Our daily development blog series for the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab’s alternate reality game and summer program, S.E.E.D., continues with Angela Heimburger, Executive Director of Ci3. Her role in S.E.E.D. has been logistical coordination of the spaces, lunches and transportation as well as occasional “glue maker” for any last minute requests or challenges. Her only regret this summer is not having spent more time directly with the youth participants.
What a difference a year can make! Those of you who have been following us for a while know that last year was our inaugural experience running a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) with high school students focused on STEM learning. The Source was a fun, productive, exhausting, and wonderful learning experience that included 140 students over five weeks. More importantly, direct feedback from participants and evaluation of the results taught us a lot about how we could improve the experience this year for participating youth, for our own research and evaluation, and for the interactive design.
There were many successful similarities between the two projects, including: fabulous youth participants and their parents and guardians; recruitment help with Gear Up, the Hive Learning Network Chicago, U of C Civic Engagement colleagues from the Neighborhood Schools Program and Office of Special Programs; collaboration from many partners inside and outside of the University; talent, inquisitiveness, and fun; faith; suspended disbelief or belief in other opportunities; hands-on learning and making; and as Seed Lynn artfully stated in his blog post, “gaming for alternate possibilities in the real world.”
So, what was different this year?
Size: Although we had intended to make the program larger (up to 220 students) logistical complexities forced us to downsize on short notice. We’re glad we did. S.E.E.D. had half of the number of students this year. Seventy high school age students came from the south and west side of Chicago primarily. Smaller group sizes meant better ratios for interactions with adults, more individualized attention from mentors (two mentors per group of 8 or 9 students), and more effective crowd control. Scaling a project to size doesn’t always mean making it bigger in any one venue. As we think about how to coordinate a future ARG in multiple cities, this will be an important lesson to keep in mind.
Venue: Space is always a premium on campus, but this year was even more challenging. More summer class offerings, more summer programs external to the University, and more construction and/or slated renovation were scheduled for summer 2014. Fortunately, staff and faculty around campus conspired to make everything work in our favor.
We had an amazing launch in the Performance Hall of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Nicole Foti has been an invaluable partner throughout. Thanks to Blair Archambeau in the Provost’s Office, and Dan Larson in Facilities we were able to secure space for the first three weeks of the game in the New Graduate Residence Hall— perfect modular office space for the stylized bureaucratic narrative of Project S.E.E.D.
For the second two weeks, we held the game design workshops and sessions in the classrooms and spacious lobby of the Mies van der Rohe-designed Social Service Administration building. Thanks to Dr. Alida Bouris for facilitating the connections and to Carmella Snook, Events Coordinator, and her team at SSA for setting up and making sure everything was in working order.
In addition, Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC Lab) has a new, beautifully renovated space in the basement of the Charles Stewart Mott Building thanks to the generous support from the Provost’s Office. A special thanks to Blair Archambeau from the bottom of our collective heart! Completed in mid-June thanks to the fastidious project management of Joyce Griffin, that eventual office space had its first life as the set for S.E.E.D.’s laboratory.
Food: The generous lunch donations for our students and mentors was a huge help this year. BIG THANKS are due to Aramark Higher Education, especially Gary Arthur, Lizzette Marrero, and Casey Enarson for providing healthy bag lunches every day for five weeks for over 100 hungry minds and mouths. Aramark Higher Education was very accommodating of our requests, adjusting quantities as needed and adding extras like cookies (always a hit), chocolate milk, and varied chips. Thank you, neighbors! On those rare occasions when a pizza party was in order, there is no better ally than Yesenia at Papa John’s Pizza in Hyde Park. Muchas gracias.
Transportation: Last year we were very fortunate to have CTA student passes donated to us by the One Chicago Fund. This year, due to the change to the Ventra system managed by Cubic, that was no longer possible. The lack of reduced student fares for those youth in summer programs has been the subject of much news in Chicago, but we are grateful to have had the support of Rick Simons, Deborah Miloslavich, and Mike Thiry at the Chicago Transit Authority to work out a solution for our youth. Many of them could not have participated without access to public transportation, as is true for so many of Chicago’s most vulnerable youth.
Live actors: Last year, staff, faculty, and talented actors contributed hours of their time to write, record, and broadcast regular “webisodes” to The Source participants with the unifying narrative arc and clues for each day’s challenges. Because they required advanced preparation and filming, it was difficult to respond right away to unexpected turns of events. This year’s solution was nimbler. Narrative architects Patrick Jagoda and Stephen Heathcock (a/k/a Seed Lynn) constructed the basic sci-fi futuristic story line with the help of other GCC Lab staff and Fellows. Seed then coached three student actors—the inestimable Nailah Harris, Nosa Bohdi, and Bill Hutchinson — in improvisation skills and instilled faith so that they could blend more smoothly within the plot and ARG. Having the actors present and interacting with students on a regular basis made the story more tangible, provided opportunities for immediate responses, and allowed for seamless navigation with any plot hiccups or pointed, potentially derailing questions from the youth. The blog posts by Bill Hutchinson (a/k/a Xander) and Keith Wilson speak to this idea of invisible theater.
Trained mentors: The importance of mentors emerged last year during The Source as one of the most cited benefits youth derived from their summer participation. This year, Project S.E.E.D. organizers had more time to draft careful job descriptions, solicit more competition and carefully select the best-suited college age mentors for this experience. A week-long orientation prior to the start, more guidance on what to expect and how to trouble shoot, more involvement in the program in general, and fewer youth to supervise contributed to the success of the mentors’ role this year. Special recognition is due to Adan Mesa and Anna Cohn who returned this year after having mentored during The Source. In addition, the incredibly smooth organization, passionate dedication and wisdom of Lead Mentors Rodney Allen and Megan Macklin provided the necessary support and trouble-shooting expertise for mentors when challenges arose. As outlined in Dr. Melissa Gilliam’s previous post, youth-initiated mentoring was a new concept to us this year and is being tested as part of the intervention this year thanks to expertise from Drs. Jean Rhodes and Sarah Schwartz at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Seasoned GCC Design Lab Fellows: None of this would have been possible without the GCC Lab Fellows and their indefatigable stamina, inexhaustible brainpower, unbounded creativity, wickedly good sense of humor, and reckless pursuit of the perfect experience design. Shouts out to veteran Fellows Peter McDonald, Chris Russell, Megan Macklin, Leslie Gailloud, Phil Ehrenberg (now staff member), Bea Malsky, Keith Wilson and Nate Crumpley (former mentor during The Source). Not only are they colleagues, conspirators and model collaborators, they are friends and it shows.
Mobile technology: This year gave rise to our first locative iPad scavenger hunt, during which students used technology to explore the University of Chicago campus. James Taylor, GCC senior game designer and mobile unit lead, conceived, designed and ran this successful and groundbreaking activity, D.O.T.S. Congratulations to Jim on one of the shortest development cycles (from conception to implementation) to date!
Summer Link intern: Special recognition is due to Julius Stein, a rising junior at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and an integral member of S.E.E.D.’s implementation. In his own post, he revealed that this summer internship was not at all as he expected it would be, but he could not have enjoyed it more. Julius surpassed our expectations of what a summer intern could do, and we could not have enjoyed or appreciated his sunny, considerate presence more. Since he spends most of his school days right across the Midway from the GCC Lab, we hope to continue this link for at least a couple more years to come.
Project design, planning, and management: If Patrick Jagoda and Melissa Gilliam are the parents of the GCC Lab, Ashlyn Sparrow is the skilled midwife of S.E.E.D. The brilliance, foresight and warmth of the faculty progenitors are obvious to all and evidenced by some of the previous posts here. But Ashlyn’s amazing energy, unfailing optimism, wonderful people skills, back-up plans for back-up plans, design genius and creative direction brought this project to life. With a full year’s gestation, Project S.E.E.D. was delivered into this world—and an alternate one—as a healthy, happy, intensely desired offspring with a very bright future. Hats off to Ashlyn Sparrow!
Widespread documentation and increased social media presence: Kudos are due to Ci3’s Communications Manager, Lauren Whalen, for managing full-time videographers, staff photographers (Seed, Phil, and Amanda Dittami), external photographers (Lauren Beck and Nabiha Khan), blog postings, and interviews with media representatives. Her steadfast work in building our listserv and social media presence via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr – and teaching staff and colleagues how to live tweet – has more people following us than ever before.
Embedded researchers: A couple members of our research staff only had a taste of The Source last year, and some are new to the ARG and workshop experience. Drs. Brandon Hill and Camille Fabiyi designed research protocols, adapted cognitive tests for students, and conducted focus groups during the program, and will continue to administer some follow-up tests as time and money allows. Research Specialists Phoebe Lyman and Catherine Hagbom observed and helped collect data during the five weeks of this program, disguised as “Temporal Archivists” during the game portion and unveiled as researchers during the final weeks. This sort of experimental study and design requires a lot of flexibility and timely adjustments in addition to rigorous methodology. We are lucky to have such a crack research team.
Greater symbiosis between plot and STEM challenges: Because we had been through a version of this program last year, we had more time, direct feedback, and experience to be able to connect the narrative arc directly to the puzzles and challenges that youth were asked to solve about resource depletion and other threats to civilization and Planet Earth. This is a direct result of listening deeply to what youth said during informal conversations and in focus group evaluations of The Source, refining our development processes within the GCC Lab, harnessing the collective expertise of many of the staff game designers and Fellows, and consulting widely with colleagues and outside experts, including university faculty.
Dedicated workshops for skills building and digital badging: Last year more students wanted direct instruction and hands-on making in game design as part of the summer program. This year they’re getting it in spades, outlined in yesterday’s blog post by Patrick Jagoda and others. Youth will also have the opportunity to earn one or more of 11 digital badges for their efforts: Expressionist; Game Changers; Story Forgers; Transmedialites; Ludo-Mechanics; Prototyper; Quality Assurance; Mobilizer; Team-Builder; Networker; and Connector.
TL;DR: The differences are many and good, but the principal conclusion is that all of this time, money, logistic, creative and educational effort is worth it. The blog posts, video footage and photos belie some of the magic in the making, but the voices of the youth, their parents, and the mentors underscore the benefits of these investments most clearly. Be the change you wish to see in the world, and change the world you wish to see. Thank you to all of you who made this possible. We look forward to watching S.E.E.D. morph and take root in future iterations.