The Thesis Project: the Second Semester Begins

From the ashes of an instant ramen- and coffee grounds-filled heap, Seize the Play is reborn!

I remember just four months ago (is that even possible!? 2017 felt like a full decade, good grief…), a naive and ambitious Justin intended to maintain a functioning game design blog on top of all my schoolwork and part time job – hah! Turns out things didn’t quite pan out that way. Reality hit hard and I decided to table the idea for the time being. Personal blogs can wait, this degree can’t. In fact, I’ve actually ended up stepping away from all types of social media in order to focus on my studies and well-being. No regrets there. But now things are looking a bit different…

My second semester classes just began, and it’s shaping up to be a very different animal than our first. Semester #1 was extremely theory-driven. We focused on sinking into a range of topics such as ethnographic study, participatory design, civics and activism, open government, smart cities and big data, connected learning, and oh-so much more. From here on out, though, my work will be very self-directed. My classmates and I are all in the midst of developing our thesis projects, each of which will naturally take different directions and timelines. I’m also taking a ‘directed study’ course in which I’ll be developing my podcast. It just so happens that both of these classes contain a large Journaling/Blogging component of the grade! We’re supposed to keep track of our individual progress through personal blogs…well hey, I have a nice little WordPress site all ready to go – let’s do this!

This post is my first graded assignment of my Spring Thesis Design Studio class. The purpose is to briefly summarize the current state of my thesis project. So welcome to the Portland Project!

Portland, ho!


My thesis project will be designing what I’m currently categorizing as an “interactive community engagement experience” centered around a digital game plus facilitated group conversation. This activity will take place in adult language learning classrooms around Portland, ME and will be aimed at both the population of newly arrived/currently settling immigrants as well as local non-immigrant racial minorities. My community stakeholder is Portland’s newly opened Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The main goals of this intervention are to:

  1. Better understand Portland’s immigrant population (and other underserved
    populations) by collecting richer, more experiential data and learning about community issues by identifying “gaps” in people’s existing opportunities.
  2. Provide information and guidance to community members about local services and
    assets currently available through Portland.
  3. Give these communities a sense of ownership and input into City-wide decision
    making and to properly align the OEO’s future budget and operations with community needs and wants.

I’ll be developing this project with the help of the Engagement Lab’s in-house design team as well as a great assortment of interested Portland community members that have formed an advisory board. We will be meeting to discuss our critical path forward in early February.

While the outline and scope of the project are fairly well-defined, the actual form that the game and class activity will take has yet to be decided. I currently have imagined three distinct styles of games that I think could be very well suited to meeting the project goals:

Idea One: Solo Simulation

 In this model, each player would first play a single player game in which they simulate a stretch of time as a selected character. There would be several characters to choose from, each with a distinct profile and set of goals to try and achieve within the stretch of time in order to ‘succeed’. Gameplay would be a simple interactive branching narrative based in Portland. Once the player goes through one loop of the time period, they are offered a chance to meddle with the story world: they have a certain capability to ‘edit’ the game and storyline: they are prompted to add additional narrative branches, each of which can provide additional value to the game’s characters (within a range – they’ll have a total budget pool to work from, perhaps even based on how well they did on the first go around to add some stakes).

Idea Two: Group Simulation

In this model, players form groups (or perhaps even one large group) to simulate being government officials in charge of the OEO budget. They are tasked with trying to rearrange the Office’s annual spending based on the needs and wishes of several distinct groups at play. The fun part of this group dynamic would be that different players could take on different roles and individually have incomplete knowledge. Each player could be presented with different information and different tasks, perhaps even carrying out simulated discussions with constituents, and all the players will need to work together to utilize their knowledge and creativity to best solve the problems they face. Players will need to both effectively use the existing services (with a mix of fixed and variable costs) as well as choose how to spend the rest of the budget. The goals within any given playthrough could even be based on some initial player input, resulting in a customizable experience based on the groups’ composition.


Idea Three: Simulation Sandbox

This game would be a map-based economy/construction-based sandbox puzzle game inspired by games such as Sim City, though probably a bit more playful and simplified, and could work as single-player or in small groups . It would (roughly) use Portland’s own geography to show the actual services and public assets available around the city, each with in-game values and roles. Players would have a chance to develop and their own creative buildings and accessible opportunities, creating their own names and descriptions for these new initiatives. Each building would have an available budget range for their services, and would be working towards the goal of creating as useful and efficient an overall annual report as possible. One key point of fun here would be that players would get a chance to visit others’ simulated cities and perhaps even get a chance to vote on which of their peers’ cities seem most effective (as well as other awards such as most creative or most inclusive, to help spark more discussion.)


So that’s where my project is at right now. One big area of improvement that I need to tackle as soon as possible is how to convey these ideas more visually. And more colorfully! I’m actually very interested in pursuing color – vivid, splashy, fun color – as a core component of the gameplay…Lots to think about! I’m excited to see where this goes. Until next time!

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