Virtual Borders
Alternate-reality players seek solutions to U.S.-Mexico issues

Thousands have died at the Mexico-U.S. border. Immigration policy has polarized American citizens in Arizona and elsewhere. Yet migrant workers long have provided vital labor on Oswego County’s farms, and need the family-feeding income they earn.

So how do such serious concerns lend themselves to an all-campus, alternate-reality game (ARG) at SUNY Oswego?

“‘Play it before you live it’ is what we say,” said Ulises Mejias, assistant professor of communication studies and coordinator of the quarter-long, open-ended narrative called “Osw3go.net 2011: Border Crossings.”

“This experience is designed to allow some of the controversy surrounding U.S.-Mexico relations to move from a subject we’re uncomfortable talking about to a safe space where we can learn to talk about it,” said Mejias, who coordinates “Border Crossings,” the latest in his annual blog-based ARGs.

However, Mejias cautions gamers to drop their weapons at the Osw3go.net border: “This is not ‘Call of Duty.’ We’re not conquering lands, fighting monsters or shooting people,” he said.

“Border Crossings” got under way in the last week and continues to welcome new players among faculty, staff and students across campus. In order to share their research and discussion, players use social networking concepts, wikis, texting, digital video and podcasts. Those are all tools Mejias, who specializes in new media theory and application, believes this generation’s mobile scholars can employ to teach and to learn about politics, problem-solving, humanitarianism and technology itself.

Mejias said players will move the game into the real world in a number of ways, including a “teach-in” at Quest at 9 a.m. April 13 in Room 210 of the Campus Center, when students will earn extra credit for conducting 10-minute presentations on issues related to the theme of the U.S.-Mexico simulation.

Local context

The ARG’s mission statement says its purpose is “to facilitate a campuswide conversation focusing on issues of social justice in a local context.”

“When we deal with U.S.-Mexican relations in the ARG, we’re not just reading an article, but participating in writing narratives about real issues and trying to figure out ways to develop solutions,” said Mejias.

It’s not social networking of the Facebook kind; “Border Crossing” encourages players to build on three scenarios that started as fictitious news stories:

* An Oswego student’s 16-year-old cousin has been reported missing in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds of women have been murdered in the past decade. The student, determined not to let her cousin become a statistic, tries to raise funds to travel to Mexico to join the search.

* Oswego students—identifying themselves of Mexican heritage and calling on the United States to admit its role in the drug trade—interrupt a meeting promoting marijuana/alcohol penalty equalization. Heated words escalate to physical violence, and “Campus Police” arrive on the scene.

* A hepatitis outbreak sends dozens of Oswego students to the health center. Authorities trace it to a parcel of contaminated blueberries from a farm in Central New York, where Mexican and Latin American laborers work in poor sanitation conditions.

Blog forum

Players can contribute as themselves or as one of the characters in the three scenarios. Their responses must be reasoned and researched.

“We are using a blog platform with a plug-in to turn the blog into a social network,” Mejias said.

“We want to provide the students with the opportunity to contribute to solutions in real life,” he said. Whether the game moves beyond a wrap-up community forum at semester’s end is up to the players.

“That’s my hope,” he said. “All I can do is encourage. It’s really up to the students to question themselves, question the community and to decide what we need to do.”

For Mejias, this year’s game hits home: Born in Mexico, he first came to the United States as a student in 1990, earning a doctorate in computing and technology in education at Columbia University.

“I occupy both worlds,” he said. “That’s a relationship that I live, going back and forth to Mexico. Certainly these issues are important to me, to all Latinos and to all Americans.”

To review the ARG in progress or to register as a player, visit http://osw3go.net.

For a schedule of presentations, exhibitions and events at Quest, navigate to http://www.oswego.edu/quest.

(Posted: Mar 29, 2011)