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An Overview of The Source (Week 1): Chris Russell

To conclude the first week of The Source, Game Changer Chicago Design Lab fellow Chris Russell reflects on the activities and learning goals of the initial phase of this alternate reality game.

For the first meeting in any large-scale social activity, people invariably end up standing around awkwardly without much to do. Walking into a room full of strangers can lead to social paralysis. Looking around uncertainly, you don’t exactly want to make eye contact; you become suddenly conscious of yourself and your body’s relation to the space around you.

Coming into Week 1, we were faced with the problem of how to ease the transition from 10 awkward strangers to a finely-tuned well-oiled game-playing team. At the same time, we hoped to introduce players to several of The Source’s key design principles - the abundance of encoded and encrypted information, the central game board of Hexacago, and the STEAM learning objectives of the entire summer camp.

Tuesday’s activities were planned to provide a microcosm of all three of these principles. At the beginning of the day, the players receive a transparency covered with seemingly random letters and numbers, a path through the grounds of the university, and a set of game instructions missing some key instructions. Drawing the shape of their path through the “noise” on the transparency, a hidden message containing the missing instructions for the game are revealed. Crossroads, the game itself, is a simple connectivity board game played on a large gridded map of Chicago. Players are tasked to connect all the coordinates to each other using a few simple rules and as few moves as possible. A game like this can be solved in any number of ways. However, some solutions are better than others, requiring players to conserve resources while still achieving the goal.

Wednesday, by contrast, was intended to allow players to bond socially as a team. Setting a scavenger hunt in the Museum of Science and Industry, we attempted to transform the Museum into a space for play as well as a museum. The scavenger hunts wind throughout MSI, connecting disparate exhibits through shared themes of sustainability, green energy, and farming practices. Giving the players ample time to explore on their own without strict structure, MSI becomes the backdrop on which connections between players are created.

After these two lighter days, essentially functioning as an introduction, Thursday kicks up the difficulty into high gear. Players learn the complex energy simulation game Power Play, which models the difficulty of producing enough power for an energy intense city while managing carbon emissions and costs. In the afternoon, players competitively build towers using only a deck of cards and a foot of tape, trying to create the tallest and sturdiest structures.

The overarching theme of all these activities was the ability to optimize systems using limited resources. In the case of transportation, the players had to create their network as efficiently as possible. In Power Play, players need to maximize energy production while minimizing waste and costs. Similarly, the tower building game requires creative manipulations of extremely limited materials. In all three cases, differing player strategies produce divergent and diverse results. Instead of clearly defined right and wrong answers, players must discover and choose between a number of possible pathways, using their critical thinking skills to determine optimal paths of play.

Games are particularly well suited for this sort of learning. In our designs, we do not emphasize factual information, but instead focus on the ways in which games function as ruled representations of real processes. In other words, learning how to navigate and strategize within the procedure of a game translates to similar modes of analytic and creative thought within the rules and structures of everyday life. Players might even have fun while they’re doing it!