We were inspired to use game features of mobile AR games such as Pokémon Go and Ingress to facilitate direct, collaborative action through arts-based resistance. We wanted to leverage the power of games, which can provide intrinsically motivated scaffolding towards learning and participation goals, as a way to encourage artists and activists to explore issues they’re passionate about in a way that is both accessible and fun.

What it does

ArtHero gamifies the act of creative activism in order to encourage more people to fight for causes they care about through creative expression. In the current design, gameplay is carried out in the following steps:

  1. Build a Character: players create a ‘superhero’ avatar, consisting of several elements. These include sharing social movements they care about, the types of art they create, and a few fun decisions (e.g. hero genre, style, and peanut butter vs jelly preference).
  2. Complete Missions: players can complete Missions to earn Points. These missions can encourage players to generate new art, promote existing art, and/or engage with others. Some examples include: Write a haiku, Like, Share, or Comment on a piece of art using the #ArtHero hashtag, or Talk to another player [about an issue] and Tweet about what you learned. Missions are divided into 3 levels based on the complexity of the task. Higher level Missions increasingly encourage players to work together to co-create art and, at the highest level, begin generating their own Missions for others to participate in.
  3. Level Up: Players earn Points through their in-game actions. Missions give an amount of points based on their level. Players get additional points if their art is ‘kept alive’ over time by other persons engaging with it. The calculation of points is automated using the tweepy api and python. Note that our current paper prototype utilizes Twitter and a social media hashtag as a way to capture player engagement. In later forms, the game itself will be able to facilitate these interactions.

In startup lingo, the solution we’re interested in exploring might be explained as “Instructables meets Ingress for creative direct action in progressive movements.” We imagine this experience could have two sides, both connected by a cooperatively owned and governed nonprofit platform. The first side would consist of “Mini-Games.” These would be developed in partnership with social movement organizations as deeply immersive and time-limited games designed to onboard new people to the platform and help them learn about that particular movement. “Mini-Games” might take the form of interactive theater (Sleep No More), alternate reality games (Ingress Anomalies), music festivals, and even board games. In general, they’d be media-based experiences that help people identify with a movement and learn about it in a way that is playful, interactive, and semi-scripted with narrative form. The other half of the platform exists as a pervasive (potentially augmented reality) game based around creating, sharing, and discovering arts-based activism in your community through Missions. Missions are community-generated templates for creative resistance that include step-by-step instructions and features to coordinate resources and share actions taken by the community. By engaging in Missions, community members become eligible to apply for community grants to prototype potential new Experiences and participate in existing Experiences.

How it connects to creativity

The game encourages the use of creative and artistic means as a tool for activism and a tool for expressing personal viewpoints and passions. Various tasks are promoted in the form of missions to encourage strengthening and learning new art forms, such as illustration, dance, and music. While activism is a core goal of ArtHero, the other focus is to ensure users see the value of creativity, as well as the power art can hold in the spread of ideas and as a catalyst of change, as it has over time.

In addition to the artistic element, ArtHero also connects to creativity by addressing the users as Heroes. Through this title, users can feel empowered by the heroic qualities of their advocacy. The use of a superhero narrative encourages users to play the role of the Hero, using their creative powers to changes the world’s story for the better.

Finally, in the field of social movement studies, framing is the way that movements share the story of the work they’re doing. These stories can be highly contentious within movements, particularly when input is not sought from the grassroots. This is why all art shared through the community also enables contributors to cocreate the framing of the stories told by the social movement organizations they care about.

Business viability

We believe that platforms designed to function in support of democracy must be democratically owned and governed. As described by Trevelo Scholz and Nathan Schneider, the field of platform cooperativism reimagines the traditional democratic form of the cooperative as a way to govern and share value among the participating members of digital platforms.

In the case of social movements, this model could not only support the ethical governance of movement activity in a way the reflects community values, it could also provide much needed funding. Today, for-profit companies like Facebook are able to translate user engagement (eyeballs) into significant value for shareholders. It is feasible that a nonprofit cooperative could ethically employ similar strategies to convert its own user engagement into funding. For example, a platform structured as nonprofit with a board elected from its membership might generate revenue in the following ways:

  1. Members sell movement-related art, merchandise and event tickets on the platform, which takes a small transaction fee on sales (for example, products like this). Think Etsy. It’s interesting to note that, although it could, the platform wouldn’t necessarily have to complete with companies like Etsy but could instead simply create affiliate links that pay per click to products posted on other marketplaces.
  2. Members with the resources to do so could help crowdfund (“Missions”) to other members that provide cash payouts upon completion and, again, the platform takes a small percentage of that payout (crowdfunding action). Think Kickstarter.
  3. Members vote to sell anonymized community data to mission-aligned partners. Think Facebook.
  4. Members or the board vote to allow mission-aligned partners to pay to advertise on the platform. Facebook again.
  5. Members or the board vote to accept corporate sponsorship from major brands in exchange for public partnership with the community (underwriting a CFP, etc). Think Apple Product Red.

How we built it

Because there is little that is technically novel about building a platform of this nature, we spent our weekend paper prototyping an approximation of gameplay with limited automation. This automation was built primarily using the Python language and tweepy. In the future, the experience would most likely take the form of a mobile game for iOS, Android and web.

Challenges we ran into

Paper prototyping is a fantastic way to rapidly test an idea, but it also limited our ability to reach players. We were mostly bound to the Expo space, which had limited traffic today, so were only able to test the product with about 15 people.

What we learned

One important piece of feedback gained from interacting with festival-goers throughout the day was that onboarding needs to be simple and fun, and the rules for how to play need to be very easy to understand from the start. We also found that providing proper incentives is crucial to help motivate players to continue engagement.

Accomplishments that we’re proud of

We are proud of the positive response from the community of both artists and people who don’t consider themselves as professional artists. The sense of virtuality provided by developing a character at the beginning of the game also helps comfort the users with a sense of anonymity

What's next for ArtHero

ArtHero evolved from Libby’s thesis work on how games can help scaffold engagement in social movements. For user research, she’s been collaborating with a small social movement organization in Wisconsin that has been working to reduce the influence of money in politics. Their biggest challenge is the recruitment and retention of volunteers, particular people under the age of 50. At this point, her plan is to return to Wisconsin to run a series of co-design and user research sessions over winter break while developing the platform with collaborators at MIT and anyone from the Hacking Arts team who wishes to continue working on the project. Libby will also be co-teaching a Games for Change course here at MIT in the spring in which our students will translate the findings from Wisconsin into a 4-week, highly targeted game to onboard people to the platform, based on the needs of our social movement partner, Wisconsin United to Amend. Growth beyond this will take place issue by issue, in location-based partnerships with social movement organizations.

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