Ken Eklund on Crowdsourcing the Future of Education with Games

The actors behind “Ed Zed Omega”
The following is a guest post by Josh Spiro, a new member of the Ed Zed Omega team, and a games for change blogger.

School has a powerful ability to unite and divide us. It’s a common experience that almost everyone has had at one point in their lives; often a formative one, and that’s exactly why most people’s ideas and convictions about it are so firmly rooted. But it’s also an institution that isn’t working for many people, just ask the million-plus teens who drop out each year.

Ed Zed Omega is an alternate reality game (ARG) that addresses this monstrously macro issue through the stories of six Minneapolis high schoolers who’ve decided to drop out. Their guidance counselor challenges them to one last semester of self-directed study about education itself, and for the fall semester players of the game are following the teens’ struggles and sharing their own ideas about the vision and the reality of school through the characters’ blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and the main website, EdZedOmega.org.

The game was created by Ken Eklund, a main force behind the acclaimed ARG World Without Oil, and Andi McDaniel, a multimedia producer at Twin Cities Public Television. Since many of my closest friends are teachers, when I heard about Ed Zed Omega, I was already spending plenty of time in the midst of the education debate and the concept immediately intrigued me. I joined the team helping out with crafting social media updates and reaching out to students, teachers, and thinkers in the education space to invite them to join in the dialogue with the characters in the game.

Speaking about why they chose to address the issue of education in this particular format, Eklund said, “We’re talking about school being something that many, maybe most, young people tolerate or survive. If the first step is to feel the problem, to make it human and personal, then what better start than to chat with it on Facebook?”

In this interview, Eklund explains why ARGs are a great format for thinking about the world’s biggest problems, the benefits of giving his game’s characters freedom, and learning to avoid an overly ambitious scope in your games.

Why are these six students dropping out? Do you think this game will encourage other kids to consider dropping out? 

Each of the Zed Omegas has his or her own reasons for dropping out, but they are all reasons that spring from education and their relationship to it and not from outside forces such as the economy. Since 1.2 million kids will drop out this year, as they did last year and the year before that, I think there are factors at work on kids more powerful than a fiction. They are already considering dropping out, and it’s time to ask why.

Why education?

Because it’s the key question of our time. The dropout crisis alone creates what Tony Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, calls “the equivalent of a permanent recession.” We all know that a positive future depends on people smarter than us, yet the U.S. is dropping in global comparisons of education and innovation. Meanwhile, I don’t think anyone’s calculated the cost of school measured in crushed spirit and boredom, but I doubt anyone will seriously question that it’s huge.

The Ed Zed Omega blog is a mix of image memes, pop culture references, inspirational images, and thought provoking content produced by the in-game characters
Who do you want to play Ed Zed Omega, and are there other arenas where these people are already interacting? What makes Ed Zed Omega different?

Everyone who’s concerned about the present or the future of education, which is everyone, period. People are definitely interacting already around the deep questions about education, it’s everywhere in our lives, but there’s no coherent, inclusive conversation point; the conversations don’t value the opinions of teens and tweens; most of the talk seems hopelessly mired in the past. Ed Zed Omega is intended to be a lightning rod to attract all of these scattered conversations and ideas, and to focus on the value that young people bring to the dialogue. It is after all a dialogue about their futures.

What do you want to come out of Ed Zed Omega? What do you hope will have changed when the curtain closes on these six teens from Minneapolis?

I want to have all the game’s players come away changed by the experience: presuppositions challenged, realities realized, heads and heart engaged. I want people, especially teens, to tell their stories about their experiences, disenchantments and dreams of education. I want a vision of how education could be, and should be, to emerge from all these voices, and I want that vision to be so powerful that it has to become real. Some shadow of this epic mission is what has led the Zed Omegas to “drop out loud,” and behind the curtain, this is what drives our team’s work.

What are some of the advantages (or disadvantages) of creating a narrative where you, the designer, actively shape the characters rather than pouring those characters into an artificial intelligence as in a computer or console game? 

I didn’t actively shape these characters. I work in what I call authentic fiction, and let’s face it, any teen character I tried to shape would be inauthentic at some level, perhaps spectacularly so. The Zed Omegas are being played by young people who are channeling some authentic aspect of their life experience. As we have experienced in a few live sessions where the Zed Omegas come and talk to an audience entirely in character, it instantly connects people to the complex realities and contradictions of education today. I think, even online, this experience is in a completely different class of human connection than any AI or avatar can afford.

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You can learn more about Ed Zed Omega here.

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