CMAP Student Spotlight: Justin Warren, 2017–18 Cohort
Justin Warren, between being a fire performer, chess instructor, game designer, musician, and filmmaker, has always found a way to keep the concept of play at the center of his life. He hopes to explore this passion and study how to harness play’s potential for social good as a Master of Arts student at the Engagement Lab. He’s designing a digital game for civic participation as his thesis project, and is currently developing a podcast aimed at investigating play’s role in society.
What was the path that brought you to CMAP?
A few years ago I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be going back to school anytime soon — I was a circus performer, chess instructor, and hobbyist game designer. I learned about the growing ‘serious games’ movement in 2014 and became intrigued by the prospect of creating games that had the explicit goal of making a positive impact on society. I began an internship with the company Games for Change which lasted nearly two years, and learned about the Engagement Lab and it’s projects through that. My desire to find creative ways to contribute to important issues grew, and CMAP ended up looking like a perfect fit.
What does civic media mean to you?
To me it’s about understanding how people engage with the world around them. Nowadays we’re constantly surrounded by all sorts of fascinating forms of media vying for our attention. The goal in my mind is to help ensure that everyone has a fair chance to have their voice heard and their story told amidst this media maelstrom — and that people are encouraged to actually listen and act on what they learn.
My desire to find creative ways to contribute to important issues grew, and CMAP ended up looking like a perfect fit.
What is one change you would like to see in the world?
I would just love if everyone was less driven to Always be Right. So much good would come from people being more willing to accept being wrong sometimes instead of blindly defending their own beliefs — and egos. I think there’s a lot of unspoken fragility and fear baked into a lot of people’s self-image that influences their actions in harmful ways. I wish we could loosen up a bit and be able to laugh and learn from our failures.
What would you want the civic media community to know about you?
I’ve always been highly enthusiastic about the idea of play and playfulness in life. I don’t know exactly what path this passion will lead me down, but I’d love to meet and learn from other playful practitioners, performers, or philosophers out there! One shorter-term goal I have is to launch a podcast centered around play in all its forms — if nothing else, I’ve got my title: ‘Seize the Play’. Stay tuned!
Are there any specific projects that you’ve done in the past that intersect with your studies now?
My work with Games for Change gave me great exposure to the industry of serious games as well as with team management and organization in general. Independent of that, a recent game design project of mine really helped solidify my confidence in pursuing it more professionally. While it wasn’t a serious game at all, I poured my heart into the development and marketing process and it was an amazing experience overall.
How do you define engagement? What does being engaged mean to you?
Two distinct types jump to mind for me. One is the more serious and cognitive form of engagement, like political demonstrations or social activism. This involves caring about an issue or topic and taking action to further a goal. The other type is the more in-the-moment, emotional form. Filling your thoughts and focus like a gripping story or dazzling performance. This is often related to two concepts I’m passionate about: fun and flow. I’d like to think that these types of engagement shouldn’t have to be so exclusive. Let’s find ways to make engagement more…engaging!
What are some of your favorite pieces of media?
I feel obligated to mention a game here, and I’ll go with a game called Undertale as my favorite piece of interactive media. It flips a lot of video game tropes on their heads and utilizes the gaming medium in a unique way. What the player experiences is a narrative that could truly only be told through the form of an interactive game. In short, it tracks your actions and breaks the fourth wall in ways that can really result in some meaningful takeaways.
I’m also a movie nerd and think there’ve been some really impactful films recently. I’ll mention Get Out as my recent favorite thanks to its brilliant and creative approach to making important social commentary.
What’s one fun fact most people don’t know about you?
All my friends know I’ve played piano my whole life, but less known is that I used to be a drummer in a few rock & roll bands growing up. I had even longer hair back then!
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