Badges, Game-Based Learning, and The Source ARG

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From July through August 2013, the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab is running an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called The Source for over 140 high school youth on the South Side of Chicago. The game deals with STEAM themes and social justice issues. We are keeping a daily developer's blog with different designer and researcher perspectives being added Monday through Friday. Since the HASTAC community has included many leaders in discussions and research on badges, I wanted to post this version of today's post here.

With The Source alternate reality game, the GCC Design Lab is also exploring numerous areas of digital media and learning through collective gameplay, digital storytelling, and social media platforms. One area that remains an open question and key research area for us has to do with badges. Though The Source experience seeks to privilege engaging games, a multilayered narrative, meaningful social justice issues, youth mentorship, and the social dimensions of team play, we have also included skills-based digital badges. For us, such badges are not the digital equivalent of gold stars or grades. Instead of incentives, they act as a more flexible form of certification. As a June 2013 Mozilla report on digital badges explains, “A badge is a digital credential that represents an individual’s skills, interests, and achievements. Among other uses, badges can convey an individual student’s core academic content knowledge, as well as other twenty-first-century competencies that cannot be measured by traditional assessments.”

It is especially these latter 21st century literacies that we are attempting to teach and certify through The Source. Beginning last Friday, we created five streams of workshops that lead participating youth to one of five badges: Web Designer (website creation and layout), Caster (podcasting and sound design), Media Socialite (social media ethics and online activism), Blogger (news writing and interviewing for blogs), and Documenter (visual media production and storytelling via photography and video). Players are allowed to choose one stream for the remainder of the game. They can either attend four consecutive Friday workshops about these topics on the University of Chicago campus with graduate student instructors or complete online exercises from home. The weekly workshops and online exercises lead to mini-projects that incorporate that week’s skills and encourage youth to engage in creative reflection about the social justice topic featured in that week of the game. For example, for the first Web Designer mini-project, youth had to use a free text editor (such as Bluefish) to create a basic webpage that included five links, one photo, and a short text-based introduction. At a content level, this page had to reflect on some aspect of the game’s Week 2 themes of health, scientific method and hypothesis testing, or epidemiology. On Saturday, youth turned in their first web pages with information about topics such as sexually transmitted infections. Next week, they will be asked to expand these skills and produce even more ambitious projects.

More research remains to be done about the effects of badges and their differences from traditional assessment methods such as tests. As we experiment with and assess badges at Game Changer Chicago, as researchers we retain a healthy skepticism about their effectiveness; as designers and educators, we remain hopeful about their possibilities. As we move forward with this work, we ask ourselves: Can teachers incorporate badges productively into in-school pedagogy in a way that supplements traditional assessments? Can badges serve as a foundation for learning alternatives that exceed or supplement the school system, especially if they serve as certifications or markers of skill rather than the kind of attempts at short-term behavioral modification that we see in more reductive forms of so-called “gamification”? And, finally, how can badges become more meaningful as elements of online reputation systems that develop in and across organizations concerned with digital media and learning? For the remaining three weeks of The Source and in the research that follows, we intend to grapple with these questions.