Interview with Colleen Macklin, director of PETLab

PETLab is not your traditional type of lab. You won’t see any white coats or beakers with brightly colored liquids. What you will find is a handful of dedicated students and teachers, mostly from Parsons The New School of Design, researching game design and interactive media to create engaging learning experiences. Created in 2006 by Games for Change and the New School , PETLab came to life through a generous grant from The MacArthur Foundation.

The director of PETLab, Colleen Macklin, spoke with us about three creative approaches she’s used in creating game experiences that take the learning away from the screen and into the real world.

The Red Cross
I recently ran across an article from Reuters about the work PETLab has done with The Red Cross / Red Crescent. Colleen and her team designed a card game for their “Early Warning, Early Action” initiative. The game provides underserved communities with tools they need to prevent a crisis, instead of giving them assistance after a crisis has occurred. The pilot for this project took place in Doune Baba Dieye, a peninsula community near the mouth of the Senegal River in Africa. Residents, local Red Cross volunteers and climate scientists got together in auditorium-like settings to play together and collaborate.  The team’s hard work and enthusiasm has lead the Red Cross to try the game out in other countries like Malayasia, Kuala Lumpur, Ethiopia, and Morocco. The game will also be making an appearance at the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Another dynamic project from PETLab is Budget Ball, a creative solution to tackle the way Americans understand and approach finances. The MacArthur Foundation invited Colleen’s team and a handful of others to discuss America’s financial future. Also assembled at the meeting was designer Frank Lantz from area/code and representatives from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). Together with Frank and NAPA, PETLab experimented with different ways to use game play in addressing the financial crisis. They brainstormed several different ideas from Facebook games, digital simulations to traditional, table top games. In the end, they decided on a physical, sports-like game as their approach.  The project was a huge success and NAPA helped bring it to other schools and universities, with a large, annual game taking place in Washington, DC every Spring. College students take to the court to challenge local policy makers in a game that happens right in the heart of the National Mall. And every year, the students typically win against the government officials, ironically beating them at “their own game”.

Then there’s The Manahatta Project, a game done in partnership with The New Youth Learning Initiative. This concept falls directly in line with NYLI’s goal of connecting formal and informal learning together and explore new opportunities to use new media. The Manahatta project is a proof of concept idea based on research by Eric Sanderson. Designed together with the National Wildlife Conservation, the game lets players explore what Manhattan was like 400 years ago. For that purpose, the entire borough was geo-tagged with over 6 billion “connections”, which allowed players to see how the flora and fauna of Manhattan once interacted. Considering the game was created utilizing 10 years of research, expanding the game to other boroughs and other parts of the world will take some effort.

From small countries to the biggest cities in the world, Colleen’s work with PETLab shows that the idea of “games for change” can happen anywhere, even outside the computer screen. These game based approaches not only challenge players’ wits but their ideas of what collaborative learning experiences can be like.

To learn more about Colleen’s projects and more, visit the PETLab’s website:

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