Doctoral student partners with children’s gaming start-up to communicate social issues

Concordia University Education student measures impacts of water shortage awareness game

Having reached a crossroads in her PhD research, Renée was seeking opportunities to connect to the wider academic community. Encouraged by a colleague, Renée attended a cinq à sept hosted by Concordia’s Technoculture, Art, and Games (TAG) lab — an interdisciplinary centre for research in game studies and design, digital culture, and interactive art. 

At the networking event, TAG Lab Director Bart Simon introduced Renée to Angelique Mannella, CEO of Decode Global Games. During development of one of their flagship products, Get Water, Decode wanted to know if the game was indeed affecting social change in the target audience. They sought to determine if the game increased players’ awareness of social issues, such as water shortages and barriers to education for young women in developing countries. 

The three discussed a collaboration that would have Renée leveraging her research expertise to help Decode access user insights for its game. In need of funding to kick-start the first leg of the project, they approached Marc-Olivier Frégeau, Mitacs Business Development Director, to prepare a proposal for a Mitacs Accelerate internship.

Soon, Renée was helping the Decode team to evaluate the game’s impact at an all-girls school. As focus group testing progressed, the project grew beyond its original scope as a result of interesting new data the students were providing. This additional feedback could help Decode make the game more engaging, and its message more affecting.

Angelique and Renée saw potential for the research to expand, including to a new game that leverages user feedback to encourage leadership skills. Renée was hired to conduct research about the development of the game prototype, which involved a team of girls aged 12 – 14 collaborating with university undergraduate students.  This project was dubbed Arcade Our Way, and later became the subject of Renée’s PhD.  She has since applied for postdoctoral funding to expand it to new contexts across Canada.

The collaboration helped Renée to find a renewed sense of purpose: 

Partnering with Decode through Mitacs Accelerate re-energized my research. Putting myself out there to try something different has led me to an interesting tangent that’s now leading me into the next step of my career.”

But the benefits were not only reserved for Renée: “Working with Renée on Get Water initiated a relationship that has allowed us to incorporate valuable, research-based insight from our users into our games,” said Angelique. “But more importantly, her research helps our games to be more impactful in their goal of increasing awareness of social issues among young Canadian girls.” 

Photo: Renée and Angelique present their research at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, held June 1, 2015, at the University of Ottawa.

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.

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