being broken. My faith will simply find new objects. 

My group work with narrative (e.g., story circles, organizing, world building, game-making) has always involved degrees of faith, and there is no greater gamifier than time. For example, entering a workshop (understaffed) with 15 young people (full of stories) and 20 hours of production time (40 would be nice!)… you learn how to pray. And when you are leading said workshop, you learn how to project faith, beyond all the doubts you have, hoping the faith you exhibit is just as contagious as the doubts you dare not disclose. Yes, I have stories… and I have stories about stories.


As odd as it is, I cannot begin a conversation about alternate realities, games, or science fiction without first raising the question to faith. This meditation has brought clarity to three things I consistently do in my creative process: 1) As a writer, I must intend belief. I must intend faith in the world I am constructing if others are ever to invest in it. 2) I write as a listener — one who is having shared experiences himself if a shared experience is our desired outcome. As a listener I must intend understanding and connection, and to accept discomfort along with comfort when broaching difficult topics and difficult stories. This type of listening, a witnessing to human experience, implies trust, not just in the story, but a trust in the story’s source. 3) As a learner, I must recall not knowing, not experiencing, to consider how the narrative lends itself to new knowledge and new experiences for players. If emptying oneself doesn’t speak to some spiritual tradition, what does? image

Creating belief, affirming or challenging it within groups, intensifies one’s experience of that group and colors with a workable purpose the meanings derived from those experiences. It reminds us that the world, alternate or current, is always arriving, always near, always possible and realizing at the same time, despite the agendas of ethically shaky multinational corporations misappropriating future technologies at the expense of human and planetary wellness for the continued benefit of the wealthy few. (Breathe)


Ultimately, S.E.E.D. explores the radical potentiality of young people discovering their agency in the world – and asks them to own it. It is not enough for us, the designers, to imagine or re-imagine their worlds for them.  This world-building and world-bridging experience, in fact, is an invitation for all of us to own our current world(s) more presently, intentionally, thoughtfully, artfully, intelligently and compassionately. It reminds us that we share a planet, its resources, one another… and time. Perhaps, there is no better place, no better platform, no audience more primed to alternating realities, than those here on Chicago’s South Side. I find it fitting and fortunate, that here, we are not just exploring alternate realities for a game’s possibilities, but also, gaming our own realities for alternate possibilities.

On Suspended Disbelief and Set Design in an Alternate Reality Game (Keith Wilson)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Keith Wilson, Game Changer Design Lab Fellow and MFA student in Poetry at the Chicago State University. Keith’s recent poetry focuses on social activism through contemporary myth and lyric. His work on this project includes script-writing, narrative, game design, and set design. Previously, Keith worked on The Project, a collaboration of Patrick Jagoda, Sha Xin Wei, and students at the University of Chicago.


Every art form with an expected outcome requires a measure of trust from its participants.  In live theatre, suspension of disbelief is what allows you to immerse yourself in another world—to lose track of time and your sense of embodied experience in favor of the control of a good narrative.  If a play is written and performed well, you are never left to question the whereabouts of the fourth-wall of the stage, but instead take for granted these kinds of tropes: that all the actors will have conversations facing you, and that they will often speak in uninterrupted, pre-scripted monologues.


An alternate reality game (ARG) is a bit different in that its narrative overlaps with the everyday “narratives” of its participants’ lives.  In this way it shares much with invisible theater. It varies with traditional theatre as well in that its action is participatory, and from invisible theatre in its long-form nature. Even so, earning the suspension of disbelief from the audience/players is equally important in an ARG as it is in theatre or any production that depends on artifice.

Part of what facilitates belief is, of course, a willingness to believe.  If you’ve ever tried to play a game with someone who didn’t want to follow the conventions of the game (AKA, a spoilsport), you understand how important belief can be in fostering an atmosphere in which play is allowed to exist to begin with. And for some youth in our S.E.E.D. game this summer, a willingness to play is enough to enter into an imaginative world in which STEM learning exists as 1.) curriculum, 2.) an analogue version of a video game’s “mini-game” challenge, and 3.) as what often ends up being a kind of idealized, participatory Afrofuturist possibility. To quickly summarize, Afrofuturism is an artistic and cultural aesthetic that imagines non-Western possibilities and futures (a kind of “black sci-fi”).


The real design challenge for the Game Changer Chicago team is in creating a game world for the skeptical.  Some players are immediately open to new modes of possibility and play, but a second group exists that needs a bit more in order to compel them to suspend their disbelief.  I have worked on this project in both as a writer and set designer. What sets these two roles apart is that in set design, much of one’s effort is spent hiding the inner-workings of the game itself. A microphone meant to allow its user to speak to the future can’t look like an answering machine attached to a monitor stand, or that is precisely what it will be in that moment. Much of an ARG’s narrative takes place in the same world we have always lived within.  There is no stage to set one’s sights to, no seat to recline within while a set of actors move about your comfortable line of sight. Since nothing separates you from the theater, there is no formal veil to step behind where pretending is private.  Everything in an ARG is pretend, or nothing is, because the ARG is always running.  image

Therefore, S.E.E.D. Technology, the central set of this ARG, has to be impressive enough to earn a player’s suspension of disbelief, transparent enough to embrace its own artifice, and well-designed enough to hide its own machinations so that, at the very least, those youth who already want to pretend can suspend their disbelief.  Pulling in those players who are less willing to blur the lines between audience and actor is an even more delicate process that involves the writing, improvisational acting, and the participation of other players, but the set design is often foundational to all of this.

The S.E.E.D. Technology room, like so much of this project, was conceived of and built in collaboration.  It involved early narrative descriptions composed by Seed Lynn and Patrick Jagoda to sketches and visual designs that included Chris Russell and Ashlyn Sparrow’s drawings, to Jessica Anca’s refinement of those drawings to a beautiful concept poster, to my schematics and ability with a Dremel, to Nate Crumpley’s technical expertise with an Arduino board that simulates a light that pulses like a heart-beat, to the labor of Leslie Gailloud, Megan Macklin, Phil Ehrenberg, Bea Malsky, Peter McDonald, to the labor of everyone else who helped clip out newspapers, draw faux equations, install black lights, carry and install sod, and collect plant clippings and do the other myriad tasks that led to the finished project. I have been happy to have spent so much of my time working on the S.E.E.D tech room. It was humbling to see the youth’s first steps onto grass (and in a windowless basement, no less!). Or to see them interact with the room’s black lights, which have the eerie ability to cause glow-ooze (a material we may have invented using glue, borax, and highlighter fluid) to glow as if irradiated. image

It is strange to think that moments like these end up being so common in an ARG.  The design team has created a world within our world, and the players have access to a place that is as close to context-less as we could imagine: an ARG about a corporation in the future. If we have pulled it off, and I hope we have, it gives the youth an opportunity to experience the kind of play that we are often find ourselves “growing out of.” Make-believe can encourage the kind of risks that foster new and invigorating methods of learning, because kids who are not interested in science as such can be interested in its narrative and world changing possibilities. Set design is only one part of the a speculative whole, but it is also a kind of stepping-off point from which what once seemed impossible seems suddenly within reach.

On Week 2 of the S.E.E.D. Alternate Reality Game (Ashlyn Sparrow)

Our daily development blog series for Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Ashlyn Sparrow, Project Manager and Lead Game Designer. She holds a degree in Information Sciences and Technology from Penn State University with a Masters in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon. Ashlyn also was project manager for the 2013 alternate reality game The Source, and the Hexacago board game suite at Game Changer Chicago.

Last week, over seventy high school students debated over which of four apocalyptic scenarios would be most likely to end our world, as we know it. On July 11th, Team Weberocerus (named after a genus of cacti), stood victorious and determined that the most concerning world-threatening scenario was resource depletion.  In my opinion, the greatest aspect of an alternate reality game is playing back with the audience, taking their thoughts and story ideas and incorporating them, in real-time, into the game design.  At the end of week 1, now that the Temporal Archivists (the historians of the future at the center of our fictional world, of which I am one) knew that resource depletion would be the end of the world, we needed to take the proper steps to prevent it from happening. 



Week two began with a modified lesson from World Without Oil, an alternate reality game created by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal to bring attention to a growing shortage of fossil fuels.  Youth imagined a day where oil usage skyrockets and the oil supply can only meet 95% of it.  This activity required youth to role-play as their future selves and figure out how this shortage affects them and their families.  While the youth were writing journal entries from this future perspective, something strange and unexpected happened.  They started to receive cryptic messages from a resistance group called The Scattering that was standing up to the ProPhyle Corporation in the future. With this new narrative development we were able to transition to our next dramatic beat as well as our next STEM topic: math. image

Similar to week 3 of last year’s alternate reality game The Source, we wanted this week to focus on math. We sought to make math compelling by focusing on cryptography. Over the next two days teams were given different parts of a ciphered message along with a short packet containing the history of cryptography.  This acted as a tutorial through which we detailed the importance of learning cryptography, allowing them to practice Caesar shifts, substitution ciphers, and Vigenère ciphers.  Giving teams new information and skills, also created inter-team collaboration as many of them began communicating and cooperating with one another in order to complete the final message. 

On Wednesday, in the fictional world of our game, S.E.E.D. Technology (which allows communication between 2014 and the future of 2035) was stolen, causing the Temporal Archivists to point the blame at the youth. Consequently, it caused the Project Harvest facility in which we are playing the game to go on “lockdown”.  This was our playful way of encouraging the youth to practice steganography, the art of hiding things in plain sight. As we (or should I say, the Temporal Archivists) patrolled the halls, the youth turned to an emergent behavior: they used their knowledge of encryption and decryption to pass secret messages to one another. Some students drew pictures, while the others made paper airplanes.  Many students struck up conversations with the Archivists to pass flash drives to one another. Teams Arachnis and Digitalis (also named after plant genera) were able to find a letter with the proper codes to end the lockdown.



The week ended with players searching for the SEED Technology and the person who stole it by using D.O.T.S. (the acronym stands for Distributed Ontological Topology System). This locative scavenger hunt had the youth travel around campus solving cryptic challenges using iPads. Our mobile specialist, James Taylor, does a wonderful job describing the process behind the game.


The final activity of the day encourages youth to think about their future selves and how they could be responsible for creating S.E.E.D. technology. They receive 10 nodes in a future timeline from 2030 and beyond. Many of these nodes included names of our youth players. For example, one event read: “2043 - Space colonization put on hold following the Michael Subbarao bill. Space funds reinvested in massive program to rehabilitate earth.” After arranging the nodes, teams worked in smaller groups to write a new series of nodes, describing how they would move, concretely, from the present moment to a future where they are responsible for creating a change in the future.                                      

As week two comes to an end today and we furiously prepare for the third week, I’d like to take a short moment to reflect on the STEM skills and 21st Century Literacies that I believe our youth are gaining throughout Project S.E.E.D.  It’s not often that game designers think in terms of learning objectives.  But this mindset is critical when developing educational games. In addition to basic math skills that we have tried to make engaging through cryptography and code breaking, we have had youth practice organization and collaboration. We have encouraged them to think about their futures and what those might look like if they move into STEM careers. We have given them an opportunity to combine scientific data with creative writing skills not merely to criticize contemporary polices about, say, climate change or sustainable resources, but also to imagine what a better world might look like. image

As Peter McDonald discussed in his post, we use the weeks as an arc. While we never over determine the narrative moments and learning objectives, we are always thinking about the affordances the mechanics of a game can offer and how that can lead to new and emerging behaviors.



On the Locative iPad Scavenger Hunt, D.O.T.S (James Taylor)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with James Taylor, senior game designer and mobile unit lead at Game Changer Chicago. James holds a BA in English Literature from Kenyon College and an MFA in Interactive Media & Game Design from the University of Southern California.

I will provide a brief description of the game D.O.T.S. (the acronym stands for “Distributed Ontological Topology System” in the science fiction world we have created), a locative scavenger hunt that is part of the alternate reality game S.E.E.D., and then describe some of my experiences creating it over the past two months.


D.O.T.S. is a networked game played on mobile devices. The objective for each participating team is to find and capture highlighted spots on a shared map. The map of the playing field for the version of the game that we played today is the University of Chicago campus. 


Teams taking part in D.O.T.S. examine the map on their iPad, choose a spot, and then travel towards that location. Once the team is near an important location, an expanding red circle appears. This means that the team can now open the challenge for that location. If the team is able to use the real-world clues in the environment around them and successfully solve the challenge, they will convert that spot on the map to their team color. All other teams are able to see up-to-the-moment information about who has captured each spot on the map.

Teams also receive a token for completing each new challenge. Collecting 3 tokens in the tray (at the top right of the screen) allows the team to open a timeline section that rewards them by allowing them to unlock pieces of narrative. By collecting 3 tokens, a team not only unlocks the timeline, but also receives one new card on the timeline. All teams that have access to the timeline button are able to see new timeline events as other teams unlock them. The timeline gradually becomes complete as multiple teams solve challenges.

imageMy experience of the S.E.E.D. alternate reality game is different from that of most of the other game designers. During the daily exercises, challenges, and games, I’ve been working in the lab basement, very much removed from the core activities. D.O.T.S. is a networked digital game. In many ways, it is (or can be) a stand-alone game experience. It has its own grant support attached to it (thanks to the HIVE Network) and we hope to see it succeed on a larger city-wide scale after this summer pilot.

This pilot version of D.O.T.S. will be played over the course of two days and is embedded into the broader S.E.E.D. alternate reality game experience. The winning team – that is, the team that captures the greatest number of locations by the end - will see the location of a “secret spot” on the map, where they will unlock a critical part of the narrative that they will then have to share with the other teams. The spots for today’s game include: Rockefeller Chapel, Hutchinson Commons, The Divinity School, The Oriental Institute, Bartlett Dining Hall, Chicago Theological Seminary, The Center of the Quad, Logan, Ryerson Hall, Harper Reading Room, Regenstein Library and Botany Pond.


There have been two equally ambitious strains of development for this multiplayer mobile game. The first is the creation of 22 unique, location-based puzzles. After a few initial fits and starts, with wildly varied puzzle types, we settled on a standard format so that each puzzle could present images, text, and other clues related to the place, as well as a text entry field for the decrypted answer. Using a standard format, we were able to move quickly. Game designers – primarily Bea Malsky, Chris Russell, Keith Wilson, Peter McDonald, Leslie Gailloud, and Nate Crumpley – would go to locations to conceive of riddles and puzzles and bring back the appropriate artifacts. These challenges are meant to introduce students to the University of Chicago campus and enable them to practice the cryptography and code breaking skills they have been learning over the last three days. I then installed each new puzzle in the Unity3D game engine. Note that this was merely the initial installation of a puzzle; user testing of 22 puzzles scattered around a large campus is another matter entirely – requiring many volunteers. In terms of sheer miles clocked on foot, our high school intern Julius Stein set the bar, taking careful notes of broken or unsolvable puzzles several days before launch.


The second highly ambitious strain of development for this game was the creation of a dynamic digital map to display a team’s location, their captured spots on the map, and locations owned by other teams. This functionality requires a cellular network for up-to-the-moment game information. This is the glue that holds the game together and enables healthy competition. Petras Kuprys, a very talented recent graduate from the Masters in Computer Science Department at University of Chicago is largely responsible for the networking elements of the game. He worked remotely on the project, but without his code this game would simply not exist. I told my girlfriend recently that my code is comparable to a steam-punk machine, with its gears, latches and pullies, but looking at Petras’ code is like glancing into the transportation system of a future society. We spent many evenings in our respective homes pushing github updates to the network. 


I want to return for one last moment to the dilemmas of testing these puzzles. People wondered why, after the start of the summer program, I would be in the building or running around campus until 2am. This is because players have been using the iPads that I needed for development until 4pm each day. I would get the precious iPads at 4pm and then start my day from there. 

Overall this has been a great project to work on. It opens new doors for the lab.

A special thanks to Ashlyn Sparrow for her artwork and for staying late the night before the game launch! And to Patrick Jagoda for coming up with the clever timeline component to keep players curious. Finally, many of the art assets in this game (especially the Timeline and Event Cards) are the work of talented artist Jason Pruett.

On Being a Mentor in an Alternate Reality Game (Anna Cohn)

Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game S.E.E.D. continues with Anna Cohn, a rising senior at Denison University, Double Major in Sociology/Anthropology and Theatre. She worked as a mentor on Game Changer Chicago’s previous summer ARG The Source.

I love working with high school students. However, working with high school students in an alternate reality game such as Game Changer Chicago’s S.E.E.D. is considerably more difficult than it may seem. Usually when mentoring, one has to monitor the youth, make sure they stay on task, and help lead them through various activities and games. However, when you introduce the concept of being in an alternate reality game, this means that each mentor becomes a “character” as well. Although we are playing ourselves, we constantly have to make sure we are aware of the storyline and make sure not to give away any information that hasn’t happened yet, while still making sure that they are up to date on the information that has been dispersed.

For instance, we have radios in our rooms that transmit static and sometimes other messages. These can be hard to hear and if we are really concentrated on our other task, we might miss some important narrative information. This means that we have to make sure we know what was said on the transmission and somehow figure out a way for our group to find out this information, without simply telling them because then they will question why we knew the information even though we didn’t hear the transmission. This is a good time to get our group to visit other groups and ask (or sometimes barter) for the information that was missed. Another option is to find a Temporal Archivist (one of the historians of the future who are walking around in white lab coats) and ask them what was said, however the students are fairly suspicious of the Temporal Archivists (as they should be) and do not know if they are lying to them or not.

My group is “Team Yucca” (named after a plant) and we are about a week and a half into the program and my team has already bonded pretty closely. They really feel they can only trust each other and their mentors (myself and Joseph Dailey), which forces them to get to know each other. My team was extremely passionate about last week’s debate during which they had to convince others that a super virus would contribute to the end of the world. I watched my team go from a loss in their first debate to winning their next two debates and reaching the semi-finals. I also watched them improve in their debating skills extremely quickly. At first, they were apprehensive to talk in front of others and by the end almost everyone in the group was speaking on behalf of the group’s point. I was so proud to watch their growth and see them recognize that they can debate complex issues. I think some of them surprised themselves in the process.

This job as a S.E.E.D. mentor is so rewarding that often times it doesn’t feel like a job. Although I have my set hours of when I come in and leave, I feel like I carry the discussions, ideas, and energy from my team around with me the rest of my day. By being in an alternate reality game, you get to bond with your students in a way that is fun and very unexpected due to the unique experience of participating in an alternate reality game. After being a mentor in last year’s learning game, The Source, I am so glad to be doing this program for a second year in a row and I highly recommend alternate reality games as a form of education.

Photos by Seed Lynn and Nabiha Khan.

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