By second-year Jake Bittle
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Donning lab coats and pretending to be a group of time-traveling scientists in contact with the future would never qualify as a traditional teaching tactic. Nor would acting out a three-week sci-fi role-playing game along with 70 teenagers. But the team behind the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab believes such games can impart knowledge in ways that ordinary lectures can’t.

Game Changer Chicago is a multimedia education initiative conceived by Patrick Jagoda, professor in English, and physician Melissa Gilliam, professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Gilliam is director of Ci3 (UChicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual Health). This summer, the Game Changer team designed and ran a program called S.E.E.D. (Story Engineering and Enabling Device). The program was designed to teach Chicago-area teens STEM skills as well as basic game design as part of Game Changer Chicago’s unconventional approach to educating young people.

For Jagoda and Gilliam, the use of an immersive game offers a way to engage a broader set of high school students in STEM fields. Jagoda also has studied the role of digital games and transmedia storytelling in contemporary culture. As dean for diversity at UChicago Medicine, Gilliam is committed to helping urban youth consider careers in science. 

“Currently, women, racial, and ethnic minorities, and disadvantaged populations are underrepresented in STEM,” says Jagoda. “Essentially some members of these groups feel that these fields are too abstract and not connected to their everyday lives.” Game Changer aims to provide young people with a sense of agency for addressing the issues they face in their lives. 

A research project of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, Game Changer Chicago draws on the humanities while helping young people explore issues of health and social justice.

“We used storytelling, theatrical performance, visual art, and game design to work through scientific and technological topics, says Jagoda, “and to connect them to forms of civic engagement.”

Getting absorbed in the game—and math

During the program’s first three weeks, Game Changer Chicago staff members played the roles of scientists running a top-secret program called S.E.E.D. They put together a faux-laboratory with technology that supposedly would allow the students to communicate with the future.

Students were told it was their duty to warn future civilizations how the world was going to end. They researched and debated various apocalyptic scenarios, and communicated with “the future” by deciphering elaborately encoded messages and hacking into computer systems.

The goal of this elaborate staging, says Jagoda, is to understand how youth learn when they work within the context of a game instead of a lecture or textbook. The alternate reality framework, he explains, is meant to present abstract STEM skills within an absorbing multimedia narrative.

“During the alternate reality portion, for example … they had to use cryptography to decode codes and progress through the game,” says Ashlyn Sparrow, one of Game Changer Chicago’s lead designers. “And cryptography also helps with learning logic, and logic helps with arithmetic, and arithmetic helps with basic math.”

To help immerse the students within the game, Jagoda and his team never broke character while the simulation was underway. The students got into the spirit too. When an evil cohort of scientists captured one of the characters in the game, the other students staged a spontaneous, raucous protest to negotiate the character’s release.

After three weeks in the role-playing game, the students returned to reality and began to design their own games. They had two options: board games or alternate-reality games like the one they had just finished.

On the first day of the design phase, the students played complex board games and examined their artwork and mechanics. Their chatter also drifted back to how real the role-playing game had seemed. One student said, “We all knew” the far-fetched sci-fi scenario wasn’t real. “It’s just that some of us were playing along.” Another student teased, “You thought it was real the whole time.”

Playing with new perspectives

As the week went on, the students began to write, design, and build their own games. Jagoda and the Game Changer Chicago team were impressed with the students’ projects, which ranged from board games about gender discrimination to staged alternate reality games simulating gang warfare and teen pregnancy. “We use the genre of serious games to help young people explore the larger systems that underlie societal problems,” says Gilliam.

“We guided them to some degree with our game design workshops and learning exercises,” says Jagoda, “but it really was up to them what issues they wanted to tackle.”

While this year’s program focused primarily on STEM skills and careers, Jagoda says it also sought to impart personal and social lessons by having students practice public speaking and learn about subjects like climate change and global inequality. Last year’s version of the exercise, an alternate reality game called The Source, had a storyline that incorporated themes on homosexuality, absent parents, and urban poverty.

Gilliam plays a key role in Game Changer Chicago by providing a medical and biological perspective on the educational programs designed by the team. Last year she brought her extensive knowledge about health disparities, urban demographics, and sexual health to the writing and construction of The Source.

The Source embodied Game Changer’s larger vision of creating meaningful opportunities in which youth develop necessary skills and relationships associated with a healthy transition to adulthood,” says Gilliam.

With each year's program, Jagoda and Gilliam give the students extensive surveys and test them on reading comprehension, arithmetic, problem solving, and other cognitive skills. They hope to learn from the results of this research to expand the program to multiple college campuses and further experiment with unconventional methods of learning.

“There are some bigger themes we’re interested in with this project,” says Jagoda. “First, can a large-scale game like this get youth interested in STEM? Second, what is the role of guidance and mentorship in moving youth into these STEM fields? And the other piece is, what do collaboration and learning look like in the 21st century?”

—Additional reporting by fourth-year Hannah Nyhart

Originally published on August 25, 2014.