Patrick Jagoda

Gaming Gateway: Patrick Jagoda Discovers how Transmedia Storytelling Can Empower Adolescents

As one might expect, Patrick Jagoda, cofounder of the Game Changer video-game design lab in the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health, played video games as a child. 

But that's not the only part of his early life that influenced his career. “My parents were both immigrants from Poland,” says Jagoda, who is also an associate professor in the English and Cinema and Media Studies departments. “My mother was politically engaged and was part of the Solidarity movement.” Both threads—engagement with digital media and being part of a socially engaged family—led him to what he describes as an interest in “games for change.” 

In 2012, while still a postdoc at the University, Jagoda met Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Melissa Gilliam, who was actively looking for new ways to use new media to impact serious issues affecting Chicago youth. “We thought adolescent health would be a meaningful content area to explore with serious games,” said Jagoda. In his case, games can range from card games, video games, and “alternate reality” games that send players into the real world.

The collaboration was a success from the get-go. The first program was only intended to be a week long, where students from a south side high school would have “five intense days supported by a little bit of funding” to create a digital story about unplanned pregnancy.  When it was clear that the project would run out of time before it came to fruition, the students decided to keep going, volunteering to come in on a Saturday to finish it. “We saw that enough was happening in that single workshop that we should establish a lab,” says Jagoda. In 2013, the lab received financial support from the Neubauer Collegium after it was chosen as one of its featured projects. And in 2015, the lab was awarded a $1 million MacArthur Foundation grant.

Game Changer, which engages with south side Chicago youth, many of whom are at-risk, challenges the stereotype of the traditional gamer. While Jagoda presents his own past as evidence of the white male teenager gamer stereotype, he says that recent statistics show that the average age of gamers are in their mid-30’s, and about half of those players are women. “There are still massive inequalities at the level of game design and development, and there's no universal market like there might once have been,” he says.

Jagoda believes that the digital world engages and teaches in ways other modes of education cannot. In a traditional lecture-based classroom one person speaks to 80 people “and their brains are probably flatlining during much of that,” Jagoda says. A game provides text, audio, animations, and even interactive dimensions in one accessible place.  “Many different kinds of learners can access a video game and get something out of it,” says Jagoda. Plus, he says, games help students understand abstract systems that are often hard to conceptualize. When learning about economics, politics, and social systems through a game, Jagoda says, “You still have your individuality, but since the game is a formal system, you’re able to use maps and different forms of presentation to grasp larger systemic issues.”

Aside from informal student enthusiasm, he and Gilliam measure the games’ success as teaching tools. Each project ends with qualitative and quantitative research, including pre-and post-intervention surveys to discern what the students did and didn’t learn. Often, the students’ own work serves as ethnography. This summer, the three-week game-based science and health program, Hexacago Health Academy, taught Chicago youth how to make board games about serious topics like obesity, tobacco use, and drug abuse. The final results, Jagoda says, are “an artifact we can study and build on.”

There is an added community element to the lab. At Hexacago, undergraduate and graduate students served as both facilitators and mentors in what Jagoda and his team refer to as Youth Initiated Mentoring. “You teach participants how to identify an adult in their lives whom they hope to be like and learn from.” Jagoda says. “We teach them how to engage with [their mentors], how to take their own education in your hands.”

The mentoring program is just one way that Game Changer dispels the myth that gaming is a solitary, antisocial endeavor. Jagoda has received positive feedback from his players regarding how well the games got them to collaborate with one another.  “When we think of art, we often think of it as an individual, the painter, the novelist, whereas with something like game design and game play, you’re active, there’s a kinesthetic dimension to it, there’s a sociality to it that’s different.“

In order to create games that reflect a certain relevance to its audience, Jagoda and his team also perfect the art of collaboration. “I’m not making games exactly for people like me,” he says. At the lab, they’ve created “a space in which youth are likely to share details of their lives, including hardships they’ve gone through that they might not otherwise engage with in a school or clinical setting that is too hierarchical or antiseptic.” The collaborative aspect of creating and playing games, Jagoda says, has taught both him and his team to become better listeners.

The freedom present in games, Jagoda believes, actually provides a necessary safety net for young people, creating an excellent training tool for life. “I think games are the only place in American culture in 2016 where you can fail gloriously and are not punished for it,” he says. “Games involve a form of safe failure, in trial and error. Even when you lose, there’s a degree of motivation to try again.”

— Claire Zulkey