Cyborg Tea Parties and the Pedagogical Opportunities of Alternate Reality Games

I think a lot about critical literacies for young people of color and the pedagogical opportunities using games. Critical literacies “emerge as young people inquire into their lives and environment, … reflect on the social and historical context of their experiences to understand the root causes of inequities, and then become agents of positive change.”1 I’m currently co-designing and co-building an alternate reality game based on local Black and Latina/o activism with young people in Providence, RI. The ARG is anchored in historical instances of activism, shaped by group archival research, and eventually executed in the physical locations where this activism took place. What’s important about this project is not just involving young people of color in game play, it also offers creative agency where young people of color are primary media makers who create their own digital archive that reflects the importance of their often ignored histories.

But how can an ARG affect their learning? To answer this question I turn to critical education scholars and cultural theorists that enhance my understanding of how games can influence the learning process. In my alternate reality, I’m having a tea party with Audre Lorde and Chela Sandoval and I ask them how they feel about the ARG we’re building. They’re hard on me, but supportive of this work.

Audre Lorde speaks first, saying, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of the same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”2 To me, Lorde’s statement critiques the educational system as it currently stands as a racist, patriarchal system. Game-based learning allows for a small margin of change, but as technological systems are mainly created, utilized, and funded by straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men, the actual liberatory potential is small. Lorde reminds me that the master’s (contemporary technological) tools will not dismantle the master’s house. She says, “They allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”3 What I take from this is that we need to fundamentally rethink the purpose of our educational system, and game-based learning is a temporary bandage on a larger gaping wound. I agree with Audre Lorde—games will not triumphantly topple our ailing educational system. But I haven’t given up on planting cyborg seeds that will help us re-imagine the true value of learning.

Chela Sandoval sips her tea and chimes in. “Colonized peoples of the Americas have already developed the cyborg skills required for survival under techno-human conditions as a requisite for survival under domination over the last 300 years.”4 Sandoval offers The Methodology of the Oppressed and its methods for deconstructing dominant narratives, and lets me know that technology—and teaching with technology—offers a particular form of oppositional consciousness for people of color. Developing this form of radical hope is the kind of learning I want to take place by designing and playing our ARG on Black and Latina/o activism.

I hope that for my youth co-designers, developing an ARG will impart cyborg skills of critical literacies that grow into bravery, courage, and generosity. And these tools might stand a fighting chance to re-imagine and rebuild the education system. For these reasons, I’m still hopeful about the future of engaged learning and see the possibilities of games as emancipatory tools.



1McDermott, M., Dukes, D., Rajkumar, S., & O’Reilly Rowe, D. (2007). Youth media and social change: One perspective from the field. Youth Media Reporter, 1(5), p. 94

2Lorde, A. (1983). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This bridge called my back: writings by radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, p. 98

3Lorde, A. (1983). p. 89

4Sandoval, C. (2000). New sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed. In D. Bell & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader. New York: Routledge, p. 375

Image on front page from Ingo Lutkebohle and available on flickr


I agree that games may not "triumphantly tumble" our education system right away, but this type of ARG may indeed be one of the many seeds that could lead to greater change.  For confidence building alone, allowing children to become media makers will certainly give them something to feel proud of, and it is a new space where they can both express themselves and learn more about themselves. As Van Eck (2011) says, it can be difficult to combine "educational content and gameplay without sacrificing one or the other", so I wonder, what kinds of tasks will the children will be asked to complete in your ARG? How will the students execute these tasks in the physical spaces where the activism took place?  This is a very interesting project, and I think it's a great opportunity to involve students in change that will hopefully enhance their critical literacies, as well as their sense of self as successful young students of color.

Van Eck, R. (2011). Bringing 'discipline' to the study of games and learning. Information Design Journal, 19(2), 181-187. 

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