[-empyre-] alternate realities as opportunities for learning and change

Ulises Mejias ulises.mejias at oswego.edu
Tue Mar 26 04:22:40 EST 2013

Dear all,

There was that one time at SUNY Oswego (where I teach) when students
decided to form their own White Student Union in reaction to the Black and
Latino Student Unions; and the time the school newspaper decided to print a
cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed; and the time students protested the
substantial donation to the college made by a fracking company... Each one
of these events served as a learning opportunity and a forum to debate
ideas and ideals in the community.

Except that none of them actually happened. Or rather, they only happened
in an alternate reality universe we call Osw3go.net.

I have been conducting these alternate reality simulations for four years,
each time exploring a different theme (budget cuts to education, racism on
campus, Islamophobia, US-Mexico relations, fracking). During the
simulations, students respond to a number of scenarios, accessing resources
in order to inform their participation and better shape their outcome. The
resources can include readings, films, news items, and so on. Students do
not merely consume resources, but create and share their own, and they can
organize and participate in a number of events such as teach-in’s, panels,
community forums, and even civic engagement projects.

In my book *Off the Network* (coming this June from Minnesota Press -- and
yes that was a shameless plug!), I discuss various strategies for
unthinking network logic. One such strategy is the kind of intensification
that transforms online action into offline resistance, and expands the
reality of the individual to encompass not just the digital network, but
the world in both its local and global dimensions.

As an educator, I have been exploring one such strategy for intensification
through the use of Alternate Reality Games as platforms for simulation and
activism. Although still a work in progress, I have been experimenting with
the idea that the digital network can be used in the creation of new forms
of knowledge that transcend the limits of network logic, generating ways in
which the resistance of the outside of networks can be intensified into new
models of subjectivity that change what participation means.

The goal of my version of ARG is to involve communities in analyzing a
real-life problem, collectively articulating a multitude of realistic and
possible responses to it, and examining the ethical question of who has the
responsibility to act, and what action should look like. The objective in
this case is not only to raise awareness about a problem in a community,
but to collectively propose a number of possible responses to it. This form
of networked gaming can thus be framed as a form of participatory action
research (PAR), which is concerned with promoting social change through
iterative research activities that involve the members of a community. PAR,
which has a rich history in Latin America, is a form of collective action
through purposeful investigation, by and for the affected community.

This year, the project was awarded an Innovative Instructional Technology
Grant from SUNY. With the help of ICAD (Ithaca Content Architecture and
Design), we've put together a modified version of WordPress to support our
"brand" of ARG which we are tentatively calling SOAP (SUNY Oswego ARG
Package). We intend to release SOAP soon so that anyone can conduct their
ARG. It's not a perfect product, but hopefully a community of users and
developers will continue to improve it.

I can't show you the actual ARG, because it is closed to the Oswego
community, but if you go to the following link you can see a slideshow that
describes the mechanics of the template:


As you can see, one distinguishing characteristic of SOAP is the way
participation is structured. Playing the game is voluntary (or, in some
cases, an extra credit opportunity), and students are encouraged to
"compete" with one another by completing different participation goals.
These goals range from simply contributing to the online scenarios
(participating in the online discussions, and helping to imagine the
stories), to higher levels of engagement that transcend the online
environment. For example, students can attend on-campus events (lectures,
teach-ins, screenings, etc.), actively participate in organizing those
events, or organize civic engagement projects related to the theme of the
ARG (awareness-raising events, fund raisers, protests, etc.). There is also
at least one community forum in which participants get together to discuss
the experience and consider the question of what action, if any, they need
to take beyond the game.

In this manner, the "virtual" character of these alternate realities is
intensified by overcoming the limits of the very networks that give them
shape. This is how the unmapping of the digital network takes place; after
possibilities have been imagined and explored online, the simulation must
be put aside as the community comes together to examine the question,
individually and collectively, of what to do next. This completes the
passage from virtual to possible to real. From this perspective, ARG can
serve to intensify social realities, giving shape to something that
originates merely as a  possibility. Before becoming realities, these
possibilities only exist in mediated form; they are language and media
constructs that exists merely as bits of information circulating through
the network. But these possibilities can be intensified into a concrete
reality, a reality that subjects co-construct through their participation
beyond the digital network. If these possibilities were to never transcend
the digital network that gave them shape, they would only exist as arrested
mediations on the terms that the network dictates. Thus, what is
interesting to me is not just the medium of the ARG itself (since it is
just one strategy of many that could be used to achieve similar ends), but
how this medium can be used to generate possibilities that end up negating
what is used to create those possibilities in the first place. The goal
shifts from the mere actualization of virtualities (making possible new
digitized forms of sociality) to figuring out how, in this process of
intensification, the digital network itself has become what we have to
examine, critique, disassemble, and leave behind--what needs to be negated
and disidentified from in order to figure out who and what we are.

Let me know if you have any questions.


Dr. Ulises A. Mejias
Assistant Professor, Communication Studies Department
10 Lanigan Hall, SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY 13126-3599
Personal website: http://ulisesmejias.com
My book: Off the Network - University of Minnesota
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