Designing for Social Justice: a question of CHARACTER

In response to our CFR on the digital divide, a group from USC proposed a cluster on how to design for social justice. We have been happy to include this special project into our survey as a response to the meta issues raised by our initial survey.

“Change comes first from stepping outside the limited information that can be seen from any single place in the system and getting an overview.” ~Donella H. Meadows

The above image is for "a question of CHARACTER," a game designed to enhance engagement with a collection of social justice films. The collection is part of the Women and Girls Lead public media campaign and is centered around the experiences of women and girls worldwide.

CHARACTER is a work in progress and a collaboration between the Independent Television Service and Take Action Games. ITVS is a public media organization that promotes the work of artists who reflect the interests of a diverse society and TAG is a design collaborative whose portfolio traverses game design, art, activism, ethics and documentary.

The game integrates content from this comprehensive set of powerful stories and weaves it into a playable narrative. It is a conversation prompting system that helps sustain dialogue around documentaries where the issues are still relevant yet the film has limited visibility and direct impact beyond the initial broadcast.

This video explains the basic gameplay, and this video documents a community playtest.

TAG itself is also a project (that I co-founded with my colleagues Ashley York and Huy Truong), and one that emphasizes what Cathy Davidson (2012) calls collaboration by difference, as TAG’s work is marked by design collaborations with diverse scholars, cultural field workers, media makers, and audiences/participants. TAG strives to adhere to an ethos of equity and to the integration of anti-oppression principles as used in social work, community organizing, and theatre of the oppressed that broadly challenge power imbalances between different groups of people in society. We believe that games make arguments about a social system’s structure that can help support or challenge it. Games can inspire players to act in ways to break down everyday dynamics of oppression and privilege and can be a powerful tool in struggles for social justice.

Anti-oppression requires reflectivity and holds strong ethical implications for those who practice it. It also presents its own difficulties for project timelines and can be resource-intensive. Not driven by capitalist goals, these projects typically do not monetize products, presenting practitioners with pragmatic roadblocks to funding and sustaining their work.
As someone invested in the evolution of design that advances social justice ethics, non-fiction storytelling, and direct action mechanics, I’d like to ask what might we collectively imagine in order to support each other in likeminded pursuits? What role, if any, should our public media institutions play, even as they themselves struggle to readjust to the demands of transmedia pipelines and stagnant budgets? Can this work infiltrate the commercial game industry, itself infused by unequal power dynamics, familiar and dominant perspectives, and highly inaccessible technologies and processes? After all, social justice work requires collective action and similarly, as Bruce Mau (2004) explains, design is no “longer about one designer, one client, one solution, one place… The effect of this is to imagine a future for design that is both more modest and more ambitious.”

Works Cited:

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Penguin Books. 2012.

Mau, Bruce, and The Institute Without Boundaries. Massive Change. Phaidon Press. 2004.

Thanks to Andrea Gunraj, Tara McPherson, and Ashley York for their contributions to this post.


I like the many ways that the ideas in this post flip the issue of the digital divide, especially in that the game featured is a "simple" card game. No controllers, no motion sensors, no blinking cursors--just a deck of cards and people and a film. 

The game's sight is on to something, I think, when it declares that "The game harnesses a resurgence and re-imagination of analog and real-world gameplay. Its technological barrier is extremely low and as a tangible play object, the card game functions as a portable and collectible set celebrating women, girls and their allies."

The popularity of these types of tabletop, "analog" games intersects with issues of access and parity and socialization in so many interesting ways, ways that I think unfold many of the assumptions we make when we begin talking about the "digital divide" in the first place. 

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