Category Archives: update

Panel on Games and Social Media for Philanthropic Leadership Forum

The video of our panel at the Philanthropic Leadership Forum in January is now live — see below. Moderated by Lucy Bernholz, with Allison Fine, Mayur Patel, and Constance Steinkuehler. The topic was an overview on some emerging trends for philanthropy around “Social Media and Games for Social Change.”

The Forum was hosted by the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy on 25 January 2013.

Presenting at LA2050 on visions of ‘social connectedness’

On February 20 I will be joining a public panel on the future of Los Angeles, for the launch of LA2050. This first public event will focus on “social connectedness” — which is one of eight dimensions of a new report to be released that same day.

Our panel will be led by Torie OsborneDeputy Mayor of Neighborhood and Community Services, with presentations by:

Join us on 2/20 at the West Hollywood Library from 4-6pm.  RSVP to Here is the event flyer:

Video and slides from Georgia Tech talk

Video and slides (PDF) are now available of my talk at Georgia Tech on “ParTour: Mobile Storytelling and Bicycles in South L.A.” View below, or scroll down for a more complete description of the project:

qualifying exams — done!

Yay! I’m pleased to have passed my qualifying exams (11/19/2012). Now I can start work on my dissertation proposal! Thanks to my committee members: Profs. Henry Jenkins, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, François Bar, Tracy Fullerton, and Bill Tierney.

Presenting at Georgia Tech on ParTour

Next month I’m excited to be in Atlanta on November 14th to present at Georgia Tech’s Experimental Game Lab (6pm ET in the EGL/TSRB room 113a). A description of the talk is below.

ParTour: Mobile Storytelling and Bicycles in South L.A.
Can basic cell phones and bicycles help re-imagine the city? This talk analyzes a participatory mapping platform called ParTour. Over the past year, residents have used ParTour to transform their everyday phones into multimedia tools for neighborhood storytelling. Inspired by theories of real-world games, participants map and describe their pictures in real-time (using basic phones, not smartphones). Later, the pictures are used for city planning and turned into paper maps for advocacy. Unlike many mobile projects, the goal is not to generate data, or points-on-a-map. Instead, ParTour seeks to structure civic participation, and invigorate the neighborhood imagination — a kind of urban acupuncture. Mobile media introduces new possibilities to situate storytelling in physical spaces, with implications for place-making and civic engagement.

report released: Civic Tripod — on mobile games and civic engagement

I am thrilled that our report ( is now available as an interactive website from MIT Press as part of the International Journal of Learning and Media (see official stub). Our official title is Mobile and Locative Games in the “Civic Tripod:” Activism, Art and Learning. This report seeks to help frame the field in the mobile space, co-authored with Jeff Watson and Susana Ruiz. We emphasize looking across examples rather than single case studies. Additionally, we think the voice of game designers is distinctive — and different from the technical expertise of programmers — so we directly include a number of interviews with leading designers. This report is published by MIT Press/IJLM, and was initially funded by Intel.

Excerpt from our project overview:

The “big picture” for mobile and locative games has been hard to see, and hard to articulate. One cause is that the examples are rarely woven together across disciplines. Second, theory has too often been absent or heavy-handed. Something in-between is needed. This is especially true for more deeply social designs, which are too often reduced to case studies especially in fields like education, the arts, and civic innovation. We argue that this fragmentation of isolated examples is undermining our ability to think big, design holistically, and evaluate broadly.

For this report, we ambitiously seek to curate a set of conceptually important mobile projects, and to connect them with a light weave of theory from three distinct traditions of practice. Specifically, this report outlines the emerging field of mobile and pervasive games along the dimensions of (1) civic learning, (2) performance/art, and (3) social change. Focusing on real projects from the field, we aim to reveal key opportunities and constraints on the mobile frontier for civic games.

We argue that this three-legged “tripod” is increasingly necessary to articulate how mobile game projects are succeeding (and failing). In the past, designs have been analyzed separately by the siloed domains of art, learning, and social action. Each silo remains a useful lens, but combining the lenses is increasingly necessary for mobile media.

Mobile media is different because it ties into the physical space of our neighborhoods, with longstanding relationships and neighborhood dramas. On the streets in front of our homes, most of us already know if there are potholes, and whether socio-economic segregation is getting worse or better. But we may need the vision of art to imagine alternate futures. Art on our streets resists abstraction, and raises immediate questions of civics, prompting us to ask, “what can we do about this?” And taking action points back to learning, since the neighborhood solution is so often to empower ourselves, which necessitates learning who we are, determining what assets and power we have, and learning the skills of collective action to push for change.

Clearly the tripod legs are not just connected — they overlap. In fact, we argue that games are pushing for further blur between art, activism and learning. Games are a form of media that do less to structure facts, and more to structure and shape the player’s experience and identity. Learning is inherent in games, since their engagement depends on providing challenges that are just barely possible. (To use the language of Vygotsky, we might say that games are only fun when they scaffold the experience to keep the player within their zone of proximal development.) When games are tied to physical space, their action ties to learning about our own neighborhoods — how to move through them, and to change them. The art of such games is often the physical world itself, with better sounds and graphics than any screen! And the digital side of games draws in the civic, if only because it is so easy to link to more information on how to take action, or how to learn more. In other words, the experiential nature of games pulls mobile experiences on civics into being a mix of art and learning.

Pragmatism was partly behind our initial selection of these particular three legs of the civic tripod: as authors, we alternately identify as (a) artists, (b) activists, and (c) learners. Each of the tripod legs also points to an applied field that is a hotbed for games. Entire conferences are exploring learning games (see, for example, GLS), activism games (see Games for Change), and artistry (see IndieCade). Finally, each leg has a kind of distinct and powerful notion of audience: activism targets citizens, art targets the public, and learning targets students and lifelong learners.

Impact assessment also benefits from the notion of a civic tripod. Art has different ways of measuring impact from civic participation, which is different from learning. Yet as games blur the tripod, the full impact of a game may be best understood by drawing together the legs in a more ecological view. In particular, the question of whether a game is “engaging” is answerable separately by each leg of the trip — since engagement is essential for learning, necessary for civic engagement, and a central question for art venues like theaters, galleries and museums worldwide. (Here we draw on the emerging analysis of situated engagement from Stokes and Bar, 2012.)

Like any curatorial project, we are not comprehensive and must exclude some fantastic projects. Yet the field also needs some basic lists of leading games, curated with some theoretical grounding. All the games selected we see as emerging at the intersection of civic learning, performance/art and social change.

Presentation on Gamers with a Civic Life

Twice in June I presented research findings on “Gamers with a Civic Life” which considered thousands of players of the popular game League of Legends, and asked about their ordinary civic lives.

Here is a video of my Games for Change presentation (15 minutes; see also the conference’s panel description):

This research was also presented at the Games Learning and Society conference (see blurb) in Madison.  Here’s the working title and blurb:

Civic Beyond Play: Ties to Public Life for Small-Group Gamers (June 2012 draft)

by Benjamin Stokes and Dmitri Williams, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Commercial games are rarely studied for their links to traditional civic engagement. This study examined thousands of players of a popular team-based game, and investigated ties to offline volunteering and protest. Contrary to stereotypes, this study reveals civic participation rates of gamers comparable to a normative stalwart: the typical American parent. Small-group gamers had unusually high rates of “peaceful protest, march, or demonstration” – more than twice the lifetime rate of American parents. Several predictive models for protest were compared, using game-based indicators to confirm these civic models across the game boundary. Protest was best predicted by theories of political engagement (such as being liberal and awareness of key advocacy groups), rather than socio-demographics (such as income and gender). Several game-related behaviors were especially useful in the model, including whether a player had recruited others to join the game; conversely, high hours spent gaming did not undermine the likelihood of protest.

A rough draft of our short article is available (minus the comparison between factors for protest v. volunteering). Please do not cite without permission; a polished version should be forthcoming later this year if we’re lucky with the journal review boards.

Presenting at the Council on Foundations

For the first time, the nation’s largest gathering of foundations is hosting a games theme! On Monday, I’m thrilled to join the program for a “hands-on games innovation” session to help funders learn more about games by actually designing them.   I’ll be joined by Tracy Fullerton and Susana Ruiz of USC.  Thanks to Mayur Patel of Knight, Michelle Byrd of Games for Change (see their related blog post), and Pamela Harris of GFEM and many others for helping organize the sessions, and the impressive demos.

Here’s our session description:

Hands on Innovation: Game Theory and Mechanics for Social Impact (Monday, April 30 – 1-2:30 p.m.)

Join top practitioners in game development for a deep dive into the world of games for social good. Gain knowledge of game theory and practice and learn how games are being used to address urgent issues—from human rights and immigration to sustainable agriculture and community development.

PresentersTracy Fullerton, Associate Professor, USC Interactive Media Division; Susana Ruiz, Cofounder, Take Action Games and PhD Candidate, USC Media Arts + Practice; Benjamin Stokes, Researcher/PhD Student, USC Annenberg School for Communication
Session DesignersMichelle Byrd, Co-President, Games for Change; Pamela Harris, Former Managing Director, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media


Civic Games with Local Scale (for ASU & White House Conversation)

My white paper with Jeff Watson on “Games for Direct Action” is now open for comments.  We are honored to participate alongside some real luminaries in the field in this “national conversation on games.”  The national conversation is a joint venture of ASU’s Center for Games and Impact, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Our contribution emphasizes the civic implication of games, and the emerging possibility for games to connect to physical streets and place-based civic engagement. Moreover, we take the rather unusual position of arguing for the benefits of games that actually resist massive uniform scale, and instead achieve impact by deeply embedding within local networks.

Here’s our opening:

Games are beginning to show a capacity for real impact and civic engagement. Consequently, there is a temptation to seek out game designs that can be deployed on a national scale. This is a completely natural impulse: if games can bring about change, why not do it in a big way, and maximize economies of scale? But this impulse hides an important truth: change is often most profound at the city and neighborhood level, between real friends, and with local businesses. For countless civic issues, engagement is best when local — and more games should be too.

Take a look at our full paper — about 3 pages — Jeff and I encourage your comments on that page.  (Note that the document download link is a bit hidden on that page in the parenthesis after our names.)

coming soon: map of South LA for bikes and social change

Did you realize you can bike to the Watts Towers, and learn about social justice and sustainable businesses along the way?

In the next two weeks, our ParTour team will launch a new map and website — This is the first map designed with residents and community organizers to both highlight social justice in South LA, encourage biking, and more.

We recently previewed the map at the Annenberg Innovation Summit — here’s a pic: