Video games shine a light on real-world problems, says UChicago designer

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After completing his work in Portugal and obtaining his masters degree, Sparrow received an offer from the National Security Administration to work in cybersecurity and counterterrorism. She chose to come to the University of Chicago instead. Teaching students how to design games for social impact, she said, “seemed a lot better” than not being able to tell people about classified government work.

Today, Sparrow sees video games as both works of art and tools for social change. Visitors to the museum in Portugal who have played a virtual role in cleaning up the ocean, for example, have been able to imagine themselves as agents of change, a step that can help spur tangible progress.

“Designing so many mini-games in the social impact space has mapped to my way of seeing the real world,” Sparrow said. “It’s amazing how many things he is illuminated with.”

The rules we write for human communities, she added, often benefit some to the detriment of others. Think of divided park benches to keep homeless people from sleeping comfortably, or gerrymandered congressional districts to ensure victory for a particular party.


To make the real-life “game” fairer, Sparrow argues, we need a comprehensive understanding of its rules and how they relate to the issues that concern us. This idea of ​​“critical creation” is one of the reasons Sparrow enjoys working with UCicago students on game design. By researching topics, writing rules and scripts, and designing interactive elements, they learn more than just programming a character’s movement.

In addition to her role at Weston, Sparrow is involved in the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). In each of these campus spaces, she has worked with students to design games that tackle complex topics, from reducing environmental degradation to preventing sexual assault.

Peter Forberg, AB’21, AM’21, worked with Sparrow on a dating simulator to address sex and sexuality on college campuses. Sparrow’s upbeat attitude, he recalls, encouraged him and other students to tackle difficult projects.

“She instituted a simple policy: if you fail, fail terribly, because we learn more by taking risks than by accepting mediocrity,” Forberg said. “This advice resonated with me everywhere.”


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