Jumpstarting Change: Game Lab Students Showcase Findings on Community Engagement at GDC 2016

The JoLT initiative started in 2015 with the question, “Do the worlds of game design and journalism have anything to learn from each other?” The answer is yes, and three students from the American University Game Design program got to present the initiative’s findings this year at the Game Developers’ Conference. The conference, known as GDC, is the nation’s premier professionals-only gaming event and attracts over 26,000 people annually to network and share ideas.

AU game design students Joyce Rice, Cherisse Datu, and Kelli Dunlap are JoLT Fellows, which means they work with the JoLT initiative as part of their curriculum. The three women went to downtown San Francisco in mid-March to present their findings in the heart of tech industry territory alongside Game Lab Director Lindsay Grace.

Rice is the Creative Director of Symbolia, a magazine that merges comics and news; Datu is an international journalism professional interested in multi-platform news innovation; and Dunlap has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and focuses on mental health and gaming. Over the course of the past year they created and researched games that promote critical thinking about important world issues.

Their panel, “Community Engagement at the Intersection of Games and News,” explored community engagement both within the game space and without. How do you manage information to guide users to feel a certain way about a cause? What are effective styles to catch consumers’ attention on what was once considered stuffy topics? How can games further a social cause or foundation? Alongside their presentation, the panel featured a roundtable-style feedback session afterwards.

The experience was significant for Rice and company for several reasons. First and foremost, students rarely get to host an event at GDC, and earning the spot shows that their work is innovative and valuable to the community as a whole. Too, GDC itself is a fertile ground to share ideas and learn from industry leaders. It’s also the country’s best networking opportunity for game developers new and old; Microsoft and many other well-known companies are within walking distance.


JoLT is a collaboration between American University’s Game Lab and the School of Communication, and is funded through a $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Hosted at AU, JoLT brings together faculty, students, and industry professionals from both worlds.

At first, this might seem like an odd pairing of disciplines, but game designers are very good at engaging their audience in a way that leaves a lasting impression; however, the industry has a longstanding issue with addressing social responsibility. Meanwhile, journalists often center on human-focused issues, but the industry struggles for engagement and guided understanding, as well as lasting impact once away from the article.

JoLT’s first year brought together academics and industry professionals from both sides along with GameLab students to identify what we know, what we didn’t know, and our potential to do great things in the world through gaming. And then, they built games.


The JoLT team discovered that when news is changed from a standard, linear narrative to an interactive experience, it can both change people’s perspectives effectively and promote consumer action.

For instance, the game Cow Crusher illustrates the barbaric practices of slaughterhouses in way that is much cuter than real life, but still shifts one’s understanding in a targeted way.

Meanwhile, Factitious, one of the ongoing outreach projects developed through JoLT, uses an online game designed to work in classrooms—it teaches high school students how to spot fake or fabricated news. Such media literacy is crucial to having an educated citizenry, who in turn consume more—and more intelligent—media. Which, at the end of the day, may promote more investigative and social-minded news media being funded and created, which benefits everyone.


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