Dropping Out Loud: How Ed Zed Omega is Redefining the Education Debate

G4CThe world got a first look at Ed Zed Omega (EZO) on Wednesday, when co-producers Ken Eklund and Andi McDaniel presented on the game about reimagining education at the 9th Annual Games For Change Festival in New York. EZO was chosen as one of four games in development to share the festival’s Demo Spotlight. 

The project’s station incubator, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) is venturing into bold new territory with this online experience. EZO is an alternate reality game in which players help fictional characters—including six teenage dropouts, their guidance counselor, and her homeschooled assistant—grapple online and via text with questions about the purpose and value of the U.S. education system.

G4C“Thirty percent of U.S. high schoolers drop out,” says Eklund, EZO’s creative director. “That is over a million kids, every year. And many more finish school, but it is something they tolerate or survive.” The game’s structure builds on the experience of Eklund, aka Writerguy, a transmedia storyteller who has helped revolutionize participatory gaming with projects such as the award-winning World Without Oil.

“It seems to me that we have a shortcoming in the way we do education,” Eklund said in the Games for Change presentation. “One million kids a year is a symptom that we can’t ignore, but we do. … The first step is to feel the problem, to make it human and personal. By chatting with it on Facebook.”

Dropping Out Loud

EZO's student cast membersAuditions for Ed Zed Omega were held on May 5, and helped to shape the game’s overall narrative. More than 50 people between the ages of 14-32 auditioned for the project, which will go live early this autumn, just in time for students to head back to school. The story-making collaboration runs until November 15 and is free to play. 

EZO is designed to make it extremely intuitive for digital natives to participate. “The game is easier to play than it is to explain,” says Eklund. “To play, you talk online, so it’s as easy as making a Facebook comment (if you’re a Facebook person) or sending an email if you’re not.”

He hopes the game will “start a massively collaborative dialogue about reimagining education.”

“A first step, we felt, was to make this story human and personal. In Ed Zed Omega, you can chat with this issue on Facebook,” says Andi McDaniel, co-producer and station liaison for this Localore project. “I’m most excited about working with the kids. I don’t have a lot of teenagers in my life right now and they’re fascinating creatures. The ones I know are intelligent and raw and passionate and confused. It’s just a really interesting place to be.”

The team’s original design for the game shifted quite a bit in response to the May 5 auditions. Eklund and McDaniel added a sixth teen to the ‘Zed Omegas’ and recast two community liaisons as additional characters.

“Ken has very much set the tone for the game,” says McDaniel, but “the characters we create will be very much based on the people who will play them. They will be living this character for several months, so it needs to resonate.”

By including an adult professional in the narrative, EZO will offer a different perspective on the plot. The character is “going renegade, tired of losing students, and is trying to engage them in a different way,” explains McDaniel. “She will be first character that the audience meets.”

A Local Project With National Resonance

EZO LogoEd Zed Omega is a radical departure for TPT. “Doing something entirely online is relatively new,” explains McDaniel, although TPT is also responsible for Next Avenue, the new PBS website designed to reach America’s booming 50-plus population. The idea is that this approach will not only engage a new, more national audience than TPT traditionally attracts, but will also encourage smart thinking about audience engagement.

The opportunity to work both locally and nationally is a unique challenge, and one that TPT is excited to take on, she says.  “We want EZO to be reflective of local issues while still having resonance beyond our immediate universe. If this topic catches fire on a broader level, that’s an awesome opportunity to use storytelling to elevate the conversation to a higher level.”

McDaniel isn’t worried about cultivating engagement. She explains that triggers for participation will revolve around  “tension points” in the characters’ stories that “pull people in.”

“We choose directions for the story that create a vacuum for engagement,” McDaniel says. “That’s where the game design comes into play. We’re creating a need for public response, in which something dramatic has happened and the characters don’t know what to do and need advice.”

Eklund adds, “When I tell people about this game, I invariably get an immediate response: they tell me a personal story about education. We think this will intensify when they can tell this story to a teen who’s listening hard and ready to respond.”

Thanks to AIR Guest Blogger Erin Polgreen for this report. Find her on Twitter: @ErinPolgreen.