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Urgent EVOKE: Season one comes to a close

Some day I will again write a short blog post, but this is not that day. May 12 marked the official end of Urgent EVOKE Season One, and the last day to join EVOKE until Season Two opens next year. 10 weeks into the journey, I have a few reflections on the experience.

What’s Urgent EVOKE again?
Depending on how you look at it, EVOKE is either a game or a learning experience — or both. Designed and run by alternate reality game master Jane McGonigal, EVOKE is supported by the World Bank Institute. At the end of Season One, EVOKE has 19,329 member-players. It was conceived as a way to teach young people to become social innovators; each week, players explored a social issue by learning about it, taking action on it, and imagining a future where that issue has been addressed. Players posted evidence of their work on the EVOKE site and received credit in the forms of runes and points in different EVOKE Powers (creativity, collaboration, local insight, sustainability, courage, knowledge share, resourcefulness, spark, vision, and entrepreneurship — labeled as key skills for social innovators). This week, some players are preparing EVOKATIONS, or proposals for real-world projects they would like to work on. The World Bank Institute hopes to award up to 20 $1,000 grants to start the best EVOKATIONS. Originally, the rules specified that entrants had to be born in 1985 or later, but that was changed this week when the game runners realized that many of the players were actually older than the target demographic.

What I did
Players were assigned quests and missions. Quests were single-page questionnaires that prompted players to think about their own actions and motivations; taken together, the 10 quests make up each player’s personal story. I completed all 10 quests and you can read them on my profile page (the first one is displayed; use the “Select a Story” drop-down to see the other 9).

For the first five weeks, I dived into each mission, completing one per week, more or less. I temporarily cut way back on my World of Warcraft playing time so that I could focus on EVOKE, and I really enjoyed it. Right around the middle of the season, I had some travel and some other things come up and I fell a bit behind; at the time of this writing, I have completed at least one objective for each of the 10 missions, but only 7 missions are completely finished. I have until next Wednesday to submit the remaining objectives (I think; the rules are a little unclear). I’m hoping to do at least a couple more, but I’m not sure I will get through all of them. I’ve made my peace with this possibility :-)

What I learned
This was not only a 10-week course on social issues and how to make a difference, but also a journey into who I am personally. There are so many big, important problems in the world, and it makes me glad that people have different interests because there’s no way any one person can fully engage with all of them. I learned about local issues — for instance, I didn’t understand the connection between the salmon season and agriculture in the Sacramento River area, and now I have at least a tenuous grasp on how they are related. I learned about global issues and what daily life is like in a lot of other parts of the world. Not that I was clueless, but after reading the stories of people who live in those places I understand a little more than I did before. I also learned about organizations that actually help, and organizations that seem to help but don’t make efficient use of their resources, and organizations that try to help but don’t really look to see what kind of help is needed or wanted.

I learned lots of ways to make a small difference, things that I can do personally. I’m not really the evangelist type, and I know that my particular path is not to try to convince others to change their actions or save the world; EVOKE didn’t change that. But I did learn that I can be more aware and act more responsibly. I also chose to make a year-long commitment to give a small donation each month to an organization that improves the availability of water in places where it is scarce. At this point in my life, it’s not realistic to think that I’m going to go dig wells myself, but I can help in other ways. I also pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone a few times and then wrote about the experience in my EVOKE blog.

And, once again, I bit off more than I could chew. Early in the season I started a project to develop a curriculum guide for teachers who want to use EVOKE-style projects in their classes, either with or without a computer. I still want to develop this, but it was not the four-week project I imagined, or even a 10-week project. (If anyone’s interested in working on this, let me know! Love to have you.)

What I noticed about my own participation
The first five weeks were fantastic. When I was able to engage for a couple of hours a day (yup, I really did replace WoW time with EVOKE time, and it was usually one to two hours an evening, sometimes more), I was so energized and excited about what I was doing and learning. Later, when I had less time to devote and I fell behind a little, it was still important to me to put a real effort into each objective and not to phone it in — which is why some of them are still undone. If I do them at all, I want to do them well. I think if EVOKE had been a six-week course, I would have been able to maintain the momentum that I had in the early weeks. Ten weeks is a lot, and I travel a lot, so that made it tough.

I really enjoyed reading and commenting on other player’s work. There’s a lot of talent out there in the world, and quite a bit of it found its way into EVOKE. The system that supported the game (Ning) was set up in such a way that managing friends was difficult; I basically accepted friendship from anyone who offered, after I checked their blogs to make sure I could get along with them — not that they had to have the same opinions that I do, but that they weren’t spammers or narrow-minded nutcases — and I offered friendship to everyone whose work I liked. I ended up with 144 friends, and at some point, I read or viewed something created by each of them.

And it’s unfashionable to admit it, but I liked the points and the runes. I’m very goal-oriented and possibly slightly competitive. Depends who you ask. Anyway, I enjoyed playing a game while I was learning and I got a huge kick out of my personal epic wins.

Epic wins?
An epic win is something that is amazing and great and that makes the player happy and excited and triumphant. They can vary from player to player, especially in an open-ended game like this. My epic wins for Urgent EVOKE:

  1. I started a teacher discussion group, initially just to find people who had interests like mine, and I was awarded 100 power points (Spark) on the spot.
  2. My discussion was featured on the topic page for Agent Resources and Utilities, and for a while, on the main discussion page.
  3. I was picked as a hero of the week, twice.
  4. I was a featured agent — my profile was featured at the top of the agents page. These rotate, so it’s not there any more. But it was!
  5. Best epic win of all: Jane McGonigal commented on one of my pieces of evidence. Score! It sparked a fantastic discussion in the comments section. Plus I think I agreed to build a wind-powered sewing machine.

What I noticed about the game itself
The structure of the game was well-designed for self-directed learning. Each week started with a comic to get you interested in the topic. The comic included several references that were framed as questions in an “investigate this episode” blog post, with links to primary sources online where answers could be found. (I really liked that feature.) Each quest invited the player to explore him- or herself, and each mission built a foundation of understanding with the “learn” objective that led into planning and implementation with the “act” objective. The “imagine” objective then invited players to exercise their creativity, both in terms of thinking about the future and also expressing their ideas.

A couple of issues came up during the season that the game runners dealt with very quickly and gracefully. Originally, every piece of evidence submitted for the objectives was to be reviewed by a game runner and approved before the mission rune would light up on the profile page. I can tell you that excitedly completing the first mission and then waiting three days and still not seeing the rune light up was NOT an epic win. The game designers know this as well as I do, though, and by the second week had rolled out a system where players could log their own evidence and light up their own runes. Very cool.

The leaderboard was another unexpected issue that was handled well. Originally, it was a list of the top players according to point totals. This led to people gaming the system for more points, not unnaturally. Unfortunately, some of the methods were disruptive, involving spamming other players or creating fake profiles to use them for voting. The game runners could have tried to police the bad behavior, but instead they made the wise choice to remove the incentive and developed the leader cloud instead. This gave exposure to both the top and bottom tiers of point-earners, offered more lists for people to be at the top of, and included some elements of randomness and effort-based recognition so that everyone might have a chance to show up there.

Then there was the drama. Oh, the drama. The game runners didn’t let it get in the way, and I won’t dwell on it, except to note that in any group of 19,000 people, some of them are going to get offended or upset and storm out of the room in a fit of pique. EVOKE was no exception.

What I’m hoping for in Season Two
I wrote a wish list about what I’d like to see in Season Two. There are a few convenience features that I want, like making it easier to find interesting or relevant content and better group management. I’m curious to see what issues come up as missions. I’m thrilled that there’s going to be a Season Two, even if I choose not to play, because I think there’s tremendous potential here for teachers and students. I think EVOKE got noticed this time around and I hope lots more teachers will bring their classes in next time.

3 Comments

  1. nomadHAR says:

    first, i would like to say that Urgent Evoke, despite its faults, has the potential to produce some real positive change. however, its faults and failings should be addressed as well.

    it did not reach its true target demographic: the youth of African nations. it was the direct request of South African universities:
    http://updatedfrequently.com/critics-of-the-on-line-poverty-game-urgent-evoke

    check out the agent map, and also consider the actual active agents:
    http://www.urgentevoke.com/page/agent-map

    why did this happen? they took the easier route. newspapers and radio are the main communication methods for their target audience, but that would take some work and money. they created an online site and staffed it with volunteers. there were obvious cut-and-paste sections in the missions. my opinion is that the World Bank and Jane McGonigal took the easy way out that could produce positive publicity.

    Jane and the World Bank also controlled the network very tightly. unclear, unexplained censorship ran rampant. post deletions and bannings happened and were rarely explained even to the accused:
    http://www.urgentevoke.com/profiles/blogs/what-happened

    they claim to hold to a USA “PG-13” standard, but included bloody violence and killing in their own online comic book (Episode 7).

    of course, there is also the common argument made against the World Bank; stealth philanthrocapitalism. this became really believable when an entire week was dedicated to the future of money. also, one of the Urgent Evoke ‘superpowers’ is entrepreneurship.

    http://deweycsi.blogspot.com/2010/03/stealth-philanthrocapitalism-new-world.html

    i think Urgent Evoke has served to motivate a lot of well-meaning people into social activism. i just hope that everyone takes the time to consider the full cultural context and repercussions of any projects, as well as how their projects could be abused by institutions like the World Bank.

  2. Ninmah,

    I really enjoyed this blog! It really helped me recap the season and put me back into a frame of mind of getting back into the projects I started. The point you made about the length of the Season being too long really got me thinking. You mentioned WoW, and I’m thinking a more open world type of format for the missions would work better than the linear format they have going now for exactly the same reason it works better in the MMO world. It would allow players to progress at their own rate, and still collaborate on some of the more difficult missions, gaining additional recognition for collaborating.

    Thanks for the great read!
    Nick

  3. ninmah says:

    Nick and nomadHAR, thanks for your comments.

    @Nick — I like that idea, and it sounds like the game runners are thinking along the same lines. Among other themes, it came out in the EVOKE Post-Vita as something that might be changed for next time.

    @nomadHAR — Thanks for posting your perspective. I agree that EVOKE’s actual demographic did not match its target demographic. Using an Internet-based game to reach people without reliable access is problematic. I’m pleased that the designers are planning for future seasons to be more easily accessible via mobiles, and I hope they will also take the suggestions offered by many to publicize the game through newspapers and TV ads.

    However, in mid-season I saw the game runners attempt to adapt the game to the demographic they had attracted, which is more than many would have done. The game’s popularity in other parts of the world isn’t entirely a bad thing, either, as it helped to raise awareness and bring Westerners into direct contact with people in other parts of the world who are working toward effective change.

    I disagree with your characterization of the game’s moderation as “unclear, unexplained censorship” running rampant. As I understand it, the posts and accounts that were deleted either contained threatening material or were entirely devoted to spamming. I saw many, many posts expressing a wide range of views, both aligned with and counter to the philosophy of the game and including thoughtful criticism of the game’s workings, that were not deleted.

    The post you link to last, the one about philanthrocapitalism, appears to have been written by someone who was under the impression that Urgent EVOKE was a computer game. It wasn’t, and never pretended to be. I also noticed that any comments other than “wow, great post!” were removed by that blog’s administrators, while obvious spam was allowed to stand as long as it said something nice. Let’s talk about rampant censorship.

    It’s also important to note that with an audience of tens of thousands, different people will take away different lessons from an experience like this. I can only speak from my own perspective, and I appreciate what Urgent EVOKE did to open my eyes and give me access to the views of people I would otherwise not have met.

    Congratulations to all EVOKErs who received prizes, seed funding, and recognition for your achievements!

    Oh, and 28 real projects that were born in EVOKE are currently listed in Global Giving — take a look. They are competing to raise bonus funding, so if you can leave a comment or even make a small donation, please do.