On February 26, 2020 I gave a workshop at the MICA (Maryland Institute College of Design) Gamelab walking participants through my project and its methodology. Collaboratively we came up with escape room ideas (digital or analog), sharing ideas and prototypes with each other. While the experience in Baltimore was fantastic and I will probably share some other reflections in a later post (you can also find a summary of the trip here), I wanted to write about the workshop and some of the ideas and questions it raised.
After spending so much time in the writing framework, it was great to sit down with participants and think about some creative games we could create. I invited individuals to choose a topic that resonated with them, and after pulling apart some of the themes, we began to speculate about puzzles, environments and player experiences. I found the choice of topics really interesting, ranging from microtransactions, to recycling culture, participants wanted to use games to talk about concepts as abstract as the digital divide.
As the first workshop I have ran related to my Masters, I wanted to take time for participants to engage with each step of the brainstorming process. The group found puzzle design was really interesting, where I challenged them to think beyond locks, passcodes and other common escape room tropes, and get creative. Some great ideas emerged, such as using lighting through paper to trigger sensors, or developing digital currency for players to use in the gameworld. However, while puzzle design was engaging, it became challenging for some groups to really connect their idea to game mechanics.
As the facilitator, the most rewarding portion of the workshop was our discussion around environmental design, where participants made sketches of their potential game space. This really helped some groups that were struggling to connect puzzles to theme, where visual learning practices allowed them to connect games pieces together. For instance, one group went from the idea of having players clean up a space (such as a dorm or home), to the idea of a research lab, where “chemicals” (cleaning products) can help uncover puzzle pieces while also referencing proper ways to dispose of certain products. Talking with the group, they mentioned how drawing out the space helped them solidify their puzzles, encouraging them to expand their theme to focus on incorporating player experience.
While this was my first workshop, and I definitely have some things I would change (mainly around timing and content examples), it reminded me of how valuable game design can be to talk about issues. Even though we made no physical games, discussing how these social issues can be presented in a game prompted conversation about the issues and our own knowledge of them. Participants were encouraged to spend more time researching their topic, further informing themselves, and expanding their current grasp of the content. I also left encouraged, wanting to share and discuss ideas with others, create new games and puzzles, and also explore the conversational effect of designing games.
As I mentioned before, escape games contain some similarities with live-action role-playing games. Working on a smaller scale, with less participant buy in, escape rooms offer the chance for participants to engage participants in a story. Role playing games involved imaginative play, where players are asked to take on a certain character (typically of their choice) and participate in a narrative. Escape games offer a central story, typically giving players a choice in how much they want to perform, where role-playing makes minor difference to the overall game.
In my own game I performed multiple roles. The role of Craig (And in one instance Carl); A corporate man who encouraged players to give five star reviews and make them as comfortable as possible in the play experience. Craig was overly energetic, super optimistic and positive antagonist, whose entire goal is to please each participant, while enforcing company expectations. Consistently checking in on players as the play, Craig helped manage game flow in the space and acted as a surveillance figure “unintentionally” slowing player progress if he caught them doing things that they were not expected to do (such as solve the escape room).
I also played a mysterious CM, an ex-employee who left a note and phone in the room to communicate with players. CM was trying to expose reactile, but needed the help of the players to succeed. While players, never officially meet CM, my character existed through the limited messages that brought players outside of the room. I slipped notes under the door, sent text messages to a phone, and even ‘hacked’ a surveillance feed to keep talking with participants. CM was counter to Craig, aiding players through hints and warnings, while also engaging in virtual dialogue if participants chose to.
The other two roles I “played” were not performative, rather I was a game manager and facilitated learning as an educator of sorts. I welcomed players to the game and project, I briefed them on the experience, and occasionally, during play, I would break character and help fix a broken aspect of the room (i.e. players had a correct combination that wasn’t working on a lock). As a manager, I had to balance being a performing individual and a ‘game master’, monitoring the experience to make sure the project was running smoothly. Finally, as an educator, I worked on guiding a debrief, talking about the metaphor used in the space, and curating conversation around digital personalization and players personal habits.
Each of these roles played out during a game experience, and each critical to the project’s success. Craig served multiple purposes. As a metaphor to surveillance and personalization structures, I would bring new materials, clues, and distractions into the room. Based on previous answers and preferences, Craig would bring certain products, or wear specific colours and styles of clothes as the game progressed. Additionally, to maintain the flow of the game and help teams focus on specific puzzles, Craig determined when certain materials could enter into the play experience. While, sometimes also trying to indirectly help ‘stuck’ players who struggled to communicate with CM, Craig’s main goal was monitoring game flow and presenting material back at players. CM was mainly provided as a counternarrative to trust, and a hint system for the game. CM knew everything about the company and told players that if they needed help to ask. Most escape games, offer hints, and CM helped circumvent the challenges of helping players while also attempting to distract them.
So far this post has been highly descriptive, despite my intentions to discuss the value of performance and imaginative play. However, in writing, I am realizing that the balance of facilitation, performance and education was critical to the project, and highlights the educational potential of role-playing activities. The counter roles of Craig and CM, established the entire structure of play, creating a power-tension for players to navigate.
While I was concerned with being too much of a distraction and complication for players, the debriefs suggested otherwise. Players discussed their appreciation of Craig, actually hoping that Craig had a larger impact in the game. They wanted Craig to ‘catch’ them and make it more challenging. They liked the notion of being rewarded or punished depending on their ability to hide their actions from Craig. Having an element of imaginative play helped with immersion, and despite players not always participating with the performance, it was effective in engaging participants.
What do we even mean when we say something is intergenerational? Is it people from different ages hanging out? Is it incorporating references from different time periods into one space? Is it intergenerational is someone 30 hangs out with someone 38? What about a five year old and a 12 year old hanging out? What makes any of the experiences intergenerational? It is really tricky to define, and I promise you that I cannot provide you with a single effective answer. What I am trying to do is figure out how we can make something intergenerational.
It’s fascinating, because you will hear intergenerationality heralded as the solution to generational divide. That ageism can be solved through intergenerationality. And while research does show many positives to intergenerational experiences (one of which is addressing ageist stereotypes), if poorly implemented, intergenerational experiences can do that opposite, increasing ageist views, furthering existing stereotypes (North & Fiske, 2012).
Part of the issue with defining intergenerationality is its simultaneous homogeneity and ambiguity. Building from generations, it presupposes individuals behave or act a certain way because they are from the same temporal group. It connects to development psychology, where our developmental stages play into the creation of a cohort.
However, this perspective is too binary. It assumes that just because you and I were born at the same time, we will share the same experiences, ideas and perspectives. But is that really the case? Cultural, social, economic, political, and emotional factors all play into our development, understanding of experience, and perspective on events. Every generation is full of individuals, each with a personal understanding of their surroundings. Sure some individuals share similar thoughts but that doesn’t make the whole generation contain the same knowledge/experience.
The recent “OK Boomer” discourse is a strong example of this dichotomy. Popping up on social media, many youth are using the term, “ok boomer” as a way a response to comments that disregard the challenges that youth face in the current socio-political climate or address non-progressive ideology. While the phrase uses the term boomer, which refers to the baby boomer generation, conversation will ‘exclude’ some people of the boomer age based on their behaviour or knowledge. This indicates that perhaps age is not the best determinant of a generational ideology, or that people from a generation have varied ideas, and that perceiving them as a whole fails to properly represent them. Perhaps it just boils down to, not everyone is the same, which I think we have been hearing since we were kids (or I hope you have).
As I try to conceptualize this for game design, I looked at 3 different theories: Intergenerativity, Ambivalence, and intra-actions.
Intergenerativity comes from the work of Peter Whitehouse, where alongside his wife they ran an intergenerational school. Defining it in comparison to generativity, Whitehouse states, “generativity involves conversations between two or more people about an idea with long-term implications, whereas intergenerativity implies a cultural conversation between generations distributed through time (and potentially space)” (Whitehouse, 2010). In other words, intergenerativity looks at how ideas and knowledge are shared between groups taking into consideration the impact of people’s culture and time based experiences (i.e. born during watergate). In this framework, designing a space that is intergenerative, requires one to consider the different cultural backgrounds of the participants, and connecting it to the time frames that each group comes from.
The concern with intergenerativity was its development alongside an explicitly educational environment. Whitehouse outlines ways to measure intergenerativity, which immediately repackages it into categories, subsequently excluding other factors. To help combat this, I turned the concept of ambivalence.
Simply described, ambivalence recognizes contradictions that exist within the individual and relationships. For example, intergenerational ambivalence would recognize that there are contradictory family experiences for members of a cohort. More specifically, some individuals grew up in a home with siblings and others alone. Or perhaps some individuals had two parents and others had none. These experiences somewhat contradict each other, however they still exist together within the cohort relationship. In this manner, ambivalence recognizes that intergenerational experiences are not neatly packaged.
Ambivalence helps us start to explore how intergenerational experiences cannot be simply constructed or defined, pushing us to further explore what contradictions and ideas need to be understood and played out. After some discussion and research I found some ideas from feminist theory to be helpful. Karen Barad discusses the idea of entanglements and intra-actions. Individuals are created through a series of experiences, each of which defines who they are overall. These factors (social, political, economic, cultural etc.) influence each other and subsequently define us. Taking this a bit farther, intergenerationality (or perhaps ‘intra’-generationality) would need to consider that there are an existing multitude of factors that makes up the experience, many of these factors being specific to the individuals that are meeting.
“The usual notion of interaction assumes that there are individual independently existing entities or agents that preexist their acting upon one another. By contrast, the notion of “intra-action” queers the familiar sense of causality (where one or more causal agents precede and produce an effect), and more generally unsettles the metaphysics of individualism (the belief that there are individually constituted agents or entities, as well as times and places).”
Karan Barad in interview with Adam Kleinmann
So what I really conclude when thinking about intergenerationality is that it is a broad, interwoven and complex concept and defining it requires the consideration of individual factors that construct the whole. As a designer, I cannot assume that my players are aware of something or hold knowledge about something based on age. Designing an intergenerational space is a utopic idea, a myth. Rather, we need to think about accessible collaborative design. Designing not to bring generations together, but to bring people and ideas together. Design would consider the needs of any user, not using age as a basis for certain design categories. Intergenerationality, in a sense, becomes an appreciation of an individuals differences. An intergenerational team game, really means a game designed to appreciate the individualism of each player by having them share those skills with others. Perhaps, intergenerational spaces can be understood as spaces that provide opportunities for collaboration or connection.
George, D. R., Whitehouse, C., & Whitehouse, P. J. (2011). A Model of Intergenerativity: How the Intergenerational School is Bringing the Generations Together to Foster Collective Wisdom and Community Health. https://doi.org/10.1080/15350770.2011.619922
Luescher, K., & Pillemer, K. (1998). Intergenerational Ambivalence: A New Approach to the Study of Parent-Child Relations in Later Life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60(2), 413–425. https://doi.org/10.2307/353858
This is the last post of a series of blog posts that discussed the idea of educational games, looking at the choices behind this project’s educational game. Post one can be found here, and post two is here.
I have yet to justify the reasoning for creating an escape room for this MA. A large part of that answer comes out of previous work I did with Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT – found here), where we developed an escape room that discussed the issue of older adult mistreatment. Outside of small personal adventure games I had made for summer campers, this was my first game design project. The project taught me a lot about the medium of escape games, opened up a range of questions, and pushed me to further explore their possibilities. Academic discussion on escape rooms, is as new as the genre. Understood as collaborative puzzle solving games, escape rooms invite players into a narratively enriched space where they connect a range of logics and clues to complete a set of challenges. Simply put, take a bunch of people, put them in a room, and don’t let them out unless they solve some puzzles. The experience has been blowing up over the past decade, with rooms constantly popping up in North America and many quickly earning profits.
Their rapid growth, has led to a gap in literature that explores the genre. While somewhat connected to LARP (live action role playing game), escape rooms, provide a less immersive but more direct relation to material. What I mean by direct, is that rooms can standalone, not reliant on many other players, nor the actor buy-in that LARP inscribes.
Game genres almost always get taken up as potential education tools, with escape rooms being no exception. While the literature on this process is extremely limited and new, escape games are already showing to be a promising way to have students apply learned knowledge, and engage with material. However, based on my own experience, we can go further. The environmental potential of escape rooms, alongside the puzzle and adventure focus of challenges makes it a strong contender to deal with serious issues.
In the previous post I touched on the notion of praxis games, where ideas are enmeshed into games. In this process, praxis games focus on 5 heuristics, 3 of which escape rooms can strongly address: situated praxis, evidence-based rules, and guided discoverability (Wilcox, 2019). Functioning as a physical space that designers can design, like a set for a play, escape rooms are effective analog spaces to situate players around a specific issue or situation. Additionally, the focus on puzzles requires players to gather evidence, and create ideological connections based on the rules of the physical space. Finally, the puzzle path design that pushes players towards a specific final goal (i.e. finding the holy grail), allows designers to guide players towards how, when and where knowledge is discovered.
The nature of play, alongside the environment, makes escape games effective educational spaces, especially for dealing with larger more complex issues or situations. In my own work, the interwoven narrative and gameplay provides the potential for designers to use metaphors, analogies, and even allegory in the game. Escape rooms all contain a narrative that grows as players participate in the game, some rely more heavily on it than others, but the narratives abstract presentation of a situation alongside, the actions which reinforce knowledge, guide players, or present new ideas, allows the game to represent situations larger than the space. Personally I am exploring the power of allegory and metaphor within the game to reflect digital systems. Attempting to answer the question of how do we show a digital algorithm in an analog spaces, the use of allegorical, analogous, and metaphorical actions allow conversation beyond the game to connect these ideas. For example, algorithmic filters sort, categorize and then discard of data to create user profiles. In a game, these actions can be presented to the players as the process needed to solve a puzzle, drawing an analogy to these systems, and further supplemented by a narrative that highlights the errors/concerns with these processes.
While part of using the escape room genre was to further exploring the educational value of the genre, I realized that the immersive experience caused players to reflect the game to their own life, presenting a potentially unique format to conduct interviews around. Among my research on digital filter bubbles, echo chambers, and general media habits, Canadian literature is almost entirely uses quantitative methods. While helpful, this creates a huge gap on qualitative Canadian media habits, specifically around how users filter content, and where user trust resides online. Using the escape room as a way to engage players around the issue, and ground the conversational debrief after the game encourages players to connect their personal media experience with the issues discussed in the game. While, this is still a hypothesis, I am interested in how this medium can be used to move beyond disseminating knowledge, to include meaningful data collection.
This is the second of three blog posts that discuss the idea of educational games, looking at the choices behind this project’s educational game. The first post can be found here.
Previously I wrote about the relationship between learning and play, building off of early game theory and quick relationships to education. As I consider designing a game the teaches an educational concept, or is focused on an informative piece over an entertainment piece, it becomes important that I start situating myself around the concept of educational games.
The goal of educational games are to function as learning and teaching tools. If we are viewing the game as a transmissive, experiential, system for players to engage with, then it becomes important to frame the learning/transmission to players. Referencing back to my undergraduate work in education, I started to think about the idea of constructivism, which connects knowledge acquisition to experiences. Building further from this comes ideas around inquiry-based learning, and subversive teaching practice.
Starting with an inquiry approach to learning, knowledge is constructed through experiential questioning. In other words, inquiry based learning, focuses on students asking the questions that directs how they gather knowledge. The teacher becomes a guide and facilitator in these spaces, allowing student curiosity to connect and establish knowledge.
“a teacher is that rare individual who coaxes the existing knowledge systems of his students out of hiding, drags every last tentacle of the monster from the depths into broad daylight, hoses off the slime, wrestles it to the ground when it puts up a fight, and finally gives it a heart transplant. That’s subversion. That’s teaching.”
Postman & Weingartner, 1971
Moving from this, I came across the idea of subversive teaching where, “a teacher is that rare individual who coaxes the existing knowledge systems of his students out of hiding, drags every last tentacle of the monster from the depths into broad daylight, hoses off the slime, wrestles it to the ground when it puts up a fight, and finally gives it a heart transplant. That’s subversion. That’s teaching.” (Postman & Weingartner, 1971). I love this quote for the visuals representation of inquiry and shifted teaching dynamics. When thinking about Escape Rooms, this quote amplifies the educational strengths of the game genre. Not only is the genre subversive to traditional teaching method, both as a game, and a space that removes teachers as point of knowledge transmission. Games provide agency, and the act of play (collaborative or alone) invites players to connect their own knowledge with the game material as they work through the narrative.
“The inquiry environment stresses that learning is happening in itself.” (Postman & Weingartner, 1971 p. 29), which allows the theatrical set of escape games invite learners deeper into the material. Educational games have historically struggled to be engaging for players, which is typically blamed on a lack of originality (Jenkins and Hinrichs, 2003). Many educational games function as poor replications of existing entertainment games, making their experience always lackluster to players. This is understood as edutainment. We need to move past that, games need to focus on developing novel experiences, refreshing takes on existing games and genres. The nature of educational games already restricts them around a specific concept/activity in design, making their connection to existing genres even more stringent in the freedom that designers have. It is important for educational games to imagine multiple ways they can talk about the issue, and use that to develop a unique experience. The idea of subversive teaching is still relatively niche and extremely hard for educators to do properly, but offers a very distinct form of learning which extends beyond the classroom.
Trying to connect these ideas further I started exploring a range of literature on educational or serious game genres. While the idea of persuasive and serious games are a starting point, their argument that games are trying to inform players of something was too general. Social impact games, and games for change are interesting concepts and have been applied to education, but are better suited for games that address specific community or social issues. Around design, I found the term praxis games to be a helpful term in conceptualizing serious design. Wilcox frames praxis games as, “games, understood as designed experiences, can play a prominent role in this process by transforming the cognitive labor involved in knowledge acquisition into an act of situated praxis. “ (Wilcox 2019, p. 165). Subsequently, he defines praxis games as “games designed for players to enact, embody, or realize a theory, lesson, or skill.” (Wilcox, 2019, p. 158).
Praxis games focus on ways that educational ideas can be presented within the games framework, which meshes directly with notions of subversive teaching. The idea of having players encounter, and interact with issues through the games entire framework, expands the educational potential of games beyond simple concepts and processes. Embedding ideas into the gameplay and environment causes players to come across and wrestle with them in subversive ways. The space of the game can guide players into a conversation, where their interaction with educational material is not always immediately apparent, engaging them in an experience that existing knowledge, abilities and inquiry are needed to solve. Presenting ideas in all aspects of the game, and designing specifically around a subversive experience allows players to challenge their own ideas and others as they play. Recognizing games as subversive and inquiry focused tools, and connecting that to the notion of praxis in design, reinforces the educational potential of the escape game genre.
Jenkins, Henry, and Randy Hinrichs. 2003. “Games to Teach.” http://icampus.mit.edu/ projects/project/?pname=GamesToTeach.
This is one of three blog posts that discuss the idea of educational games, looking at the choices behind this project’s educational game.
Any of my friends in education will be familiar with the growing buzzwords or game-based learning, play based learning or gamification. The idea of educational games, is not new, but their formalization within education is becoming increasingly popular, especially in primary grades. I still remember typing games, spelling games, and the legendary Oregon trail, but the link between games and education is almost as long as the field of study.
Johan Huizinga, one of the first scholars to write about games, connects games as a way in which we learn about the world around us. Games provided a space for individuals to “playfully” interact and discover their own abilities and parts other world around them (Huizinga, 1955). Huizinga’s theory laid the groundwork on the concept of the ‘magic circle’, suggesting that games occur in a “consecrated spot” that holds special rules (Huizinga, 1955, p.10). From an educational standpoint, this magic circle can provide ‘safe’ or specifically created spaces to explore an idea in further deal. While the notion of the magic circle and games has fallen out of favour within games literature for a range of issues in how it frames the game and play experience, it is still somewhat useful when thinking about educational game design. Games that rely heavily on environmental pieces can create ‘worlds’ or spaces where participants can engage with content. Designers can frame the space to target/represent specific issues, ideas or partial experiences bringing players into a distinct form of interaction with content. However, it is critical to recognize that the game space does not stand alone. The lines of the magic circle are translucent, allowing players to bring their own ideas, opinions, experiences, emotions and relationships into a game space. It is this specific interaction that makes games such a valuable tool for learning.
From my past experience working on an escape room about older adult mistreatment, the project found that many participants would discuss about their personal connections or knowledge to the material. The personal knowledge and connections that players brought to the game, making me question how games might be able to facilitate conversation, knowledge dissemination, and potential data gathering. Now, I want to bring this into the design, using the game to engage players with their own experiences/knowledge and relate it to the play contexts.
Games involve a series of inputs and outputs from players. In educational games, those outputs focus on presenting specific ideas/concepts or ideas, or can be in direct response to players practicing an educational task, such as a math game providing a reward for a student solving a problem. Educational games can function as assessment tools, and information sharing tools. Assessment focuses on the players existing skills and knowledge reinforcing and checking current ability, while information sharing games focus on imparting new knowledge and ideas to players (Grace, 2019). While games within education (sometimes given the title edutainment games) have historically favoured one of these, almost all games mix the two. Players learn about a game world or interface, while practicing their skills and competencies within the game.
While I will spend more time in a later post discussing escape rooms as a design genre, and their role within the field of educational games, my project’s current focus has been around the information of the game. I want players to engage in the game to learn about an issue, however, I am interested in the game providing outputs similar to an interview format. More specifically, the game presents a scenario, space, or context that encourages players to discover through play. In this process, players are encouraged to share their thoughts, and provide feedback based on their knowledge and experience. Most importantly, immediately after completion, players are invited to a debrief where a semi-structured interview format will build off of the scenario and knowledge recounted by the game.
The idea of a games inputs and outputs provides potential to have players provide personal input, which can be recorded and have unique outputs returned. While this does lead to some concerns of bias, as players might be influenced by the game experience to respond in ways potentially counter to their own ideas, the games framework is curated to lay the groundwork for a conversation. As players engage with the game they will be presented with a specific issue, which, when revisited after the game, will lead to further questions about their own understanding and experience around these issues. In this case, presenting the issue of digital personalization and subsequently trust, will hopefully engage players in reflective post game practice on their own media habits and digital trustworthiness. This project studies the curation of an educational analog game around digital issues, but also further explores the possibility of gameplay and debrief as a research methodology. In the next post, I hope to further justify how an escape game helps fit this hypothesis by further exploring educational games, and design processes.
Gillin, J. L., & Huizinga, J. (1951). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. American Sociological Review, 16(2), 274. https://doi.org/10.2307/2087716
Grace, L. (2019). Doing Things with Games: Social Impact Through Play (1 edition). Boca Raton, FL: Routledge.
How do we come up with creative ideas? Everyone has a unique method. Some listen to music, others go on walks, some write it out, or perhaps long hot showers are the best way to think. Personally, I chew on my ideas for a while, letting it mould, shift and grow. I try to think about them in different environments, distinct contexts, or late at night as I try to fall asleep. Eventually, you have to start writing things down. I spent just under a month thinking about my research questions, bringing it into conversation with others, or contemplating while I read texts. I then spent three full days, each dedicated to brainstorming a different difficulty of the puzzle, followed by another two months of refining, revisiting and addressing. This post will go over the initial brainstorming month and the process of establishing those starting ideas.
My brainstorming sessions followed similar methodologies. As a visual learner, I traveled into the Technoculture, Arts and Games (TAG) space at Concordia, to use their large chalkboard. I split it into a 4 by 4 grid and began to fill it out, colour coding each section based on similarity in idea. For the first day, I wanted to get a range of ideas. Each square of the grid was filled in with an idea related to one of the research concerns I was having (Intergenerationality, Surveillance, Filters, Co-operative Experience, Environmental pieces etc.). Filling out the first half was fast. Many of the ideas that I had been thinking about, quickly filled the space, however as I kept going, I found myself returning to the literature, asking questions about the logistics of options, and opening my thoughts up to new ideas. The goal today was not what the game would be specifically, but what it might look like, what it could include. I wanted to brainstorm the overall concept, and many other possibilities or ideas that could go with it.
I ended up making two grids, giving myself 32 ideas towards starting the design process. The work session was helpful in centreing my thought moving forward. I had new questions about accessibility, budget, physical limitations, understanding my own skills in relation to my ideas. For example, I wrote down the idea of VR, but realized due to lack of coding, access to the technology, and security challenges of storing it in a space, that it made little sense to pursue (but I still think it would be cool). I typed up both grids, after taking some photos and have consistently referred back to them as I have kept designing.
Building off of the previous session, I dedicated two half days to working on more of the specifics. I used the ideas from the first session to guide conversation with games scholars to help spark ideas for more specifics on how it might be done. Rather than following the grid approach again, I used pencil and paper to write down thoughts and ideas, start drawing basic ideas, making lists of questions or needs, and starting to map out puzzle paths. While this got very messy very fast, I continued to carry the paper with me, filling it with ideas and questions. The ‘session’ became extended beyond the half-days spent, into slightly over a week of jotting down ideas, reworking a concept, and constructing an approximate puzzle pathway. Research is messy, but in the mess ideas began to form. While this process made me constantly think about the game, it was beneficial to garner ideas and perspectives as I noticed myself weaving it into conversation.
Eventually the mess of papers became too much. I was getting confused on where I had written things, and more questions started to pile up than solutions. So, I traveled back to TAG on a quiet weekend, sat down with all my papers, bookmarked readings, and their chalkboard to map out the game. I broke the game into chunks. Exploring each puzzle path from start to finish as separate entities. I then created the connections between the two, recognized where the literature intersected with the puzzles, and configured a workable blueprint for the game. I took the data from the paper and mapped it onto a board. By the end, the game was broken into 3 major puzzle paths, the ideas I wanted to include where accounted for (or so I think), and, while I still had questions, I felt confident to work on the first prototype/iteration of the game.
Once again, I typed up what I created, developed a material list, and a budget and have since started to piece it all together. While I am going to return to the scholars who helped me brainstorm with this blueprint, I am at the start of having the tangible game. For now, I am not going to include the document that outlines the entire game, as some people might not want to be spoiled before playing the game.
Brainstorming is a unique part of the research process, and in this case encompassed my life for about a month and a half. Taking my time to think about each part, and continually reflect it on the literature was important to make sure, I was maintaining the objective of the game. This post is much too long, so I shall stop here, but I will continue talking about the puzzle paths as they get constructed.
So I started this whole blog about how I was going to be making a game, and then spent my first two posts talking about digital filter bubbles and echo chambers. However, to properly document the research process for this project it was pivotal that I did some work on understanding the content that I would put into the game. Those posts were informed by research and interviews with professors at a variety of institutions (who I cannot thank enough for giving me time out of their lives to help). But now that we have gotten a handle on what we mean by filter bubbles and echo chambers, we can talk about how they can fit into a game.
Based on the conducted research the game has already had a bit of a change. Rather than explicitly focusing on these ubiquitous concepts, the game will focus on what we understand by digital personalization. Echo chambers and filter bubbles both fall under this larger term, and it better recognizes them outside of binary perceptions. Personalization simply refers to the individual specific curation of content on a platform. Such as your social media feed vs my social media feed. However this extends beyond social media. Search engines, online shopping sites, and news organizations can all personalize the content you see. While sometimes beneficial, this process can quickly create mini echo chambers or filter bubbles. One example could be the recent claims linking youtube’s platform and pedophile rings (see Fisher & Taub, 2019). These systems are complex, hard to understand, and hard to even research. This brings us back to my MA.
A central goal of the project was to present digital issues within an analog space. This goal raises its own set of questions, which only become furthered by the concept of personalization. How do you personalize a stagnant space? How do you make a game feel unique to each player if you physically construct it? How do you represent an algorithm in a real-world setting? The list keeps going, and as I worked on the blueprint for the game I still have questions on how this will all come together. I will write later on the brainstorming process as well as process for design, specifically addressing the methodology piece.
Creating an analog game that is personalized to users forces me to think about red herrings as a personalized experience cannot feel mixed up. The escape room genre offers a strong setting, an investigative story, and controls focused on piecing together parts. In this manner, the space needs to feel personalized, yet the choices are somewhat prescribed. Rather than total player autonomy, I had to remember that the game can have explicit restrictions that provide some agency but ultimately get the players to do what I want. While I am still working on some specifics, the environment offers a distinct space to have users see their experience reflected back to them.
Moving forward, the blog posts will be discussing specific design choices, questions I came across, and my overall methodology. As I prepare to playtest next month, I have a lot to solve in a short time frame.
After dedicating the previous post to an overview of filter bubbles and concluding that they might not even exist, it’s only fair to spend some time discussing their commonly intertwined term echo chambers. Perhaps a more common term, echo chambers discuss how spaces can be polarized by individuals as we surround ourselves with others who consistently reinforce our opinions (Sunstein, 2001). Focused on the individuals we connect with, echo chambers are curated through users and platforms specifically ignoring, removing or cutting individuals who disagree with us out of these spaces (Bruns 2019). However, echo chambers have equally come under scrutiny for their perceived existence.
Before I go further into the work that discredits echo chambers, I want to lay out the specific differentiations between echo chambers and filter bubbles. As discussed in the last blog post, filter bubbles involve a collaboration between user and algorithm to actively engage with content of their own ideas and exclude or disengage from content they agree with (Bruns, 2019). The more active we are in our engagement and disengagement, the stronger our filter bubble becomes (Bruns, 2019). Echo chambers are focused on the individuals we connect with, and the active ignoring of other individuals to build ourselves an ‘isolated’ network (Bruns, 2019). To simply summarize, as their name suggests, filter bubbles distill the content that we see based upon our actions and the platform’s studying of our actions, while echo chambers are created by an acceptance and active exclusion of ideas. These two terms go hand in hand, both involving users and systems interacting to create them digitally.
Despite establishing relatively usable definitions, literature in the past few years has begun to question and discredit the existence of both systems. People are exposed to content outside of their beliefs and opinions on a regular basis, and many actively choose to research information they hear (Dubois & Blank, 2018). Dubois and Blank (2018) suggest that previous research around the curation of echo chambers, focused on specific case studies and ignored the larger digital climate. As users, we engage in platforms beyond one social media sites, while also maintaining connections with individuals we potentially disagree with such as extended family. At the conclusion of their work, Dubois and Blank (2018) point to the dangers of opinion leaders as the key individuals in curating ideological segregation and mistrust. This claim matches with the concerns of Bruns (2019), who argues that the hyper-right has done an excellent job in discrediting media and pushing others as voices in their agenda. While I think that these are valuable claims, I am not as quick to discredit the existence of echo chambers and filter bubbles playing a role in how people perceive their ideas within the public sphere.
Concerns over an opinion leader and discrediting of media, brings us to a conversation of trust. Trust appears to be fragmented today, where the hyper-capitalism of the news media has caused it to lose some credibility among the public. This is only furthered by claims of fake news, digital interference (such as Cambridge analytica), and misunderstood conversations around free speech. While I am not getting into those issues specifically, trust within the digital space (and our lives in general) is something of importance and should be studied. Part of our critical analysis is asking ourselves why we trust a source, and doing the work to be able to trust the information we hear. Interestingly, in previous preliminary work I did on defining digital privacy, trust arose as a valuable keyword. In this work, trust played a dichotomous role; on the one hand, machines, computers and code were seen as unbiased and trustworthy, while companies and corporations behind them were viewed skeptically. Despite extensive literature discussing how biased and untrustworthy code, AI and machine learning can be, our culture has curated a trust in machines to output values and products that are true.
I think that echo chambers and filter bubbles do exist, but not in the all-encompassing manner that early authors suggest (Pariser, Negroponte and Sunstein). I agree with the critiques of Bruns, Dubois and Blank, however aspects of these systems still exist and can influence behaviour, decisions and opinions. While we are exposed to ideas and opinions outside of our personal beliefs, our current environments are still supporting the majority of our perspectives, which paints outside material be in a specific light. For example, I have friends within my social network who share content that I disagree with, but its limited appearance within my feeds and non-dominant rhetoric compared to other content makes it have a very small impact. Or perhaps, we watch a video that is “portraying the other side” but is extremely biased in its delivery, exposing us to content and ideology at the same time. Understanding this, changes how we should view filter bubbles and echo chambers. They are more open and fluid systems, however they slightly skew our perceptions of content, complementing the objectives of opinion leaders, and narratives that discredit bodies such as the media. We need to talk about both issues, the systems and the content within them. While there is a range of underlying issues for each, so are the continual questions that come up.
In any case, the next question is always so what do we do? Simple answers are to make sure you fact check claims and stories you are reading on social media, maintain a critical mindset to the content you are fed, and seriously consider the arguments and opinions of those counter to your own. However, those suggestions put a lot of responsibility on you as a user, despite stating earlier that users and algorithms play a role. While digital literacy is an important skill as well, perhaps we need to do a larger exploration of these platforms and how they function. Part of what this blog will do, is explore ways to highlight these issues in a game, and using the game to provide a counter narrative promoting critical thought, the exchange of information and open dialogue between parties. I hope to further some of these questions, and provide one potential option to help solve this growing digitally apocalyptic scenario (yes that is a tad dramatic).
Note: This is the second of 3 blog posts around echo chambers, filter bubbles and my MA work
Bruns, A. (2019). Are Filter Bubbles Real? John Wiley & Sons.
Personalized web pages, search results and news feeds fill most of our computer screens every time we go online. With it comes promoted content that we might enjoy seeing and recommended products we are more likely to purchase. However, what is being left out? If we are having everything personally targeted towards us, is there not some content that isn’t making it to us? What is being filtered out?
As algorithms filter content to create these webpages they are curating what some call a filter bubble. In 2011, Eli Parisier explored this idea, discussing how the personalization of the web is shaping the content we see, and subsequently us (Pariser, 2011). His work echoes mounting concerns that first arose in 1995 when Nicholas Negroponte discussed the notion of the Daily Me in news curation. While still at the advent of the internet, Negroponte discussed how individuals could create their own personal news catalogue that could be digitally sent to them (Negroponte, 1995). Jumping forward to Parisier, we see how our agency has become intertwined with technology to create these personal feeds that extend beyond news (Parisier, 2011). Negroponte’s notion of users specifically choosing the content is not fully the case, rather algorithms play a role by selecting content based on our actions/preferences/likes/shares etc.
Now, before moving forward with the concerns and issues of these filters, it’s important to address the arguments and notions overall. First off, the concept of algorithmic filtering, profiling, and sorting is somewhat ambiguous. Algorithms are pervasive, and understanding them really varies towards context. Additionally, many algorithms are created by corporations who refuse to share their code, making them mostly ‘blackboxed’. It’s also important to note that recently, conversations around AI start to further complicate our understandings of algorithms. However, for this project (and blog post) I will maintain a focus on social media algorithms and the knowledge that we currently have around them. From this perspective, we can understand algorithms are curated lines of code that are designed to gather, analyze, sort, profile, and suggest information related to users on a platform (Lyon, 2009; van Dijck, 2013; Gillespie, 2014).
When trying to understand these ominous filter bubbles, maintaining a comprehension of the factors that create them is important. In case you have not heard it before, the product of social media sites are the users themselves. The sites maintain a free entrance for users, by selling your data to advertisers (Srnicek, 2016). What gathers this data? The algorithms embedded into the platform. They track user actions on these sites harvesting data from any action on these platform some being likes, scrolls, clicks, curated content, reading user messages for keywords. When first recognizing these habits occuring, authors such as Andrejevic discussed the concern of the algorithmic all seeing eye (Andrejevic, 2002). Beyond the privacy and surveillance concerns (which are critically important), others highlight how this data gathering and subsequent profiling establish content channels that can manipulate users perceptions. Jose van Dijck (2013) discusses how the filtering of content can influence behaviour and thought.
While filter bubbles appear to be a quite alarming part of our digital culture, however it is important to separate mounting concerns from growing discourse. Axel Bruns just wrote a book (releasing September 16, 2019) that explores this notion of the filter bubble. Bruns provides both a working definition and a strong critique of these concerns. Bruns (2019) recognizes the dichotomous role of user and system in their creation, understanding filter bubbles as communicative spaces where content is shared and excluded based on the users within the system. For example, if you are sharing and liking specific content and choosing to ignore or actively remove other content from your feed, you will strengthen your filter bubble (Bruns, 2019). In this relationship, users and systems feed off of each other to ‘entrench’ themselves in the bubble. However, the concern and hype is potentially overrated?
Bruns (2019), alongside some others (Dubois & Blank, 2018), argue that while these systems exist users are still exposed to content outside of their bubble. For example, we have friends on our social media who will share content we disagree with, or we engage with news outlets that publish articles that challenge our ideas. In the majority of current dialogue, filter bubbles are used in relation to moral panic, they are the scapegoats to other concerns. In actuality, Bruns (2019) argues that we need to think about what we do with the information we are gathering. To quote him,
The problem isn’t that there are hyperpartisan echo chambers or filter bubbles; it’s that there are hyperpartisan fringe groups that fundamentally reject, and actively fight, any mainstream societal and democratic consensus […] The filter is in our heads. (2019)
So what is it? Are there filter bubbles? Is it make belief? What do we do next? Taking this knowledge back to the active research aspect of my project, it turns into arguments on what information is critical for the average user. Brun’s critique does not change the gameplan of addressing these issues. While slowly becoming a loaded term, Education is centrally important for attacking these concerns. Raising awareness on potential of personalization, but more importantly, critically reflecting on the content that we are being shown in these spaces. Being able to challenge the systems we interact with, the information that we are seeing is important, but also understanding what knowledge to trust. Engage in meaningful dialogue, consider multiple opinions, and reflect on where the information is coming from. This leads to the larger questions of my MA, how do we do that in meaningful ways for a variety of audiences?
Note: This post is 1 of 3 that will outline filter bubbles, echo chambers and their relation to this project.
Andrejevic, M. (2002). The work of being watched: Interactive media and the exploitation of self-disclosure. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(2), 230–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/07393180216561