Category Archives: Black Cloud

“If you weren’t reading this book it would still exist”: Alternate Reality in an Era of Alternative Facts


I am thrilled to announce the release of the recent edited volume, Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay, as part of Bloomsbury’s Approaches to Digital Game Studies series.

The book, co-edited with Greg Niemeyer examines foundational tropes in ARGs, pushes towards new conceptions within the genre, and challenges how “digital” game studies reconcile with games that take place in the physical world around us.

In conjunction with this release, Greg and I are hosting a day-long symposium on ARGs on May 23 at Stanford University. This free event begins with a morning of panels and academic talks related to the contemporary state of ARGs, includes a session of ARG-related playtests on campus, and culminates in an afternoon talk by Jane McGonigal. The event is free (flyer above) and you can register here.

A bit more about the book:

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) challenge what players understand as “real.” Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay is the first collection to explore and define the possibilities of ARGs. Though prominent examples have existed for more than two decades, only recently have ARGs come to the prominence as a unique and highly visible digital game genre. Adopting many of the same strategies as online video games, ARGs blur the distinction between real and fictional.

With ARGs continuing to be an important and blurred space between digital and physical gameplay, this volume offers clear analysis of game design, implementation, and ramifications for game studies. Divided into three distinct sections, the contributions include first hand accounts by leading ARG creators, scholarly analysis of the meaning behind ARGs, and explorations of how ARGs are extending digital tools for analysis. By balancing the voices of designers, players, and researchers, this collection highlights how the Alternate Reality Game genre is transforming the ways we play and interact today.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 4.30.50 PM

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 4.30.59 PM

(While the hardcover version of our recent volume is pricey, a paperback copy is forthcoming – this edition makes a great library acquisition!)

Please get in touch if you have questions or want to learn more about either the book or the event!

Same Table, Different Game: Role-Playing and Differentiation

[This is likely one in a slew of forthcoming posts related to role playing games, learning, literacies, and performance. These are exploratory in nature and a space for me to write through some of the topics I’ve been thinking about in this area. Feedback and pushback are welcomed.]

I’m reading a recently released book about the history of Dungeons and Dragons called Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt. I appreciate the accessibility of the text as a way to describe what could happen within a role-playing game. I think Ewalt’s book offers a good introduction but will also likely be read primarily by people already intimately familiar with the polyhedral dice and tomes of rules charts he carefully contextualizes; as accessible as the book is, it’s not going to turn the world of gaming on its head. Which is tricky… because most people probably see D&D more like this.

A month or so ago, when I came home from an evening playing Pathfinder, Ally asked me, “So, what do you do when you play?” I’ve been struggling with an answer to this: I think there is an assumption that all role-playing looks like the live action sort a la Role Models. And actually, I think the endearing, epic ending of Freaks and Geeks is a good primer of what typical role-playing looks like. (Leave it to James Franco to help clearly explain nerd culture to the masses.)

As I’m reading Ewalt’s book, I’m reminded that even with five or six or seven people all sitting around and playing the same campaign, they may all be playing a different game. For instance, Ewalt notes that “at the most fundamental level, a PC is defined by a bunch of numbers written down on piece of paper–the DNA of an imaginary person” [emphasis mine]. And that’s not really how I see it. In my current Pathfinder game, I’m less interested in the stats that I search for on my page than I am with who my character is in regards to his traits, disposition, outlook on the world. For instance, I might be playing a paranoid thief that gets a little flighty when confrontation arises (which is often). Instead of chasing down villains, it could be entirely in-character for my character to run away: the numbers that frame an abstract set of skills are less important to me than the characterization of how this character behaves.

That doesn’t mean Ewalt’s wrong, it means people around a gaming table are playing different and parallel games. For instance, at the same Pathfinder game, there are players who have made uber-fighters and badass spellcasters. Don’t mess with them: they’re really good at using the game mechanics to ensure that battles end in their favor. This is the game they are playing. Like Ewalt they are defining their characters by “a bunch of numbers.”

I want to emphasize that neither approach is “the right way” to play. Some gamers I’ve played with have spoken disdainfully of the “roll”-players in comparison to the “role”-players: they see gaming as the co-construction of a fulfilling narrative. Others see gaming as building the best and most epic character ever. The name, the behavior, and the backstory aren’t so important. Many people find a balance.

Having to figure out what players want and their own narrative goals, the Game Master (GM) must figure out how to help meet the various needs and interests of those around a table. It’s a tricky proposition to differentiate the needs of players and the parallels between a GM and a teacher are significant (and will be discussed in an upcoming post).

When we ran the Black Cloud game in my classroom several years ago, I noticed that students enjoyed the game for different reasons: several students focused on the story of a cloud gaining consciousness and communicating with it. Some students wanted to “win” by finding the most pufftron sensors in their community. Some students were most interested in the environmental concerns and addressing real world health issues based on data. Regardless of what attracted students to the curricular unit/alternate reality game the same things took place. How students took up the data and story and competitive elements (and standards-aligned English-y “stuff”) reflected the parallel and differentiated spaces for literacy exploration.

As I continue delving into RPG-related research, I’m struck by how complex systems of rules deliver content that is interpreted and enacted upon based on the interests of individuals. When we play Monopoly we (usually) play it in the same way every time. When we play Pathfinder or Fate Core or Savage Worlds, each of us have different interests and goals and they all intersect over the course of several hours of dialogue, dice rolling, and identity formation.

DML Notes

If anyone is headed to the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Long Beach, I’ll be sneaking around much of Friday and Saturday.

On Friday, I will be doing an afternoon Ignite talk. I will be elaborating on learning implications related to this post.

On Saturday, I will be part of a panel called, “DML Competition Winners and Race to the Top: Adopting Participatory Learning in Schools.” I’ll be sharing updates on the Black Cloud, and educational policy impacts on digital media.

If you’re at the conference, please send me a note so we can meet in person.

AERA Slides, Papers, and Pep Talks (Oh My!)

I’ve embedded my slides for my AERA presentation, “Can You Hear Me Now?: Student Voice in the Battle For Cell Phone Use in a Less Than Receptive School” below. I’ve reused some of these slides for various presentations at this point and I feel ready to retire most of this for something newer on the next go around.

I will make the paper that Rema Reynolds and I have authored for our presentation, “Hip-Hop ‘Hypocrisy’: New Teacher Perceptions of Critical Pedagogy and Student Experiences in ‘Critical’ Classrooms” available here soon.

Also, I wanted to share a couple of pep talks from the Council of Youth Research below. The first is from Manual Arts High School senior, Gaby Dominguez and the second from UCLA Education Professor Ernest Morrell. Enjoy.

Gaby Dominguez Gives A Pep Talk from Antero Garcia on Vimeo.

Ernest Morrell Speaks to the Council of Youth Research from Antero Garcia on Vimeo.

Game Play/Real Play & We Live In Public

I wanted to share a couple of recent videos that I’ve been rewatching.

First, while I don’t agree with all of Jane McGonigal’s arguments, I’m genuinely excited by her recent TED talk. At this point, I am strongly aligned with the idea of connecting game play to real world change. You could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes watching Margolis’ presentation.

I’ve been following Jane’s work since Greg Niemeyer showed me World Without Oil (A bit of trivia: Greg was also one of the members of Jane’s dissertation committee).  Her article, “Why I Love Bees fits directly into my research on the Black Cloud. Similarly, Evoke seems like an interesting premise. And while I understand what she’s doing with her argument by contrasting the time youth spends playing video games with the time they spend in schools, I think this is where a lot of researchers are missing a big opportunity. As a field, we continue to look at the informal environments for game play and research. It’s easier to do so – a select group of interested individuals, less controlled curriculum, easier access issues, etc. However, think about how the power of game play for change could be compounded within formal learning environments. I’m working on developing material around this within my classroom, and expect game play to fit somewhat prominently into my dissertation. So if it sounds like I’m grandstanding or being a bit presumptuous here, it’s more personal throat-clearing than anything else.

Second, I just saw We Live in Public and found it to be an absolutely compelling and terrifying documentary. I’m not clear about what disqualified it for an Oscar nomination, but think it could have given The Cove a run for its money. The foundational arguments about privacy, surveillance and our culture’s relationship with the media are extemely prescient. As I continue to think about how student-generate media products will be created, shared, and assessed within my classroom, these are the topics I am concerned about. Ownership of data, of our lives, and of conceptions of propriety is in flux and the experiments that Josh Harris challenges us to face this fact.

His next project sounds equally as preposterous as past efforts, and I’m interested (if not extremely wary) about what will transpire if he gets the funding for this. Though I encourage you to watch his pitch below, I highly recommend seeking out and viewing We Live In Public for a better sense of context.

On Focusing on “Learning” At the Digital Media and Learning Conference

Overall, I can say I was both impressed and pleased with the way the Digital Media and Learning Conference went. It was certainly one of the more exciting conferences I’ve dragged myself to in the past few years. I think the interdisciplinary nature of DML made for much richer conversations than the kinds I find myself falling into at ed conferences.

I’ve left with a huge list of people to stay connected with and a ton of areas for collaboration with my students and colleagues at Manual Arts. In particular, many of the programs taking place at USC are right up the alley of the work I see our 9th grade academy tackling come July. Would love to build a more extensive relationship with USC that extends beyond the generally small (and non-b-track) opportunities of the NAI program.

I left with three general critiques to keep in mind for next year’s conference:

  1. For a conference focused around “Learning,” there was a dearth of actual practitioners. In addition to my presentation, I know my colleague Veronica Garcia did an amazing job presenting with her students. But how many other teachers presented, let alone even attended? This is a general critique I have of other conferences too – AERA especially. How are we expecting teachers to hear about these conferences and opportunities? What are we saying about the role of schools in digital practices if they aren’t a part of these conversations? And if the bulk of a conference is during “school days” are we making it that accessible to teachers when funding for substitutes is tight?
  2. Some of the panels were positively bursting with too many people. The Saturday evening symposium especially had too robust a group with far too much important information to share to be adequately covered in the short time. I admire the effort here, but would have preferred if each person was given a larger slot of time and used the Saturday session to really see dialogue across the various interdisciplinary perspectives.
  3. Like my first critique, the bulk of the presentations I went to and the two keynotes focused on the informal practices of youth and what happens outside of schools. I get that this is where most of these practices are happening. I’ve written elsewhere about how schools stifle these kinds of digital practices. However, why aren’t we demanding and discussing the empirical research about what is and should be within a school? Where is the ongoing conversation about what needs to happen in schools? I think this, in particular, would have been aided by the presence of more teachers. Instead, I think I came across as the whiny, complaining teacher on the DML twitter feed (speaking of which, I’m going to unabashedly wave my n00b flag and say that this conference and the #dml2010 hashtag really helped me get twitter – the conversations and dialogue there were a great experiential area of development for me).

Again, I need to emphasize that this was a really great conference. I’m excited about being connected next year. I hope that there will be more of my colleagues in the room next time (and keeping it free will be key for getting classroom teachers to be willing to venture out with the budget crisis nowhere near an adequate conclusion).

Digital Media and Learning Presentation

I’ll have some reflections on the DML conference later on. For now, I wanted to share the slides from our presentation below.

Also, if you are interested, Sheryl Grant live-blogged our session. You can read a great overview here.

Meanwhile, data on air quality at the conference has been collected over the past two days at The sensor will be back in South Central on Monday.

Conference Season – Digital Media and Learning

I’m in the process of slowly weaving various conferences into my teaching/studying/dog-walking schedule.

This Friday I’ll be participating in the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Diego. I’m speaking as part of a session titled “Orality, Pedagogy, and New Media: How Children Develop Self-Awareness and Collective Consciousness.” I’m pasting the info below. Registration is closed, but if you’re heading down there anyways, drop me a line.

Orality, Pedagogy, and New Media: How Children Develop Self-Awareness and Collective Consciousness

Location: Room 4004

Chair: Antero Garcia (University of California, Los Angeles)

Participants: Antero Garcia (University of California, Los Angeles), Greg Niemeyer (University of California, Berkeley), Davida Herzl (Aclima), Dehanza Rogers (Cal State Northridge), Scott Ruston (Arizona State University, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication)

An analysis of the convergence of orality, pedagogy, and new media, this session looks at how new technologies are still rooted in oral culture and the implications of this distinction on pedagogy. Presenters will discuss and provide interactive opportunities around ways these themes tie into game play, literacy development, data aggregation, and DIY filmmaking. Alternate reality environmental game, the Black Cloud, will anchor part of this presentation and allow real-time prediction and aggregation opportunities for participants. Similarly, session participants will engage in cell-phone literacy demonstrations, help author a FlipCam documentary, and engage in traditional dialogue. Further, presenters will examine the role of radical transparency and collective eco-intelligence as they disrupt existing measuring systems. As social media proliferates and cell phones continue to overcome barriers within classrooms and informal learning environments, the role of orality within education continues to be disregarded. Reexamining new media’s emphasis of an oral culture through text messages, status updates, and twitter feeds, this interactive symposium provides analysis of orality as it plays out in gaming, cell phone applications in a high school context, data aggregation, and the role of documentary filmmaking. Looking into the connections between John Dewey and Walter Ong, this symposium and its interactive dialogue help guide practitioners and researchers towards expanded media and pedagogical opportunities through orality.

Further down the road, I’ll also be presenting with a group of friends at the Critical Teaching in Action Conference on March 13. The full program is not online yet.

The AERA schedule is up too, but I’m still figuring a few things out.