IST alumna aims to impact social justice issues through video game design

Emma Riglin
October 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the video game industry expected to near $200 billion in revenue by 2022, game designers have expanded their reach to interest different types of players. And while genres now range from science fiction to fantasy to military, there are few game designers focused on using the medium as a platform to encourage social change. That’s where College of Information Sciences and Technology alumna Ashlyn Sparrow comes in.

“I like to view games as a medium where you can actually think through larger social problems,” said Sparrow, who is an assistant director at the Weston Game Lab at the University of Chicago. “It's one of the few mediums where you can kind of try something you’ve never experienced before and put on someone else's shoes.”

After graduating from Penn State in 2010, Sparrow earned her master’s degree in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon and has been working at the University of Chicago for nearly eight years. In her role, she teaches high school and university students how to design their own video games around the greater goal of social impact. Sparrow’s work in experimental game design has explored issues such as diversity and inclusion, climate change and public health.

A significant aspect of Sparrow’s job is teaching these students where to start. Recently, Sparrow asked local Chicago high school students to design a game around the topic of public health, with the students deciding to focus on the issue of violence in their community. Sparrow said the students were grappling with how to intersect their topic with other issues in their community, such as police violence, substance abuse and criminalization of minority groups.

“These young people didn't want drugs to be sold in their communities, but if they were being sold, they didn't want the police to get violent with unarmed individuals, especially those of color,” Sparrow said.

So, with Sparrow’s help, the students created a fantasy-style game that portrayed their view of how they wanted law enforcement to act in these situations. In the game, players acted as either police or drug dealers. The goal was for the police and drug dealers to land on the same physical spot in the game, which sends the drug dealers to jail without the need for escalation.

“There's no shooting or violence in the game at all,” Sparrow said. “It allowed these students to think about how they could improve their community.”

But Sparrow’s job doesn’t end when the game is designed. It continues in the conversations that extend out of the game and into the real world. At the end of the program, Sparrow brought in several University of Chicago police officers to play the game with the students: the students played as the police officers, and the officers as the drug dealers.

“The conversations that were happening … that was exactly what we wanted,” said Sparrow. “It's about having a conversation, knowing your community, interacting with them in non-violent ways and figuring out a better solution.”

At the West End Game Lab, Sparrow works with media studies, visual and performing arts, and sociology faculty to create these games with students. Sparrow credits her IST education with preparing her for the teamwork required to complete the job.

“The work is never the issue; it's about how you interact and work with your peers to do the work,” Sparrow said. “Everyone has their own backgrounds and thoughts and ways of doing things. IST taught me that it’s up to me to have these conversations.”

Sparrow said her life’s mission is to design games that non-traditional gamers like her mom would want to play, but that are equally as entertaining as the more popular games she grew up with. Ultimately, she wants games to be enjoyed as much as television, movies and theater and for the interactional component of gaming to be appreciated by a broader base.

“I think that the medium has so much potential,” Sparrow said. “If we constantly think, ‘it's just a game,’ that doesn't allow us to think about the emotions or experiences that we could be having within a game. There are so many interesting things that we could be doing and so many more people could be playing these games if we move beyond [the current topics]."

Last Updated April 15, 2021