Category Archives: update

Berkeley brown bag on Games that Build Networks

berkeley-logoJoin me on February 12th at the UC Berkeley School of Information for a brown bag seminar. I will be discussing my research on games that directly shape real-world networks. 12:10pm-1pm in 107 South Hall. For details, see their announcement.

November presentations at NCA and CA-by-Bike

Later this month, join me for presentations in both Washington, D.C. and Oakland, CA:

  • At the 99th annual National Communication Association (NCA) conference, I will be chairing a session and presenting on “Embedding Literacy in the Neighborhood: Mobile Media in South LA, and Reducing the Participation Gap” in Washington D.C. on November 21st from 2-3:15pm (see below for extended description; location is Capitol Room/Lobby Level).
  • Earlier in the month, our participatory mapping project will be presenting in Oakland at the California by Bike Summit on bicycles, digital media and apps on November 9th from 1-2:25pm with several of our RideSouthLA community partners. If you’ll be there, look us up! Details follow below.

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video part of Guggenheim exhibit

participatory-100-guggenheimThe Guggenheim Museum invited me to create a video as part of their new exhibit on the Participatory City. I tapped our crew at RideSouthLA to address the term “Collaborative Urban Mapping,” based on our work in South LA with the Healthy Food Map. The video was funded as part of the Guggenheim’s exhibit, which addresses “100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab,” and is showing in NYC through January 5, 2014. The exhibit explores the major themes and ideas that emerged from the Lab during its travels to New York, Berlin, and Mumbai.

Here is our video (English version — for Spanish see RideSouthLA):

Our Statement:

“Collaborative urban mapping” is different than just making group maps online, or celebrating the digital. To make our maps, we take a deliberately low-tech approach to the collaborative side, both for reasons of equity and innovation. Our goal with mapping is to empower a neighborhood, since empowerment shifts the frame to collective efficacy and civic literacy, rather than data as a good unto itself.

In South LA, we want to shatter some stereotypes — to show that the Watts Towers can be reached by bicycle, that urban gardens are often hidden in plain sight. Mapping is a kind of local media, spreading stories that resonate with neighborhood storytelling networks.

We tell a collective story with our process, embedding mapping with bike parades and group walks. The Vojo technology works with very basic phones (no apps!), reaching across the digital divide. Participants are invited to tell their own stories in pictures and SMS messages. We resist the “crowdsourcing” that treats participants as cheap sensors for data. Instead, we proclaim that distributing our voices is an act of civic advocacy, a way to build power.

Even as we mount iPads to bicycle handlebars, our multi-platform approach always involves paper and people. Paper maps are easy to write on and draw what should change. “Walk the map,” we say — and tell us what is missing! Use it to organize! For us, every part of mapping is an excuse to talk to strangers and friends, to set neighborhood priorities and to advance social change.

The physical installation evidently looks like the image below, according to the Guggenheim. Our term appears in the gallery (it’s in the top-left of the diagram on the wall below), but the video itself shows primarily online.

USC News quoted me in their story about the video release on October 11th.

Team biography:

RideSouthLA is a collective that is bringing mobile mapping, bicycling and social justice to South LA. Our mapping is multi-platform, involving mobile phones, paper and our bodies in space. We seek to tell a neighborhood story of assets and opportunities that is bigger than any one organization. For us, mapping is a tool for social change — documenting our community, envisioning our future, and building our collective power. Our team includes many organizations and individuals, including TRUST South LA, Community Services Unlimited, bike clubs like the East Side Riders, and University partners including the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the Metamorphosis Project, and the USC Laboratory on the Social Frontier. Technology and design partners include VozMob, Vojo.Co, and DesignedByColleen. Countless individuals have joined our mapping process by contributing their own images, stories and strategies for change.

Paper for DiGRA: Building Human Capital, Passion and Offline Networks

digra-logo1We are thrilled to be presenting a paper at DiGRA this summer.  In brief, we argue for network analysis as an increasingly important method to study games for social learning. You can read our paper pre-print, or see the abstract below. We’re scheduled for Tuesday, August 27th at 2:30pm.

A Reality Game to Cross Disciplines? Building Human Capital, Passion and Offline Networks with Reality Ends Here. By Benjamin Stokes, Jeff Watson, Tracy Fullerton and Simon Wiscombe.

ABSTRACT: Educational and civic games are typically preparatory, teaching skills and information to be applied later. Yet the rise of reality gaming introduces a new possibility: that the game directly shapes real-world networks, even as it educates. Social capital and network effects — despite their complexity — are crucial in educational attainment, knowledge transfer, and civic participation. However, there is little research on how games can actively intervene to build lasting networks and social capital as a core component of gameplay.

Using methods of network analysis, this paper investigates the “Reality Ends Here” game over two years at a University in the United States. Reality Ends Here is played by incoming freshmen for 120 days in the fall semester of each school year. Students are drawn into the game via collectible cards, rumors, secret websites, and a mysterious black flag. The goal of the game is to increase and diversify student collaboration across disciplines, build social capital, and foster networking skills. The game is deliberately kept underground and unofficial, a rare design requirement in formal education.

The contribution of this paper is to demonstrate a framework for designing learning interventions around network effects, and measuring them with network analysis. Currently, network analysis is typically applied only to test game prototypes before scaling to wider distribution, or as heat maps for usability testing, or to measure game impact. We argue that network analysis may offer more value in a formative mode, providing what game designers refer to as “state information,” and integrating into the real-time practices of teachers. For example, we demonstrate how a player’s network centrality is correlated to their score in the game, and thus how well game performance is tied to network strength.

The game itself is part of a broader educational reform agenda for college freshmen. By connecting students to one another in ways that are both serendipitous and structured to maximize meaningful play and performance, the game seeks to help transform heavily siloed academic divisions into a productively chaotic and interdisciplinary community of practice. We analyze how disciplinary networks (i.e., academic majors) manifest in the game, and how overcoming them can be predictive of success in the game.

This paper analyzes how peer-to-peer learning and community-building can be structured as a real-world game, rewarding the development of the kinds of practices that are useful for collective organizing and meaningful participation. Additionally, this paper will help build theory for a more formative use of network analysis in game deployments. The immediate context is higher education, but the lessons are applicable to informal learning and civic education. Experiential learning is fundamental to building educational and civic habits; with this paper, the field will have a better basis for applying network analysis to optimize real-world games that build networks and social capital.

Presenting in Detroit on Re-Imagining Payphones vis-a-vis Gentrification

On June 23rd we’ll be presenting on Phone Booths Against Gentrification in Detroit at the Allied Media Conference. Several of us from the Leimert Phone Company will be going.

Description: Across the country, public phone booths are dying. Is this a hidden opportunity to reclaim physical space, and tell a different story? We go beyond booths as wifi hotspots. This session reveals an ambitious strategy for a “payphone redesign”, mixing installation art with mobile technology and activism. Focused on a case study in South Los Angeles, we will show how ordinary booths can be sites for participatory design and transmedia storytelling tied to justice. Workshop participants will also develop rapid-prototypes to re-imagine payphones for various campaigns and cities worldwide.

ICA panel: Games, Civic Education, and Civic Engagement

Our session at ICA in London on June 19 at 2pm is on Games, Civic Education, and Civic Engagement in the Comm-tech division. (Room Hilton Metropole: York). Chair: Chad Raphael, Santa Clara U.


Digital games are being designed not simply to prepare youth for civic participation, but to immerse people of all ages directly in civic participation. This panel brings together game designers and scholars to advance our understanding of how to create, employ, theorize about, and research games for civic learning and engagement. Case studies exemplifying multiple research methods draw on and extend research in game studies, computer-mediated communication, and political communication.


  • A Model for Civic Game Design in “Global Conflicts:
    Afghanistan.” Jeppe Nielsen, Serious Games Interactive
    Civic Games and Civic Gaps: Which Students Benefit Most
    From Civic Game Play? Christine Bachen, Santa Clara U;
    Pedro Hernandez-Ramos, Santa Clara U; Chad Raphael,
    Santa Clara U

  • Teaching College Students to Build Networks: The “Reality”
    Game. Benjamin Stokes, U of Southern California; Jeff
    Watson, U of Southern California

  • Beyond Participation: How an Online Game Transformed
    Urban Planning in Detroit. Eric Gordon, Engagement Game
    Lab; Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, Emerson College

presenting at Games for Change 2013: A Game to Build Human Networks

I’ll be presenting on A Game to Build Human Networks in NYC on June 18th at 3pm (see link for details). Here’s the abstract:

Educational and civic games are typically preparatory, teaching skills and information to be applied later. Yet the rise of reality gaming introduces a new possibility: that the game directly shapes real-world networks, even as it educates. This will be one of the first network analyses at G4C. The case is “Reality Ends Here,” played over two years with hundreds of college freshmen. Students are drawn into the game via collectible cards, rumors, secret websites, and a mysterious black flag. Session attendees will learn how they can apply network analysis to their own games, including real-time visualizations of network effects.

Crowdfunding as neighborhood storytelling

I just published a short blog on Crowdfunding as Neighborhood Storytelling. The article is part of a “hotspot” series on civic crowdfunding, written by members of the Civic Paths research group at USC Annenberg.

Raising money is one objective for crowdfunding, but not the only one. Every crowdfunding attempt also performs a story. How does crowdfunding shift neighborhood stories of place?

Continue reading…

Inaugurations, Crowns and Badges

Recap: in January I wrote a post on Inaugurations, Crowns and Badges for a special post-election series on revisiting the election in the Civic Paths group run by Henry Jenkins.

What symbols matter for an inauguration? There was no crown for Obama. But for mortals with a smartphone it was possible to get a badge, if you were one of the 20+ million users of FourSquare. To receive the badge for inauguration weekend, users had to “check in” with their smartphone at the National Mall on inauguration day, or at an official service event location around the country.

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panel: Mapping as Civic Learning and City Engagement

I recently organized a panel on Mapping as Strategy for Youth Engagement: Contributing Data to Real City Problems as Civic Learning, with Eric Gordon, Akili Lee, Elisabeth Soep and Nigel Jacob. The occasion was the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago on March 14-16, 2013.

Here is the panel description:

Mapping is one of several genres of data collection that can connect youth with physical space, neighborhood streets, and city planning. What structures of participation are emerging? Can we sustain participation beyond reporting a few potholes? Based on the leading examples today, do we need more leadership from city government to structure youth participation, or more commitment from grassroots organizations to generate useful data?

This panel considers several of the most prominent projects at the frontier of mapping and youth — including youth-made mobile apps (from Youth Radio), city planning (from Community PlanIt), and food access and map-based storytelling (from RideSouthLA). The respondent for the panel is a city official (Boston office of New Urban Mechanics). Each participant will justify their case study in terms of contributing to the public good — including working with open data, or advancing city planning, generating media coverage or building human capital.

Our format seeks to tackle hard issues, and avoid romanticizing the case studies. We do this by emphasizing “hard problems” facing the field, and only introducing the case studies in a problem-solving mode, highlighting where more work is needed. Each panelist will begin by proposing a “hard problem,” emphasizing barriers to combining learning with authentic civic contribution. After hearing the problem pitch, a case study will be brought forth in response, not to reveal a solution as much as to clarify what makes the problem hard, and where to begin. We expect to reveal 4-5 core problems, before opening the panel to audience discussion.
Some questions the panel will tackle include:

– Integration of online with multiple offline institutions — how do we get organizations to follow up on their promises of collaboration?
– What is the flow between offline and online in terms of experience?
– Since paper remains the primary distribution vehicle for maps in many neighborhoods, how do we integrate digital data collection, and connect paper maps to social networks for distribution?
– Custom apps for mobile devices has incredible appeal for making maps interactive, and for ensuring data collection — but it also has huge costs… what can be done without investing in specialty tools?
– Games can structure participation, but also leave the system vulnerable to attempts to “game the system.” How can we ensure data quality, especially if youth are to substantively contribute to authentic civic needs?
– Do we need different metrics to demonstrate learning — such as “neighborhood belonging” or “collective self-efficacy”?
– Outcomes from the panel will include how city officials and other changemakers can best engage with nascent mobile designs, pitfalls to avoid, and an analysis of some of the platforms we think still need to be created.