Category Archives: updates

GDC talk: Training Designers to Collaborate with Researchers

How can we empower designers to increase “impact,” especially in collaborating with researchers?

UPDATE (3/15/2017): Video of the talk is now live on the GDC Vault!

Next week I’ll be presenting at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.  This talk extends research with the Game Impact project and G4C, and amazing conversations with pioneers in training designers for research collaborations, including Heather Desurvire, Mary Flanagan, and Jessica Hammer.

Training Designers to Collaborate with Researchers: Reframing, Scaffolding, and Roles

Feb. 27th, 2:10pm — See details.

Graduates in design are under increasing pressure to collaborate with social scientists, including to measure impact, and to improve the product itself. How should game educators prepare them?

Reports show growing fragmentation between designers and researchers; silos are deepening as language is politicized. This session will analyze several models for training students to collaborate with researchers on “impact.”

Are entirely new courses needed on “game research methods,” beyond usability? How can students be empowered to stand up for good design, even as they share power with outside experts?

Takeaways: Attendees will take away several distinct strategies (for the classroom and beyond) for training designers to work with external researchers. Learn what several universities are doing, including different approaches to usability training, managing up, and reframing creativity for impact. Each strategy builds the capacity of students to collaborate with outsiders.

Accepting for January: Game Design MA at American University

A reminder that we are still accepting students for January 2017 — tell your smart friends about our unusual MA program in Game Design. DC is emerging as a fascinating place to consider how games apply to other domains, from cities to health and learning. Currently I am teaching a course on Playful Cities, and in the spring will teach on Game Research Methods.

Here is a flier on the program:


New course: “Playful City” (game design + neighborhood impact)


Playtesting some quick prototypes using the ARIS engine

This semester I’m piloting a new course called “Playful City: designing media for stronger neighborhoods and community impact.”

We have MA students from the AU Game Lab, as well as some advanced undergrads.

PREMISE: Play on urban streets can introduce neighbors, retell history, and deepen our sense of place. From PR to activism, the battle for neighborhood identity is increasingly waged with media. Some of the most innovative strategies are emerging with game-based activities and pervasive media.

Official description: Students will create original games and activities, with no programming required (just a passion for neighborhoods and media). This course will emphasize games as community strategy, especially by learning from activities we design.
Prototyping will involve simple tools for embedding media in communities, from bus stops and text message clues, to oral history at listening booths.
Playtesting will reflect on social implications from tourism and economic development, to race relations and gentrification, local history and community organizing.

In sum, this course will tap communication strategies for behavioral change, collective storytelling and building group identity. We will reflect on how games are different than other strategies, from allowing transgression to crossing generations and reclaiming space.

Video from our G4C panel on “Increasing Social Impact: Tools to Design Across Sectors”

For two years, the #GameImpact project investigated sources of failure in articulating game impact. Our first results (published last year) showed the fault lines — especially across sub-fields. Now we introduce and debate several “thinking tools” for executive producers, lead designers and funders. Here are strategies to avoid the holes between research and design, between impact and intention.


  • Asi Burak (Board Chairman, Games for Change)
  • Colleen Macklin (Founder and Co-Director, PETLab)
  • Benjamin Stokes (Civic Media Scholar and Designer, American University School of Communication and Game Lab)

Presenting at ISTE Conference: First-person learning and civics

iste-2016If you’re one of the 15,000 educators heading to Denver later this month, join our session!

Our theme is “First-person Learning” with a focus on civic education games.  Co-panelists are USA Today’s Greg Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You, iCivics Executive Director Louise Dube, and teacher/researcher Matt Farber.

Wednesday, June 29, 11:45 am–12:45 pm in CCC 607.  See the official session description.

In more detail:

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Launching new chapter: Countering Four Risky Assumptions

Today our Game Impact Project releases a new chapter, with some neat infographics. “Countering Four Risky Assumptions,” (PDF, 1.2mb) describes concrete steps to reduce the fragmentation in our field.
The full report on Impact with Games is also updated, based on feedback gathered over the past year. Today’s announcement comes at the Games for Change and Tribeca Games and Media Summit in NYC.


preprint: Participatory Design and the “Mobile Voices” Project

vozmob-100bAt last, more on the participatory design behind the “Mobile Voices/VozMob” project in Los Angeles is available online!  (VozMob gives day laborers in LA a platform to publish news and stories using ordinary cellphones; it was the basis of the Vojo service now at MIT.)

Specifically, this article investigates “power and participation” in creating this mobile platform for social justice.  Here are the details:

Participatory Design of a Mobile Platform for Social Justice: Reflections on Power and Participation in the Mobile Voices Project

by Melissa Brough, Charlotte Lapsansky, Carmen Gonzalez, Benjamin Stokes, and François Bar

EXTENDED ABSTRACT:  Given the emphasis in Participatory Design (PD) on the democratization of technology design and empowerment of users, PD has potential to contribute to the development of communication systems for social justice. Despite the growing significance of mobile technologies, especially within marginalized communities, there are few explorations of the application of PD to mobile communication technologies.

This case study analyzes efforts at participatory design in creating the Mobile Voices (VozMob) mobile platform, which was designed with and for immigrant workers and organizers. Through the VozMob platform, participants use basic mobile phones to publish online multimedia stories about their lives and their social justice efforts.

Through collective visualization methods, observation, and interviews, this study investigates user participation in the design of VozMob and the factors that enabled or hindered meaningful participatory design. Significant differences emerged between participants’ experiences of the design process, including: whether they experienced the development of the platform as technology ‘appropriation’ or technology ‘design’; and differences in the types and degrees of power-sharing in collaborative processes.

These findings have particular import for future efforts to develop communication technology projects that seek to advance social justice through participatory design, particularly for projects that incorporate emerging mobile technologies.

Key words: participatory design, appropriation, mobile media, social justice, digital storytelling, collective analysis, communication technology, popular education, digital media and learning

Our preprint (2mb PDF) is finally available, following some delays in publishing with the International Journal of Learning and Media.  Full release is expected later this year.


Findings on “gamers who protest” (and League of Legends)


Our research is out on the civic lives of e-sports and small-group gamers. Based on a large study of League of Legends players, this piece was co-authored with Dmitri Williams in the journal Games and Culture.

Title: “Gamers Who Protest: Small-Group Play and Social Resources for Civic Action.”  (For those without library access, here is a PDF of the uncorrected proofs.)


Commercial games are rarely studied for their links to civic behavior. Yet small-group games online can affect the social networks that spill into civic life (and vice versa). This study examined players of the world’s most popular personal computer game, League of Legends. Such games are theorized as mirrors that reflect civic tendencies and help some players to retain social resources. Using models of civic voluntarism, the attitudes and behaviors of more than 9,000 gamers were investigated. Gamers were shown to have relatively typical civic lives, except for unusually high rates of peaceful protest. Which gamers protest? As predicted, models for protest improved when considering how players approach their gaming (including recruiting and collaboration preferences). Dispelling some civic fears, there was no evidence that video games distracted from civic life when played in moderation. The findings support an emerging notion of protest as a playful and “expressive” civic mode.

Apply for our PhD Program — including Game Studies (within Communication Studies)

SOC-square-logo-colorKnow an aspiring scholar with an interest in games and communication theory?  Here at the AU School of Communication we are looking for people with an interest in persuasive play, games that help journalists to communicate about complex policy issues, and much more.  Send them our way.

au-game-lab-logo1The deadline to submit applications is December 15th, 2015!

Key benefits:

  • Location in DC is ideal for games (and game studies) tied to policy issues, global NGOs, national funders, politics, think tanks, (etc.!)
  • Games is a strategic growth area at AU, with several tenure line faculty hires in the past two years, and a new degree in Game Design (MA) that launched just last year
  • Accelerated program – finish your PhD in as little as three years

Check out:

  1. Our game research areas — still emerging!
  2. The PhD program in Communication Studies — which is where the PhD is officially housed
  3. If you do apply, make sure to be in touch with our faculty at the AU Game Lab so they can look for your submission


(Above is our newly-renovated McKinley Building, where the Communication Studies division is located; a new building for our game design studio is also under construction.)

New article: Mobile Design as Neighborhood Acupuncture: Activating the Storytelling Networks of South L.A.

urban-acupuncture-in-journal-of-urban-technologyWe have a fun paper out this month on “neighborhood acupuncture” in the Journal of Urban Technology. The broader special issue was on urban acupuncture, described by the editors as: “a localized intervention or treatment… used for the revitalization and (re)creation of a city by targeting strategic points, poking or activating networks into action.”

Co-authors: George Villanueva, François Bar, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach.


A delicate touch is required to empower neighborhoods using civic media. Funding is persistently scarce. Especially in marginalized neighborhoods, blunt designs can be counterproductive and even entrench complex problems. New metaphors may be needed to guide design and empower local neighborhoods. Urban acupuncture is used as the basis for this study, emphasizing a light-touch strategy that has shown success in Brazil with urban transit, and more recently in Europe with urban design. We specifically propose “neighborhood acupuncture” to address the local level, tapping the sociology of place-based communication. To investigate the implications for systematic design, a case study is probed in South Los Angeles using mobile media for community mapping. Using qualitative methods, three tactics were investigated for the potential to “poke” the network into action, including one to bridge diverse storytelling networks. Each tactic ultimately seeks to build the capacity for collective action around neighborhood issues. Acupuncture is broadly argued to sustain two design shifts: first to help approach neighborhoods as ecosystems, and second, to design for circulation rather than any single technology platform.

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