Author Archives: bstokes

Expanding the Peabody Awards: A New Approach for Games, Interactive Journalism and Documentary

[Cross-posted from American University news]

After an 83-year history, an SOC faculty member brought major changes to the award

For the first time in its 83-year history, the influential Peabody Awards celebrated winners in “Interactive Media” last month after an open call – including Interactive Journalism, Games/Play and Interactive Documentary. Until this point, games and interactive media could not apply as such. Going forward, interactive media will be recognized on center stage for the Peabody Awards, which is one of the most influential awards in broadcast media and journalism. 

Behind the scenes of this policy shift was professor Benjamin Stokes, a communication studies professor who teaches in the Game Center at American University (AU SOC). Stokes served as Chief Advisor for the Peabody Interactive awards and was on the final jury.  

The five winners include the New Yorker’s VR documentary “Reeducated,” which addresses China’s brutal detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The game “Life is Strange: True Colors” tells a radically different story than what is typical in AAA videogames, centering instead on the story of a 21-year-old bisexual Asian American Woman, and her investigation of her family history alongside a strange conspiracy in a small town. The unexpected Minecraft build “The Uncensored Library” was recognized for allowing more than 20 million gamers to access censored articles and for telling the broader story of the fight for press freedom, with partners including Reporters Without Borders. “ContraPoints” is a YouTube channel that provides remarkable longform video essays on social issues and phenomenon, and was recognized in part for the unusual balance of deep nuance with mass-culture reach. Finally, the VR story “Lucy and the Wolves in the Walls” tells the tale of eight-year-old Lucy by giving the viewer an active role in exploring the delicate balance of truth, evidence and belief. (For details and the full set of nominees, see the bottom of this article.) 

For Peabody, the change required an entirely new jury and judging system. Professor Stokes advised and worked closely with Peabody staff to identify expert jurors, frame the application, and plan the launch. For him, the deeper purpose was to shape the field. “The future of interactive of media depends on recognizing the very best in quality,” insisted Prof. Stokes. “Yet traditional awards have struggled to recognize interactive media, not just for recent technology like VR, but in forms like digital games that have been around for decades.” 

Stokes (pictured left) has seen the field grow first-hand. Twenty years ago, he helped launch the “Games for Change” festival to advance social change and explore social issues with games. The nonprofit that he co-founded continues to be the center of a global movement (see the 2023 Games for Change Festival). He was also a major funder in the field, working at the MacArthur Foundation in one of the first philanthropic portfolios (“Digital Media and Learning”) to invest in game research and impact.  

The interactive jurors for Peabody are remarkably varied in their expertise, from journalists at the NY Times to game studio heads, Emmy award winners, faculty from MIT to Columbia University, pioneering game designers, the former director of Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Labs, scriptwriters, the founder of the LGBTQ Game Archive, and creative directors at Walt Disney Imagineering.  

Setting the historical record is part of the goal, according to Stokes. A cultural canon is needed for games and interactive media that is understood by mainstream institutions. Peabody has a long tradition tied to broadcast and mainstream media. It was first imagined by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1938 as the radio industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes. Today the Peabody organization is led by Jeffrey P. Jones, Ph.D., and maintains an impressive archive based at the University of Georgia (see also: the American Archive of Public Broadcasting).  

Students of game design will also benefit from a canon that goes beyond pure games. Increasingly, game designers are sought in industries far beyond entertainment – including education, museum design, healthcare, and social issue movements. All of these, according to Prof. Stokes, are areas that have hired students from AU’s graduate programs, including the MA and MFA programs. “Critical thinking around engagement and stories that matter is more valuable to many employers than pure 3D modeling or programming,” he said. 

 The full list of Interactive Award Winners is available in the official announcement from the Peabody Awards. 

Recruiting 25+ libraries: Become a hub for making local GAMES and outdoor STORIES

We are seeking US libraries to be hubs for making local GAMES and outdoor STORIES — in 20+ cities/towns. Applications due by March 3rd.

For spring of 2023, we will supply game design expertise over Zoom and access to our new authoring tool for low-tech games for mobile devices and storytelling box installations.

Phase 1: Libraries will get two training sessions to develop their idea and explore our tools. Phase 2 unlocks $300 in materials, design consultation and more. Plus join our innovators network. For more, see our detailed program description.

Our authoring tool is called “Hive Mechanic” — and it’s deliberately low tech, with no need for fancy phones or even data plans. Anyone can use it.

A poster on recent work (cross-post)

For a presentation to the Board of American University, I created a large poster (4×3 foot) of our lab’s recent work:

For details and the PDF, see the original post on the Playful City Lab page.

Joining the Peabody Awards as Chief Advisor for Interactive

I am honored to be appointed in a new role: Chief Advisor for Interactive with the Peabody Awards.

Beginning in 2022, Peabody is expanding its award categories to recognize storytelling achievements across interactive, immersive and new media categories, including Gaming, Interactive Journalism, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Social Video, and Interactive Documentary. For an early look, see the Legacy Award winners announced last month.

I am simultaneously joining Peabody’s Interactive Board of Jurors (scroll to bottom).

For me, this is a chance to help close the recognition gap between fields like documentary and journalism and emerging forms with games, AR/VR, and more. I have deep respect for the deliberative process that Peabody Awards brings to their judging, and have really loved the conversations so far with leading creatives and experts. In many ways, this is a bold experiment for Peabody Awards, and I can’t wait to see where we can take it.

Bringing my Playful Cities class to the new KID Museum (storytelling boxes and more)

An example of the fun we’re having…

My class on “Playful Cities” and interactive storytelling traveled this week to a new museum to pitch their projects as potential exhibitions.

Specifically, the students brought their demonstrations to the enormous “KID Museum” that is opening next month in Bethesda on makerspace themes.

Our students created three different “storytelling boxes” and demos with branching stories and educational games, including with RFID and arcade buttons.

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Video released on “Layers of Place” (panel with Open Doc Lab)

I was proud to moderate an excellent discussion, “LAYERS OF PLACE: Bringing Communities Together by Augmenting Places with Stories, Voices, and Technologies,” on June 22nd, 2021 with the MIT Open Doc Lab. Featuring an interdisciplinary group of artists, scholars, and civic leaders including filmmaker Carla Bishop, urban planner Lafayette Cruise, artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and interdisciplinary artist Shey Rivera Ríos will discuss the potentials and challenges of augmenting places within communities and with stories to build bridges and bring people together. What policies, strategies, and environments are needed to make them work? Moderated by civic media scholar Benjamin Stokes.

Watch it here:

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Book talk with Katie Salen @ G4C — June 30

From the event description:

We are excited to announce our next Talk & Play, co-sponsored with MIT Press, for the book launch of “LOCALLY PLAYED: Real-World Games for Stronger Places and Communities.” Join us on Tuesday, June 30th from 6:00 to 7:00pm EDT as we discuss the future of urban play, games of resilience, and how games can strengthen cities and neighborhoods.

Join author Dr. Benjamin Stokes in conversation with Katie Salen Tekinbaş as they explore tools to make your own game for community cohesion, history and empowerment.

The world has changed with COVID-19 — but place matters more than ever. As social distancing enters the next phase, we begin to imagine social interaction in parks and on streets. And we need more than economic strategy — we also need social resilience. Are games an answer?

In 2016, city officials were surprised when Pokémon GO brought millions of players out into the public space, blending digital participation with the physical. Yet for local control and empowerment, a new framework is needed to guide the power of mixed reality and pervasive play.

This new book is the first to show cities how they can be strategic with games in a hybrid world. In Locally PlayedBenjamin Stokes describes the rise of games that can connect strangers across zip codes, support the “buy local” economy, and build cohesion in the fight for equity. With a mix of high- and low-tech games, Stokes shows, cities can tap into the power of play for the good of the group, including healthier neighborhoods and stronger communities.

The discussant is noted game designer and academic, Katie Salen Tekinbaş. Katie’s own pioneering games for cities — including the Big Urban Game for the Twin Cities in the U.S. — established some of the foundation for modern research on games. This event will be introduced by Games for Changes President, Susanna Pollack.

Benjamin Stokes is a media scholar, professor, and civic designer. He teaches in the American University Game Lab and School of Communication. Previously, Stokes worked at the MacArthur Foundation in their portfolio on Digital Media and Learning. Stokes’s designs have been featured in the Smithsonian Institution and the Guggenheim Museum, including re-purposed payphones for storytelling and neighborhood mapping by bicycle. His also directs the Playful City Lab at American University.

“Playful Making with Urban Furniture” (a talk with the Dept. of Ed)

I will be giving a talk for policy makers in education, economic development, and civic games on January 10, 2020. Hosted by the US Department of Education, this convening is part of the larger ED Games Expo at Building Momentum in Alexandria, VA.

RSVP here (Eventbrite).

This talk brings together some of our research in the Playful City Lab on cities using games with urban furniture (like interactive benches, re-purposed payphones, and interactive fountains), and redirecting the momentum of large commercial games like Pokemon GO (e.g., our research on San Jose) to advance local culture and economic development.

Heading to IndieCade 2019

I’m presenting with the amazing Kishonna Gray on Thursday, Oct. 10 for IndieCade (1:30pm, see full schedule). Our session:

Creativity from Activism: From Black Cyberfeminism to Localism and Protest


New kinds of creativity are possible with activism, even for non-activist designers. This panel takes an unusual approach, and asks how ALL game designers might benefit from a peek into activism around games — including to invent new kinds of games. For this session, we will avoid the usual silos of activist games for their own sake, or pure activism around current games. Instead, we will ask how activism reveals new forms of gameplay, audience engagement, and genre bending. To do this, we will consider how each example game reveals an opportunity for new kinds of creativity.

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Presenting at Connected Learning Summit (UC Irvine, CA)

Our showcase talk will be on: “Neighborhood Circulation of Civic Stories: A Trans-Local Platform(co-authors: Benjamin Stokes, Olivia Williams, and Hazel Arroyo). This is a design talk, scheduled for 2 pm on Oct. 4, 2019, as part a panel on “Locative Media and Community Engagement.”

The Connected Learning Summit alternates between MIT and UC Irvine, and represents a merger between three community events with this shared vision and values: the Digital Media and Learning Conference, the Games+Learning+Society Conference, and Sandbox Summit.

Visual for our talk:

Abstract for our talk:

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