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On the Sublime Logistics of Alternate Reality Games (or: “It takes a village”): Angela Heimburger

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Our daily development blog series for The Source continues with the perspective of Angela Heimburger, the Executive Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Angela writes about the incredible logistics necessary to run an Alternate Reality Game (without ever elaborating her own essential contribution to this ambitious enterprise).

Like Ci3 Communications Manager Lauren Whalen, I am also new to the world of alternate realities. Earlier this spring, I had a conceptual introduction to ARGs thanks to the elucidation of University of Chicago faculty member and game director Patrick Jagoda, the fabulous Game Changer Chicago (GCC) staff, and the miracle workers who are the Design Lab Fellows, many of whom have run or participated in ARGs in the past. However, I had no idea what it took to put together this kind of game logistically. Nor how many heads and hands are required to make sure that this large-scale real/virtual hybrid world game goes off without a hitch, or at least minimal hiccups. And I still only have a partial idea. But in short, it takes a village. 

First, the space. We tried for months to secure a space big enough to host a couple hundred participants for the summer at no or very little cost— hotly contested terrain on campus. We worked with the Provost’s office, particularly Blair Archambeau and Dan Larson, who did everything in their power to get us situated in the basement of our current building. We called scrappers to remove the old office furniture and wooden pallets that had been stored there for decades in some cases. Once clear, the rooms revealed some water damage (and subsequent mold) and possible asbestos, making them unsuitable for occupancy. We made many requests around campus, but other spaces charged rental fees that well exceeded our budget or were full with other summer camps and courses. This campus is a summer home to a lot of young people of all ages! Thanks to the persistence of Blair and Dan, we landed in the Woodlawn Social Services Center in a former day care center and unused basement offices that were easily adapted for our needs. Because both spaces had been unoccupied for over a year, we had to clear out rooms, install wireless connectivity in two sides of the building, and rent enough tables and chairs to provide workspaces for our youth who would be spending six hours each day creating, learning, collaborating and playing. Quickly installing ourselves and invading the relative calm of that building, Joe helped us hang banners and get keys, Richard made sure that the kids were safe and respectful of the shared lobby, and Gustavo and Christian helped keep our workspaces clean and litter free. Christian even offered his time to help mentor our participants on robotics, one of his areas of expertise. 

Next, the food and transportation. We did not have a budget to provide lunch or transportation to the participants, so Lynn Lockwood of the One Chicago Fund lobbied her sources to help out. Thanks to Lynn, we received student CTA passes and riding permits for all of our participants. Subsidies for the lunches never materialized but we were able to strike a very reasonable deal with Phoenix Catering, located at the U of C Lab School, to provide us with delicious bag lunches and drinks. Go, Rachel! However, they did not have a vehicle to transport the food. So we were able to get daily lunches delivered at noon thanks to a combination of volunteer muscle, borrowed SUVs (Chris and Lee) and taxis (special thanks to Mr. Ayuba, cab number 5888 of Yellow Cab). Mentors helped us organize and maintain order while 140 hungry youth were ready to eat. (Thanks Rodney, Anna and Eran.) Occasionally, we order pizza as a change of pace. When 35 extra-large cheese pizzas and many 2L bottles of soda arrived today with no cups, Papa of Papa John’s did not hesitate to run yours truly to the nearest Walgreens to get the necessary supplies. It’s a shame that we often remember most the one uncooperative driver who refuses to provide service (yes, you, Mr. Other Yellow Cab driver) when there are so many others who go out of their way to help others every day (thank you).

Third, printing and copying. Without careful organization, we would not have been able to keep track of participants’ comings and goings. Mentors would be unaware of the instructions for that day’s exercises. Participants would not be able to partake in the carefully crafted activities. Baseline questionnaires would not be disseminated. Parents would not have received handbooks letting them know what their children would be doing for five weeks with a group of strangers. Sure, a few trees would have been spared, but all that creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking might well have been stymied or worse, lost. We’re talking about those people who facilitated many a document production— Andrea Jerabek, Sarah Orzalli, our colleagues at the Biological Sciences Division printing room and the Social Service Administration production room. Thank you.

Then, materials and supplies for the games and daily instructions. Who knew that carrying out STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) activities would mean ordering sheets and sheets of small ceramic tiles (more expensive to ship than to buy) that still had to be hand-cut one by one, or laminating huge game boards that use wet—not dry — erase markers? Boxes would arrive almost daily with supplies like small metal safes, cartons of socks, decks of playing cards, small digital cameras and headphones, and tennis balls. Staff would scour the local dollar stores and drugstores looking for mini notebooks, twine, index cards, little magnifying glasses, dowel rods, huge plastic flowers, and hula hoops. Office depot employees no longer had a demand for old-fashioned brass fasteners until our game designers decided they would make craft-like decoders. Colleagues would be asked to bring in their hair dryers, soccer balls, and frisbees as the need arose. At one point there was even a need for a pair of shoes when a participant’s sandals broke beyond repair and she needed to take public transportation home at the end of the day. And of course, there are always last-minute adjustments for portable computers, projectors, and screens as the game evolves and new presenters surface. In all of this, here’s a special shout out to The Source’s production manager, Ashlyn Sparrow and the Design Lab Fellows (Peter McDonald, Philip Ehrenberg, Megan Macklin, Leslie Gailloud and Chris Russell) for their endless creativity and resourcefulness! 

Fifth, guest presenters, site visits and special events. I wonder if the very talented young actors who have portrayed Adia (Ava Saunders), Ros (Nailah Harris) and Micah (Khalil Johnson) can even be called “guests” in any capacity since their webisodes form the basis for the narrative arc of the game. Life before them is a dim memory. (Props to GCC staff member Seed Lynn for his storytelling and amazing video work!) A host of wonderful experts emerged as The Source was being developed and colleagues from the University of Chicago (like Autumn Davidson, Elizabeth Munroe, Lee Hasselbacher, Neil Verma, Cookie the Cop). From local organizations like the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health (ICAH), Global Girls and Common Sense Media—thanks, Sue Thotz. From Chicagoland (Doug Braino, Sister Yaa Simpson) and California (Dan Weinstein).  Our colleagues at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute of Chicago were kind enough to work with us to host a full day’s event at their respective institutions. We contracted buses (thanks, Andrea) at the last minute when it became apparent that asking 140 youth and their mentors to travel from point A to point B— and back!— on time using public transportation in the construction-riddled South Side was not the best use of our limited time together the last week of the program. The Logan Center for the Arts on the U of C campus graciously allowed us to use their computer lab numerous times and screening room for a special War of the World event. They have worked with us closely throughout this project and others to ensure that our youth have access to the state of art digital media equipment. Keith Maderrom and his colleagues at the SSA made all of the arrangements for us to use their spacious lobby, on short notice, for participant registration before The Source started. Bookending our program, we will also use that space to host our closing event, even though SSA is very busy running multiple summer programs themselves. Thank you.

Finally, the mentors and participants. The 28 mentors. The mentors! The name doesn’t begin to describe all that they do for and with The Source, receiving news about the day’s events 30 minutes or less before the day begins. Organizing their groups and making sure each participant understands the activities and participates according to his or her ability and interest. Making sure that the groups behave, more or less, in a controlled fashion in a shared space. Troubleshooting and energizing the group all day long. Putting the participants first even though they are also hot, hungry and tired. And all for a very modest stipend and our endless gratitude. The participants—140 (at times more, other times less)—a wonderful, bright, fun, funny, curious, collaborative, energetic, noisy, adolescent group of learners, creators and future leaders. Thank you.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It does not take into account the arduous financial management of our Human Resource and Financial Administrator, Brie Anderson, in figuring out how to pay for last minute requests or how to get timely payments to the mentors. It does not take into account new GCC staff members like James Taylor, Lauren Whalen and Karriem Watson who entered mid-stream and swam gracefully with the current. It does not take into account all of the parents who agreed to let their children participate and arrange their schedules to make sure the young people arrive each day The Source is in session. It does not take into account the website and platform development for the game (described by Amanda Dittami in a previous post) with long distance collaborators in Australia. It does not take into account all of our marvelously supportive colleagues that are part of the University of Chicago (e.g. Shaz Rasul at the Office of Civic Engagement, Dovetta and Terhonda at the Collegiate Scholars Program—they mentored us as well), the Hive Network  (Digital Youth Network, Project Exploration, After School Matters), the Chicago Public School system and other local schools and youth-serving organizations, and volunteers who helped us advertise and recruit youth participants. It does not take into account the volunteers who helped us confirm teens’ participation with separate phone calls to youth and their parents at the eleventh hour. It does not take into account the incredibly gifted artist, Anthony Sixto, who produced the beautiful poster, logo and team icons for The Source. It does not take into account the much earlier need for a wall-sized glass board to be installed in our conference room for the Design Lab “war room” so that all of these creative minds could collectively hum. [And it doesn’t even touch on related evaluation research and the constellation of others who are and will be involved with that. You know who you are.]

When the GCC team first discussed The Source (then conceived as Area 6), the idea of involving 1,000 youth from all corners of Chicagoland seemed like a reasonable summer project even though previous summer workshops had hosted a dozen kids, tops.  What were we thinking? Now that we have 140 participants, 28 mentors, a dozen designers and evaluators, several photographers and videographers, and various visitors and presenters around for three days each week, any more, the idea of increasing this number five-fold or more seems unfathomable. At least for now— maybe next year. In the meantime, this post is really a shout out to all of those people—mentioned explicitly or not— who helped us pull all of this together. Thank you. May The Source be with you.