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 activists increasingly rely on the same digital tools as businesses, from coordinating small teams to online fundraising and customer recruiting. Mobile is only bringing the digital into more immediate contact with the physical world.

This blur of digital and physical has implications for learning. Volunteers and activists have long understood that helping others can be transformative for them, whether or not they successfully influence others. Experiential learning aligns naturally with games, which are perhaps the most experiential form of media available.

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 challenge of learning may be what makes the game fun, and also leads to the civic engagement. This is a somewhat radical claim, given how desperately games are used in schools to make learning fun. The real problem is often that school-based learning is not appropriately challenging, being at times boringly easy, and at other times frustratingly hard for those who get lost. A powerful comparison for games-as-incentives is money, which is also being used in schools as an incentive for participation and grades. In Macon Money, the presence of money walks a fine line. Certainly, the cash is a powerful reward, but the amounts here are relatively small (they range from $10-100 USD). Looking more closely, the cash emerges as an excuse for residents to break out of their daily routine; the incentive is almost an excuse to tackle deep social challenges, where a lot is at stake: meeting strangers, venturing across zipcodes, and crossing socio-economic lines. These challenges are deep, and confronting them pushes participants to reflect and grow — to learn.

From another angle, this kind of learning is akin to the motivations for scientists who are deeply engaged in the scientific process: the answers are unknown, they take calculated risks to uncover mysteries, and the process is engaging for what it yields, certainly, but it is also rewarding to overcome a genuinely difficult challenge. (See also the work on virtual worlds and how they can build scientific habits of mind by Steinkuehler and Duncan; 2008.)

Perhaps we should imagine training a generation of civic scientists – each with a disposition for asking questions about how to best affect change. In an era when the skills of civic life are constantly evolving and changing, we need citizens who are lifelong learners. Like good scientists, such citizens would understand their duty as one of peer investigation, sharing strategies on how to inform each other before voting, and donation strategies to ensure impact.

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, which is a perennial problem for city planners. (This positions PlanIt game on the engagement side of our diagram for game types in our learning overview.)

Of course, mixing points and civic participation leads to controversy. Gamification echoes longstanding debates about gambling, and the dangers of manipulation. In a democracy, it is ethically troubling to imagine participation driven by weaknesses in human psychology. If citizens will be playing real-world games with civic actions, 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.