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On Empathy and Art in The Source

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Our daily development blog series for the alternate reality game, The Source, continues with the perspective of Anna Dozor, a visual artist and photographer for the game. Anna recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. She writes about the focus on art and creativity in the fifth week of the game.

"Isn’t it crazy," I ask a group of The Source players, "how these rocks, which you might have walked right past on a mountainside, become art now that they are in a museum?" The girls nod. One says, "They’re pretty… But it just makes me want to touch them!" We’re talking about Izumi Masatoshi’s 2000 work Islands, which consists just of three hulking masses of basalt rock sitting on the floor of the Art Institute of Chicago, under a big spiraling staircase. They aren’t on a platform, and although there is a placard, it’s off to the side. The only reason they’ve realized that the rocks are indeed an art piece is because it’s been included on a list of scavenger hunt items to find in the museum. One boy, who had followed his teammates here but clearly wasn’t looking at the list, takes a moment to pause by resting his hand against one of the rocks. A museum guard tisks at him and he jumps away. This leads to an interesting conversation about the way museums both display, but also separate the visitors from, the artworks. One player tells me about walking across Carl Andre’s 1969 work, Steal-Aluminum Plain, a flat checkerboard that is meant to be traversed by museum visitors. She acts out the whole incident to me, describing her fear of the gallery attendant’s wrath. 

As a documenter for The Source, not tied to any single team or place, I have the privilege of wandering around and taking photos of the players in action. For any given activity, I get to see not just one team’s creativity, excitement and empathy, but the whole group’s response to game. I have the opportunity to get to know the players, mentors, and teams quite well, but also to float between teams and see what they might be doing differently from each other. I get to see the same conversations and discussions played out with different voices, perspectives and points of view. 

This week of The Source is focused on art and creativity, which is a relatively abrupt change in pace from the past weeks’ focus on technology, logic, health, and the other classic STEM fields. This makes it harder to talk about with the players, and harder to explain from an educational standpoint. But, it does bring to the surface many of the same interests and topics covered in the rest of the game - critical thinking and empathy.

We ended the day in the Modern Wing of the museum, next to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s famous untitled work from 1991, which consists of a pile of hard candies in brightly colored plastic wrappers. The piece works well with the youth for two reasons - when we tell them that they are allowed to take a piece of candy from the pile, they are shocked. They doubt me. Then they do it, happily. The second reason the piece works so well though, is their reactions after they read the placard explaining that the candy represents the body weight of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner as he withered away from AIDS. 

I am impressed, even surprised (although I shouldn’t be) about how shocking and affective this moment is for the players. They tell me it’s sad. They tell me they won’t eat the candy. One player tells me he feels sick at having eaten away at someone’s body, even through metaphor. This moment is less tangible than many of the others in the game: the youth are not learning about Caesar Ciphers or breadboard circuitry or STIs in Chicago. They are not learning something that can be memorized or repeated back. But, although it might not look like, this moment still teaches a real world skill. In these moments of empathy and others like it (e.g., when the players discuss Ibe’s leukemia or Abe’s homophobia), the game reminds the players that they should apply their thoughtfulness not just to hidden codes and logic problems, but also to the riddles of people and their emotions.