I had the serendipitous opportunity to interview Dr. Patrick Jagoda, a co-founder of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, about Game Changer’s newly released game, Lucidity. What struck me as especially interesting and engaging was the design process Game Changer uses—Lucidity and other games are collaboratively designed with young people from the South Side of Chicago. Patrick and I talked about the design process for Lucidity, and the joys and challenges of working with young people and technology.
Alex: The theme of Lucidity is sexual assault. How did you or the youth game designers come up with that theme?
Patrick: When we first started Game Changer, Melissa Gilliam and I were thinking about sexual and reproductive health learning in a slightly more literal sense. Initially, we imagined games through which we’d introduce key health-oriented content as a way of making that material fun. But very soon into our work, we began to create games and digital stories that treated health as a more complex systems issue. We approached health as a concept that has to do with the way young people inhabit their neighborhoods and schools, and approach family and romantic relationships. We approached social and emotional health, in general, and sexuality, in particular, in a larger context.
Lucidity emerged from an intensive three-week youth workshop. During that workshop, we knew we wanted to focus on some aspect of sexuality — we didn’t initially know the topic was going to be sexual assault. In between the workshop days with our youth, the core designers would have long brainstorming sessions during which we’d try to synthesize what the youth had discussed and struggled with during the preceding day. The collective narrative that served as the basis for Lucidity emerged from that process.
Alex: What is the design process like at Game Changer?
Patrick: Our workshops focus on three things: narrative, game design, and health. In the narrative portion, we work with youth on creative writing. We ask them: How do you tell as story? The question we ask during the game design sessions is: How do you design a game so that it’s engaging and contributes to learning without being a reductive "educational game"? Finally, health is our content area. Our games are meant for youth to learn about sexuality and reproduction through processes of storytelling and play. In those portions, we research topics such as unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. We also make sure to make time for sessions during which youth can speak with my Game Changer partner Dr. Gilliam about sexual health. She has incredible rapport with our young people.
Alex: Wow, there’s a lot going on! Can you break down how you move from an idea to an actual game?
Patrick: We usually start with narrative. When young people come in, they’re often dealing with intimate sexual health issues that are difficult to discuss. So we begin with icebreakers and then work with them to produce narratives around a shared theme. For example, we’ll create a word cloud around the word “sex” or “sexuality” and often times they’ll generate 50 or 100 words around that single word. So that’s a starting point.
Next, we have the young people participate in short writing exercises in whatever way they feel comfortable. They can write in prose or poetic form, producing narratives that are intimate or meaningful to them in some way. These narratives are about themselves, their close friends, or people from their neighborhood about whom they’ve heard. Because these are youth coming from the South Side of Chicago—which is an economically and socially disadvantaged part of the city—these stories are representative of those particular lived experiences. The stories are, at times, heartbreaking and joyful. We don’t want them to hold back. But using these young people’s stories directly would be a problem, especially if they're hesitant about sharing it—you can’t take their narratives and make them available to another reader or a player of a finished game. That would be a betrayal of intimacy.
So what we do together is to create a collective group narrative built from little pieces of all their stories, incorporating their characters, weaving together their experiences, and transforming these pieces into a single story that is a fiction grounded in experience. They become attached to the story from the start because they see some piece of themselves in it, but they also feel comfortable and confident sharing this story with the world.
We’ve also had to figure out how best to tell a story through games. After the collective group story is complied, we’ll have them play numerous games, everything from board games to videogames. We analyze these games, discuss what works and doesn’t work about them from a player perspective. We also discuss a variety of game genres, including room escape games, text adventures, 3D exploration games, and so on. From there, we start thinking about which ludic genres fit best with the interactive story we’re starting to tell together.
We’ve found that games are such an effective way of engaging and motivating youth. Many of them don’t have any training in technology or game design, but they do have a great deal of experience playing card games, videogames, or computer games. So they intuit things about games that they don’t even know that they know. Our young people come in with examples, with preferences, with the capacity to play test.
Alex: How is the experience working with young people of different genders?
Patrick: It’s exciting to have a gender balance in the groups of youth who participate in our workshops, especially since both videogame play and game design have, historically, been predominantly male areas. In many ways, that’s changing, though more on the side of digital game play than design. We’re lucky to have a number of talented female game designers working with us at Game Changer Chicago. So the young women who come to our workshops have fantastic role models and mentors.
In the specific case of Lucidity, a game about relationships and sexual violence, gender was a central issue from the start. The protagonist Zaria has to make a number of decisions about becoming a mother and pursuing her career that have fundamental gender elements. Also, interestingly, during the Lucidity workshop, gender came up not only among the women, but also in core topics that had to do with masculinity, particularly Black masculinity, and fatherhood. The young men, in particular, were keen to discuss what it means to be a father and the characteristics of a good father. One of our workshop leaders, Seed Lynn, led a wonderful discussion on that topic during an early narrative session.
Alex: Do you feel like your youth workshop participants are getting equal amounts of sexual health education and game design instruction?
Patrick: Our design process is exciting from a sexual health perspective, because as teachers we’re not standing there and lecturing to them about sexually transmitted infections, condoms, and birth control—we’re able to have a more organic conversation, and in the midst of this conversation, the young people will bring up questions they have, often very personal questions. Game design as a collaborative, shared project opens up a space where these questions are both asked and discussed. Having a doctor as the Game Changer co-founder is great, because she can come in and give a lecture and the young people are excited to have an authority on health issues talk with them and take their questions seriously.
Alex: What are some of the challenges of working with young people?
Patrick: One of the main challenges of this project was balancing creativity with the use of technology. Youth are really interested in learning about software, but it can be a steep learning curve. In the past, technology has absorbed a considerable portion of our workshop time when we’ve tried to teach participants skills like basic scripting or HTML. In the Lucidity workshop, it was the first time we used rapid prototyping with low fidelity mock-ups. For the most part, we worked with pen and paper. For example, the room escape level started as a pen and paper mock-up. The youth made posters representing both of the rooms and populated them with minimal illustrations that served as representations of each object. During play tests, I would approach the posters and “click” on things by pointing at them, and they would describe to me the nature of the interaction and what it would look like on the screen. For the youth, it was a way of play testing before any programming had taken place. So they were designing—thinking about what would and wouldn’t work—but we didn’t have to take the time to learn, say, web design or the basics of a program like Unity.
A challenge in collaborating with youth is figuring out what role they should play – whether they should make the entire game or inform its process in some way. We started out with the aspiration of producing projects for which youth were exclusively responsible, but over time, the post-production piece was really necessary to create polished games and stories of which the youth designers would be proud. So now we really think of our collaborations as processes that include not only the high school youth but also undergraduates, graduate students, and our core designers.
Alex: What other challenges have you come across at Game Changer?
Patrick: Another challenge, really our next step, is evaluation. Now that we’ve gotten so far with our game design method, we’re trying to figure out the best ways to evaluate these workshops and games. So far, we’ve primarily used qualitative evaluation — for example, youth interviews, surveys, and participant observation. We’re now actively working to introduce quantitative research, for instance around the mechanism of badges. There are numerous unknowns about badges still. There are ongoing debates about whether badges work well in learning, and when people talk about badges they often mean a variety of things. Some people mean employing gamification to motivate students — essentially a version of gold stars. Some researchers mean trying to document skills that young people are gaining outside of the classroom. Already, the differences between a rewards structure and a documentation structure are very different. Educators have very different opinions about whether badges work or not, but there’s very little quantitative research that’s been done about recent forms of gamification, so that’s our next aspiration.
Alex: How do you measure success working with young people?
Patrick: We’ve seen so much progress tracking young people across the two- or three-week workshops. We see many youth who arrive and initially doubt their capacity to create a game or even contribute to a game in that period of time. But very quickly they settle into a rhythm of collaboration and find ways that they can contribute to the shared project. I love this story: we had a 13 year-old girl come in to one of our workshops. Her mother warned us, up front, that she’s shy and hardly ever talks. Within two days, she was the most talkative person in the workshop and a major contributor to the overall design. Just being around people her own age and grad student mentors with whom she bonded, as well as working in an art form that speaks to her, unlocked something in her that completely surprised her mother. So far, I think of success through our qualitative observations of how youth respond to the shared project. Part of that observation has to do with how talkative, inquisitive, and informed they become about issues of sexual and reproductive health during the process.
Alex: What I really love about the Game Changer process is the participatory, collaborative design with young people. Any final words about designing with youth?
Patrick: I have no interest in creating another game lab or game company that creates “serious games” for youth to play. There are many such projects that I deeply admire and that have influenced this work. But I don’t want to create games through which adults are trying to feed young people “information” or some form of ideology that we’ve decided is best for them around issues such as sexual health. I’m much more excited about working together with youth to design games for youth. Sometimes the final product is messier and rougher around the edges than what a sexy design company might create through a top-down process. But I think the collaborative learning process is central to our modest success so far.
At the same time, I’m not against providing guidance and allowing our design team to work through post-production. In the past, I really wanted everyone to contribute equally. I now realize that this isn’t always the best idea because if you have a fully democratic group, the unfortunate truth is that they’ll spend forever brainstorming. You need a director or a small group of directors who can be authoritative, at key moments, about which ideas the group will adopt and which ones we’ll need to discard.
Finally, there’s no creativity without constraints. So we’ve increasingly planned our workshops and projects around set genres and topics. Especially when working with youth, constraints are productive of freedom rather than restrictive of it. Limits are, in a sense, the enabling principle of play. And play, for me, is a fundamental principle of learning.
Dr. Patrick Jagoda is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of Chicago.
Alexandrina Agloro is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.