Engagement Game Lab

Researching and Designing Play That Matters

Data Storytelling for Civic Impact Study Group Launching in March

This March, you can participate in a four-session study group on Data Storytelling for Civic Impact.

The growth of data in journalism, storytelling and civics has ignited a rise in the number of university courses, workshops and hackathons that aim to teach students, professionals or community members their way around data. With that we have asked the following questions to achieve a better understanding around issues of data literacy and storytelling.

  • What are overarching educational approaches and concrete class activities that can build data science capacity in non-technical communications fields such as journalism, documentary film, arts, and civic media? How does storytelling fit into that?
  • What are the ethics and privacy concerns of storytelling with data? How do we introduce and surface ethical dilemmas around data-sets in a safe learning environment? What is the ethical role of the storyteller in relation to the media product/audience (objectivity? transparency? other?)
  • What do we mean by “civic impact”? What is the relationship between storytelling and social change? How do we measure impact?
  • How do we connect the historical contexts of storytelling and journalism?

Outcomes of the Study Group

The goal of this study group is to build a network of educators and practitioners that can develop shared educational approaches on issues surrounding BUILDING CAPACITY and data literacy, the ETHICS of data and the CIVIC IMPACT of data-driven storytelling and how to measure it. In addition, sharing best practices, examples, and curricula will aid those in the study group and outside practitioners.

Who should apply to participate?

-People in the Boston area (no Skype-ing in, sorry)
-Current and future educators in data journalism, civic media, civic engagement, digital storytelling, communications, data science and data visualization
-Industry professionals interested in the pedagogy of their work—Journalists, Artists, Information Designers, Activists, Visualization, Statisticians, Data Scientists, Filmmakers
-Researchers from Science Technology Studies, Social Computing, Human-Computer -Interaction, Art & Design History, and other fields that study the impact of civics, data storytelling, and visualizations

For more details and to apply to the program, click here.

Feel free to share this opportunity with any others who might be interested in participating!


Social Media for Everyday Democracy

Eric Gordon

Social media does not democracy make. While there are extraordinary examples during the Arab Spring, for example, of Facebook and Twitter enabling mass assembly and connecting local movements to the globe, there are many more examples of everyday democracy where technology has fallen flat. In the United States, elected officials often use Facebook to connect with constituents and poll opinions. But there is a clear distinction between the mostly bottom-up use of social media for macro-coordination in the name of democratic protest, and the mostly top-down use of the media to collect opinions. While both serve some aspect of democratic participation, they are qualitatively unique phenomena.

Each has a unique assumption about the user/citizen. The activist model assumes a passionate user that, heated by the moment, will assemble or take action. The everyday democracy model assumes a dispassionate user who can, given only the channel to communicate, provide good, rational ideas. Of course, in practice, it’s never this clear cut. Protesters can be dispassionate, and those providing feedback to government can be quite passionate.

Governments are not interested in enabling mass protest. They typically want to take actions to avoid it. And, one reasonable action they can take would be to enable everyday democracy by providing good channels for feedback. Increasingly, governments and civic organizations, especially within the United States, are doing this. So, as they work social media into their outreach plans, they often employ models that assume dispassionate citizens that are simply waiting to communicate their brilliant, well-reasoned ideas.

Whenever I deploy a social media tool within a local context, the question I get more than any other is: “can you name an idea that someone posed in the system that was actually implemented?” The answer is typically “no.” But more to the point: why would it matter? It is hardly democratic for a single idea to cut through the fat and rise to the top. The hope, I would hope, would be for an idea to gain traction, to transform, and to meaningfully persuade others so that a wider conversation can take place. I typically don’t get questions about the context of dialogue, or the learning objectives of the process; only, did social media mine the one brilliant idea? Or, perhaps more accurately, did social media mine the one brilliant idea that we already knew we wanted to implement?

There is a simple lesson in all of this: social media for everyday democracy cannot be about discrete ideas from the dispassionate citizen. It has to establish context, opportunity for dialogue, modes of sharing and connecting, which go beyond the mechanisms currently in place. If we just build tools that open up decontextualized channels via text or SMS, we are no closer to meaningful democratic participation. We just have more people participating in a system that doesn’t work.

DataViz 101

Engagement Lab Staff

Behold, the power of media to make data more engaging, interactive, and informative.

Engagement Lab fellow Catherine D’Ignazio investigates how data visualization, technology and new forms of storytelling can be used for civic engagement. (You may know her from her work at the MIT Media Lab, including the Breast Pump Hackathon.) She recently presented a talk at the Lab that communicates the basic principles and best practices of data viz.



We encourage anyone interested in art, civic media, or making data more human to take a look at her presentation, DataViz101.

Call for Papers: Exploring News Literacy: Preparing future journalists—and citizens—for engagement in global digital culture

Call for Papers for Exploring News Literacy:

Preparing future journalists—and citizens—for engagement in global digital culture

Special Issue of Journalism Education

Guest editors:

Paul Mihailidis, Emerson College, Boston, USA
Stephanie Craft, University of Illinois, USA

This special issue of Journalism Education is devoted to the emerging field of news literacy. It aims to provide new understanding, approaches, and foundations for how we understand the competencies that future journalists – professionals and citizens alike — need to effectively report news stories that demand attention in digital culture today.

Contributions to this special issue will identify and critique a range of factors that are facing journalism and media educators. In recognizing the pedagogical challenges engendered by the destabilization of traditional models for news, this issue calls for theoretical treatments of the term ‘news literacy’ as a productive basis for rethinking media literacy and public engagement in civic life.

Research examining news literacy in primary, secondary or higher education contexts is welcome. Possible topics include:

  • How best to define news literacy?
  • News literacy as a response to a destabilizing industry
  • Evolving forms and practices of news media pedagogy
  • Students’ uses of social media for engagement with news
  • News literacy in connective networks and sharing culture
  • Training citizen journalists
  • Curation as news pedagogy
  • Storytelling as news literacy
  • Teaching reporting in an “everything is free” culture
  • How best to keep up with the changing demands for teaching about news and journalism?
  • Innovation and experimentation in news education in digital culture
  • Ethical responsibilities in producing, curating, disseminating and consuming news

Prospective authors should submit an abstract of approximately 250 words by email to Paul Mihailidis (paul_mihailidis@emerson.edu). Following peer-review, a selection of authors will be invited to submit a full paper in accordance with the journal’s ‘Instructions for authors.’ Please note acceptance of the abstract does not guarantee publication, given that all papers will be put though the journal’s peer review process.


Deadline for abstracts: 15 December 2014; deadline for submission of full papers: 1 April 2015. Final revised papers due: 15 June 2015. Publication: Volume 9, Number 4 (September 2015).

Guest Editors

Paul Mihailidis is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the school of communication at Emerson College and Associate Director of Emerson’s Engagement Lab. He also Directs the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. He newest book is titled Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen: Youth, Engagement and Participation in Digital Culture (Peter Lang, 2014).

Stephanie Craft’s is an Associate Professor of Journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Her research, focusing on news literacy, press practices and journalism ethics, has appeared in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Communication Law & Policy, Mass Communication & Society, Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, and Journalism & Mass Communication Educator. With Charles Davis, she is author of the textbook Principles of American Journalism, published by Routledge. Before earning a PhD, Craft worked as a newspaper journalist in California, Washington and Arkansas.

To submit articles please contact:
Paul Mihailidis
Emerson College
120 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
email: paul_mihailidis@emerson.edu
tel: +001(978)761-2412
web: paulmihailidis.com

The BodaBoda Game and The Red Cross: Can One Person’s Motorcycle Jacket Save Another Person’s Life? (Part I)

Miranda Banks

In Uganda, motorcycle taxis are an annoying necessity. There is virtually no public transportation, traffic is abysmal, and petrol is extremely expensive. The easiest way to get through bumper-to-bumper gridlock in the country’s major cities is on the back of a motorcycle taxi, known as bodaboda. Business people, grandparents, parents and children all hop on as passengers, pay a rider (the driver) a reasonable negotiated sum, and are quickly dropped off at their destination. Riding a bodaboda is an easy way for young people (predominantly men) to make fast cash, to supplement a salary. They depend on their motorcycle for their livelihood. But the risk that riders and passengers take in Uganda’s major cities has reached staggering proportions. The leading cause of trauma cases in emergency rooms in Kampala, Uganda is traffic accidents—and of those accidents, 41% involved a bodaboda.[1] Roads are in disrepair, riders and passengers rarely wear protective clothing—let alone helmets—and riders weave through traffic right next to passing pedestrians. Spend even just one day in Uganda and you will see how bodabodas are both the most convenient and the most dangerous way to travel.


 The Partnership

When the American Red Cross in Uganda was considering programs for health and safety, Country Representative Julie Arrighi came up with an idea to train bodaboda riders in first aid, driver’s safety, defensive driving, and motorcycle maintenance. At the end of training, riders would get a red reflector First Aider jacket that they could wear while working, so that passengers could identify safe riders. The Red Cross research showed that First Aider riders would become more desirable to passengers and that they would be able to bring in more money. While the workshop provided skills, the Red Cross was concerned about how they could reinforce the learning goals of the workshop, and just as important, ensure that only trained riders wear the coveted First Aider jackets. The Red Cross approached the Engagement Lab to help them solve this problem.


The Process

The Bodaboda game is a classic example of the Engagement Lab’s partnership process with studio game iteration. Partnerships begin between researchers and civic, NGOs, and non-profit organizations. The partner’s stated problem is brought into the classroom, where students research civic and cultural issues and build an early version of a game that, in its design, teaches transformative behavior. The game is then incubated in the lab and is play-tested. Then we work with our partner to evaluate the play and modify it for their needs, and then it is brought to the community its intended for.

In this case, the problem of bodaboda training was presented to Emerson undergraduate students during the Fall 2013 semester as part of a Games and Social Change class assignment for the Lab Director Eric Gordon’s class. The students emerged at the end of the semester with an early iteration of what became the bodaboda game. The game was play tested with Ugandan drivers in the northern city of Gulu in December 2013 and modified in the lab. In July, I went to Uganda where I modified game mechanics according to cultural and social needs, interviewed boda-boda drivers, facilitated gameplay, and then on my return Eric and I modified the game based on play-testing.


Future Plans

We are in in the midst of data collection and assessment of the game. Our interviews and evaluations will measure the game’s short-term impacts namely:

  • Does the game lead to greater knowledge retention in the short term?
  • How does each operator imagine their identity as distinct from other drivers and does this self-perception change after the end of this workshop?
  • Does the game help people personalize the abstract content of the workshop?
  • Does the game lead to a more comprehensive understanding of systemic issues causing traffic accidents?
  • And finally, does the game impact civic mindedness?


The game is currently being played by over 150 drivers, and by the end of this year’s training, 300 drivers will have played. In my next blog post I’ll talk about the process of modification of the game—and the process of cultural translation that was necessary. And then hopefully by the end of the year, or early this Winter, we will be able to share some of our findings on the gameplay.

[1] http://www.bioline.org.br/pdf?js10009

Meet the NOVA Cybersecurity Lab

Engagement Lab Staff

What would you do if you were faced with a cyber attack?

This is the question asked, and hopefully answered, by our partners at NOVA Labs as they unveil a new project called the NOVA Cybersecurity Lab. Here at Emerson’s Engagement Lab, we focus mostly on the positive impacts of technology on civic life, but like all new innovations, constant connectedness comes with risks. The NOVA Cybersecuity Lab is tackling those risks in some pretty cool ways.

What is it?

The Cybersecurity Lab is a digital game that teaches the basics of safe web use and how to maintain your privacy and security while staying connected.


Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 12.13.40 PM


The NOVA Labs game consists of four major components:

  • Coding Challenge: An introduction to basic coding skills. Players program a robot to navigate a maze using drag-and-drop commands in a Blockly interface that requires no prior knowledge of coding to complete. Blockly uses a visual representation of code as blocks, rather than a scripted programming language.
  • Password Cracking Challenge: A series of “password duels” teach players the basics of how attackers might try to crack their passwords and how they can make better, more secure passwords.
  • Social Engineering Challenge: Players are presented with two apparently similar emails, websites, or calls. They first have to identify the differences between them and then select which is a scam attempting to steal information or money.
  • Network Attacks: As their companies grow, players must buy defenses to protect themselves against a series of cyber attacks. The better players do in the three challenges, the more resources they’ll have to buy defenses.

Who should play?

The game is really for anyone interested in learning more about staying safe online. STEM educators, in particular, will find the website interesting. It’s well suited as a classroom tool, and we hope many teachers find a way to include this challenging and engaging game in their lesson plans along with the NOVA episode that accompanies it.

Rise of the Hackers, the excellent NOVA episode featuring the Cybersecurity Lab, is linked below if you want to find out more. Or you can just head to the Lab right now and play the game.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 12.04.37 PM

Engagement Lab Partners with UNDP Egypt to Launch Development Games

Eric Gordon

This blog post was originally published on Eric Gordon’s Place of Social Media blog in October 2014.

During the week of the UN’s General Assembly meeting, the UNDP innovation team organized a series of workshops throughout the world as part of a networked event called Shift Week (with the implied meaning of shifting thinking in a range of sectors). Twenty-one workshops were put together on a range of topics from big data to crowdfunding, and took place in a range of countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.


Poster for public event in Cairo

I was invited to give a talk and facilitate a workshop on “games and gamification” in Cairo, Egypt. The goals, at first, were fairly clear: work with Egyptians and a few people from select UNDP country offices (including Cyprus, Macedonia, and Bhutan) to explore how games and game design could impact the work of development. Together with my colleague Steve Walter, managing director of the Engagement Lab, I headed to Cairo. During our four days in the city, we met with several organizations devoted to ITC and entrepreneurship (includingTIEC and ITI), gave a talk to the local UNDP staff, presented a public lecture at the Greek Campus near Tahrir Square and provided a two-day workshop at ICECairo, a remarkable maker space in the same neighborhood, for youth throughout Cairo and northern Egypt. Over 600 people signed up for the public lecture and nearly 300 were in attendance, with 128 streaming it online. About 250 people applied to participate in the two-day workshop and 40 were accepted. These 40 people were intensely engaged throughout the workshop, and as a condition of their participation, agreed to devote two-hours a week for the next six months to continued work on their projects.

The overwhelming interest in the topic was exhilarating, if not a bit surprising. Why would so many Egyptians be interested in games for development? As it turns out, they weren’t. Most were interested in gamification as a business strategy. They figured that adding game elements to web development or existing products would enhance interest in their business. So when Steve and I presented a critique of gamification in its typical form as rote application of user experience strategies, and called for a greater emphasis on play as a principle of engagement, at first we were met with some confused, if not disappointed reactions. Many attendees of the public talk wanted to know the step-by-step strategy of gamification. When do you give out points and what online actions should trigger a badge? We challenged those assumptions—there is no simple solution to game design, motivated users are not necessarily engaged in a larger social context—we asserted. But many of the youth in attendance were un- or underemployed and they were looking for business opportunities. Games for development, in their minds, were games that helped them find jobs. They were looking for job skills, not abstractions about game design for development. Development was their employment. Period.


Winning group working on the design of TrashIt

This gave me pause. I never imagined that the development context of games should be focused on job skills. Our talk forwarded a theoretical argument about the centrality of play for civic and political engagement within a critique of gamification. Our workshop, too, resisted the addition of game mechanics to exiting processes in favor of a thoughtful design of playful experiences. With that conceit, we guided participants through the process of ideation, paper prototyping and play testing. They received hands on experience designing analog games, and explored the nuances of how games work and what they can do. Nine groups formed around areas of concern expressed by the participants, ranging from water management and green development to education and social innovation. At the end, participants voted on the best game. The winner was a game called “TrashIt,” a physical/board game about recycling and “upcylcing” for school kids in Egypt. The game was designed to create interactions between students and teachers, and generate creative thinking about how best to reuse materials in the classroom. By the end of the workshop, the game was playable and holds great promise for future development, either as an analog game or something digital and more scalable. The hope is that some members of the group will continue to work on the project and take it to the next phase.

Even though many people expected that they were going to gain immediately applicable job skills from the workshop, that was probably not what they received. They did, however, explore the possibilities of games and game-based thinking for their work and many participants were effusive about the experience. Several people approached us at the end of the workshop to say that they now think completely differently about games and gamification and the possibilities for both development and employment. What we could actually offer to Egyptians was a way of thinking that bridged social and civic solutions to development problems with the emerging markets in the country. While we didn’t disclose the magical checklist of gamified design, we provided a level of critical thinking and design experience that can hopefully lead to the creation of new social enterprises in the country.

As I mentioned, the workshop participants agreed to continue working on their projects for 1-2 hours a week. I imagine there will be some drop-off, but if the majority or even half continue at that pace, I have no doubt that something significant will emerge from the two days. While I feel great about the engagement of the participants and the content of the workshop, the real value in us coming from another country and organizing this event in Egypt was not the delivery of new knowledge; instead, the value of the game workshop in Egypt was establishing the context for self organization and networking around common interest and passions. Whether people left the workshop inspired to make games for social impact or to make a gamified website, they also left connected to others with similar interests and now a shared, rather intense experience of designing games.


Groups working on initial game designs

We went to Egypt to inspire people to think through games as a mechanism for social change. I hope that happened. I know, however, that I was inspired. To talk to people about civic action in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was humbling. Egyptians know political unrest, they know uncertainty and they know the potential power of mobilization. Coming in from the outside, there was nothing we could offer in this regard. But, in our conversations, it is clear that there is palpable fatigue with the existing strategies for political and civic expression. Gathering in Tahrir Square in political protest may not be the most effective strategy anymore. So while we could make no normative assumptions about what a game could or should do in Egypt, we could propose new frameworks, constructs, and processes for the design and application of civic expression and action.  We didn’t leave with the killer game, as perhaps we had naively set out to do. We did leave with a strong desire to work with people in Egypt to aid in the emergence of games and game-based processes that are uniquely Egyptian.

(Still) Making the Case for Learning Games: Looking back on Risk Horizon

Jordan Pailthorpe

To pass the second phase of the World Bank Initiative’s massive open online course “Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development” participants were not tested by an essay question or a multiple-choice quiz. Since the MOOC’s focus taught general applications of risk management on a wide range of economic and social levels (household, community, policy, government, etc.), ambiguous answers were acceptable. Though a traditional test would give instructors a good idea of how well participants read and understood the material outlined in the World Development Report (the text this course was structured around), it wouldn’t provide an accurate understanding of how well participants could apply the material in contextualized specific settings.

Risk Horizon was built specifically to rectify that problem. Over the span of three and a half months my team at the Engagement Lab designed, paper prototyped, developed, and implemented a game that required players to apply general concepts they learned in week 2 of the MOOC in order to receive full credit.


The Game

As a simplified real time strategy game, players were tasked with developing the world of Alora by building and upgrading resource generating “pods” that helped them reach an end-of-round-goal. In order to succeed, the players had to constantly balance expending their limited wealth and time on the three different actions (protecting their community, generating knowledge, choosing insurance plans) with persistent community development. These game actions acted as general metaphors for real world risk preparation initiatives that policy makers around the world were enacting in their countries, corporations, and communities. The rhetoric revealed through play (and what the World Bank Institute reveals through their MOOC) shows players that for you to thrive, you must find that perfect balance between risk management and healthy development.


A screenshot from a Risk Horizon level

At its most basic, Risk Horizon is a game that throws players into a system and asks them to play, to tinker, to fail, and finally to understand how a fictional system mirrors the real world. The game was primarily designed as a systems-thinking assessment test that could verify if participants could not only understand, but demonstrate the knowledge obtained through lectures, discussions, and readings in a more qualitative fashion. Instead of taking a quiz or a test, they had to help Alora flourish by balancing healthy development with risk management. They had to beat Risk Horizon.

Learning Assessment and Risk Horizon

One of our goals for this project was to show that games are not only good for learning, but if designed correctly, can incorporate assessment directly into the experience. Though digital games for learning and entertainment are much more acceptable than ten years ago, many people either out of ignorance or disbelief still feel that games are not a viable way to assess knowledge acquisition. Even those who believe games are powerful learning tools struggle to incorporate assessment within games since they are generally applied outside of learning experiences rather than internally. Therefore, how can we embed assessments within the experience, so that teachers can understand and track knowledge acquisition through student gameplay?

Knowledge assessment in Risk Horizon occurred through massive amounts of data collection. Our Technical Coordinator Wade Kimbrough researched and built a data collection backend system that allowed us to see general and nuanced playing styles of participants. Our data ranged from broad statistics, such as how many times all players reached the end of the game, to detailed aspects such as what level of development, knowledge, and protection a player had reached by the end of level 3.

Though the large amount of data was invaluable for understanding the game effectiveness on a large scale, it was not a fully sound way to assess knowledge acquisition of individual participants due to the data anonymity. It is not impossible to link data to individual players, but due to our limited development window (after the design was in place, we only had 6 weeks for development!) we simply ran out of time. Therefore in order for participants to receive credit, we implemented passcodes into each level end screen. Whenever a player beat a level, they would receive one of these randomly generated passcodes which they would input into the MOOC, proving how far they progressed. With six total levels in the game, the MOOC team decided that if participants complete level 2, they receive 5% of their quiz grade, while beating level 4 would result in them receiving the full 10%. For example, if a player was able to surpass level 4, they would have successfully demonstrated knowledge acquisition. Since we designed the game’s mechanics around the strategy of balancing the risk management actions with development, this seemed to make sense at the time. But what if someone doesn’t make it to level 4? Does this mean they have not successfully acquired the knowledge outlined in the course?

Though the game was positioned as a mandatory requirement, skipping it did not have severe consequences. The World Bank adeptly incorporated multiple assessments and diversified passing criteria for the MOOC. Even if someone chose to skip the game entirely, they would have to skip an entire lesson (week 1, 3 or 4) in order to complete the course without a certificate of accomplishment. In addition, obtaining a level 2 or level 4 grade achievement was only one part of the game’s assessment: there was also a reflection component where participants wrote an essay commenting on the correlations between the game and real world risk management. These were then graded by peers which resulted in the process becoming much more transparent.

Player Feedback

Even in the most ideal holistic grading and assessment scenario, the potential for negative feedback when implementing a new form of assessment is highly likely. When participants first learned they needed to play Risk Horizon to pass a weekly quiz, a significant number of participants voiced their concerns. One of the most prominent complaints we received (aside from user technical issues) consisted of people angry that they had to play a game. Frustrated players were unable to comprehend why their skills in a game would reflect their understanding of the material. Keep in mind this is not the same complaint as someone saying the game was not good (boring, broken, unfair). They were upset by the very notion that playing a game could help the instructors of the MOOC assess whether or not participants could apply learned materials.

Here are some anonymous posts from participants on the game’s forum:

“I don’t understand why playing computer games should count as a result. Give me a case studies and ask me questions afterwards but please, I don’t want to spend hours and hours playing computer games.”

“I do not agree that the Game teaches Strategic Thinking for Better Community Development. It is simply a Computer Game.  Like any other Computer Game, the more skilled at Computer Games you are, the higher the levels at which you can be successful.”

“Since I am not a “gamer” (and have very little interest or ability in computer gaming) I find this pedagogical method counter productive. I hope in future iterations of this course, if you choose to include the game, it is optional or perhaps offered as an extra credit exercise for those who do like gaming; but do not count it as part of the grading.”

I believe these reactions can be broken down into two camps:

  1. Those who are feeling frustrated with the mandatory obligation to express themselves through a medium unfamiliar and inaccessible to them (compounded with the anxiety of doing well or risk a failing grade).
  1. Those who do not see the value of games applied for learning.

Even if a participant realizes that playing the game poorly won’t substantially affect their grade, the feeling of failure and incapability to succeed can linger. That pent up frustration typically ends up directed towards the medium itself. I wonder if those who complained about the validity of using games as assessment tools actually believe that games cannot be taken seriously as a medium. Perhaps they were simply frustrated by their inability to play the game due to technical limitations or a steep learning curve.

The tone of the forum posts started to turn around as the week progressed. Participants who first expressed extreme frustration or disgust towards the game were beginning to come around to it, even voicing their support to other new dissenters. Participants expressed:

“After about ten attempts I have completed the game. The dynamics are very interesting and, i believe, resonate well with real life. Those of you who are not keen on the game, it is a great real time scenario, and equates experiential learning…”

“…I really enjoyed the game and I was receptive to the experience; I confronted the stressful situation of risks and challenged decisions under constraints. I realized the importance of being fully aware about the community’s future incidents; keeping simultaneously pace of its developing and/or upgrading; I also experienced the necessity of keeping balance among research, protection and insurance.”

“Overall very interesting game and learning experience, mimicking the reality very well – you feel so real when you succeeded or failed…”


Though there were still those at the end of the week who disagreed with the inclusion of the game, the voices for the experience certainly outweighed those who were against.

For our budget and timeline, I believe we created a game that applies the learning content in a fun, effective way. Though the assessment aspects combined with barriers to entry most likely contributed to frustration and dissent, there is also a primary aspect of all assessment that is counter-intuitive to the fun nature of play: the involuntary nature of taking a test. According to one of Huzinga’s four characteristics of play, play must be voluntary. By forcing someone to play, it creates issues of genuine engagement and interest. If assessments are mandatory, yet play needs to be voluntary, how do we find that middle ground to make great games as assessments? I’m sure there are game designers who have great insight into this question, though it is something I am constantly mulling over myself.

Furthermore, even if we set out to create the greatest learning games of the century, those without digital gaming literacy are going to feel intimidated, even angry, when asked to display their knowledge in a medium unfamiliar to them. Traditional learning environments and formal education of the past has done much to separate learning from fun, and games and play from knowledge acquisition. This contributes to generations of people butting up against new radical forms of experiential learning that is most prominent in the 21st century. The argument for games as a valuable medium is over, but showing why games and play are educationally valuable and can effectively model real world problems or issues is a still important. Organizations like Games for Change, design studios like Games Learning Society, scholars like Scot Osterweil and Ian Bogost, and all of the courageous, innovative teachers in classrooms across the country are evidence of the ever-growing movement advocating for the medium. Though Risk Horizon was hard to accept by a significant portion of its audience, it is empowering to know that the case for fun, educational games with mechanics based assessment is constantly growing.

Seeking Coherence: Reflections on the National News Literacy Summit

Paul Mihailidis

news media literacy Venn diagram

Graphic by Peter Levine

In mid-September, I had the pleasure of participating in the “Because News Matters” News Literacy Summit, organized by the Poynter Institute, the McCormack Foundation, and a host of sponsors. The 2-day summit in Chicago gathered stakeholders in news, journalism, media, and education to explore where the news literacy movement has been, where it is and where it should go. The emerging discipline of news literacy focuses on preparing readers to analyze the credibility, accuracy, and reliability of information to become informed news consumers. I was asked to co-chair, with Diana Hess from the Spencer Foundation, the research and assessment group for the summit. Our chair, a simple one, was to explore “What is News Literacy and How Do We Assess It”

There have been a host of interesting and useful recaps and reflections of the summit itself, which you can read about here, here, here, and here. There were panels on best teaching practices, on where and how news literacy should fit into K-12 curriculum, and how new connective technologies are shaping–or reshaping–the future of news. I wanted to take this time to recap what I saw as some of the pressing issues in the news literacy movement at this summit, and provide some possible pathways forward.

#1. Defining News Literacy – Like an emerging academic initiative or movement, defining boundaries and frameworks for news literacy is a thorny and contentious issue. Part of the contention stems from multiple literacies–media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, news literacy, civic literacy, and so on–that all integrate and overlap around their intended outcomes that advocate for civic engagement and critical thinking. Some scholars have advocated media literacy as a “big tent” under which news, and other modalities sit. Others, have advocated for news literacy as a separate and new entity. CJR is covering this debate in full, although I think some of their work (like News Literacy vs. Media Literacy) is somewhat reductionist and largely unhelpful.

The Reseach and Assessment group understood this tension and wondered why no one has supported a field-mapping study to help us contextualize the literacies, and place news literacy within them. Without proof of concept, historical context, and current research in an area, it’s hard to claim a that a concept is new or not new. A lot of spinning tires and kicking our heels is happening here, and I think what you largely saw in Chicago were different stakeholders with different goals advocating for their perspective.

This matters by and large because terminology matters, and if the conceptual understanding of the term, and it’s application, are unclear, then the field stands to risk growth in scope and recognition.

I’ve been researching news, youth and engagement for over 5 years now, and have put out one book that explores this concept in full: News Literacy: Global Perspectives for the Newsroom and Classroom. Our group stressed the need to move beyond the conceptual morass, and fund a research group of scholars across the literacies, not attached to any specific initiative, to spend a year just mapping the field and convene interested parties to find out how their work overlaps and where it doesn’t. Only then can we start to see how the literacies support each other, and at the same time where they find unique ground on which to stand. This would be really helpful to move beyond the stale rhetoric of “we do this,” “you do that,” “stop calling us this,” and “stop telling us that.”

#.2. Assessing News Literacy – This part of the conversation depends almost entirely on how we respond to defining the field. Until we have a strong conceptual agreement on the framework for news literacy, it will be very difficult to build strong and structured metrics for assessment of outcomes. There have been some really strong initiatives done today. Stephanie Craft and her team have produced a strong approach to knowledge measurements for News Media Literacy. Renee Hobbs has worked looking at young people, news, and engagement, and I’ve conducted numerous studies on  how young people understand news, and use technology to engage with news in daily life. I’ve also just published a book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen: Youth, Engagement and Participation in Digital Culture, that outlines some of the connections between news engagement and social networks. While the research shows varying levels of engagement with media for civic activism and engagement, there’s a lot more work to be done in the competencies young poeple need to effectively engage with news in digital culture.

These measures, of course, are academic in scope, and are sometimes hard to translate into tangible inputs for teachers. For that, many groups working in news literacy are hoping to establish their model as a strong one to consider. The Center for News Literacy at Stonybrook University and the News Literacy Project are hard at work in creating and distributing curriculum for K-12 educators, which is great. However, we must be sure, that these are matching with assessments that track progress, skill attainment, and align with school outcomes. The metrics for this haven’t yet been established, and until they are, these initiatives will work piecemeal but perhaps not holistically.



In light of this, we have an opportunity to provide some conceptual foundations for news literacy. What Chicago taught me is that funders are committed, at the table, and want to support good work. What Chicago has also taught me is that there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done to build consensus and strength to get this moving forward.

At the Engagement Lab, we’re exploring how a game about news reveals  how young people engage with civic information and use it for involvement with their communities and public information outlets. This should help to provide a new and interesting approach to exploring attitudes and dispositions of youth- beyond simply asking them questions. I’m hoping that at the next summit we can unveil a report that helps to contextualize this work. Then we can get everyone invested in a path forward that’s inclusive, rigorous, and accepts the connective technologies that are driving all literacies forward- perhaps most poignantly news literacy.