Picture this: a mobile and colorful feast for the eyes, ears and imagination winding its…
Many parents shake their heads when they hear stories about what some of the most popular video games glorify.
Guns. Violence. Crime. Sex. Misogyny.
But what if video games could explore contemporary social issues such as racial profiling, bullying, white privilege, peer pressure and immigration? And what if those games were designed and created by inner-city teenagers coping with those realities every day?
Ciampaglia and his partner in the arts and in life, Kerry Richardson, spent the summer guiding 13 adolescent artists – a nearly equal split of boys and girls – through the intersection of art and technology.
Young artists came each week to Hyde Park Art Center, which provided physical space and administrative support for The Plug-In Studio’s free and collaborative programming. Ciampaglia and Richardson are co-founders and directors of the “nomadic” collective of artist-teachers who partner with community centers throughout the Chicago area to offer free art and technology programming.
And, just days before the Chicago Public Schools open, the public is invited to play the games and chat with the artists during “The Street Arcade,” an outdoor, retro arcade event scheduled from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2, at the art center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. in Chicago.
Participants will find old-school arcade cabinets, red-knob joysticks with buttons and a group of mostly 14-year-old designers ready to talk about what they did during summer vacation. The games will be projected onto the façade of the art center.
“The games are really good,” Ciampaglia says. “I am very happy with not just the subject matter – the social issues that the teens chose – but also with the way they participated in the creative process all the way through, and how committed they’ve been.”
One teen’s game examines stereotypes in movies, particularly the roles white actors and African-Americans play in action movies. “He told me that often, when he watched an action movie, the black character didn’t survive in the end, but the white character did,” the professor says.
Players are given their choice of character; they then find themselves on the set of a movie, trapped inside a locked room and battling zombies. There is a way to win, he says, but that’s a secret for the players to discover.
Another game challenges players to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
“When the game starts, it’s nightfall,” Ciampaglia says. “You have to make your way through the rough terrain that leads to the U.S.-Mexican border. You have to jump over different obstacles, go under fences and reach the border before daybreak. Otherwise, you’ll be caught.”
He also likes one of the games designed by a girl who expressed the difficulty of achieving and maintaining a good balance in life.
“You’re standing there on the screen, and you’re inundated with a deluge of objects coming at you, like social media icons coming at you, and little sprites that represent books – positive influences,” Ciampaglia says. “You have to avoid the bad things and take the good things. It’s all about leading a moderate and healthy life.”
Ciampaglia and Richardson began the summer by discussing “media literacy” with their artists, focusing on “understanding the forces that compel the ways you behave, understanding the messages transmitted to you through the mass media.”
“A motion picture might cost $150 million. A video game like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ can cost the same amount of money, and the production teams used to make it have the same amount of people,” he says. “It’s tailored to the demographic that are its heavy users, who are generally young white men, and its depictions of people of color and women are not always flattering.”
Gender is another issue.
“Kerry and I had a 50-50 split between males and females, which was important to us,” Ciampaglia says. “The commercial video gaming industry – and those are the games that most of the young people are familiar with – are catered to young men. Women are often excluded.”
With the table set, the Plug-In Studio teachers served the main course.
“We wanted them to realize that these games that they were consuming were these same games, and to look from the perspective of the makers and the financial imperatives of the makers,” he says. “We said, ‘Now that we’ve talked about this, how do you think you can make a game that would express your point of view?’ ”
Design was restricted to a simple “retro, 8-bit aesthetic” – reminiscent of Atari – to unleash the teen artists to focus on concept and art rather than complicated digital illustration and computer programming.
Placing expectations too high can prevent novice game designers from completing their projects, the professor says. It also allowed more time for contemplation.
“Some of the teen artists had a very clear vision of what they wanted,” he says.
“Others were unsure of how their social issue could be presented in a video game form,” he adds. “One was intent on exploring the relationships between white police officers and people in black communities but was having a difficult time figuring out how to explore that in a way that didn’t trivialize it and also be a game that people wanted to play.”
That’s when Ciampaglia and Richardson provided additional guidance.
“We’d say, ‘Where is this game heading? Is the message you originally intended being transmitted? Or do we need to recalibrate?’ ”
Nearing the end of the project – funding came from the NIU Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships and A Blade of Grass, an organization that promotes and nurtures socially engaged art – the two teachers are more than pleased with the results.
“Considering that most of them had never done any kind of computer programming, they have really taken to it. They’re very interested by it and not intimidated, and some have amazed me with how easily they understand the logical of programming,” Ciampaglia says. “A couple of them have even said they want to have a career in video games or video production.”
A bigger realization came on the emotional – not technological – side.
The artists were all African-Americans, a group under-represented in art and technology. Many attend schools that lack solid programming in art and technology.
“Adolescents are very rarely asked to voice their opinion on social issues, so when they are asked to do so, it can be daunting for them,” he says. “Kerry and I were impressed with how forthright this group of teens has been in expressing their views.”
The weekly interactions foster a lab school of sorts where he develops street-tested, undergraduate curriculum on classroom application of emerging technologies in art.
“Often I’ll share with my NIU students the work produced by the teenagers who participate in Plug-In Studio programming. I want to demonstrate the high quality of work, and just the expressive nature of that work,” he says.
“Many pre-service art education students, I don’t think, realize the depth of meaning that young people can invest in art making. This really makes it real for them. They can see first-hand how thoughtful these kids are, how perceptive they are and how much they actually want to express these things they think about and how they view the world,” he adds.
“I tell my students, ‘These kids don’t have many opportunities like these in their regular school experience: Therefore, it’s up to you. You are obligated to provide those experiences.’ ”