The Social Apps Lab at CITRIS was created by James Holston (Anthropology) and Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice and New Media Studies), both professors at the University of California, Berkeley.  The Lab focuses on the potential of cell phones and other mobile locative media to harness the participatory energies of game-play to address social issues.  Its objective is both to study this potential and to produce mobile games that generate new opportunities for research, citizen participation, and urban knowledge.  At Berkeley, the Social Apps Lab develops initiatives in research, teaching, and game production.  During the past year, it has focused mainly on designing cell phone apps for healthcare, participatory citizenship, and social engagement.

The Social Apps Lab is an interdisciplinary initiative and supported at UC Berkeley by CITRIS (Center for Informational Technology Research in the Interest of Society), the Division of Social Sciences, and the Division of Arts and Humanities.  Its work bring into active collaboration people, research, and product design from the humanities, social sciences, and engineering.  It aims to demonstrate the creative advantage of this collaboration in creating mobile game applications that encourage citizen learning, urban detection, and crowdsourcing solutions for significant social problems.

The research premises of the Social Apps Lab are three:  to research urban social issues that may be addressed through the development of mobile media technologies and games; to develop research on the potential of mobile devices and game-play to generate an active, critical, and direct engagement of citizens in social issues; to use data generated during game-play in the analysis of those issues.  The Lab’s research efforts focus on the contemporary city because it is the catalyst and relay of so many significant social issues and because urban populations have the highest concentration of cell phone use, encompassing a vast majority of residents in most cases.

A basic premise of the Lab is to create a research loop in urban detection, that is, to develop urban research that inspires the design of mobile games that, in turn, require players to investigate the city to solve game challenges.  Thus, the Lab designs urban detection games that, for example, get players to explore their cities on foot, report on pollutants and disease vectors, and travel the historical layerings of time and space at specific urban sites.  A second premise of the Lab’s research is that such game-driven explorations must have both practical and critical results:  if they get people to exercise by walking, they do so in modes that challenge them to re-evaluate their assumptions and routines of city life.  A third research premise is that players generate many kinds of scientifically significant data during game-play that reveal meaningful patterns of behavior, describe significant environmental conditions, and engage important ethical and political questions about the monitoring and use of signature digital data.

The Social Apps Lab coordinates a variety of teaching initiatives at UC Berkeley, including undergraduate and graduate courses, course threads, and undergraduate research apprenticeships during the academic year and the summer.  These initiatives involve Berkeley faculty, students, post-docs, and visiting researchers.

All the activities of Social Apps Lab have a design and production component:  the research investigates a problem with the aim of inspiring the design of a game that addresses it; the teaching combines reading, research, and design assignments; the design and production of the mobile applications themselves emphasize teamwork, the development of new platform technologies, and the implementation of supporting informational processes that advance collaborative investigation, civic participation, and data aggregation.  See Projects for recent work.

James Holston and Greg Niemeyer

March 2011


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