In the early 1940s, social worker Viola Spolin developed a suite of theater games to stimulate creative expression and build community among Chicago’s diverse immigrant populations. Spolin’s son Paul Sills, founder of legendary theater The Second City, offered up his mother’s games to his comedic ensemble; and ever since, improvisers the world over have played them in order to hone their craft.
But here in Los Angeles, since the founding of non-profit Laughter for a Change (L4C) in 2007, these games have returned to their original context and purpose: helping to build confidence and meaningful connections among residents of underserved communities.
During 2011-2012, L4C founder/director Ed Greenberg ran an after-school workshop with a dozen predominantly low-income, Latino high school freshmen; a trained improviser/doctoral candidate acted as a participant-observer during this year. Through analysis of ethnographic fieldnotes, surveys, and interviews, they found that improvisational theater games provided a no-tech context to practice skills vital to media literacy, such as negotiating trust and exploring identity. As articulated by Felt and Rideau (2012), developing these skills, even in no-tech contexts, prepares learners to apply them in mediated contexts.
In terms of products, participants reported less shyness, more self-confidence, increased comfort with public speaking, greater participation in academic classes, a broader view of teamwork, and fun. L4C’s use of games may help to explain its educational effectiveness. According to USC’s Project New Media Literacies, play “supports constant learning and innovative responses to our surroundings” (Reilly, Jenkins, Felt & Vartabedian, 2012, p. 6). Positive affective climates such as L4C’s also predict such educational boons as greater academic risk-taking and increased motivation (Meyer & Turner, 2006).
L4C’s website claims, “Laughter is powerful. Laughter heals. Laughter builds community.” This study’s findings suggest that L4C’s pedagogy is powerful too, and might help to leverage formal and informal educational settings for healing challenged communities.
Proposed reasons why play is rarely used in formal educational settings (not exhaustive):
-trained incapacities (Burke, 1954, p. 7) — play is not even considered when evaluating viable modes of learning because it’s beyond educators’ heuristics of recency, frequency, and normativity;
-rustiness — play as a mode of doing and learning is in disuse (while it is used robustly by young children and early childhood educators, that engagement is negatively related to time (i.e., play decreases as children’s age increases));
-fear — of interacting with the foreign that is play in formal educational settings, of suffering negative consequences from this engagement with play (e.g., punishment for such unconventional practice, discomfort from confusion/lack of expertise therein, loss of face from failure/clunky performance)
-perceived lack of credibility — image of play as less competitive/worthwhile than dour drilling
Proposed benefits of practicing silliness for intrapersonal and interpersonal quality of life:
-thought loop or “work mode” escape
Proposed characterizations of various terms:
-Agenda-less play = tinkering
-Purposeful play = gaming
-Purposeful play beyond pure entertainment = impact gaming
-Unbounded playfulness = substantive silliness
Proposed characterizations of various practices:
Idle play with ideas = daydreaming
Purposeful play with ideas SHOULD = gaming; but usually…
Purposeful play with ideas = working
How do we make purposeful play with ideas more like gaming?
(from left) Laird Malamed, Laurel Felt, and George Rose grin post-panel discussion on the business of impact games
On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, I moderated a discussion with Activision executives Laird Malamed and George Rose that considered impact games in terms of business models and market prognostications (as opposed to pedagogy, assessment, design, etc). Co-hosted by USC Impact Games (a cross-campus group that I co-chair) and the USC Marshall Society & Business Lab, this event introduced undergraduate business majors to the field, as well as united like-minded scholars university-wide.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS According to Laird:
Funding — Sponsorship seems a more reliable source of funding than short-term and/or volatile grants. Find companies that support your goals, that want to support/celebrate these goals — principally for-profit businesses that would benefit from being associated with the project. If the outcome is social awareness/understanding, that’s a tougher sell…
Sustainability — Can’t think of a game in absence of a sustainability model, even going into the concept of it, even outlining/coming up with a design. It’s okay to say, in the case of an impact game, there is no business model for this, but what’s not okay is to add it in at the end (similar argument goes for assessment). When you’re evaluating design and deciding what to cut, you don’t cut the things that you’re selling/marketing/getting sponsored for. Another lens to look through that should be done in an iterative fashion. Take multiple passes to consider technology, art, and sustainability factors. No one lens is the right blanket way to do it.
Horizon — Are you making one per year or one every few years? Does it have to survive more than three years (that’s a long time for an interactive project to survive, it will look dated)? It’s more like you’re creating an event that will be online for a 1000 days vs. creating an enduring product. iPhone games being a good example to look at in terms of life-span synced with business plan and goals.)
According to George:
Product development and marketing — You’re creating a product that does something novel, or does better or more efficiently a legacy product. You must overcome built-in resistance from the idea that games and screentime are frivolous and unnecessary, reading books onscreen isn’t real reading, etc. In-fighting among entrenched, interested entities.
Future directions — Impact games are used robustly in Europe to inform citizens about corporate social responsibility. Stateside, we may see growth in this sector as well as in the areas of exergames and rehabilitation, among others.
Here is our PR blurb, a better-than-nothing video of the event, our agenda, and a few pix snapped during the discussion and immediately afterwards:
PUBLICITY The Business of Impact Games: A moderated discussion with gaming executives
From Darfur is Dying to Sim City, the field of “impact” or “serious” games is on the rise. Panelists will discuss what it takes to build up a market for these games and offer strategies for developing and selling commercial products. They will also explore these games’ tremendous potential for inspiring global change and bringing awareness to various issues, from education to public health.
Panelists: Laird Malamed, Adjunct Faculty, USC School of Cinematic Arts and President, Creative Learning Technologies; George Rose, former Chief Legal Officer and Chief Public Policy Officer and current Senior Consultant to Chief Executive Officer of Activision Blizzard
Moderator: Laurel Felt, Doctoral Candidate at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
1. Introductions: (5:05-5:10 pm)
Tell me more about your background and experience. Chronologically, please share your titles, affiliations, and years spent in each position.
2. Definitions: (5:10-5:20 pm)
What are “serious” or “impact” games? Why the vernacular distinction? What are the potential problems as well as potential benefits of each term? Considering the interdisciplinary nature of this field, how should we move forward regarding a shared (if not, common) language? Issues of “perception” (i.e. games, in the general public’s mind, are not to be taken seriously).
3. Personal Connections: (5:20-5:35 pm)
Why do YOU care about serious or impact games? What brought you from a more purely commercial origin to working in this philanthropically-influenced domain? Was there a key moment or insight, a seminal piece of literature or game, that changed your way of thinking and/or inspired a new agenda? Why should the commercial game industry take this field seriously? How is productive collaboration fostered in a space typically (and perhaps, necessarily) inhabited by multiple cultures?
4. Business Considerations: (5:35-5:50 pm)
Let’s talk about practical strategies for developing, disseminating and selling these products/experiences commercially. How do we assemble productive diverse teams, monetize ethically and significantly, and get these games out there? How can teams and businesses plan in a sustainable way?
How can academic game programs and business programs educate students to co-experiment and innovate around new business models for projects/services that seek to make a profit as well as advance social justice and education? For example, past one grant-funded project, how can a studio/developer continue to create high-quality products and keep a roof over her head while competing (or, at least, existing in parallel with) with richly funded commercial entities?
5. Personal Insights/Advice/Lessons Learned + Future Forecasting: (5:50-6 pm)
What have you discovered as a result of your experience? What would you advise our audience members in terms of what TO do and what NOT to do? Five, 10, and 20 years down the pike: What do you see in terms of this field? Paint that picture (in terms of the culture, the technology, and the creative aspects).
6. Q&A: (6-6:20)
Let’s hear what the people have to say!
Marshall's Vertical Lead for Social Impact Careers Nicole Butler chats with USC Impact Games co-chairs Kristy Norindr and Susana Ruiz
-“Play is a very serious matter… It is an expression of our creativity; and creativity is at the very root of our ability to learn, to cope, and to become whatever we may be” (Rogers & Sharapan, 1994, p. 13).
-Besides being tied to creativity, play is also science – it is the vehicle through which one asks questions, constructs hypotheses, runs trials, analyzes results, and comes to conclusions. Particularly today, as forward-thinkers exhort innovation and policy-makers (solely, and thus myopically) extol the virtues of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the seriousness and practicality of this should be obvious.
-“In almost every example of what he describes as “the sacred,” play is the defining feature of our most valued cultural rites and rituals. As such, for Huizinga, play is not something we do; it is who we are” (Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011, p. 97).
What is play good for?
A1. Tinkering (agenda-less play) → innovation
-A 10-year-old’s unbounded experimentation led to her discovery of a new molecule
A3. Tinkering → personal and social enrichment
-This culturally-inspired innovation in Senegal contributed to Sunukaddu staff member/inventor Idrissa’s sense of pride and self-efficacy, as well as the benefit of learners near and far.
NOTE: This final photo is from the RFKLab, a space for innovation and community-building at the RFK Community Schools in downtown Los Angeles. Laughter for a Change uses the NMLs in its Tuesday after-school program with high school students. Improvisation is an excellent context and tool for getting at play and other key NMLs.
B1. Gaming (purposeful play) → innovation
“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems” (Young, 2011).
B2. Gaming → discovery
“… certain games afford their players the opportunity to step virtually into the shoes of a specific profession and, through game play, become familiar with its domains of knowledge, skill base, values, identities, and ways of thinking about the world” (Joseph, 2008, p. 263).
For more about Barry’s incredible global learning and youth development program, check out Global Kids!
2. Self-efficacy: belief in one’s capacity to produce effects (Bandura, 1977)
Acting in a game demonstrates to players that they can exert power over something, that their efforts make a difference. “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 33).
Playing enriches perseverance, emotional stamina, mental toughness, and divergent thinking.
Game-related talk (processing experience, comparing performance, exchanging feedback, pursuing mastery) builds relationships and community. “Good games… support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 350).
Play and the NMLs
New media literacies (NMLs) are “a set of cultural competencies and social skills young people need” in a culture that “shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4).
Despite their name, NMLs are neither “new” nor exclusively about “media”; rather, they are time-honored practices that support critical thinking and problem-solving.
-Why? Because NMLs are tools for problem-solving. New and old media alike pose “problems,” such as understanding new gadgets, working with dissimilar collaborators, and interpreting data. NMLs – in these examples, play, negotiation, and visualization, respectively — offer tools to solve those problems.
Other key NMLs include collective intelligence, “the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal”; and negotiation, “the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms” (p. 4)
-Problems have an emotional piece to them — they elicit emotional/physical responses in our bodies. Certain strategies can help you to defuse or limit the emotional intensity of a problem. (You can practice these strategies via innovative video game Dojo from GameDesk!)
-Problems also have a practical piece to them — they present real barriers to maximally productive workflow. Which strategies can you invoke for managing conflict and solving problems?
NOTE: My dear friend and mentor, brilliant Garden Nursery School director Jenn Guptill, co-presented this exercise with me back in 2004, when we taught workshops in supporting young children’s conflict resolution for fellow early childhood educators. A-D might be a product of the Safe and Caring Classrooms study group in which we participated, and then we added the E…
-Ask for volunteers to roleplay two characters in a contextually relevant problematic scenario
-These volunteers will play out an encounter in which they address the scenario
-Then they will see what happens when they try out steps A-E
A. Ask neutrally if there is a problem
-Do not assign blame, characterize someone as bad, or assume malicious intent; speak about how things look to you: ”I notice that when I do X, it seems like you do Y.”
-Use “I statements,” explaining how behaviors (NOT the person, just certain acts) they make you feel: “When you do X, it makes me feel like Y.”
-Invite other person to share his/her perspective: ”What do you think is happening?” “What do you think about that?” “What have you noticed?”
B. Brainstorm possible solutions to the conflict
-Both parties ideally should contribute to the brainstorming session
-Ideas should be heard and, ideally, not criticized
-The point is to establish trust and step away from putting people on the defensive
C. Choose which solution you will employ and how you will follow up to assess
-Both parties should agree to the action plan
-The assessment part is key — how will you know if things are working? When will you check in again to ensure that there’s satisfaction and open dialogue?
D. Do it!
-Get ‘er done
-This part is often left out but it allows for minor adjustments, guards against strained relations and icy silence/alienation post-confrontation, and renews awareness of/commitment to the solution (because it can be easy to fall back into old habits)
Play for Problem-solving Activity
-Break into small groups of 5-6, work through a problematic scenario by using a mode of play
Modes of play:
1. examples from nature — think about plants, animals, etc and see if that helps you to model and problem-solve
2. roleplaying — think about the characters involved in a problem and step into their shoes, act like them and try to think like them in order to problem-solve
3. manipulatives — use assorted objects to model systems and relationships
4. art — express problem, using as few words as possible, via paper, markers, Post-Its, and other art supplies
5. narrative — turn the problem into a simple story, as if you were explaining to a young child or an alien from another planet in order to boil it down to its most essential elements and make new discoveries
6. free play — find another playful mode of exploring your group’s problem!
Possible thematic outcomes:
1. innovation: new solutions
2. discovery: new skills or knowledge
3. personal and/or social enrichment: new relationships and/or intrapersonal understandings
1. a way to communicate the problem so that the organization (and/or multiple stakeholders) better understand it
2. multiple possible solutions, a long brainstorm session
3. one processual solution and a set of action steps and recommendations for implementation and evaluation
4. an organizational restructuring involving new working groups or work flows or communication processes, etc.
What did you come up with?
How did your group members work together (e.g., strategies, roles, conflicts, solutions, etc)?
-Reflections can be enriched by use of ORID (Stanfield, 2000), a protocol for facilitating group discussions that is based on four lines of inquiry: Objective (e.g., “What happened?”); Reflective (e.g., “How did it make you feel?”); Interpretive (e.g., “What is this all about?”); and Decisional (e.g., “What is our response?”).
O: What happened? Which words/phrases/moments do you most vividly remember?
R: How did it feel? Where were you surprised/delighted/frustrated?
I: What is all this about? What does all this mean for us? How will this affect our work? What are we learning from this? What is the insight?
D: What is our response? What action is called for? What are our next steps?
Epilogue: City Year L.A. Plays to Problem-solve!
This incredible group of open-hearted, fun-loving, forward-thinking folks enthusiastically embraced the challenge to approach organizational issues from a playful perspective. They harnessed modeling clay, blocks, animal figurines, toothpicks, gumdrops, a Barrel of Monkeys, and narrative form in order to think innovatively and develop viable solutions. Thanks to Shira Weiner for dreaming up and bringing in all of these creative materials, and for inviting me to City Year in the first place! C.Y.L.A., let’s play, hook!
But USC knows, as I have learned well, that you can’t just rest on your laurels.* We must look to the future.
The Strategic Vision identifies three paths forward, which constitute the heart of our academic vision.
Transforming Education for a Rapidly Changing World highlights building the ranks of transformative faculty and reinventing education at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels. It also focuses on the need to insure student access to education and our commitment to accountability.
Creating Scholarship with Consequence emphasizes the growing importance of translational research, creative work and professional practice that make a significant impact on society. This will require increasingly more interdisciplinary and inter-professional collaboration.
Connecting the Individual to the World calls for promoting local and global engagement to foster mutual understanding. This begins with self-knowledge and self-reflection, critical thought, appreciation of diversity, aesthetic sensibility, civility, and empathy across all spheres of life. Given the broad scope and depth of our academic programs, we must not lose sight of the importance of cultivating human wholeness.
-Elizabeth Garrett, USC Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, 1/9/12
These values echo my own and if I were more jingoistic, I might be inclined to say something like “I am USC.”
My latest inspiration for my dissertation reflects this commitment to transformative education, meaningful contribution, and human wholeness. It incorporates positive deviance, participatory action research, participatory design, participatory culture, participatory learning, serious games, and social and emotional competence.
1. Gather baseline data on a youth population (utilize multiple methods to triangulate members’ capacity to emotionally regulate and perform in Dojo).
2. Identify positive deviants (PD’s), or those whose adeptness at emotional regulation qualifies as aberrational; in other words, individuals who thrive despite the odds, without access to special resources.
3. Identify their emotional regulation strategies — How do they do what they do?
4. Work with these PD’s to suggest game design modifications and curriculum components for Dojo.
5. Liaise with GameDesk developers regarding game design modifications and take lead on realizing complementary curriculum.
6. Facilitate outreach efforts with PD’s and other interested youths, spreading the word about Dojo and PD’s emotional regulation strategies.
7. Gather endline data on youth population (utilize multiple methods to triangulate members’ capacity to emotionally regulate and perform in Dojo).
Of course, this plan is ambitious and will undergo intensive revision — part of the process. For now, this is the blue sky I’m eyeballing.