Ci3's Game Changer Chicago earns MacArthur Foundation funding

April 10, 2013

Dr. Gilliam with studentsMelissa Gilliam, MD, MPH, created Ci3 to leverage University of Chicago resources across disciplines to make significant improvements in the sexual and reproductive health of vulnerable communities.

The Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual & Reproductive Health (Ci3) at the University of Chicago has received a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to advance its work identifying novel solutions to complex problems affecting health and well-being in vulnerable communities.

The grant will help support the creation of the Design Lab for Game Changer Chicago (GCC), Ci3's signature initiative to investigate how playing and designing games can promote the social and emotional well-being of youth and improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

Officially launched in November 2012, Ci3 unites University of Chicago researchers across multiple disciplines to examine issues surrounding reproductive health, sexuality, and the underlying systems and disparities in access that affect physical, emotional, social and economic well-being over the course of life. Those disciplines include medicine, English, sociology, economics, law, public policy, human development, gender studies, epidemiology, demography, business, neuroscience and psychology. Ci3's focus lies in five areas: global sexual and reproductive health, which includes family planning; the intersection of child and youth health, development and connected learning; sexual and reproductive decision-making; adolescent and unintended pregnancy; and obesity and its impact on reproductive health.

Game Changer Chicago is among the dawning Ci3 endeavors, predating its formal inception. The initiative's use of gaming concepts, critical inquiry and storytelling techniques to engage youth in matters of sexual and emotional health has already garnered interest and praise locally and nationally.

Seed Lynn guides a group of teens Game Charger Chicago team member, Seed Lynn, guides a group of teens through the process of creating digital stories exploring life experiences around health-related issues.

During the spring and summer of 2012, students from ChicagoQuest -- a charter school on the Near North Side that uses digital technology and gaming as part of its problem-solving culture -- play tested a new card game as part of a non-traditional wellness class curriculum. "InFection Four" features four superheroes with social and emotional characteristics that allow players to discuss tools and behaviors that can prove effective against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and emotional villains such as shame, stigma, and fear.

In another GCC project, other high school participants helped craft the transmedia game "Stork," a scavenger hunt spanning the physical and virtual world using traditional media, social media, text messaging and the Web to uncover direct or subtle messages around sexual health. That project's success set the stage for collaboration with ChicagoQuest along with other progressive youth-centered initiatives and groups such as Hive Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry science clubs, and music icon Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation.

This year GCC will collaborate with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office, the Mozilla Foundation and others as part of Chicago Summer of Learning. The group will design a game to be played by youth across the city over a one-month period. As the initiative continues to take shape and expand its reach, the new Design Lab will provide space, support and expertise for research, prototyping and iterative design.

The inspiration for Ci3 came from Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, chief of the section of family planning and contraceptive research, and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences Division. Gilliam recognized that many of the problems related to sexual and reproductive health transcend one academic or medical discipline. Game Changer Chicago, she said, is a perfect example of an opportunity to drive social change that wouldn't have been possible without talent and insight tapped from across campus.

"Games have the power to shape reality," said Gilliam, Ci3's director. "We've created an incubator for innovation around that notion, and we're thrilled to have this significant vote of confidence from the MacArthur Foundation."

She said GCC explores how theoretical questions central to games and digital humanities offer new opportunities to study social systems and structural inequalities in urban communities: "How do we employ these theories to examine behaviors and attitudes around sexual behavior, pregnancy, relationships and contraception? How will these new intersections bring forth fresh insights? How can these insights be best deployed in practice? Will altering the context of creative expression create new approaches toward unconventional strategies for education in a digital age?"

Patrick Jagoda, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of English and co-founder of GCC, is seeing evidence that the game prototypes under way could fill a gap left by traditional sexual education, an approach he feels is failing the nation's youth.

Patrick Jagoda, PhD, and others GCC co-founder Patrick Jagoda, PhD, (second from right) is seeing evidence that digital storytelling and games have the potential to fill a gap left by traditional sexual education.

"Often sex education programs just offer youth information about STIs and contraception," said Jagoda, a leading scholar on digital storytelling and game theory and design. "We're going beyond that to think about sexuality in a more networked way -- as a system with emotional and social components. Game Changer encourages our youth to shape their learning opportunities around their experiences with sexuality. We give them the tools to engage in world-generating collaborative projects that are based in their own realities."

The GCC Design Lab builds on previous workshop models and will allow Gilliam, Jagoda and Ci3 staff to house these creative processes in an environment where high school students are joined by graduate and undergraduate fellows who sign on for a year to co-create game prototypes. The youth are quickly introduced to a world with few rules -- a relaxed forum for creativity and open, fluid dialogue. One of the main objectives for the program is to make sure the conversation doesn't end with the workshop. The organizers look to harness principles of "connected learning," or opportunities to link messages across an adolescent's learning environments that include home, school, community, popular culture and technology, as well as the influence of peers.

"A lot of this is about relationship building," said Angela Heimburger, Ci3's executive director. "We're looking closely at the ways kids interact with information across sectors and technologies. We're investigating game play and game design as effective tools to empower kids to think more critically and maybe understand information differently while building other real-life skills. The participants in our workshops have shared powerful stories and posed very thoughtful questions. They're demonstrating an interest in learning in a different way."

A beta of GCC's latest completed project, "Lucidity," can be found at http://luciditygame.com. The game offers challenging puzzles, videos and engaging narrative. Heimburger said there's more to come.

"Our goal is for these game prototypes to serve as a model," she said, "to put something out there that can be used by different people in many different ways, whether it's in classroom setting, as part of community program or even as a museum exhibit. We don't want to force any of these concepts into a mold. That would take us back to where we started. Our vision is about breaking molds."

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