Colleen Macklin, Parsons AMT professor and founder of the research group PETLab (Prototyping, Evaluation, Teaching, and Learning Lab) pioneers social engagement and new ways of learning by bringing together traditional games with advanced technology. Macklin spends most of her days, well, playing. She believes that play is an essential part of learning and that games are an essential part of life. Research Radiocaught up with her to ask why and to discuss the role of games in understanding social issues.
“Games existed even before written culture,” says Macklin, sitting in her open office behind a table scattered with what look to be board game pieces. “They explain systems, which underlie everything,” making them an ideal means of learning about and tackling social issues. Games can help players develop critical thinking skills and work within limits. “Rules provide players with a structure in which to experiment, test boundaries, and even fail,” says Macklin. “Games are safe places to fail, not like in real life.” Failing offers players insight into entire systems, giving them a clearer sense of how to solve problems. By allowing players to approach real-world problems creatively, gaming opens up opportunities for innovative social change.
Macklin was interested in games from childhood, but it wasn’t until much later—after an adolescence of photography and fine art—that she finally realized her childhood dream of becoming a game designer. “When I was 12, I stopped tinkering with gaming hardware because it wasn’t cool for a girl to be hanging out with all the nerdy boys,” she says. Now, after speaking at events like this year’s Game Developer’s Conference and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, she’s giving those nerdy boys in the industry a run for their money, touting games as a means to promote social change and as tools for creative education.
Most of the games Macklin designs inform players about social issues, and not all are digitally based. For example, in collaboration with the Red Cross, Macklin created a set of games using standard playing cards to explore methods of responding—on the part of the local community and relief workers—to weather-related disasters. Through the simulation of weather forecasts and disaster relief efforts, the game’s players become more aware of decision outcomes in crisis situations.
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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that explores academic inquiry at the university. Our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues, from sustainability to psychology to politics, for nearly a century–and now you can hear about their latest findings.