Mobile Games: Activism, Art and Learning

A new report, The Civic Tripod for Mobile and Games: Activism, Art and Learning, was published a few weeks ago through the International Journal of Media and Learning. It was written by three PhD candidates, Susana Ruiz, Benjamin Stokes, and Jeff Watson, whom I've worked with closely since I came to USC three years ago.  Susana and Jeff are both game designers who are completing their work through the USC Cinema School's iMAP program, while Ben is doing his PhD in Communications through USC's Annenberg School. Watson completed his PhD this past summer. Here is the way they describe what their report tries to accomplish:

The "big picture" for mobile and locative games has been hard to see, and hard to articulate. One cause is that the examples are rarely woven together across disciplines. Second, theory has too often been absent or heavy-handed. Something in-between is needed. This is especially true for more deeply social designs, which are too often reduced to case studies especially in fields like education, the arts, and civic innovation. We argue that this fragmentation of isolated examples is undermining our ability to think big, design holistically, and evaluate broadly.

For this report, we ambitiously seek to curate a set of conceptually important mobile projects, and to connect them with a light weave of theory from three distinct traditions of practice. Specifically, this report outlines the emerging field of mobile and pervasive games along the dimensions of (1) civic learning, (2) performance/art, and (3) social change. Focusing on real projects from the field, we aim to reveal key opportunities and constraints on the mobile frontier for civic games.

We argue that this three-legged "tripod" is increasingly necessary to articulate how mobile game projects are succeeding (and failing). In the past, designs have been analyzed separately by the siloed domains of art, learning, and social action. Each silo remains a useful lens, but combining the lenses is increasingly necessary for mobile media.

Mobile media is different because it ties into the physical space of our neighborhoods, with longstanding relationships and neighborhood dramas. On the streets in front of our homes, most of us already know if there are potholes, and whether socio-economic segregation is getting worse or better. But we may need the vision of art to imagine alternate futures. Art on our streets resists abstraction, and raises immediate questions of civics, prompting us to ask, "what can we do about this?" And taking action points back to learning, since the neighborhood solution is so often to empower ourselves, which necessitates learning who we are, determining what assets and power we have, and learning the skills of collective action to push for change.

Clearly the tripod legs are not just connected -- they overlap. In fact, we argue that games are pushing for further blur between art, activism and learning. Games are a form of media that do less to structure facts, and more to structure and shape the player's experience and identity. Learning is inherent in games, since their engagement depends on providing challenges that are just barely possible. (To use the language of Vygotsky, we might say that games are only fun when they scaffold the experience to keep the player within their zone of proximal development.) When games are tied to physical space, their action ties to learning about our own neighborhoods -- how to move through them, and to change them. The art of such games is often the physical world itself, with better sounds and graphics than any screen! And the digital side of games draws in the civic, if only because it is so easy to link to more information on how to take action, or how to learn more. In other words, the experiential nature of games pulls mobile experiences on civics into being a mix of art and learning.

The report is a wonderful example of multidisciplinary scholarship with each student embodying one of the legs of their "tripod" and developing their ideas in conversation with the others. They have used a nonlinear format to allow readers to trace multiple paths through the diverse case study examples and interviews with media producers (including Mary Flanagan, Katie London, Colleen Macklin, and many others) they have assembled.

Yet, they also are creating multiple points of synthesis where their insights come together and produce  understandings that none of them individually would be able to reach. Outside this innovative framework and presentation, some of these games might be understood through a lens of avant garde art practice, others through the lens of education or activism, but we would be unlikely to see the connections between them. I strongly recommend this report to anyone who wants to better understand the potentials of mobile games for facilitating new forms of civic learning and expressive practice.