Reforming a Mean World: Hero Reports

“In times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in

the position of having to play detective” –Walter Benjamin 1938

In the research on media effects, one of the most fully developed findings is what is known as the “mean world syndrome.” Research finds that the average citizen grossly over-estimates how dangerous her neighborhood is because she reads the newspaper and assumes that the crime reports are actually a sample of the whole and thus amplifies them accordingly. In practice, a higher portion of violent crimes get reported than most people assume, although there are statistical biases as a result of the under-representation of crimes based on the race and class of the victims.

A larger problem is created by the over-representation of crime and the under-represented of everyday acts of kindness and generosity. The news often shows us people acting at their very worst without allowing us to see those moments where people help each other out. How might this under-reporting of good deeds also contribute to the mean world syndrome?

This is a question which is guiding a new research initiative being launched by Alyssa Wright, an MIT Media Lab student who is affiliated with the Center for Future Civic Media. The center is a collaboration between the Media Lab and the Comparative Media Studies Program and has been funded by the Knight Foundation. As one of the co-Directors of the Center, I’ve listened to lots and lots of proposals for projects that might enhance civic engagement and community consciousness, some good, some bad.

Alysa’s project, Hero Reports, is among one of the very best I’ve heard. It’s practical enough that she’s already begun to implement it in New York City. It’s provocative enough that it’s already begun to attract media interest. It was featured several weeks ago on WNYC The Takeaway. And it is suggestive enough that it has generated great conversations with everyone I’ve mentioned it to.

Wright says the project was inspired by New York’s “See Something, Say Something” Campaign in the wake of 9/11. The campaign sought to solicit everyday citizens in New York City to be on the look out for suspicious activity. They became, in effect, agents in the war on terror. Maybe playing this role left them feeling more in control over their situation. Or perhaps, the act of performing this role left them in a permenant state of alert and anxiety, depending on your perspective. Given how broad the mandate is, it is no surprise that the city received many many reports. One recent advertisement boasted that the government had received 1944 such reports. The New York Times found, however, that very few of these reports resulted in arrests and that the bulk of the reports were directed at brown people whose suspicious activity mostly consisted of being brown in public.

Often, we see what we are looking for and our cultural biases literally color what we see. A campaign that invites us to look for suspicious behavior forces us to scrutinize our neighbors for signs and symptoms of terroristic activity. So, Wright wants us to reverse our lens and look for people who are doing things that are socially constructive. She wants us to find evidence of the good conduct that surrounds us all the time and bring it to greater public attention – the person who goes out of their way to help someone else, the people who intervene to stop a domestic dispute or a violent act, the people who give up their seats on the subway to accommodate a passenger with special needs, the person who cares enough to contribute to the homeless or give directions to someone who seems lost.

She is collecting these reports via her website and she’s investigating news reports of everyday heroicism that she reads in the newspaper trying to flesh out a portrait of the ways that her fellow New Yorkers are making life better within their communities. She is also deploying state of the art mapping tools to construct accounts of “everyday heroicism” in different neighborhoods, hoping that they can be read alongside maps which show crime rates and other negative factors, to give us a fuller sense of the places where we live. Ideally, such maps can become a source of local pride as people work to improve the perceptions of their communities by doing good deeds.

What follows are some of Wright’s reflections about the project:

Hero Reports was inspired by the “See Something, Say Something” Campaign in NYC. What disturbed you about that campaign and how do you see Hero Reports as responding to that concern?

I was in New York on 9/11, and I was very scared. In its wake, I saw myself start to evaluate safety with different checklists. And it’s still “different” than it was before. Just today, I was on a subway car and there were all these men with luggage. The trigger goes up. “Why are there so many attended packages on the train?” but then I pieced together another, probably more likely, story. It’s the end of a 4th of July weekend and a lot of people travel at the end of a 4th of July weekend. and ohh right. i’m on the subway that goes to the airport. It’s all about context but after 9/11 and after the anthrax scare in particular, the only context I absorbed was fear.

What got me thinking about a project, were 3 rather contemporaneous events:

1) how people responded to cherry blossoms. when i walked around with cherry blossoms, I was under the radar. i was a girl, white, wearing makeup. and yet i was walking around with a backpack that looked like a weapon. people didn’t “see something” let alone “say something.”

2) i went to Madrid and learned about March 11 bombings. and i rode their metro. and

guess what. they still had cans to throw away garbage (the MTA got rid of most garbage

cans, the few remaining are supposedly “bomb proof”) AND they weren’t surrounded by

instructions to say something. i’m not sure when it happened, but i left that trip CONVINCED that because of its history, Spain can recognize the encroaching signs of


but then there’s 3) –> the followup in the See Something series. “Last Year, 1,944 New

Yorkers Saw Something and Said Something.” I can’t recall the first time I saw the

initial ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign, but I do recall the first 1,944. It was

a bus. and as i watched it go by, I turned and said something to the effect of: “what

the fuck is that? what the hell does that number mean?”

And that’s when things became a bit comical. Like the farce was over. I mean, are we

supposed to be impressed by that number?

These three combined with another lesson from Cherry Blossoms, the power of the Iraq Body Count (IBC) database. I am forever in debt to Hamit Dardagan who started keeping count of _news reports_. Now that was a number I wanted to see. And that was a number that gave context. They took what already existed and aggregated. Together these left-to-the-archives reports found new “life.” A life whose range included my exploding backpack and a Bush speech citing IBC as his body count reference.

I see Hero Reports akin to IBC. Essentially Hero Reports starts with collecting what

already exists–the stories of everyday heroes. That aggregation holds the possibility

of for social change, and the seeds for many other projects. Artistic, academic,

political, economic. ..

But back to my thoughts about See Something: The campaign makes me feel caught in the role of civilian detective. In its most dramatic version, they tell me I can be a hero

no different than the army solider, engaging with the monster on the ground. But even as I reject that version, my vision and behavior is effected. I’m caught in a dichotomy.

Having grown up in the 80s, all of this feels soooooooo much like the war on drugs.

I believe that the MTA had best intentions. If there was ever a time when New Yorkers needed to know that they had agency in the city’s security–that they weren’t helpless–it was after 9/11. Whether intentional or not, the campaign has nonetheless been proven ineffective and most activism done in response has been critical in nature. Its important to have critical work, it has a strong place in the dialog. but because this is a formula that we have been doing for much longer than the war on terror, we also need to build another formula. So Hero Reports offers an alternative approach.

You’ve used the suggestive phrase, “Everyday Acts of Courage,” to describe what you hope to find through your project. Give us a sense of what you mean by this concept?

Everyone can be a hero — cape and all. At its beginning, I was very much inspired by the battles of Terrifca and Fantistico, dueling real life superhero and villain, that roam the streets of New York. They were not waiting around in silence or stirring in anger. They were taking matters into their own hands, and bringing the extravagance of camp into a dialog with the civilian detectives.

In my opinion, the term “hero” has been co-opted by institutions like Hollywood and the government. The firefighter is the hero. Iron Man is the hero. Because these her stories are so enrolling, the everyday person does not need to be heroic. Our myths

set it up so that its a loss and not a gain, to get involved. Our misinterpretations of

equity (e.g., should I help the old lady across the street, or will she be offended), our

laws (e.g., the Seinfeld Good Samaritan Law) and our technologies (e.g., the iPod) create an attention span where we select not to see others. And if we do see, we decide it is someone else’s responsibility to help in an accident, someone else job to put out the

fire; someone else’s good nature to return the wallet.

We are constantly trained not to get involved, and this is gendered and classed in

particular ways. And we continue to build systems that support this lack of involvement.

It helps explain, why I find myself pissed off at people—and at myself—all the time.

Why the hell does this man need to spread his knees three feet wide while we’re all

packed in like sardines? Why the hell does this woman on crutches have to stand against a pole? And why doesn’t anyone say anything? Why don’t I say? And why when I saw an accident on 14th street, why was my instinct not to help?

Hero Reports proposes to value the opposite.

What is a Hero Map? What do you see as the value of mapping where “everyday acts of courage” occurs?

In its present iteration, a Hero Map is the positioning of a Hero Report to a GPS location, and correspondingly a neighborhood. This mapping gives the heroic moment a collective memory, which in turns gives the Hero Report political and economic weight.

Typically an heroic moment, particularly an everyday heroism, has a very narrow frame.

These moments are not connected to each other, but appear as disconnected blips on the radar. When they do appear, the attention is on the self and the individual. What did

it take for said person to take that risk? Would I do the same? It does not reflect other

cultural factors like race, gender, and class. This focus on the individual stops any

possibility of these moments gaining a larger perspective, and cultural impact. By

aggregating them, and mapping them, we give the heroic moment weight. This weight can be placed back onto a community, a cultural bias, and a neighborhood.

For instance, consider the power of the Hero Map in how we evaluate real estate. In the

search for a home (aka apartment) one might look at crime rates, school systems,

transportation access AND hero statistics. How would this inclusion change our

priorities? And our economy? The perspective fits into a more general trend of

aggregating neighborhood specific, qualitative data. Rottenneighbors’ search for local

dirt is directly relates to potential power of Hero Reports. But also sites like

Outside.In and Everyblock illustrate this trend of filtering importance through

geography. It’s as if ranking systems are no longer as useful.

You are hoping to present 1944 reports of civic heroism to the transit authority. What’s the significant of that number and how far along are you towards meeting that goal?

The significance of this number is still being investigated by conspiracy theorists. The MTA claims that 1,944 New Yorkers Saw Something, and Said Something. It’s an objectless number that can easily translate into racialized forms of perception. But this objectless number, also makes it useless. And comical. What does 1,944 number mean? In a city of 8 million?

I’m fascinated by the number’s lack of context, its classified nature, its broadcasting

with pride and perhaps most circuitously its connections to D-Day. (read here the letter

Eisenhower wrote to the troops.

Because of this fascination, one goal of Hero Reports is to collect the same number of

reports into a book and present it to the mayor. How such a book will be curated/edited

is still unclear, but at its heart, it would be a transparent narrative of security.

We are 300 into this goal number, but much more are needed, before we being to edit.

(And editing here being akin to what the MTA did. About 4000 New Yorkers actually said


What is the most interesting story you’ve received so far? What kinds of incidents are

you hearing about the most?

Actually, I find what I’m hearing the most to be the most interesting. A LOT of things happen with taxi drivers. This is significant because the majority of taxi drivers are the skin color (brown) most targeted by this campaign. That means, that while only brown people were arrested in this See Something campaign, brown people are the city’s most consistent heroes. This reinterpretation of a community bias I extremely powerful.

Another recurring theme is “proof” that a personal hero story wasn’t as impossible as it

seemed. From my personal archives, there are two examples of this.

The first is a story about the stones of my engagement ring falling out and the women

who dropped on their knees to help find it. For me, this incredible moment is re-enacted with a story from taxi driver and his finding of a passenger’s ring.

The second is when on a cold winter night transfer, an out of service train gave myself and a friend a subway ride home. This illegal moment of courage was verified when a transit worker told me of the time when he was out of uniform, and a train picked him up. (not written up yet). He concludes with: “See! We’re not so mean. We’re people too.”

Besides the patterns, there are some amazing stories. A number of the more dramatic are covered in the press, and I’ve taken the content from such news articles. The latest in this category is someone giving birth on a subway platform. Here, the media did cover

how strangers came together to make it happen. (Though I suppose something would have happened regardless) Most times, however, the media coverage of these dramatic stories neglect the heroes. For instance, the other week there was a pitbull attack. When I interviewed him, the man had a story about police incompetence and expressed amazement towards a neighborhood. When this man screamed “Help!” it wasn’t a Kitty Genovese moment. People came pouring out of their home to help. “And Louis was amazing.” Now there’s no mention of Louis in the news coverage. Louis doesn’t sell. Part of Hero Reports is to spin Louis’s story so that he sells. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. That’s what Hollywood does, when Hollywood does it well. It is at the heart of novels, theater and comedy.

Its about the framing. Tackling how this sort of everyday heroism can sell is the

challenge of Hero Reports. (“Sell” here not being synonymous with “make money”, but

rather sell meaning, create cultural weight and urgency.) Hero Reports is more likely to

fail than succeed. But personally I think technologists (especially at the lab) should

be taking on such challenges and such risk. We’re so afraid it’s not going to work, that

we don’t play with failure. And when it comes down to it, not only do most things not

work, but by not tackling these questions we contribute to this society of suspicion and


Down Time…

Hi, gang.

My wife and my staff had conspired to make sure that I actually take a vacation this year. They have threatened the physically separate me from my keyboard. So, it seems likely that blogging activitie will be erratic if not non-existent for the next few weeks. I do have some interviews out there which I am hoping will come back soon and if they do, I will toss them up. I may also have an irresistible impulse. Otherwise, expect to see my return in early August.

Fans, Fair Use, and Transformation

Earlier this year, I ran an interview with Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi from American University’s Center for Social Media about their work articulating the “fair use” rights of documentary filmmakers and media literacy teachers.

I have been lucky enough to be one small part of a team they pulled together of media scholars and lawyers focused on better understanding how fair use might apply to remix practices now common online. Other members of the team included: Mimi Ito, Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Tushnet, Anthony Falzone, Michael Donaldson, Michael Madison, Panela Samuelson, and Jennifer Urban. Last week, the Center released their findings.

The resulting report offers a very strong, legally credible defense of many now common remix practices, including some language which should prove especially helpful in helping fan vidders to know how far they can go and stay within a common sense understanding of fair use rights. The report’s recommendations center around two core questions:

  • Did the unlicensed use ‘transform’ the material taken from the copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than that of the original or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value as the original?
  • Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use?

If the answers to these two questions are ‘yes,’ a court is likely to find a use fair. Because this is true, such use is unlikely to be challenged in the first place.

I was happy to have a chance to share news of this report when I spoke to Portus, a gathering of Harry Potter fans in Dallas this weekend, where the news generated lots of interest.

This focus on “transformation” clearly compliments the focus on “transformative works” in recent fan conversations in the wake of the creation of the Organization for Transformative Works.

And the report’s findings will be especially relevant to fan vidders, who have been struggling to decide how public they want their work to be, given their historic vulnerability to legal prosecution and yet their concern that other remix communities are gaining greater visibility in the era of YouTube. The report certainly doesn’t address every concern vidders will face — in particular, it raises questions about whether vidders would be legally better off drawing on multiple songs rather than basing the entire video on a single piece of music. But the authors hope that the publication of this document will spark further conversations.

Augmented Learning: An Interview with Eric Klopfer (Part Two)

Critics of the serious games movement accuse its supporters of being “technophiles.” How would you respond to the charge that you might be placing your enthusiasm for a new technical platform above concern for what constitutes good pedagogical practices?

I’ve heard it argued that educational technologies need to be designed by strictly starting with the educational need and then designing the appropriate technology around that need. I’ve seen this done, and the result is technology that is clearly designed by educational theorists. That is, it clearly has some good fundamentals, but it also has deficiencies in usability, engagement, experience, and often applicability. Similarly, educational technologies designed strictly by technologists while high on usability and engagement may miss educational fundamentals. In reality, there needs to components of both to work well. But we can also learn things from projects that are heavy on one side or the other, that have outcomes that can be applied elsewhere. Our design is typically quite iterative. We have a number of educational outcomes that we’re looking for, and we have a number of technologies circulating around. When those come together we try to push a project forward that combines them.

What criteria should we use to evaluate educational games? Which games do you think best match your criteria?

I’m not sure I can come up with one standard for evaluation, but like the last question, any criteria should include both technological contributions (playability, innovation, etc.) as well as pedagogical contributions (learning theory, outcomes, etc.). There are many researchers who are focusing on learning through Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) games – anything from SimCity through World of Warcraft. I think there is a lot to be learned from this research, but our work focuses exclusively on games that were explicitly designed to be educational. Examples of this type are somewhat sparse (at least from the last decade). However, the number of examples is fortunately growing through a reinvigoration of this space.

Back in the early and mid 1990s, I was working as a computer teacher for young kids. At the time, my favorite educational game was the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (no kidding). Fortunately today, Scot Osterweil, the co-creator of that game, is working here with us. His new game, Labyrinth, which he is designing in collaboration with Fablevision and Maryland Public Television, is one of my favorite modern examples. It is a fun game AND it is educational. Kids would clearly play this game just for the fun of it, and yet I can clearly point out to teachers how specific content from the game maps to important learning goals in their classes.

Do some forms of content lend themselves better to learning through games than others?

Absolutely. We are often approached by teachers, researchers, publishers, etc. who tell us “concept X” is hard and boring for kids, and ask how can we make a game out of it. There are a number of things wrong with that question, but the notion that you can make a game out of anything just doesn’t work. In general, if you can boil the learning down to process, it is much easier to think about how to design games that incorporate that kind of learning than it is to design around content. That is, it is easier and better to design games around understanding that it is around memorizing.

For example, we’ve had a number of requests for games around DNA replication, a challenging part of biology classes. If what this means is memorizing specific steps of the process, then it would be hard to design a good game around this mechanic. If instead the goal is understanding the concepts in a more abstract way, then this potentially becomes a good basis for a game.

In your book, you cite Brain Age as an important recent example of an educational game. Why do you see this as an important example to consider? What do you see as its strengths and limitations in terms of pedagogical design?

Brain Age is significant because of the market it reached, and the interest that it demonstrated in games of this type. In most ways, the design of the game is simple or even rudimentary. However, it did utilize some interesting features of the DS, like audio and touchscreen inputs. These choices not only pushed some of the boundaries for the platform, but also opened up the game to a market that wasn’t interested in “button mashing”. These, typically older (sometimes defined as over 25, but in this case it reached man players over 40), players were willing to play the game not only because of the “educational” content, but because it involved fun and simple interactions that were made possible by the mobility of the device.

You make strong arguments that we need to break with the “computer room paradigm” and develop tools, resources, and practices which teachers can integrate into their own classrooms. Explain. What elements have you built into your games to facilitate play in the classroom?

We’ve taken a few approaches to this. One approach, as we have taken for our participatory simulations, is to design activities that can be played like a lot of other non-technological role-playing games. Even without using technology, teachers often will run activities in a class where “everyone pretends that they’re a DNA nucleotide” or something similar. These activities are facilitated by a teacher, collaborative, and easy to break up into chunks, meaning they can readily fit into class periods. Teachers are comfortable running these activities without a lot of training. Another approach we have conducted research around is to have students primarily play the games outside of class, and connect that game play back to in-class discussion. We have started to take this approach in our new mobile games. Students play collaborative casual games for short periods of time frequently outside of class. Teachers can tap into the data generated from student gameplay to connect game play to in-class learning. Another example is with many of our AR games. Classes play a game for a day or two out in the field, and connect their experiences back to curriculum that can last weeks in the classroom anchored in that field experience. Finally, we have a number of initiatives focusing on students doing game design, which is a different take on using games in the classroom.

Many have argued that educational games can’t keep pace with commercial games because young people expect high end graphics. You’ve taken a very different perspective through your work. Explain.

It is true, at least in the short term, that educational games can’t keep pace with the graphics and sounds of commercial games. But, they can stand out through innovation in design and experience, a place where commercial games are much more conservative and often behind the times. In fact, I think that the push towards high fidelity 3D worlds as the “gold standard” for educational games is misplaced. For one reason, many students don’t like 3D virtual worlds. They find them confusing and disorienting. But more importantly, if the game play is good, players quickly look past the surface of the game and focus on the game play instead of the graphics. Graphics are important for shelf appeal. But in the world of educational games, where they are part of a class or curriculum, that shelf appeal doesn’t apply.

Developing games which encourage collaborative learning has been a key design goal for many of your games. What do you see as the pedagogical benefits of collaborative problem solving and how have you built this principle into your games?

There is a lot of research on collaborative learning, and the benefits it achieves through peer teaching and learning, communication, and perspective-taking. Additionally, we find that building collaboration skills is an important goal. The ability to work effectively in teams, communicate with others, and get work down collaboratively is critical in the 21st century workplace, regardless of whether you’re a doctor or media producer. In our work we try both to use collaboration as a means to learning, and an end to work towards.

Augmented Learning: An Interview with Eric Klopfer (Part One)

For the past five years, Eric Klopfer has helped to lead the Education Arcade, the MIT based research group which is seeking to explore the pedagogical uses of computer and video games. One of his biggest contributions has been to insist that our research reflect the realities which teachers encounter with trying to deploy learning games in the classroom.

Well before the Arcade launched, Klopfer has been doing cutting edge work on Augmented Reality Games. Here’s a description I wrote four years ago for Technology Review of one of the games he helped to create:

In early February, a powerful demonstration of augmented reality took place at Boston’s Museum of Science. Eric Klopfer, an MIT professor of urban studies and planning, along with a team of researchers from the Education Arcade (an MIT-based consortium devoted to promoting the pedagogical use of computer and video games) conducted what they called “a Hi-Tech Who Done It.” The activity was designed for middle-school kids and their parents. Participants were assigned to teams, consisting of three adult-child pairs, and given a handheld. For the next few hours, they would search high and low for clues of the whereabouts and identity of the notorious Pink Flamingo Gang. Thieves have stolen an artifact and substituted a fake in its place. Thanks to museum’s newly installed Wi-Fi network and the players’ location-aware handhelds, each gallery offered the opportunity to interview cyber-suspects, download objects, examine them with virtual equipment, and trade their findings.

Each parent-child unit was assigned a different role–biologists, detectives, or technologists–enabling them to use different tools on the evidence they gathered. As I followed the eager participants about the museum, they used walkie-talkies to share information and to call impromptu meetings to compare notes; at one point, a hyperventilating sixth grade girl lectured some other kid’s parents about what she learned about the modern synthetic material found in the sample picked up near the shattered mummy case. Racing against time and against rival teams, the kids, parents in tow, sprinted from hall to hall.

I was with one of the teams when they solved the puzzle. A young girl thrust her arms in the air and shouted, “We are the smartest people in the whole museum!” What a visceral experience of empowerment! The same girl said that everyone else in her family was smart in science but that on this occasion, she felt like a genius.

Talking to the parents afterward, one woman told the research team, “This is the longest time I’ve ever spent having a substantial conversation with my son in as long as I can remember–without any fighting.” Many of the others had in the past dragged their kids to the museum kicking and screaming. This time, however, these same kids wanted to go back and spend more time looking at exhibits they had brushed past in their investigations.

The activity had forced the kids to really pay attention to what they were looking at, to ask and answer new questions, and to process the information in new ways. These kids weren’t moving in orderly lines through the science museum; they owned that space. It wasn’t a sanctuary; it was their playground.

But there was nothing chaotic about their play. This was hard work, and it engaged every corner of their brains. Though the robbery was imaginary, the kids had to go through something akin to the real-world scientific process to solve the mystery–gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, challenging each other’s interpretations, and in the end, presenting the data to the judges to see how close they came to figuring out all of the case’s nuances.

As this description suggests, Klopfer’s games blend fantasy and reality, combines the capability of location-aware mobile devices with the power of direct observation, and merge together individual and collaborative modes of problem solving. And what’s more, Klopfer has been working with teachers to get them not only to deploy his own games but to develop their own games which take advantage of the resources and concerns of their own local communities. He’s been a huge influence on the games-oriented students who have come through the Comparative Media Studies Program, leading to thesis projects such as Karen Schrier’s Reliving the Revolution, which simulated the first shots of the American revolution. And I recently featured Klopfer’s handheld work as part of an account of the history of our serious games research.

Now, it’s my pleasure to direct your attention to Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games, newly released from the MIT Press. As the title suggests, he shares some of the insights he has gained from his extensive research on mobile and augmented reality games, research which will be of great interests to those interested in developing their own learning games as well as to teachers who want to harness the power of gaming through their classrooms. The book is written in the matter of fact and pragmatic style I’ve come to associate with Klopfer. He reflects back on his own work, offers frank assessment of the existing mobile games space, and proposes some basic design and instructional principles which should guide all future work in this space. If your ideas about learning games begin and end with the commercial marketplace, Klopfer will shake up many of your preconceptions, offering radically different approaches to what a learning game looks like which take advantage of social dynamics and real world spaces rather than relying on 3d graphics and complex AI. He offers a model of what we can do right now for very little money using existing technologies.

He was kind enough to agree to an interview here. In part one, we explore in more depth his concept of augmented reality games and in the second part, we will explore the field of serious games more generally.

Most contemporary mobile games consist of casual games ported onto the mobile phone. Yet such games do not exploit most of the unique properties of mobile technology. How do you define those properties and what do you see as the limits of current games being developed for such platforms?

I think that in the near term mobile games for cell phones will continue to primarily take the form of ported casual games. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, these games fit the playing habits of people playing mobile games. That is, they can be played for a few minutes at a time while riding the train, standing in line, etc. Second, the development costs of mobile games is disproportionately high, primarily because of the current need to develop a single game hundreds of times for each different phone and carrier. As the industry moves towards consolidation of platforms through things like the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Google’s Android, I think we’ll start to see developers make a move to develop new and interesting games on mobile devices. We’ve already seen this on the Nintendo DS, which has broken a lot of new ground in the mobile games space, and also has sold phenomenally well.

Because of the powerful hardware in cell phones, I think we’ll see even more innovative work on this platform.

When Kurt Squire and I sat down to make our first big push into mobile educational games we defined a number of characteristics that we attempted to tap into, namely:

  • portability – can take the computer to different sites and move around within a location
  • social interactivity – can exchange data and collaborate with other people face to face
  • context sensitivity – can gather data unique to the current location, environment, and time, including both real and simulated data
  • connectivity – can connect handhelds to data collection devices, other handhelds, and to a common network that creates a true shared environment
  • individuality – can provide unique scaffolding that is customized to the individual’s path of investigation.

These principles have guided much of our work, and we’re starting to see more of this in the marketplace. Apple is going to make a big push for mobile games on the iPhone and this will mean taking advantage of these unique properties, and other companies will follow.

Much of your own work has focused on the development of augmented reality games. Can you explain that concept and offer some illustrations for the kind of work you’ve done in this area?

Augmented Reality, as we define it, is a digital layer of information spatially overlaid on the real environment. While others narrowly define this space to include heads up displays using helmets and goggles with precise positioning providing real time visual overlaid information, we use the term broadly enough to include location-based games on handhelds and mobile phones which provide additional virtual data or information at given locations. Specifically we focus on what we call “lightly” augmented reality. That is, we provide a minimal amount of virtual information, and players use a lot of real world information as a part of game play.

For example, our most recent game TimeLab, starts with a video that sets the players 100 years in the future when global climate change has wreaked havoc on Cambridge. They are then sent back in time to present day to study ballot initiatives that could potentially remediate the effects of global climate change in the future. Players walk around the MIT campus and surrounding areas collecting information (real and virtual) on methods of reducing climate change and the impact of climate change on Cambridge. For example, at one point they look across the Charles River to the Hancock Tower that currently uses a beacon to provide information about the weather, and consider whether a more comprehensive weather warning system could be of use to warn future area residents of frequent severe weather. As players stand on Memorial Drive near the MIT campus, they consider how 100 years in the future that location is often under water from floods, and think about ways that those floods could be prevented. In the end, the players choose a number of ballot initiatives that they must debate, and through some simple game mechanics ultimately find out whether those measures are approved and what impact they have.

Some would argue that augmented reality games don’t look or act very much like commercial entertainment titles. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage in terms of getting teachers to engage with these activities?

In most cases this is an advantage. Game is still a four-letter word in most schools, and teachers will sometimes ask us if we can call it a “simulation” or “technology-enabled activity” instead. I’m less concerned with the label than with the learning and engagement so I usually oblige. In terms of the actual experience, while students sometimes elaborate 3D games with holographic images to emerge from the handhelds (this is MIT), they quickly engage with our much more primitive map-based interfaces. Finally in terms of game play, the format of the games are quite flexible and can be changed by the teachers or the students themselves to create games that involve varying degrees of collaboration and competition.

You’ve developed tools which enable teachers to design educational games that are appropriate to their own locations. Can you give us a sense of how educators have been using those tools? How might my readers get access to those tools?

Our Outdoor Augmented Reality Toolkit, which is a drag and drop authoring tool for location based games on Windows Mobile devices, has been used by dozens of researchers and educators around the world. We’re putting the final touches on our first public release, which should be available within the next few weeks on our website (

In many cases teachers are using this to localize an existing game that has been created elsewhere. At a minimum this means importing new maps and GPS coordinates, and making sure that players need not walk into the middle of a road or a lake to get the information that they need. But ideally, this means making some changes to the content to localize it a bit better including some local history and personality, or incorporating unique features of the geography.

The tool is easy enough for a non-programmer to use (technically) to create an AR game from scratch. But this still requires a fair bit of thought in terms of the actual game design. We expect this feature to be used by educational institutions like museums, zoos, and science centers. In many cases we expect that teachers will wind up doing this kind of design as a class activity, rather than solo, and we’re designing new versions to specifically support this kind of design.

Your augmented reality games combine elements of simulation with the direct observation of the real world. Why is “reality” an important element to tap for educational games?

Many of our AR games are built around socio-scientific problems, that is issues that require both an understanding of the underlying science as well as an understanding of the social and real world context for the problem. We’ve found that the AR games do a good job of integrating these two components. When using AR to study problems that are seemingly “entirely scientific,” players tend to think more holistically considering many of the subtle real world constraints – how will this impact me or the people I know? What will the community think? How will this impact what I see around me? It is much harder to generate these kinds of considerations in a purely virtual experience we have found. Many of our games are explicitly designed around these tradeoffs.

Eric Klopfer is the Director of the MIT Teacher Education Program, and the Scheller Career Development Professor of Science Education and Educational Technology at MIT. The Teacher Education Program prepares MIT undergraduates to become math and science teachers. Klopfer’s research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. His research explores simulations and games on desktop computers as well as handhelds. He currently runs the StarLogo project, a desktop platform that enables students and teachers to create computer simulations of complex systems. He is also the creator of StarLogo TNG, a new platform for helping kids create 3D simulations and games using a graphical programming language. On handhelds, Klopfer’s work includes Participatory Simulations , which embed users inside of complex systems, and Augmented Reality simulations, which create a hybrid virtual/real space for exploring intricate scenarios in real time. He is the co-director of The Education Arcade, which is advancing the development and use of games in K-12 education. Klopfer’s work combines the construction of new software tools with research and development of new pedagogical supports that support the use of these tools in the classroom. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and the author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games for MIT Press.

Adopting (and Defending) Little Brother

I don’t get to read very many novels. The nature of my work means that there is always a massive pile of nonfiction for me to plow through and when I have time to relax, I tend to consume other media rather than read literary fiction (comics being the exception). But I always make time for the latest work of Cory Doctorow, who is my favorite contemporary science fiction writer.

When I heard Cory’s new novel, Little Brother, had hit the book shelves, I grabbed it to take with me on my long flight to Australia. (Gee, I’ve managed to get three blog posts just off of the media I consumed between here and Australia!) It turned out to be ideal reading on one level — I didn’t want to put the book down once I started reading it — and less than ideal on another — the book left me really paranoid dealing with airport security and customs people and when I tried to read it to cope with my jet lag in the hotel room, I stayed up all night just to finish it. Don’t try this trick at home, Kids. But you will want to read Little Brother, the sooner, the better, because this book has the makings of a political movement.

The title of Little Brother pays tribute to George Orwell, but the content is shaped by our own “9/11 changed everything” society. It’s as timely as the day’s headlines: literally since I started reading the book just as the Supreme Court was ruling that Habeas Corpus applied at Gitmo. The book was written for young adult readers but, as the cliche goes, it’s fun for children of all ages.

Marcus, the book’s protagonist, is a hacker/gamer/geek who has learned how to work around the various control mechanisms of his school but he is ill-prepared for confronting what happens after a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and takes out a chunk of the BART tunnels as well. Homeland Security basically occupies San Francisco, which becomes more and more like a Police State as the book progresses. He and his friends, who had skipped school to play an ARG, are taken into custody, shipped off to a secret prison camp on Treasure Island, and subjected to torture — well, assuming waterboarding DOES count as torture.

When Marcus is released, he takes everything he has learned about technology and uses it to try to overturn what the federally-sanctioned thugs have done to America’s tradition of freedoms and liberties. He hacks game systems and deploys them as an alternative social network which allows young people to communicate under the noses of their parents and teachers. Along the way, the book addresses some core debates about whether we should trade off some of our freedom to insure greater security in a post-911 political landscape and provides very specific instructions on how to create an alternative political culture and technological infrastructure.

If the details supplied by the novel aren’t enough on their own, the book ends with Afterwords by digital security expert Bruce Schneier on the importance of good Crypto and by XBox Hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, as well as a bibliography for where to go to learn more about the technoculture and political dimensions of the narrative. And Doctorow has partnered with the DIY website, The Instructables, to provide some How To pieces. And the book takes seriously what we are calling the New Media Literacies, including the ability to network and pool knowledge to accomplish tasks far bigger than any individual can accomplish on their own. Indeed, I plan to assign the book in a class I’m teaching this fall on Civic Engagement and New Media Literacy. All of this reflects Doctorow’s unique perspective as a key player in the Electronic Frontier Foundation and as one of the masterminds behind Boing Boing.

So far, I’ve made the book sound a bit too much like agit prop — on the right side, to be sure, but pedantic at best — but it’s also a damn fine read. Sure, there’s a little bit of preaching to the choir going on here, no doubt. I found the book affirmed many of my most deeply held political beliefs and as such, it is one which I plan to pass along to some of the young adult readers in my family in hopes of undoing the job the public schools have been doing on them lately. At heart, the book is about the right, no, the obligation to question authority and to stand up for the American tradition of civil liberties even when — especially when — it is hard. Little Brother articulates a very different notion of patriotism and what a hero is than we’ve seen from the dominant media in recent years.

The young people quickly adopt a slogan, “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25,” which they think reflects the generational gap in perspective between those who grew up online and understand how the security hysteria is destroying cyberculture and those who didn’t and who are drawn towards a more authoritarian mind set. But the book itself keeps complicating that distinction between Digital Natives and Immigrants, offering vivid vignettes of a teacher who forces the students to think for themselves even if it means that he will ultimately lose his job, of a reporter who is willing to speak truth to power, and of parents who stand by their kids when they need their support the most. Doctorow wants his young readers to take their own political agency seriously, to find their voice as citizens, and to tap the resources that are available to them to transform their society, but he also wants them to recognize allies where-ever they may find them and continually situates Marcus’s contemporary resistance in a much longer history of countercultural politics.

It doesn’t hurt that Doctorow fills the book with local color details about San Francisco, a city he knows well, or that he makes every step in the process seem plausible and only slightly amplified from things we’ve already seen happen in the past eight years. It also doesn’t hurt that Little Brother is also the best plotted book Doctorow has ever written. Up until now, I’ve liked the tone and world building of his fiction better than the plots; like many contemporary SF writers, he has a tendency to build rich and interesting societies and then not really know what to do with them. I’m OK with that because Eastern Standard Tribe and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom are some of the best drawn worlds I’ve seen in SF since the original cyberpunks.

But this time, he held his plot together throughout, allowing the action and relations to build chapter by chapter, and taking his protagonist on the trajectory from Rebel Without a Cause to the leader of a youth movement, even as he deals with the anxiety, fear, and confusion someone in that position would face. He manages to throw in issues with his peers, parents, and teachers, as well as a touchingly drawn first love story, which adds some emotional resonance to the high flying political drama. Most adults for young readers stop there, acknowledging all of the fears and uncertainties of growing up, without leaving their young fans with any sense that they hold in their hands the potential to change the world. Doctorow trusts his readers enough to take them seriously as political agents and in that sense, I am hoping it will do for my young nephews’s generation what books like the ACLU Student Rights Handbook or Jerry Farber’s The Student as Nigger did for mine.

Neil Gaiman has been similarly smitten with this book and shared on his blog his own hopes for how it will impact young readers:

I think it’ll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won’t be the same after they’ve read it. Maybe they’ll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it’ll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they’ll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they’ll want to open their computer and see what’s in there. I don’t know. It made me want to be 13 again right now and reading it for the first time, and then go out and make the world better or stranger or odder.

Indeed, there are early signs that young readers are responding to the book’s challenges by putting some of its ideas into action. Doctorow has created a website which documents the various ways his work is being appropriated and remixed. And there are already some interesting stories to be found there. For example, one group of coders is hard at work developing the ParanoidLinux program described in the novel:

Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of “chaff” communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you’re doing anything covert. So while you’re receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.

~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

When those words were written, ParanoidLinux was just a fiction. It is our goal to make this a reality. The project officially started on May 14th, and has been growing ever since. We welcome your ideas, contributions, designs, or code. You can find us on freenode’s irc server in the #paranoidlinux channel. Hope to see you there!

Doctorow has shared a YouTube video produced by some young readers who dfamatize the opening passages from the novel:

A reader and former Senior House resident Alec Resnick wrote me to ask me whether I could think of another book which had been so carefully designed to launch a resistance movement. Certainly science fiction authors have been trying to use the genre as a means of political commentary since before any one thought to call it science fiction. H.G. Wells saw himself as a political novelist and was only retrospectively understood as writing SF. The Futurians were an influential group in the early history of science fiction fandom who saw the genre as a tool for social change. They included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Frederik Pohl. Check out Space Merchants for a good example of the kind of social criticism these guys smuggled into what were then dime paperbacks. On the conservative end of the spectrum, we could certainly read a writer like Robert Heinlein as making the case for mandatory military service as tied to voting in Starship Troopers, for example. We can see the feminist science writers of the 1960s as explicitly bound up with movements for social change and science fiction was very popular with the leaders of the anti-war movements of the 1960s. And then, of course, there’s George Orwell himself who certainly saw the value of mixing politics and speculative fiction — I’m never sure whether we can call 1984 science fiction or not but it’s certainly swimming in the same stream. Many of these books include commentary on current developments and sometimes blue prints for alternative social structures.

But I don’t know of another book which provides so much detailed information on how to transform its alternative visions into realities. And as such, this may be the most subversive book aimed at young readers in the past decade. I fear that in the current political climate a lot of teachers and librarians are going to end up battling school boards and angry parents to make sure young people have access to this book. If they do so, it will be a battle worth fighting.

If you want to sample the book, Doctorow has made it available for free download, but trust me, you are going to want to own a copy. What good is a political page turner without any pages to turn!