Emerson’s game lab to test new civic work project

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • February 20, 2014

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Courtesy of Stephen Walter and Emerson's Engagement Game Lab
Courtesy of Stephen Walter and Emerson's Engagement Game Lab

Local college students interested in civic engagement have a new community to volunteer in: Calliope, the fictional, fantastical setting of Civic Seed, a game created through a partnership between Emerson’s Engagement Game Lab and Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Players interact with Calliope’s citizens to better their volunteering skills and return color to Calliope’s streets.

The Engagement Game Lab, or EGL, is an applied research facility that studies and creates games, technology, and new media to better understand and facilitate civic life, according to the organization’s website. Civic Seed seeks to teach college students how to best serve the communities and nonprofit organizations they seek to volunteer in, according to Eric Gordon, the executive director of EGL.

Gordon said the project grew out of a deficiency in the quality of volunteer work of Tisch students.

“The initial goal of the project was to solve the problem of students being ill-prepared to do civic workthey often cause more problems than they do good,” he said. 

Players are tasked with engaging with the online game’s characters to earn “color seeds” to replenish Calliope’s lost color. The needs of imaginary Calliope are based on Medford, Somerville, and Boston’s Chinatown, the host communities where Tufts Tisch students are required to volunteer, according to Sam Liberty, EGL’s lead game writer.

Because much of the content for Civic Seed was created by the EGL’s Tufts partners, students at the university will be the first to test it, though EGL Managing Director Stephen Walter said he expects to make it available online to colleges across the country, including Emerson, in the future.

Freshman visual and media arts major Sean Vaccaro is an assistant at EGL and said he has play-tested the game three times since September.

“It’s an interesting concept to see these fluffy animals running around, and then giving you information about volunteering, and asking you how you define yourself as a volunteer,” said Vaccaro.

Though colorful cartoonish beings teaching volunteer information might sound juvenile for a game created specifically for university students, Walter said Civic Seed’s aesthetic was a result of budget constrictions in the contract with Tufts and the target audience’s humor.

“A lot of the design considerations were for college studentsit’s got a sort of semi-ironic, humorous, sort of hipster vibe to it,” said Walter.

Outside of the plot, developers at the game lab added a certification process to credential students for civic service outside of the virtual Calliope, said Gordon. Players are awarded a unique profile page with a “civic resume,” which lists the player’s responses, and will be entered into a database with other players and community organizations from the districts where Tufts students often volunteer.

“We call it LinkedIn for community work,” Walter said of the database’s matchmaking quality.

The civic resume is also meant to serve as an external motivator for players, said Gordon.

“It also raises the stakes and alters the quality of answers players would put into the game, because they know it has an effect outside of the game,” he said.

The pilot program, set to begin in March, will be paired with a study to understand the learning and civic impacts of the game. 

Both the pilot program and the study will be completed by Tufts students.

According to Vaccaro, who estimated he has played the game for five hours, the game has changed his understanding of the relationship between community service and privilege, and said he expects students to respond to it positively.

“It definitely helped me better understand what made me as a person want to be civically engaged and volunteer,” said Vaccaro, “and to understand the typical perceptions of [community work] versus what it actually is.”