Learning within Real-World Action

(A sub-section of the overall discussion on reframing learning for mobile and pervasive games.)

  • Notable Mechanics: include both learning the skills for taking civic action, and actually changing the real-world as part of playing the game

Until recently, it was difficult to imagine games that might guide real world activism. But civic action increasingly takes place in digital spaces, and digital tools can increasingly affect social change. Experiential learning has always aligned with civics, and mobile takes the learning potential to new heights and in new directions.

What does civic action look like in a game? Game elements can be quite explicit: my donations for international poverty assistance might be tracked as points or currency (see Raise the Village); I could compete for petition signatures on a local ballot initiative; or my micro-volunteering (see Sparked) could be rewarded with scout-like achievement “badges.” For a framework on Direct Action Games, see the following video from a panel I organized last year at the Games for Change Festival (fellow panelists were game designer Tracy Fullerton and activist/scholar Stephen Duncombe):

Learning in these games is not for “some future action, but for now” (Gordon, 2011 – see full interview). This can be significantly different from learning civic skills in a simulation, such as the Doorknocking Game, which is a compelling role-play into the time-honed techniques of going door-to-door. In particular, the learning in games with “real-world action” is different because of what is at stake for participants.

Consider the game Macon Money, which drew players into unfamiliar neighborhoods in an effort to restore the social fabric of the city of Macon, Georgia. Players received cash gifts to support local businesses, but only if they found partners in other zip codes – across lines of socioeconomic stratification. The game introduced strangers to one another, building real social connections – potentially leaving behind the kind of social capital that is correlated with increased civic engagement (an evaluation is currently underway). Perhaps more importantly, players learned about a neighborhood they may have previously feared, building first-hand knowledge about its businesses and residents.

Ironically, the learning may be what makes the game fun (not vice versa), and also leads to the civic engagement. This is a somewhat radical hypothesis, given how desperately we try (and often fail) to make learning “fun” in schools. In Macon Money, the presence of money can obscure other motivations; cash is a powerful reward, but the amounts here are relatively small (they range from $10-100 USD). In fact, the cash might serve more as an excuse to break out of daily routine and indulge a desire to explore, take risks, and build a connection to our city and neighbors.

This kind of learning is akin to the scientific process: the answers are unknown, we formulate guesses about mysteries that seem important, and as we find out more we revise our strategies and dive in deeper. (See also the work on virtual worlds and how they can build habits of mind by Steinkuehler and Duncan; 2008.)

By extension, perhaps we should imagine training a generation of civic scientists – each with a disposition for asking questions about how to best affect change. Such citizens would eagerly share strategies on how to prepare to vote, or how to donate for a good cause. Importantly, this is not about making civic life more rational (which is a dangerous and sometimes counter-productive frame), but recognizing learning as a gateway to civic participation.

One important target for mobile media is the city planning process. Consider the game Community PlanIt, which seeks to “augment the basic town hall meeting …to involve people in urban planning” (Gordon, see interview). The game can be initiated and facilitated by city planners, who might select a topic and timeframe (like traffic, with a three week discussion period). Players tackle and propose missions, eventually including place-based check-ins like “meet on the steps of the library at 3pm Saturday.” The goal of the game is to create a context for learning that leads to engagement. (This positions the game on the engagement/change graphic from our learning overview section.) Surprisingly for the game’s designers, they’ve been contacted by school systems and hospitals about the game, and have come to realize that it might provide a more general solution to help geographically-oriented communities to scaffold civic learning.

Stepping back, there is real controversy in point-based rewards for civic participation. Echoing the gamification debates, there is both the risk of manipulative incentives, and of debasing civic acts by rewarding only behaviors that are easy to measure with game-ready points. If citizens will be playing these games, can they learn to navigate them safely? An important test case may be Raise the Village, with its curious dual-reality, where the iPhone game simulation of a poverty-stricken village mirrors an actual Ugandan village. Cash spent on in-game purchases for your game village is matched with spending in a real-world Ugandan town on the exact same goods. For a discussion of the ethics around Raise the Village, see Susana Ruiz’s observations on play and player/subject positioning in this report.

Going forward, games with direct civic action are poised to grow exponentially. Many of these games will give feedback to participants on how they are doing – what game designers call “state information.” Doing better in the game will mean learning civic skills and dispositions. The challenge for designers may be to increasingly align the feedback loops of learning and civic action. Such alignment is profoundly difficult, and requires understanding both the game system, and the theory of civic change. It means training game designers in the art of strategic planning for civic issues. And it means that we need new assessment methods that simultaneously evaluate projects for their learning outcomes and their civic impact – rather than picking one or the other.
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  • Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification: Toward a Definition. Presented at the CHI 2011, Vancouver, BC. Retrieved from 02-Deterding-Khaled-Nacke-Dixon.pdf
  • Steinkuehler, C., & Duncan, S. (2008). Scientific habits of mind in virtual worlds. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17(6), 530-543.