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Tuesday, November 19, 2019
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Game Aims to Make Emerson Freshmen Great Collaborators

A team of five Emersonians won the top prize at a prestigious media arts festival for their audio documentary about Donald Trump crucifying talking cats.

None of this was real, of course—except for the costs, benefits, and decision-making, conscious and unconscious, inherent in collaboration.

The five were part of a group of about a dozen students, faculty, staff, and administrators who gathered on Wednesday, August 31, to test Room at the Top, a new game created by Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor Miranda Banks. The game, developed through the Emerson Engagement Lab, will be offered as an orientation activity on Sunday, September 4, in the Bordy Theater. Freshmen from all departments are invited to play, but the game is particularly relevant to VMA majors.

“I really like the idea of creating a first-year experience that instantly starts students talking about 'How do you become a great creative partner?' It would be an amazing thing if Emerson was known not only as a place that graduates great media makers, but also as a place that graduates excellent collaborators,” Banks said. 

The game has evolved through different test runs, but the current version goes more or less like this: Students have relocated to Planet Emerson from one of four planets and are vying to get their project into the Intergalactic Media Arts Festival (IMAF). In Round One, students draw a card that tells them their home planet; level of influence (via points); and special skill (cinematography, acting, sound, etc.), which they can incorporate into a “pitch idea” that they write on the back of their card.

In Round Two, students roam around trying to find people to partner with by sharing their pitch ideas. What they don’t share is their “secret agendas,” which are printed on the inside of their cards and give the students arbitrary criteria that they must try to check off when forming their team (e.g., “You only want to work with people from the Green Planet”). The pairs merge their pitches into one project idea and illustrate it on a small poster.

In the next two rounds, pairs go looking for other pairs to build their teams and amass influence points (12 are needed for admission to the IMAF), and the projects (and posters) change again based on the ideas and influence of new members. Later, players have the chance to defect to a different team, whether to collect more points, work on a cooler idea, or fulfill that secret agenda that’s always lurking below the surface. In the end, players vote on the best project.

The stated objective of the game is to win acclaim at the galaxy’s premier media arts festival. But Banks has her own secret agenda.

“When I think about why I like this game, it’s because the game itself mirrors the experience students have at Emerson in forming groups to create art,” Banks said. “And the hope is that experience of searching around the room for collaborators and thinking about their own biases and their own agendas might kind of help them think about the choices they’re going to make when they go to find collaborators on projects.”

If students learn early on to think about who they seek out to work with and why, it could change the way they make those decisions, she said, which might have ripple effects on their art, or even the fields they enter after graduation.

The winning entry to the IMAF started its life as a passion play starring cats. At some point, Donald Trump entered the picture, and as people with different skills and agendas joined the team, the project became a sound documentary about Trump’s pathological contempt for chattering felines.

It beat out a 3D printer that made edible buildings. A third project, a multiplayer online shooting game involving vegetables voiced by Meryl Streep and Carrot Top (as himself), was, due to its low influence point count, relegated to a fringe festival (which it handily won).

No one on the winning team really understood why the cats talked. No one except Engagement Lab manager Sean Van Deuren. It was his idea. That was his secret agenda, and the others just went along with it blindly.

In a debriefing after the test game, participants talked about what the game meant to them and what it taught them: about collaboration, about media making, and about balancing the goals of a group with the goals of individuals.

Van Deuren’s talking cats notwithstanding, many of the players on Wednesday said the secret agendas started to fade into the background.

“[Our team] made the observation that the secret agenda seemed important in the beginning, but we kind of forgot about it as the game went on,” said Visual and Media Arts Assistant Professor Sarah Zaidan.

Zaidan also commented on how a treasured idea will almost inevitably change with collaboration, but oftentimes it’s for the better. It was a thought echoed by Engagement Lab programs manager Christina Wilson.

“You can basically join any group and it accrues all this different stuff,” said Wilson, who has played a version of the game a few times. “Your idea can almost always be incorporated to make it weirder and more interesting.”

Data has shown that while there’s no one way to make good art, difference of perspective is really beneficial to collaboration, Banks said.

Sean Vaccaro ’17, a student worker at the Engagement Lab, has been working on the game since the beginning, along with classmate Becca Chairin. He said he’s seen how different perspectives can improve a project in real life.

Over the summer, Vaccaro took a filmmaking workshop in which class members would bounce ideas off each other freely.

“Most people walk in with something totally different from what they walk out with, and a big part of that is they have all these different people to work with,” he said.

Banks said she hopes the game starts out with players focused on their own secret agendas. In Round Two, players should start to feel a little bit of anxiety about finding someone to work with who will offer something to the project.

“But then you really start building something you like, and by Round Three, it’s this bizarre choice of saying, ‘Do I care more about me or do I care more about my group?’

“Each round you’re questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Banks said.

And that questioning, she hopes, will continue into the classroom on September 7.