Amid the chaos that was April of 2020 the MIT Press released Locally Played, which will no doubt be seen as a significant contribution to the literature of serious games. Penned by foundational scholar Benn Stokes, Locally Played presents a framework for understanding, researching, and contextualizing place-based games. Stokes, a professor at American University and one of the world’s most renowned serious games scholars, uses the book to lay out critical cases for local games while challenging readers to think deeply on what it means to participate in or design a serious game for local impact.
Dr. Ben Stokes hardly needs an introduction. His career has been one of immense impact on the games industry, scholarship, and the non-profit sector. His many accomplishments include founding Games for Change and the Playful City Lab at American University in Washington DC.
A New Era of Local Games
Locally Played marks something of a stake in the ground by games studies. For the better part of a decade now, spurred on by the popularity of augmented reality games like Pokemon Go and its Google precursor Ingress, cities have looked towards technology to gamify their spaces. Technocentric solutions with gamification at their core have become commonplace in many of the world’s major cities, addressing everything from local history knowledge to non-profit organizing.
Stokes flies a different flag, however. Informed by the scholarship of many of his contemporaries, such as Tracy Fullerton, Stokes argues for a culturally informed approach to local serious games. Locally Played invokes the ethnographic and culturally respectful grounding of critical design ethnography (see Sasha Barab and Kurt Squire) alongside the respect for established organizations and communities common in literature on affinity spaces in games (see Constance Steinkuehler) to layout a framework truly ethical local game design for positive impact in communities.
Stokes pulls no punches in calling out surface attempts at gamification or “pointsification” as approaches that detract from the playfulness and respect for current cultures of local spaces. In a contrasting approach, Stokes lays out a definition and framework for local games that foregrounds local cultures and communication paths while emphasizing the plafyulness of games.
Method to the Madness
Locally Played also provides a bit of practical grounding to those interested less in the theory and more in the application of games for local impact. Though not going so far as to provide a list of specific game mechanics (explicitly acknowledging that each challenge requires its own approach), Stokes provides a framework for designing and evaluating local games for their “local fit” as well as a brief method for analyzing impact of these games. By providing examples and counter-examples of local games, he presents these frameworks in a way that is approachable by scholars, non-profit leaders, and game designers.
Exactly What We Needed
Stokes, as always, provides much needed perspective. Though the scholarly work, non-profit practice, and game design trends of the past decade have increasingly denounced top-down game solutions (again, see the work of Sasha Barab, Kurt Squire, or Tracy Fullerton) these conversations have stayed internal, segregated from each other.
With Locally Played Dr. Benjamin Stokes does exactly what the community has come to expect from him: he brings together an immense literature from varied stakeholders, including grassroots organizers, leaders in the game design world, and foundational scholars of game studies. He then presents these complex and diversified perspectives in a format that lays bare the problems and opportunities currently prominent in serious local games.