Games with Groundswell

November 5, 2009

I’ve never played a video game in my life. Oh wait, that’s not true. I played pong for about two seconds until I realized it was the most boring thing in the entire world. And I played Ms. Pacman a few times because it seemed like the feminist thing to do:

I guess I wasn’t alone there. But really, video games? Not my cup of tea.

So what am I doing writing a paper on video games? I blame it all on Nicco and Dance Dance Revolution – not necessarily in that order. It seems like just yesterday that I was in Nicco’s office talking about my interest in digital storytelling and civic engagement. He mentioned video games which I, in my dotage, immediately dismissed. But then I remembered Dance Dance Revolution and how much fun I had even though I never got past the blue foot rating. Could DDR be the answer to our social capital crisis and open the door to a new golden age of civic engagement? Months later I find myself writing a paper on this topic.

And turns out I’m not alone. Loads of smart people at MIT are sitting around asking questions like: Might the political consciousness of the new generation be taking shape in and around popular culture? How are activists and political leaders utilizing metaphors from popular culture as resources to mobilize their supporters? Is it possible that aspects of our popular culture may generate utopian visions that fuel political change?

I get the social capital part … numerous scholars have pointed out the value of MMOGs as “new (albeit virtual) “third places” for informal sociability that are particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital.” This dynamic has obvious implications for civic engagement. But not all games are created equal and most restrict player to the fantasy world of these “third places.”

I got thinking about Charlene Li and Jodh Bernoff’s book Groundswell and the idea of a “spontaneous movement of people using online tool to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need – information, support,ideas, products, and bargaining power – from each other.” Many video games don’t leverage the power of the groundswell … they allow a third party, a computer, to define the contours of their experience. If social bonding, fantasy and a transformative experience is what you need, many games and virtual world can deliver. But what if what you really need is your garbage removed or health care reform or a climate change plan that will skirt disaster? I’m not sure DDR or World of Warcraft is up to the task.

Nicco again to the rescue. He hooked me up with his game guru Bonnie Shaw who is the brains behind the world-wide photographic treasure hunt Snap-Shot-City. And Bonnie hooked me up with the work of Jane McGonigal. Jane is a game designer and researcher who is passionate about ARG’s – Alternate Reality Games.

Wikipedia defines ARGs as “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions. The form is defined by intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real-time and evolves according to participants’ responses, and characters that are actively controlled by the game’s designers, as opposed to being controlled by artificial intelligence as in a computer or console video game. Players interact directly with characters in the game, solve plot-based challenges and puzzles, and often work together with a community to analyze the story and coordinate real-life and online activities. ARGs generally use multimedia, such as telephones, email and mail but rely on the Internet as the central binding medium.”

People like me, who don’t usually like games, tend to like ARGs because you don’t have to touch a “joystick” to play and they don’t remind you of those seventh grade Dungeons and Dragons boys. Sorry guys, D&D still creeps me out. Better yet, ARGs seem to offer the civic engagement missing link that other “games” do not: the real world! Now combine that with the groundswell and you may have something. ARGs are getting a ton of hype right now but there are loads of barriers to adoption as a truly powerful medium for civic engagement. But you’ll have to wait until my paper is published in some swanky journal to find out what they are. HA!