Figure 3: Trailer for The Resisters. Video by Alexandrina Agloro and codesign team.
What can civic engagement learn from game design? Specifically, what can university-based civic engagement learn from the opportunities and challenges of designing and playing alternate reality games (ARGs)? To understand these questions, this article uses The Resisters, a 2014 ARG about local people of color’s historical activism in Providence, to imagine how game-based technologies can be harnessed for social change. Using the game as an instrument for community engagement, I reflect on the spaces where game design unlocked opportunities to go deeper with community, including discussions on race, place, and belonging. The work around designing and playing The Resisters was a vehicle for an extended community project; the work was less about a game as a final product than it was about the process of game-making and the relationships that formed while the project was in development.
Chicana feminist writers Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1983) address how we need to be critical of our fields and of our work. But when we identify problems but have no tools or next steps to disrupt the systems causing them, we can be left further in despair. Cherríe Moraga says, “To assess the damage is a dangerous act,” and Gloria Anzaldúa continues, saying, “To stop there is even more dangerous” (1983, 171). Drawing on the wisdom of Moraga and Anzaldúa, in this essay I speak to the intersections of scholars of color who work in community-based research. I also offer lessons learned through designing a game for scholars of color to help keep their hearts in this work and to continue shifting media-making and civic engagement to more equitable models.
Before we jump into interactive media and civic engagement foundations, I first want to anchor the digital within the human. While the digital medium discussed in this article is a transmedia game, human connection is at the core of this digital project. Digital work is always situated in the real. Real-world bodies toil to produce the hardware and software we use. Real people create and upload the content we see online. The Resisters stretched the capacity of user-centered design and expanded our thinking about what interactive media means in our contemporary, technologically saturated, and increasingly wireless world. Interactive media can mean that both digital and non-digital media are used for groups of people to interact with each other. Thus, interactive media always involves more than an individual having a solo experience with digital technology. Games emphasize the collective nature of play, and human players mediate the games, especially ARGs, rather than the flickering screens, keyboards, and controllers (Garcia and Niemeyer 2017). The Resisters used technologies ranging from physical puzzle pieces to online videos in order to remember and reinvent traditions of interactivity and inquiry. The game required interactivity among people, interaction with previous and contemporary built environments, and interaction with the historic memory of space and place.
The game embodies the values that also shape this essay. In the spirit of radical feminism and investing love in the places I want to see flourish, I am actively omitting from this article critiques of games and interactive media theorists who do not share the vision of interactive media as an intersectional emancipatory tool. We are trained as academics to critique and deconstruct, but what could we grow as scholars if we operated from a methodology that invests in the world we want to see, rather than in a critique of others’ shortcomings? As the FemTechNet Manifesto states, care is a feminist technology. In Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds, adrienne maree brown offers divestment of energy and attention as an approach to work that does not serve your purpose. She says, “Pointing out the flaws of something still requires pointing at it, drawing attention to it, and ultimately growing it” (2017, 120). We know 75 percent of game developers are cisgender, white, straight men from the United States (Weststar and Legault 2016). The scholars, makers, and writers who have constructed, filled, and policed the canon of game studies tend to be from a similar demographic. Citing white men and women scholars and designers whose work lacks intersectionality, if only to point out the ways their work ignores the richness and diversity of game worlds, ultimately grows attention toward their work, leaving less space to explore work that is creating change.
The Resisters is part of a larger body of design and digital humanities works that position digital art and interactive media as conduits for humanistic understanding. Peeking into what Sarah Ahmed calls a “killjoy survival kit” (2017, 17), I want to activate what Call Your Girlfriend podcast hosts Ann Friedman and Aminata Sow call “Shine Theory” by highlighting a few other dual, digital humanities/civic engagement projects in order to contextualize the current field. Jacqueline Wernimont, Natalie Lira, and Alexandra Minna Stern’s Eugenics Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories applies sounds to California sterilization records from 1919 to the 1950s. An example of their data sonification is heard in a haunting Latinx Eugenics sample track, in which a single note represents a Spanish-surnamed person recommended for sterilization. Children who were sterilized without consent are represented as the highest notes, while adult men who were sterilized without consent are represented as the lowest notes. Mimi Onuoha’s project Missing Datasets observes blank spaces in our otherwise data-saturated world. Onuoha hypothesizes why data isn’t collected, strategies for collective action, and how lack of collection is in itself a strategy throughout this work. Sadie Barnett’s exhibition Do Not Destroy interrogates the nature of data and security by reclaiming her father’s FBI file and turning it into art. Africa Diaspora, Ph.D., curated by Jessica Marie Johnson, is a blog that highlights the work of scholars in the field of Atlantic African Diaspora History. This creation of networks and archives is crucial to “recovery of lost narratives of marginalized people” (Dinsman 2016). The last project I want to highlight is the Critical Ethnic Studies Workbook curated by FemTechNet’s Situated Critical Race + Media (SCR+M!). The Critical Ethnic Studies Workbook is a collection of materials to aid in teaching about race, gender, and technology—a task that disproportionately falls on faculty in vulnerable positions in higher education. All of these projects explore different ways the public interacts with archives and data. In developing The Resisters, I was inspired to transform archival materials into a game by the questions these and other scholars and artists raised about the ways data shapes our lives.
By offering feminist perspectives on digital media and data, the above projects are powerful examples of community accountability in digital projects. In order to contextualize how The Resisters aligns itself with these projects as digital public humanities, while still following the rules of traditional game mechanics, I provide an overview of the foundations of game design, ARGs, and civic engagement at universities to set the stage for understanding how The Resisters is situated at these intersections.
Current polarizing debates around games position them as the media of capital and empire (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009) or a key to saving us from the crisis in education (Tierney et al. 2014). In their most basic condition, a game contains the following elements:
|A game is an artificial system.|
|It has players.|
|It has conflict.|
|It has rules.|
|It has a win mechanism (Salen and Zimmerman 2004).|
Said in a different way, a game must have a goal; there must be limitations on how players achieve this goal; there must be a feedback system for players’ progress in achieving their goal; and participation must be voluntary (McGonigal 2003). These processes alone do not contain cultural rhetorics with embedded value systems. But when cultural values are combined with the procedural rhetoric of games—how games’ processes effectively persuade its players (Bogost 2007)—games contain the possibility to influence players.
Are games any more influential than previous forms of technology and communication? Probably not. Continuing the line of thought from Dennis Baron (1999), who positioned computers as one technology in a historical trajectory of communication technologies including the pencil and the telephone, digital games are the next point on a communication continuum. Taking another step back, games existed in many forms before they looked like their current digital incarnation. Games predate computers by hundreds of years, and broadening the field of vision to incorporate digital and non-digital games avoids what Eric Zimmerman calls “technological myopia” (2004, 154). So while games have long been part of human life as a way to form community and sense of belonging (Flanagan 2009), the most recent turn to digital games, and in the case of The Resisters, pervasive games (games that cross genres, media platforms, and their play is continuous), is just another point on a longer term historical trajectory of understanding communication and the intricacies of community relationships.
We know that games have existed almost as long as humankind (Flanagan 2009; Salen and Zimmerman 2004), and there are reasons for their widespread popularity. The fantasy elements of games allow players the thrill of fear, but knowing games are artificial systems save players from the real pain of fear (Laurel 1993). Games’ fictional constructs allow players to immerse themselves and experience relationships connected to place and community more deeply because of the fantasy elements (Squire et al. 2007). As an art form, artists can manipulate games as a medium of expression in ways that resemble change for social good as well as in ways that reiterate problematic social tropes. The content produced within games is like many art forms; it is not the root of any problem, but is a reflection of the state of civil society. Games, like most learning experiences, are not neutral in their content and in their reception (Gee 2003; hooks 1994).
Thus far, game design has been overwhelmingly white, much like contemporary civic engagement at universities. In my research, I wanted to ask how methodologies of game design could be infused with women of color feminisms and other liberation methodologies. Game designers, games scholars, and interactive makers are beginning to have conversations about the role of minoritarian subjects. They are also asking who makes games, who plays games, and who is represented in games. Game makers such as Mattie Brice, Anna Anthropy, Elisabeth LaPensée, the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, and the Different Games Collective are radically decolonizing game-making spaces. The infusion of queer theories and critical race theories into how we examine games, game makers, and game play is shifting the field of game studies. Recent examples of this line of inquiry include Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw’s anthology Queer Game Studies (2016), Amanda Phillips and Gillian Smith’s article “Feminism and Procedural Content Generation: Toward a Collaborative Politics of Computational Creativity” (2016), and Josef Nguyen’s article “Performing as Video Game Players in Let's Plays” (2016). In the following section, I describe in detail one specific genre of games: alternate reality games.
What is an alternate reality game? Alternate reality games (ARGs) are a subcategory of pervasive games that combine online and offline interactions, and mix digital technologies and real-world interactions (Montola, Stenros, and Waern 2009). As Antero Garcia and Greg Niemeyer state, “The journey to fully understand the ARG is one that is full of diversions, rabbit holes, and interruptions. Watch your step” (2017, 8). Frank Rose defines alternate reality games as
[a] hybrid of game and story. The story is told in fragments; the game comes in piecing the fragments together. The task is too complicated for any one person. But through the connective power of the Web, a group intelligence emerges to assemble the pieces, solve the mysteries, and in the process, tell and retell the story online. Ultimately, the audience comes to own the story. (2011, 14)
ARGs can be about any topic and the challenges can take place in any form, but an ARG cares about the story first. The game uses various platforms and resources to spread pieces of the story for the audience to discover and assemble. An ARG will use available and experimental resources such as music, costume, graphics, puzzles, or social media to deliver the story (Kim et al. 2009; Stewart 2006).
Regardless of game designers’ intentions, players’ reception of an ARG can vary wildly. According to Ruiz, Stokes, and Watson, if a game can change the way a player experiences the real world, game designers can impact “the range of possible worlds that we can imagine, opening and elevating our perception and capacity for action” (2012). Ruiz, Stokes, and Watson find that an ARG is on some level an act of resistance by reenvisioning reality, but ARGs are still open to interpretation by paradigms of privilege embodied within game players. For example, which kinds of bodies can wander in groups without their presence being policed in public space? Bodies of color in public are sometimes perceived as threats and their presence can be heavily regulated. ARG designers can guide players’ meaning-making, but as Angela Colvert says, designers “cannot accurately predict how texts will be interpreted or in what order they will be accessed (or indeed if some will be accessed at all!)” (2017, 170).
ARGs are a compelling medium for civic engagement because groups play in public spaces. Antero Garcia and Greg Niemeyer (2017) position the “alternate” in alternate reality games as an adventure that leads to new social connections and deeper experiences of belonging. Even without political themes, Garcia and Niemeyer find that players subscribing to the alternate myth of an ARG use their bodies to form communities of their own. The formation of community is a step in deepening civic power, including knowing who’s out in public with you and feeling a connection to your network of people and places. ARGs encourage players to be aware and to investigate the lived grooves of space rather than immersing themselves in a phone or handheld console screen.
I will return to the overlapping relationships and intersections of ARGs and civic engagement, but as the majority of research on civic engagement stems from universities, we must turn to the current state of civic engagement at universities.
When we discuss relationships between researchers and community, “community” usually stands for groups of people outside of the university. The university itself is also a community with its own overlapping networks and rules of engagement. One of the community networks within the university are the individuals and centers that work toward “community engagement” with an outward focus beyond the boundaries of the university. The scholars affiliated with civic engagement look much like the composition of university faculty as a whole. Academics across all disciplines of the university are mainly white and middle class, and the field of civic engagement reflects this demographic. Where do scholars of color committed to community engagement fit in and what can they offer to shift the field away from its current incarnation?
In the same ways that game play creates constructed communities, the university is also a constructed community where people opt in to their roles as students, faculty, and staff. It’s crucial to discuss racial dynamics in academe because these dynamics are not constructed by coincidence; rather the dearth of academics of color on college campuses is an intentional, purposeful system. Academics of color on college campuses have an absence of presence, to use Native American scholar Gerald Vizenor’s phrase. Angela Harris and Carmen G. González find that the demographics and “the culture of academia is distinctly white, heterosexual, and middle and upper-middle-class. Those who differ from this norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘presumed incompetent’ by students, colleagues, and administrators” (2012, 3). Eight percent of full-time faculty members in the United States are of African American or Latinx origin and the majority of Black teaching faculty have positions in historically Black colleges and universities, two-year community colleges, and second- and third-tier public universities where teaching demands are high and resources for research are minimal (Marable 2002; Moffitt, Harris, and Forbes Berthaud 2012). Women of color are overrepresented in less prestigious institutions, including community colleges (Jayakumar et al. 2009). In 2007, women of color held only 7.5 percent of full-time faculty positions and that percentage declined as academic rank increased (Harris and González 2012). A 2001 study found that only 3.6 percent of all faculty members were Black (Marable 2002). George Sanchez’s (2004) discussion of the University of Southern California’s faculty reflects similar findings. In Sanchez’s study, a total faculty of 2,900 held only 35 African American and 40 Latinx faculty members on the entire campus. These numbers reflect how the lack of diversity for academics within the field of civic engagement is not unusual when compared to the rest of the university.
The above numbers describe the demographics of the faculty, and the culture and practice of research functions with an invisible whiteness as well. Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describe the culture and practice of research where “white logic and white methods work in practice and how they blind (or severely limit) many social scientists from truly appreciating the significance of race” (2008, 4). Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva demonstrated how the founder of statistical analysis also created a theory of white supremacy, where statistical analysis explained racial inferiority. The authors outline how research is structured to keep racial order in place and that white logic “assumes a historical posture that grants eternal objectivity to the views of elite whites and condemns the view of non-whites to perpetual subjectivity” (2008, 17). The race of the researcher is often treated as neutral, as if all bodies are the same in every setting. Instead, the researcher should be seen as a variable and a factor for affecting the results and interpreting the data of the respondents. Jill Morawski (1997) analyzed over 100 studies that focused on race over a span of 75 years and found that 90 percent of those studies omitted the race of the researcher. Race is an important characteristic that influences how individuals experience and perceive social phenomena (Goar 2008), yet race within research is seen as irrelevant.
Whiteness in the university, including white methods and white logic, is utilized by all people—both white people and people of color—to uphold the racial hierarchy in the university. As George Lipsitz says, “White supremacy is an equal opportunity employer” (1998, viii). Academics of color can be just as complicit in upholding structures of whiteness if we do not problematize and work to dismantle these systems of oppression. Education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings urges that our inequalities run deeper than representation. She states,
The issue is not merely to “color” the scholarship. It is to challenge the hegemonic structures (and symbols) that keep injustice and inequity in place. The work is not about dismissing the work of European-American scholars. Rather, it is about defining the limits of such scholarship. (2000, 271)
If race and lived experience influence how we perceive social phenomena, then research that investigates communities of color from investigators who do not identify with that community are limited. This is said not to essentialize race or the lived experiences of people of color; instead, I bring attention to this so that research can reflect a spectrum of full-color conversations.
It is possible to be a white anti-racist scholar, and some white scholars seek to acknowledge their privilege and to call out racism within the field of civic engagement. However, an acknowledgement of privilege is missing from much academic civic engagement writing. Cynthia Kaufman said, “Anyone interested in liberation needs to have an idea of what he or she wants to be liberated from” (2003, 19). We need not shy away from conversations about privilege, because our silence around the topic gives it more power. Acknowledging privilege is different from being forced to feel guilty about it. As Ruth Gilmore said, “Scholar-activism always begins with the politics of recognition” (2005, 178). As practitioners of community-based research, we can be so focused on the marginalized status of the communities we work with, while forgetting how our own personal privilege affects relationships with our colleagues and our community partners.
If the perception is that the contemporary environments where university civic engagement takes places is in communities of color, why aren’t the sparse numbers of faculty of color found participating within this field? Their vulnerable position within the university, as a tiny minority of the faculty who are already battling presumed incompetence, means their actions are already under scrutiny. Faculty of color risk critique for not pouring all their time into pursuing “serious” scholarship and try to camouflage their community relationships. George Sanchez calls the precarious position of faculty of color a third culture, where they are “pulled between the commitments to communities of color almost all bring with them to the academy and the departmental culture which tells them either directly or most indirectly to abandon those ties or risk professional suicide” (2004, 23). In an academic culture where civic engagement work is often not recognized by tenure reward systems, and faculty of color already struggle in the tenure process, official involvement in civic engagement at the university level can resemble professional suicide. I want to stress that the absence of presence of academics of color within official university-sanctioned civic engagement projects does not mean these academics have abandoned their community ties altogether; rather, the community work many academics of color participate in goes undetected (and sometimes concealed) within a university system that already questions their scholarly legitimacy.
The difficulties academics of color have navigating this third culture leave their white, middle class peers largely responsible for conversations about diversity and inclusion within the organized field of civic engagement. Conversations include recognitions of difference, but end up being taught from the same white, middle class perspective. bell hooks considers the inclusion of difference into the discussion a step forward, yet the inclusion of difference “does not seem to coincide with any significant increase in Black or other nonwhite voices joining the discussion” (1994, 10). José Muñoz describes how artists of color within queer studies receive a contained reading that does not address the questions of race the artists interrogate. Muñoz declares, “The powerful queer feminist theorist/activists that are most cited—Lorde, Barbara Smith, Anzaldúa, and Moraga, among others—are barely ever critically engaged and instead are, like disco divas . . . merely adored from a distance” (1996, 11). The lack of teaching perspective about diversity and difference is particularly alienating for students of color and may also partially explain the low numbers of students of color who participate in university-sponsored civic engagement projects. Students of color can be subjected to being singled out as the authority on matters of “the community” regardless of their proximities to these neighborhoods, or obligated to listen to their cultures and communities described in fetishized ways by fellow students or even their professors.
Successful scholar-practitioners of color who engage in community-oriented work must be doubly qualified. They must have first survived the intellectual and emotional hurdles of a degree-granting institution in order to be sanctioned as researcher; and second, they must understand the cultural standards endorsed by the community and be recognized as not just competent but extraordinary. Scholars of color who participate in community are still seen as “the outsider within” (Collins 1986) since a research agenda from a university may still create suspicion within a community. Despite the pressure for scholars of color to maintain an “objective detachment” (Yu 2001) from their communities, community connection and conducting research to benefit their communities is something sustaining that keeps many scholars of color able to continue their research. Scholars of color who come to the academy in opposition to being a bodiless mind should, at minimum, not be discouraged to remain in their bodies. By this, I mean that scholars of color who choose to engage a community with their research should be able to bring their full selves to this work. Scholars of color at universities are counted in diversity pie charts, prominently featured in brochures and on university websites, and then asked to leave behind any trace of their ethnicity and community beyond the color of their skin.
Given the continued dominance of white perspectives in higher education and game development, how can we see something other than the unbearable whiteness of being? Game designers and players come inscribed with their own unconscious biases and blind spots that must be acknowledged and unpacked. The brown/Black/queer/women positionalities of The Resisters designers and players were significant to theorizing game design and contemporary civic engagement as their bodies directly conflict with early internet studies’ conceptions of users as disembodied neutral entities— a category that game play falls into. While ARGs are known for their online/offline methods of play, ARGs are inherently digital because the players are a defined community brought together by virtual and real-world information (Garcia and Niemeyer 2017).
ARG design is not the utopic leveling of difference, however hopeful the game genre sounds. In the introduction to Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay, editors Antero Garcia and Greg Niemeyer find that ARGs are “based on the flow of information rather than on material contingencies such as location, birth, race, and caste” (2017, 4). It is impossible for bodies marked as different to blend in to the invisible whiteness of game play. Findings that propose game play as neutral systems-based experiences are in direct conflict with foundational race and media scholars such as Lisa Nakamura (2008), and coauthors Anna Everett and Craig Watkins (2008), whose research suggests that race, racism, and difference are intensified through interactive media and game play.
To continue to explore the relationships between civic engagement, design, and alternate reality games, I now turn to a discussion of The Resisters. The ARG is the tool, but the real focus of the game was the social movement quilting that wove together the threads of civic engagement, participatory game design, and community. I offer The Resisters as an artifact for the possibilities that ARGs hold for equitable game design and civic engagement.
Figure 4: The first narrative video released during The Resisters game play. Video by Alexandrina Agloro and codesign team.
Before any archival research or game design happened, I gathered the newly recruited game design team for a few game play sessions as extended icebreakers. We mostly played videogames on a Playstation console while eating snacks1 and having casual conversation. The codesigners kept their design journals on hand with the instruction to take notes about anything interesting they noticed within the games. But the real goal of these early game play sessions was to get to know each other in a casual setting where there was an activity happening. Talk-based activities centering on discussion or introductions can be awkward and intense for young people, and they may refuse to open up in these situations. Instead, I set up game play sessions as open-ended where our focus was on the action onscreen and we conversed casually about whatever was on their minds. Within this loose structure, I was able to learn about their histories and the ways they made sense of their identities and surroundings. Scheduling conflicts were a key element of designing with young people; it was impossible to get the entire game design team together at once, so whoever was available at the set time would show up.
In the early game play sessions Jay, a straight Haitian immigrant cis-male art student, emerged as the activity leader. He shared the most about his take on each videogame, supplementing play with other memories from his childhood. Jay recounted trying to play video games and how the electricity brownouts in Haiti would disrupt play. He recalled multiple occurrences when a game disc got stuck in a friend’s console when the power went out, and he would have to take the entire console on a hunt to find power in order to get the disc out. Electricity brownouts also meant he and his friends would have unexpected treats of ice cream or other frozen sweets that would melt if they weren’t eaten as soon as the power went out. Jay, an illustration major, also had commentary about inclusion of diverse characters within various games. He appreciated seeing characters that were more than straight white men in the games, but felt critical about illogical or out of place representations. For example, he disliked overly sexualized women characters with flimsy armor. The lack of realism when comparing the men’s armor and the women’s armor was a point of contention for Jay; he frequently commented on the poor design of “lady armor” and wished it looked more substantial for warriors in combat. Jay also talked about gay characters and the importance of incorporating them into game worlds in organic ways, instead of including stereotypical gay signposting and character conversations that seemed illogical for the scenario but pointed to queerness. The conversations about diversity, representation, and queerness flowed naturally because Jay led unstructured conversations during play. I learned about the ways the game design team imagined themselves within a social landscape because they shared information about themselves willingly.
The Resisters game was the reason I was in contact with the game design team, but over time my relationships and conversations with them involved topics and activities that weren’t part of The Resisters. The codesigners contacted me multiple times a week, usually with questions and situations related to school, money, or jobs. These issues spilled over into time that was originally set up to be The Resisters work time and occasionally I had to make the decision to prioritize handling issues in their lives over the research project. The boundaries between our game design relationship and their real-world issues blurred because the codesigners looked to me for help with real-world obstacles, such as finding a job or filling out financial aid forms for college. For example, Jay and I staged a “life skills day” for Anthony, a cis-male first-generation African immigrant, who was going away to college. We discussed bank accounts and financial literacy, took him to the Social Security Office for a new card, shopped for computers, and helped him pick out cost-effective supplies for his pre-orientation camping trip. As a researcher doing work in a community, I realized that interactions with participants do not stop when the research ends. Yet as a community-based researcher, isn’t that the point? Community-based research is structured to be in fellowship with community, where professional ties and experience diffuse town/gown dynamics.
Working with young people within a community-based project is also meant to extend networks of knowledge to benefit young people. In the case of The Resisters research, part of doing research in Providence was for the game design team to learn about the histories of their communities. Immersion in the culture and context of communities and movements can support local youth civic engagement. Ellen Middaugh argues that
[y]outh need opportunities to see that they are not working in isolation when they are engaged in civic and political work, to practice the social skills of deliberation and leadership, and to think broadly and systemically about the issues they are working to address. (2012, 21)
Particularly for a game focused on the social movement history of people of color, the game design team was immersing themselves in hands-on work with local archives, organizations, and institutions of higher education where they were creating something with networks of support. The Resisters is a kind of civic work that created something for the community to pass on as generational history.
The young participants Anthony and Jay brought their own strong beliefs to the game. They were both emphatic about how race shouldn’t affect their lives, believed that the best person should be chosen for a job, and truly desired colorblindness as a feature and function in their world. In many ways, these young Black men wanted the world to be fair and just, but at 19 and 20 they had already learned about how racism constricted the ways that they were able to move around in the world. Jay had firm beliefs about the race-less way the world should work, and hated the ways he felt himself racialized in public. Jay experienced the world around him as an immigrant outsider, living in a society that still felt strange to him.
Jay was only a year older than Anthony, but had assumed a big-brotherly protection over him since they had been in high school and an afterschool arts program together. At the time when I met Jay and Anthony, Jay was in his third year of a local art school, and Anthony was still living at home and occasionally taking classes at the local community college while thinking about applying to a four-year program. Jay carried himself with an art school cool; he wore a leather jacket and motorcycle boots and always had paintbrushes and drawing pencils tucked into his pockets. Anthony did not have that same sense of confidence— he was shy, quiet, and had difficulties advocating for himself. In the course of the game, I was able to experience the ways that Jay looked out for Anthony, especially the ways he thought that Black men needed to be careful when moving through the world.
I usually drove everyone home after a game play session, and after one session, I told Anthony and Jay the plan for dropping them off at home based on their proximity to the Trader Joe’s grocery store about 20 minutes away in Warwick—the only one in Rhode Island and out of the way from the city of Providence. Both of them wanted to come with me for the grocery store trip. Jay was moving out of the on-campus dorms and into his own apartment for the first time and said he wanted to shadow me in the store to learn how to food shop for himself. Anthony didn’t have easy access to a grocery store beyond the discount Food 4 Less market and since we lived a few blocks away from each other, he took advantage of the moment to come grocery shopping with a guaranteed ride home. This trip to Trader Joe’s was one of the most formative moments of the entire research process, where I was able to understand the ways both of these young men constructed their race and class identities.
Once we entered the store, Anthony asked me if they took EBT cards. I said yes, but he doubted me because he thought the store looked too nice to take EBT cards and he felt nervous about shopping there. Jay instructed me to explain the rationale for each of the things that went into my cart, which for me was a flustering exercise to have to explain why I selected certain things. Neither of them liked that I would leave my cart and go through the store picking things up and they would both want to retrieve the cart and bring it along with us to go over to the next aisle. While perusing up and down the aisles, Anthony said out loud, “Seeing all this food makes me hungry. I haven’t eaten much all day.” I told him to go pick out a sandwich and anything else he wanted and to put it in my cart. Anthony retrieved a sandwich from the prepared foods section of the store, and when he went to find Jay and me, he accidentally put his sandwich in someone else’s cart. Anthony eventually found us and realized his cart mix-up. He was about to go back and retrieve it from the other cart when Jay grabbed Anthony’s arm as he was walking away and emphatically said, “No man, leave it, just go get another one. You don’t want to be the scary Black guy taking things out of someone else’s cart.” Anthony paused to absorb what Jay told him, and nodded slowly in agreement once he processed Jay’s words.
According to Ellen Middaugh (2012), youth civic engagement is best supported when young people can contend with what justice and fairness look like in their worlds and through authentic learning experiences. My conversations with the game design team, particularly the ones around race in the United States, were usually conversations where the codesigners were trying to make sense of something they experienced. Middaugh finds that “grappling with such issues not only provides youth with opportunities to practice an important aspect of the work of civic engagement but helps them see the importance of the work they are doing” (2012, 21). When the game design team grappled with the significance of social movement history through the process of creating The Resisters, they were interacting with the outcomes of past political activity. The game design team was able to see what happened when artists and activists created spaces for themselves because segregation and discrimination otherwise excluded them. One codesigner noted how arts and activism were intertwined within the materials we researched, and was able to link those historical findings to art’s place in contemporary social movements. In Middaugh’s terms, an authentic learning experience is one that is “in service of [a] purposeful activity” (2012, 21). The game design team wasn’t learning about social movement history through a textbook or memorizing facts; through game design they were applying the significance of historical events and contemporary issues like immigration to a narrative game story and planning scavenger hunts. Their conversations about their experience of race in the United States, when coupled with the historical elements of the game, added an element of relating historical moments to real occurrences in their lives.
As Linda Tuhiwai Smith says, “Defining community research is as complex as defining community” (1999, 127). Particularly for scholars of color, defining the boundaries between participation in a community and the lines where research begins and ends can be difficult. Another blurry concept is construction of “the field” as a scholarly place of observation that is somewhere out there, away from things that are familiar (Clifford 1997; Smith 1999). My “field” of Providence was not a new place for me, but I also was not local to the city. Over the span of a decade I maintained relationships with people and organizations, as well as creating new ones as a periodic visitor to the city. This project disrupted fieldwork as “going out in search of difference” (Clifford 1997, 85) and instead I returned to something familiar to research community and participation. James Clifford says, “staying (or making) home can be a political act, a form of resistance” (1997, 85). From the onset of this project, the communities of Providence were my places of home and research. My research participants were codesigners, and never subjects for analysis or informants. Constructing The Resisters as a digital humanities-based project created some distance from detached social science that often uses statistics and numbers to determine the significance of the work. In the volume Civic Dialogue, Arts, and Culture: Findings from Animating Democracy, editors Pam Korza, Barbara Schaffer Bacon, and Andrea Assaf describe how arts and humanities projects can shake up structures of power.2 They write, “Art and humanities projects can unsettle traditional power dynamics that privilege certain viewpoints, or ways of working in a community, and can help equalize power in the dialogue experience” (2005, 108). The Resisters, as a project, experimented with various ways of working in community; my observations of community research were different from the opinions of the young people with whom I was conducting research, and their experiences as private school, public school, high school, and college students meant that we made sense of community differently.
Community-based research is not efficient, and the process is more important than the end product. This style of research is intentionally not efficient because it accounts for a multiplicity of voices, and absorbing multiple ideas and opinions takes time. Although community-based research cannot be neatly compacted into research timelines, it validates a process where communities define themselves (Smith 1999). Giving the space for the Providence youth community to define itself meant that, as the research director, I had to come to terms with some level of uncertainty about the timeline of the project. There were times in the project that I didn’t feel like enough tangible “research” was happening, even though I was in touch with the game design team multiple times a week. Despite my own stress about the timeline of my project at many moments during the research, academics who participate as part of a community need to let relationships develop organically. And those relationships take time. Real relationship building doesn’t happen on an academic timeline parsed between finals and summer break. Community engagement doesn’t always fit within the parameters of evaluation and value. Adam Banks describes clashes between university and community, saying,
I hope to make a case here for genuine community engagement—not as “programs” or initiatives but as the unofficial kinds of work that won’t always fit into the official language of academic departments or grant makers or the academy’s tenure and promotion reward structure and as a central part of the work we choose to do. (2011, 66)
The clash between work that counts toward academic tenure and promotion and unofficial community work that doesn’t count is central to the research and knowledge-making we choose to create. The Resisters project did not have neat beginning and end dates. Instead, lasting community relationships continued after the research was completed.
My role as game design director and lead puppet master, through this game and research process, straddled the prestige of the university and the cultural competence and comfort of being a contributing member of the Providence arts community. I was in a privileged position to have access to the power of a university where I was in classrooms and creating programming that could reach beyond the gilded gates of the ivory tower. At the same time, I spent afternoons as an artist mentor in a youth arts organization. I would code switch my language in order to explain the value of the university to public high school students who were struggling to find value in their educations. In the moments where I felt inspired by the aesthetic ingenuity of young people who were making sense of their lives through art, good academic mentorship taught me to carry that fire back to the university and take a seat at that table, no matter how tiny, rickety, and uncomfortable that seat was. We have to continue to vouch for the value of the communities that surround universities and sustain relationships that are more than perfunctory lip service tucked away in an under-funded center.
In this final section, I write to other scholars of color invested in community-based work—especially those using digital media methodologies—and I offer my reflections on what I learned by creating a game through participatory design. I intentionally offer this final section as a discussion of community-based digital projects, instead of just games, because technology is the tool, and not the lesson. These lessons learned are analog, not digital, but acknowledging humanity within digital humanities is how the digital gets real. I also write specifically to scholars of color because so often our work is seen as folk, craft, or nontechnical, even when using digital tools (Andersen 2017). It is important to acknowledge the challenges and difficulties of being scholars of color in the academy, who choose to work within our communities. Continuing to do research from an asset-based perspective rather than a deficiency model (Tuck 2009) requires that we believe that we can create change through this work. Revisiting Chicana feminist writers Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa from the introduction to this article, I remind you of the earlier sections in which I described the deficiencies that whiteness in the field of civic engagement leave. To stop there would be an incomplete story. The following lessons learned are my attempt to keep this conversation moving forward.
When embarking on critical social justice research, a question to keep in mind is: Critical for whom? Digital research has an agenda, and as scholars we must ask ourselves where the focal point of the research lies and be real with ourselves about the end goal. It’s okay if the research needs to meet some kind of benchmark in order to satisfy a funder’s goal or scholarly output that can be translated into academic evaluation of productivity. Without grant funding or academic positions as graduate or faculty researchers, we would most likely not be able to engage in these projects at all. Be prepared to jump through institutional hoops in order to keep the lights on and snacks on the table. Also, keep in check the expectations of liberating life changes for your participants, and be flexible in knowing that the project’s trajectory may vary from the research plan and the end results may not look like you expected them to. Understand that portions of the project may be partitioned into separate sections that must be completed for “research” and certain sections that will be tailored to “community.” Some days will look more measurement-based or maker-oriented, and some days will be spent hanging out as a member of the community, not in research-director mode. If you don’t have a desire to spend time in community with this group of people, unrelated to a research project, you probably should not be doing research with—or more likely on—this group.
Other expectations to keep in check are the discrepancies that academic structures have with organizations and individuals who are not on an academic calendar. Academic structures like semester-long time frames and financial resource allocation are not the same structures in the nonacademic world. Nonprofits and community-based organizations have their own crunch periods and busy times that do not revolve around midterms and finals. When working with high school students, their midterm and final periods may be at different times than university finals. In nonprofits and other community-based organizations, it is likely that there are no such things as winter break, summer break, or other periods of time that academics rely upon to complete their research.
When writing up your research, have a clear picture of who the intended audience for this work is. At certain moments, it may be a discipline-specific journal or it might be the community with whom you are working. When creating digital work, think more broadly about how the medium will be accessed. If the project is internet-based, is the platform optimized for mobile phone viewing? Project directors should think about how different populations access the internet, including families whose internet access is primarily by mobile phone. Academic journals and community audiences should be attended to differently, and the writing should reflect an understanding of the specific audience for whom it’s written. As a scholar, being self-reflexive and visible in the work is also important. Edward Said (1983) asks the following questions: “Who writes? For whom is the writing being done? In what circumstances?” These questions summarize prime positioning for disseminating community-based work.
There is value in writing and building digital projects to create community. Particularly for scholars of color, creating for our communities can be just as powerful and necessary as a peer-reviewed journal article. Cherríe Moraga laments how infrequently writing from writers of color reaches our own communities, saying, “Our writings seldom directly reach the people we grew up with. Sometimes knowing this makes you feel like you’re dumping your words into a very deep and very dark hole. But we continue to write” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983, iii). It’s true that very little academic research—including from scholars of color and non-scholars of color—reaches the people we grew up with, regardless of background. The difference is that the commitments to community most scholars of color bring with them to academic positions are not valued and are not in alignment with the obligations of these positions, as George Sanchez has illustrated. Additionally, young people of color infrequently have the chance to read culturally relevant writing and research, and many are pushed out of school and university systems before they have the chance to study culturally relevant materials.
As scholars of color, we must continue to stand in the front of classrooms, create code, and conduct culturally relevant research in order to disrupt young people’s imagined model of what a college professor or a PhD looks like. Stereotypical images of teachers and professors in the media and popular culture portray a certain archetype of what type of person is in the classroom (Weber and Mitchell 1995), but the imagined standard of white teacher is quite close to reality. Teachers of color at the elementary and high school level make up only 17 percent of all teachers across the United States (Boser 2014), and the percentages mentioned earlier in this chapter show that college professors of color are less than half of that number. Students of color have better academic performance when they are taught by instructors of color (Ingersoll and May 2011) and we know we need more teachers and professors of color. How can we patch our leaky pipeline to get more scholars of color in universities? Knowing that community relationships can be a sustaining force for the scholars of color, how can we continue to engage in community-based work?
As academics, the research gaze is to the outside, and almost never on ourselves. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) reminds us that colonialism, racism, and imperialism are not ills only found outside university gates. As scholars of color who have agreed to become part of these academic systems, we too are complicit in upholding white supremacy in our work inside and outside the university unless we are actively questioning processes and taking part in dismantling preexisting systems of oppression. In an interview with Paula M. L. Moya, Junot Díaz asks us to examine within ourselves how we uphold white supremacy saying,
How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or the Voldemort name, which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet, here’s the rub: If a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: The devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us. (Moya 2012)
Díaz finds that we must name and examine the effects of white supremacy in our research, teaching, and community work in order to dismantle its hold. Where do our research methodologies hold implicit whiteness? What requirements of grants or funders uphold white supremacy? How do our technological, pedagogical, and epistemological practices utilize white supremacy? Once we identify the places where white supremacy exists in our research and teaching, we can find ways to transform our practices.
In The Resisters project, things did not go as planned, disruptions happened that altered the trajectory of this research, and other unanticipated difficulties popped up when navigating bureaucratic systems. Radical patience is what kept The Resisters project afloat. Radical patience is “the ability to remain engaged in the messy, unpredictable process of public participation without burning out or being cynical” (Mathieu 2005, 147). The model of radical patience encourages us to acknowledge how things that happen along the community-based research process can suck and be horribly disillusioning. Some days are better than others. Radical patience helps community-engaged practitioners to have long-range vision to attempt to see past short-term setbacks.
Within The Resisters project, I needed radical patience to manage my expectations of the game design team and game players, institutions, and community organizations. One example of a moment when radical patience was critical was when we needed to reimagine a major portion of a real-world challenge just weeks away from the game’s launch. In the original plan of the game, the final puzzle challenge would lead the game players to the Broad Street Synagogue, an abandoned synagogue in what is now a primarily Black and Latinx South Providence neighborhood. A group of community organizers, a rabbi, a nun, artists, and a few city council members had been organizing for years to turn the abandoned synagogue into useful space for the neighborhood to match their needs. The plan for The Resisters’ final challenge was to create Día de los Muertos-style altars to represent the various historical figures the game players had encountered during the game. A few weeks before the game’s launch, a real estate developer bought the Broad Street Synagogue building and the organizers had to hand over their keys to the building. We could no longer use the space for our final challenge and we were left scrambling, trying to figure out how to salvage the challenge. This was a tough moment for me, because I needed to find a solution for the final challenge and manage the emotions of the game design team around losing potentially the coolest feature of the game. Our last-minute solution brought the final challenge, when the players were inducted into The Resisters, to my tiny basement office on the college campus. We had much less of a natural environment wow factor than the crumbling synagogue, so we did our best and covered the bookshelves, file cabinets, and walls with black fabric and strings of white lights in order to transform a room with institutional office furniture into a game spectacle.
In the end, one of the codesigners remarked that the tiny office filled with homemade paper flowers and decorated skulls, ended up offering a much cozier feel and the space felt full with only a few people in it at a time. Radical patience helped me to continue planning and kept the game design team out of despair. The end result was not as grand as our imagined spooky, crumbling synagogue, but it still worked.
Paula Mathieu (2005) conceptualizes radical patience as a mechanism for working in community, but I also see this concept’s potential for being a person of color at a university. Scholars of color must have radical patience to navigate institutionalized racism, confrontations of scholarly legitimacy, and the extra, unacknowledged demands that come with being a person of color in mostly white university settings.
The final tools manifest a future of possibilities and embrace joy as a long-term care tactic. Hope within a civic-engagement framework is what “mediates between the insufficient present and an imagined but better future” (Mathieu 2005, 19). As scholars, educated hope is the foundation of social-change research, because educated hope is the balance between passion and reason (Mathieu 2005). For scholars of color, educated hope is a reflexive position where we move between the community ties we already have and the university structures we’ve adopted. Educated hope is a sense of knowing where to push to instill change, and where to not exhaust ourselves.
Tricia Rose offers another method of hope, what she calls “‘represent’ what you want, not just what is” (2008, 268). An important addition to the first definition of hope is acknowledging how scary it can be to actually admit what we want. This second level of hope asks scholars of color to take down our protective armor and be ambitious about futures for our communities and ourselves. Within the intergenerational consciousness of our communities, a professorial position is our ancestors’ wildest dreams. These locations in cultural memory are why Rose’s statement, “‘represent’ what you want, and not just what is,” is a grander dream than educated hope, because the rationalization of the latter would say that to be reasonable, scholars of color have already achieved enough.
In conclusion, the most resounding tactic of hope I encountered through this game development process is love. This concept of love manifests itself in multiple ways: love for ourselves, our communities, and even those who oppress us. bell hooks (1994) discusses how as academics we need to care for ourselves as whole people, and the separation of our public, scholarly lives and our private lives creates an unhealthy schism within us. That separation is another way of talking about Sanchez’s third culture, where scholarly lives become our public life, and our community ties shift to something that is private and unseen in university settings. If our culture and community ties are our souls, then we must work to make sure that as intellectuals our minds and our souls are healthy. Another form of love in doing community work is remembering to document our joy. bell hooks says,
Working within community, whether it be sharing a project with another person, or with a larger group, we are able to experience joy in struggle. That joy needs to be documented. For if we only focus on the pain, the difficulties which are surely real in any process of transformation, we only show a partial picture. (1994, 296)
hooks's positioning is a reminder that focusing only on the pain of struggle does not make us whole people. There is struggle and disappointment in civic-engagement work, both within the neighborhoods and the institutions where we work. We must not let the struggle and pain consume us.
1 Gathering around food was a standard practice within this research process. Community-based researchers should provide snacks whenever possible to young people, as it’s never certain that they’ve eaten during the day. Especially with free and reduced lunch at school, there may be a stigma attached to accepting the free lunch and students may forego the food so as not to draw attention to themselves.
2 It is also important to be critically aware of how art-washing, the deployment of arts to gentrify neighborhoods, can be used in the name of community relationship building.
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