Category Archives: update

Presenting at Local-Mobile (Raleigh)

I’ve just arrived in Raleigh for the Local and Mobile conference, which seeks to link mobilities, mobile communication, and locative media…

I’m presenting with George Villanueva about our ParTour project and situated engagement this Sunday at 9am (ouch!).  Here’s the abstract:

ParTour: Leveraging the Dual Mobilities of Cellphones and Bicycles for Urban Change

Bar, F., Gonzalez, C., Khera, O., Stokes, B., Villanueva, G. (alphabetical)

Can basic cell phones and bicycles help re-imagine Los Angeles? In this paper, we consider a participatory storytelling and mapping platform called ParTour, a pilot project advocating urban social change.  Over 70 residents were dispatched on bicycle quests to gather pieces of a collective story.  We analyze this production as part of a place-based storytelling network.  Simultaneously, we consider how the ParTour design hacks into urban culture, resonating with the ascendant bicycle movement in Los Angeles and its Do-It-Yourself (DIY) practices for engaging public space.

This paper uses the ParTour case study to propose a theoretical alignment of two mobilities: DIY bicycle culture and the locative media of phone-based storytelling.  Using the methods of design-research, we argue that these dual mobilities can be powerfully aligned in the context of public events, allowing local participants to appropriate their urban surroundings.  Our analysis has implications for theoretical alignment between Communication Infrastructure Theory (Ball-Rokeach, et. al 2001), space, the literature on technological appropriation, and cultural studies of bicycles and DIY street culture.

The appropriation of mobile technology and urban space by local residents was a primary design goal for ParTour.  By participating, urban users transformed their everyday phones into multi-media tools for geo-locative storytelling, using SMS and MMS rather than smartphone applications.  This embodies the re-invention of mobile technology through appropriation described by Bar et al. (2007).  The ParTour infrastructure expands upon an open-source mobile platform built with low-wage immigrant workers in Los Angeles to tell stories about their lives and their communities (VozMob Project, 2011).

Inspired by theories of real-world games (Gordon & de Souza e Silva, 2011; Klopfer, 2008), ParTour focuses on activities rather than tools.  It creates feedback loops for what we are calling ‘situated engagement‘ in place-based social and civic practices.  For example, participants selected quests to structure their activity into goal-based missions, like taking pictures and geo-coding community assets that are valuable enough to be shared with others.

ParTour is deliberately situated within public bicycle rides, especially CicLAvia, the massive Los Angeles event which bans cars from 10+ miles of streets, opening space for bicycles and recreation to advocate for alternative transportation.  Mobile social interaction within physical space promotes a re-discovery of familiar surroundings, resulting in appropriation of urban space (Kidder, 2011).

Despite enthusiasm over hyper-local journalism, place-based media is rarely analyzed ecologically.  We draw upon Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT) to situate ParTour within neighborhood-based storytelling networks, which are associated with a range of indicators for healthy neighborhoods.  CIT measures the connections between three elements: local residents, community-based organizations, and local media produced for particular geographies or ethnicities.  Our analysis particularly considers the role of T.R.U.S.T. South LA, a neighborhood organization advocating for extending the CicLAvia ride further into the distressed neighborhoods of South Los Angeles.  We analyze how ParTour shifts the power and storytelling roles for this organization within the storytelling network.

Simultaneously, ParTour’s social practices of participatory storytelling within public events resonates with DIY bicycle culture.  As a cultural phenomenon, bike culture is an emerging force in social movements for alternative urban transportation in Los Angeles.  We find that the success of ParTour depends on balancing several forces in DIY bike culture, including the fiery desire to retake the streets (Blickstein, 2008), the mastering of available tools (Uckelmann, 2011), and the more conciliatory bike rides, like CicLAvia, sponsored by the local municipality.  Here, mobile media amplifies cyclists’ mobility to produce dynamic practices of ‘lived space’ (Lefebvre, 1992).

*** References ***

Ball-Rokeach, S. J., Kim, Y. C., & Matei, S. (2001). Storytelling Neighborhood. Communication Research, 28(4), 392-428.

Bar, F., Pisani, F., & Weber, M. (2007). Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: Baroque infiltration, creolization and cannibalism. Seminario Sobre Desarrollo Económico, Desarrollo Social y Comunicaciones Móviles En América Latina, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Blickstein, S. G. (2008). Critical mass: Bicycling towards a more sustainable city. Clark University. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

Gordon, E., & de Souza e Silva, A. (2011). Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kidder, J. (2009). Appropriating the city: Space, theory, and bike messengers. Theory and Society, 38(3), 307-328.

Klopfer, E. (2008). Augmented learning: Research and design of mobile educational games. The MIT Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1992). The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell.

Uckelmann, D. (2011). Enabling the masses to become creative in smart spaces. In Architecting the Internet of things (pp. 37-64) Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

VozMob Project (2011). Mobile voices : Projecting the voices of immigrant workers by appropriating mobile phones for popular communication. In P. M. Napoli, & M. Aslama (Eds.), Communications research in action. New York: Fordham University Press.

mobile and real-world games (at the Games for Change Festival)

Last week at Games for Change I gave a few brief remarks on how we should borrow from existing “civic genres” if we want to envision the future of mobile and real-world games. This was also a chance to introduce Mobile Active to the G4C community, thanks to Anne-Ryan Heatwole and Mark Weingarten who joined me on stage. (Katrin Verclas was delayed in S. Africa — but we’ll get her there next time!)

Our remarks begin at the 56-minute mark:

Watch live streaming video from gamesforchange at

This topic — the future of mobile, and how to imagine it — is something that Francois Bar and I are writing about this summer, building on a workshop we ran with support from the DML Hub. Details to come…

playing Commons in NYC on a Sunday

This is the first time I’ve been in the news for playing a game. Commons pulls teams through urban spaces, building engagement while generating reports of community assets and items that need fixing.

Here is a cute video of our team (we start at 1:05) that’s part of a longer article in the NY Daily News:

p.s. — for a hint of things to come, see Susana’s interview with Commons folks for a report we’re doing for Intel on civic games for mobile and learning.

Zanzibits interviews

In East Africa this past summer I visited an extraordinary youth media program called Zanzibits, located in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town off the coast of Tanzania. The program empowers youth with skills for both employment and telling their own stories through digital media.

One participant explains his website design project:

Explaining her video project:

Finally, after a group discussion about youth media around the globe, we took a group picture:

More on Zanzibits is available on their website and blog.

Akoha– A Direct Action Game?

[As first posted on Henry Jenkins blog, and previously on the Civic Paths blog]

How can we make everyday civic participation more compelling? There is a new kind of game on the horizon, one that experiments with real-world action. I call these “direct action games,” because they restructure acts like volunteering, activist training, and charitable giving. One prototype is Akoha, which started as a card game, then reinvented itself online, and last year launched a mobile app — largely off the radar of traditional civics organizations.

At first glance, Akoha looks like a media hub for some do-it-yourself Boy Scouts. Their website reveals thousands of participants, many reporting success with real-world “missions,” from going vegetarian for a day, to debating the “I Have a Dream” speech. The actual missions often take place offline, but are only rewarded if documented with photos and stories posted online or via iPhone.

I think Akoha deserves real attention as a working example — despite some prominent flaws. We desperately need concrete projects if we want to actually rethink civic life. The use of games to help “fix reality” has been a hot topic these past few weeks, thanks to the great traction of Jane McGonigal’s new book. Yet the missions of Akoha are more straightforward than most of Jane’s “alternate reality games,” which tend to have futuristic narratives, puppet masters behind the scenes, and a preference for crowd-sourcing. Thus I propose we look to Akoha and its more raw building blocks to think about direct action games.
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panel video: Direct Action Games

Here is a panel I curated with Tracy Fullerton and Stephen Duncombe on “direct action games.” It took place at the Games for Change 7th Annual Festival on May 26, 2010.

Direct Action Games: Play Meets the Real World on Vimeo.

[reblog] Interfaces — e.g., Introducing Youth to DIY Punk Activism

Note: I originally published this a couple days ago on the Civic Paths blog, which is an informal project of Henry Jenkins’ research group on civics, popular media and participatory culture.  See that post for additional comments.


Earlier this week, I checked out an unusual intersection: two punk-hardcore activists were lecturing to 75+ teenagers at a Los Angeles university. But this wasn’t music camp. Rather, this was the last day of a college prep summer program, hosted at USC for low-income and first-generation youth. Amazingly, the message stayed clear of “stay in school,” and focused instead on do-it-yourself (DIY) passion and activism. There are implications for our research group.

Perhaps most importantly, the occasion underscored the “intersection dilemma”: how do learning institutions interface with civic sub-cultures (from punk activists, to the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children)? For me, this intersection is a goldmine – a space of real drama, where subcultures put on a public face, and where institutions give uncertain attention to these emerging civic modes.

Of course, the actual people matter enormously. Justin Pearson and Jose Palafox (see above) are not your typical punk figures. While Pearson never graduated college, he and Palafox have been key players in DIY hardcore-punk since the mid 90s. They have been in countless bands – see, for example, this Swing Kids video with Pearson singing, and with Palafox on drums.

The activism of Pearson and Palafox is DIY, set against the punk subculture. As friends and independently, their bands have supported organizations ranging from Planned Parenthood, to PETA and the Black Panther Party. Palafox has made documentaries of the U.S.-Mexico border. Pearson just released his autobiography, and was on Jerry Springer with a hoax involving bisexuality.

Very briefly, I want to examine Pearson and Palafox as a kind of baseline for our research. Their example is valuable for its simplicity: compared to our current case studies, they do not have a fantasy content world (e.g., as compared to the Harry Potter fans); and second, the pair presented as individuals — without an organizational apparatus (such as the Harry Potter Alliance).

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release of case study on Peter Packet Challenge

As part of my work with Henry Jenkins’ research group on civic engagement, I’ve written a short case study of the Peter Packet Challenge. This is a combined game and “online service learning” project that has real fundraising to fight poverty. I worked on it at NetAid, so it was great fun to revisit it as a scholar.

Here’s the case study:

It’s the first time I’ve published anything on embedded reflection, which I think has real potential in games media, given their experiential nature and potential around service learning.  (See upcoming post on a games genre we might call “direct action games.”)

Also on this site are excellent case studies on Invisible Children, PostSecret, Pricescope, Tribute is Not Theft, Anonymous/Project Chanology, Verb Noire, WoW Guilds, Harry Potter Alliance, Racebending, Rang de Basanti & Flash Activism.  Henry’s convening some great perspectives!

games, globalization and “urgent evoke”

This is a guest post I did for The 21st Century Scholar at USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA).  Thanks for the invite, Zoe!

A globalizing world is upon us, but few schools can afford to approach it with experiential learning.  Of course, we already rely on experiential learning to teach music, physics, and foreign languages — but what about globalization?  Only a fraction of our students study abroad, and even those programs could benefit from more experiential learning tools.

Can games help?  Consider a game just launched by the World Bank Institute, called Urgent Evoke. In less than a month, this alternate reality game has engaged 12,000 players from more than 120 countries in a “ten-week crash course in changing the world.”  Sound ambitious?  With games, ambition can motivate participation.  Every Wednesday, a new mission is posted with three parts: (1) learn, (2) act, and (3) imagine.

Some missions are straightforward, while others are wildly creative. Players might use their own camera phones to document how they “increased the food security of one person.” Or they might be challenged to write a blog post identifying their favorite “social innovation strategy” (based on expert reports).  Assessment is embedded: players must provide evidence of their learning in multimedia form, effectively a digital portfolio. Learning is structured around knowledge and skills according to 10 objectives, including “entrepreneurship”, “resourcefulness”, and “collaboration.” Leading scores are posted publicly:

This game (and I use the term broadly) explicitly overlaps with the real world online, building skills needed for today’s knowledge economy. In the process, players are pushed into conversation with youth around the world, especially in Africa.  Might it connect to schools?  The designers could easily incorporate textbook examples, or well-studied artifacts. More broadly, such games introduce a new way to structure and motivate learning. We don’t know the impact of Urgent Evoke yet, but given the pressing challenges of globalization, this is one game worth watching.

P.S. — Is the game also whitewashing the World Bank? Some critics have launched a nice parody, calling Urgent Evoke a “crash course in saving capitalism,” and arguing that institutions like the Bank are responsible for some of global poverty’s persistence. Important points. Yet most games lack Evoke’s discursive space, which encourages multimedia commentary across countries.  So I see two challenges: one is whether the critics will be heard within the game’s own discourse channels. Second, if the Bank’s game is only one perspective, who will fund alternatives? (See Alan’s post earlier this week calling for a National Public Gaming Initiative). If the learning of Evoke is powerful, do we need comparative gaming to ensure open minds?

    Mobile Voices, storytelling chains

    Who can tell an authentic story?  When I was a funder, it was my job to tell the stories of grantees.  Now I am rethinking authenticity in storytelling through a project called Mobile Voices(Full disclosure: I am currently a researcher studying Mobile Voices at USC Annenberg, and was previously at a foundation that indirectly supported Mobile Voices.)

    At one level, Mobile Voices is a storytelling platform for low-wage immigrants in Los Angeles.  One of my motivations for participating is that Mobile Voices embodies a philosophy of critical reflection on power across a storytelling chain, with implications for all.

    To illustrate the chain’s length, consider a funder (previously me), telling a grantee’s story to justify a grantmaking budget: that story might begin with HASTAC and the Competition, including Cathy Davidson and this website.  In turn, Cathy and her team might feature the story of Mobile Voices (a winner of its 2009 DML Competition).  Specifically, they could feature one of the researchers/designers on the project, such as USC professor Francois Bar (e.g., see his interesting blog post on translation in Mobile Voices).  Francois, in turn, might be telling the story of working with Amanda at IDEPSCA, the nonprofit that organizes low-wage immigrants, and co-designed Mobile Voices.  Of course, Amanda would likely be retelling the story of one of the immigrants with whom she works, such as Madelou.   Finally, Madelou is using the Mobile Voices tools and her cellphone to tell the story of one of her fellow workers.  (That’s five degrees of separation!)

    Is it authentic for funders to retell the story of a low-wage worker, across five degrees of separation?  Of course not, and I believe that everyone in this chain is working to avoid it — and working to empower low-wage immigrants to speak directly to funding review panels.  But that doesn’t happen often.

    One reason is that the chain itself constitutes an important story, one that funders tell to describe impact in terms of the relationships between organizations and individuals, of networks and collaborations.  But the hierarchy of this chain is also particular.  It is a hierarchy of descending public profile, beginning with a major foundation, then HASTAC, followed by a University research group, then the community-based organization, only then the community leader, and at last: a community member(!).  It’s no coincidence that fundraising is decided at the top, and needed most by those at the bottom.

    This is likewise a hierarchy of storytelling.  Those at the top have the resources and the national attention to tell their own story — and they carefully protect and cultivate their “reputational assets.”  Those at the bottom don’t just risk being voiceless, they often endure others spreading false stories about them.  This is where authenticity is most clearly needed.  Madelou once explained her tireless volunteering for Mobile Voices in terms of counteracting the hate that is spread about immigrants (e.g., try a Google search for “day laborer” and behold the vile second listing, with its talk of “some of the most violent murderers, rapists, child molesters…” — oye!!).

    If there is beauty in storytelling, it comes from the connection forged between the teller and the listener.  And so we must ask, even as low-wage workers reclaim their voice, who is listening?  We must challenge foundations to listen not just to their grantees, but to listen across storytelling chains.  And we must all struggle to listen for the chain itself, to hear its rattles of differentiated power, both linking communication nodes, and inserting spaces between authentic storytellers.  As we make participatory media, Mobile Voices reminds me: we must also strive for more participatory listening.

    [This is also cross-posted on HASTAC’s community site.]