Talk at AU on Games to Empower Neighborhoods (live streamed)

AUSOClogoJoin my live-streamed talk on November 18th from DC! I will be speaking at the Media Innovation Lab at American University.  The talk begins at 11am ET as part of their faculty forum series in the McKinley Building (School of Communication).
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Launching game Sankofa Says @IndieCade

Dear friends of the Leimert Phone Company,

We’re thrilled to let you know that our new game, “Sankofa Says” is an official selection of IndieCade, the leading independent game festival, launching this week, Oct 10th and 11th in Culver City. We are in the big games category.

Sankofa Says is a place-based game that brings people together on the streets of Culver City. To succeed, players join flash rallies at local landmarks, make phone calls to answer riddles about local history, and tell truth from neighborhood fiction.

Every adventure requires hitting the streets, meeting new people. Even locals will encounter a few surprises. With a little luck, you will discover strange cinema history, play with public art, and even help tell the story of Culver City yourself.

We hope you’ll stop by our booth in the IndieCade Village at the corner of Main Street and Culver Blvd in the heart of downtown Culver City, after noon on Friday Oct 10th and all day Saturday Oct 11th. Come play with us! Invite your friends!

–Benjamin, François, Karl, Nicholas, Alex , and all the essential Leimert Phone Company’s artists, technologists, organizers and activists, without whom none of this would be possible (see full list!).

New Jobs & Cities: Berkeley and American U/D.C.

That’s right: two new jobs!  A fantastic sequence.  First, I have started my postdoc at UC Berkeley.  Then a year from now I will head to Washington D.C. to join the faculty at American University in 2015.  Here’s more:


(1) Currently I am a postdoc scholar at UC Berkeley’s School of Information — often called the “I School.” My time is split between my own research on civic media, and teaching for Berkeley’s new MA in information and data science. My research continues to investigate real-world games and civic learning. My teaching at Berkeley will focus on a course on research design for big data, at the overlap of computer science and social science.  One of my goals for this year is to reflect on how graduate pedagogy can best support hot new fields (e.g., where pushing past the hype requires balancing technical innovation with organizational learning and field-level strategy).


(2) Then in the summer of 2015 I will move to Washington D.C. to join the faculty of the School of Communication at American University (AU) as an assistant professor.  For a civic scholar like me, D.C. is an extraordinary node in the conversation on civic innovation, and as bonus, AU has some of the most civically engaged students in the nation.  A big factor in my decision to join AU is their new dean Jeff Rutenbeck, who has a rare understanding of games and has already launched a new MA in game design.  The Center for Media and Impact was a big draw too.  There are too many incredible faculty to list (!), and so I will post more as specific collaborations emerge.

(P.S. — Did I mention that dissertation was officially accepted and filed?  I defended back in June at the USC Annenberg School, and in June all the formatting changes were finally accepted.  Hurrah!  My dissertation investigated how real-world games can empower neighborhood networks, including for collective action and sustainable development.  More on specific research findings to come; for now, another round of thanks to my co-chairs François Bar and Henry Jenkins, as well as committee members Tracy Fullerton and Sandra Ball-Rokeach.)

Presenting at Serious Play

serious-play-conf-logoWith Tracy Fullerton, I will be doing a “Critical Conversation” session on Wednesday July 23, 2014 at 5pm. Our topic is the Reality Ends Here game, and the session considers the game’s learning goals and evaluation strategy (hint: network analysis, drawing on my dissertation research). The conference runs for several days, this year held at USC. In the conference organizers’ words: “The Serious Play Conference, now in our 4th year, is a leadership conference for professionals who embrace the idea that games can revolutionize learning.” See also the conference program.

Our session at G4C on Impact Types

Update: Video of our panel is now live! (per 5/20/2014)

Session description (original post):

g4c-2014At our session this week at Games for Change, we will be announcing a new project to frame “how games have impact.” The idea is that the field is fragmented, and unnecessarily so. Funding from the Packard Foundation agrees that a typology of sorts might be worth investigating. Can we start bringing the disparate research together with how assessment practitioners actually approach their jobs? More to come, but for now here are the details:

Title: Impact from Games? Pick the Right Field First!

Presenters: Benjamin Stokes, Tracy Fullerton, Gerad O’Shea, Shelley Pasnik

Description: What kind of impact is possible with a game? The secret is that successful games have *different* kinds of impact. Too often, the success factors and indicators are mucked together. Perhaps it is time we stop confusing behavior change with advocacy campaigns, let alone success in crowd-sourced labor! For the first time, with funding from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, we are aiming to spell out different big picture frameworks for “how games have impact.” On April 24th, we are launching this public discourse: come away with starting points to evaluate your next game, and maximize its impact.

p.s. — Here’s the slide we used on “impact types” to push past the usual surface discussion of learning-vs-outreach:

Presenting on Reimagining Payphones as Urban Planning (at USC)

usc-annenberg-symposiumThis Thursday March 27th, I will be giving an update on our research with the Leimert Phone Company at the USC Annenberg Symposium. Details are below. I will be co-presenting with collaborating researchers Karl Baumann and Andrew Schrock.

Reimagining Payphones: Urban Planning via the Leimert Phone Company

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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.