Games and Civic Engagement

moderator: Eric Klopfer, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Mario Armstrong
author: Ian Bogost, School of Communications, Georgia Institute of Technology
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: November 2007,   views: 1977

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Video games could transform the world some day, if only their potential could be fully realized. These panelists dream of a day when industry, politicians and game players themselves explore how this new medium can educate and engage.

Mario Armstrong has been helping middle school students from under-served neighborhoods develop their own games. Taking these children through the design cycle, from working on a narrative story through composing what’s on screen, he “ties the development cycle to core academics.” Kids learn about the x and y axis, and gain knowledge of geometry, Armstrong says, as well as the physics behind animation, and the importance of sentence structure.

The kinds of concerns they bring to their games initially surprised him. He had imagined storylines involving music and fashion, and instead saw “games about how to impact poverty, about how to clean up trash in my neighborhood, about whether to make a decision to buy food or pay the electric bill.” Children want to simulate and master a complex world, Armstrong says, and “games create a platform they can relate to, where they discuss outcomes and rewards,” and ultimately enable them “to talk about politics and civic engagement.” At the very least, games are “a powerful way of shaping their exposure to making an impact on society.”

The alternative to Grand Theft Auto lies with games that model real-world experience. Ian Bogost takes the complex issues we actually face, such as immigration, or the pros and cons of wind energy, or nutritional choices, and placing them inside the infinitely flexible worlds of computer games. By creating characters inside these worlds, and giving them choices, we might learn how to address policy questions in the real world. “I don’t think games have to be fun,” says Bogost, but there are many ways games can be educational. What interests Bogost is to “live in a world you don’t construct, you don’t choose, and understand someone else’s perspective – that’s really powerful.”

In public discourse and as a political tool, games have been neglected in favor of websites, blogging and social networks. But ultimately, Bogost believes, games may result in a more sophisticated citizenry. They can personalize moral questions, and lead people “to possible moments of questioning or reform,” to a recognition that choices matter. Bogost believes designers of such games must push beyond traditional political terms, and create possibilities for people to see how policies work and matter -- new ways to frame public policy issues.

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