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On an Ongoing Experiment (Games, Connected Learning, and the Future of Education): Patrick Jagoda

My name is Patrick Jagoda and I’m a University of Chicago professor in the English department. My research focuses on new media and, more specifically in recent years, the art form of digital games. In 2011, Melissa Gilliam (Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics and Chief of Family Planning at the University of Chicago) and I began work on a series of digital media projects and an organization that we co-founded: the Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab. The GCC Design Lab uses digital storytelling, games, and emerging new media forms to explore social and emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility with youth in Chicago, especially on the South Side. The GCC Design Lab projects are all collaborative. They bring together University faculty and game designers hired to work in the lab, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, local high-school youth, visiting artists and designers, and community organizations.

This summer, from July through August 2013, the GCC Design Lab is starting a new game project. We will post about it on this blog on a regular basis. The project we will be discussing is a narrative-driven transmedia game or “Alternate Reality Game” called The Source. If you’re wondering what an Alternate Reality Game (or ARG) is, you’re not alone. ARGs are still a fairly new art form. They’re not quite like the computer or video games that are more popular in our culture. For starters, ARGs are not constrained to any single medium, hardware system, or interface. ARGs use the real world as a platform. As transmedia writer Sean Stewart explains, ARGs incorporate a range of media — “text, video, audio, flash, print ads, billboards, phone calls, and email to deliver parts of the plot”. The stories that organize most of these games are nonlinear. They’re broken into separate pieces that players have to rediscover and reconfigure. In this way, ARGs encourage players to form networks that are participatory and collective. They are like mystery stories that you don’t read or watch but in which you actively take part, as a player.

The Source is an ARG that will be played by high school students (13-18 years old) on the University of Chicago campus as well as online through the game’s main hub: In the coming weeks, the story of The Source will be conveyed through transmedia means, including webisodes, tweets, Facebook posts, and voicemails coming from various characters. This game will include challenges, puzzles, and creative tasks. Players will experience The Source in small teams that compete with one another for points and will be overseen by undergraduate and graduate mentors. The game explores issues such as sustainability, health, and cyber-bullying while helping youth develop skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM). Youth will also earn badges tied to literacies in web design, video production, blogging, podcasting, and social media. We have invited colleagues in economics, education, and the social sciences to collaborate on the evaluation.

So why has the GCC Design Lab decided to create such an elaborate game this summer? There are many reasons but the main one has to do with an approach called “connected learning” a central component of our Lab’s vision. Simply put, many schools lack the resources to tackle many 21st century literacies, including those linked to digital technologies, systems thinking, and social networking. Such literacies might prepare youth not only for their future professions but also for the forms of critical thinking and critical making that are essential to inhabiting the contemporary world. These abilities, in turn, will help youth tackle the big challenges that are facing the United States and the world, such as growing economic inequalities, climate change, resource scarcity, changing energy needs, and health disparities. Connected learning seeks to link learning experiences across peer, interest, and academic spheres. It offers young people multiple points of entry and pathways toward career, civic, and academic success.

Melissa Gilliam and I believe that games are a critical technique of connected learning. At the level of play, games offer interactive contexts for thinking through and experimenting with complex problems in a hands-on fashion. Digital games, in particular, enable multiple learning styles and engage players at several levels simultaneously via text, graphics, audio, and interactive play. They spur decision-making, enable roleplaying, teach procedural knowledge, and enable users to inhabit complex systems. The Source is an experiment in alternative learning models that brings together youth’s interest in game culture, the social affordances of group gameplay, and the intrinsic motivation and satisfying challenge that games provide.

To follow The Source, check this blog every day for entries coming from game designers, youth mentors, and faculty members involved in The Source. We will offer reflections on the design, development, and implementation of the game, and its relationship to 21st century connected learning. You can also follow information about the game and the GCC Design Lab on Facebook and Twitter. The game begins today and initiates our big experiment in learning.