Our team is led by Dr. Benjamin Stokes and based at American University in Washington, DC.  

APPROACH: The future of cities depends on participation and engagement. Our lab in Washington, DC, investigates the power of playful tactics to advance equity, strengthen the sense of place, and build strong communities.

Our first book provides the anchor for our approach: “Locally Played: Real-World Games for Stronger Places and Communities” (MIT Press, 2020). The book provides game designers with a model to strengthen existing networks tied to place and gives city leaders tools to look past technology trends in order to make a difference in the real world.

Selected Projects

Engaging Beyond Our Walls (EBOW) is a three-year project to bring neighborhood games to 59+ cities through public libraries, funded by IMLS ($250k). Featuring our new game engine, Hive Mechanic. The first reports will emerge later in 2024. The project investigates how we can democratize game design for all towns, marginalized voices, and with minimal technology.

Book in draft: Our Neighborhood Storytelling System launched with the Smithsonian and the DC Public Library in Washington, DC (2019-2021). The project installed listening stations at the front desk of libraries with more than 700,000 visitors over two years; it brought a repurposed payphone on wheels to the streets; and it mobilized a multimedia truck for traveling exhibits. As a model, he project offers a new approach to circulating stories of local history and activism tied to neighborhoods. Interactive projects remixed the content into scavenger hunts and raffles tied to local business. (Read more via these slides.)

Report: Cities Remix Pokémon GO (2018) — the first large-scale investigation into how cities can appropriate and remix commercial games to advance local goals, including within “open street” festivals and with neighborhood libraries. The report provides a few hints at the future of cities as participatory spaces, showing how playful engagement can connect disparate groups and organizations.

Report: “Impact” with Games — rethinking “impact” with games, and how the right language is crucial to overcome fragmentation. In partnership with Games for Change, with funding from the Packard Foundation.

Funding and collaborators (recent):

Tools for creating place-based games:

Authoring tool: Hive Mechanic is a new way to create your own city game, smart city activity, or participatory neighborhood story. It is already in dozens of cities and small towns. Hive can tap into city data, send text messages, offer branching audio stories and use real-time AI. No programming is required to make something for your city. Our goal is to help democratize design, from library maker spaces to community museums. Currently supported with funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in partnership with the DC Public Library.

Locally Played Stickers: a logo and campaign for anyone to use, inspired by the success of locally made goods. By calling a game “locally played,” we recognize and elevate a particular spirit of play—including hopes of greater connection to place, our neighbors, and our local history.

More writings on…

Meet our full team and alumni at The Playful City Lab!

To stay in touch, reach us on Twitter (@bgstokes) or email bstokes@american.edu.

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