What is Power, and How Do We Get to Peace? Global Youth Have Answers.
Our Year of Knowledge-Building, Knowledge-Sharing & Play
Teen-Centered Co-Design Gets Us To a Playful Solution to Online Extremism
Making Civic Learning Meaningful With and For Young People
FEMA’s New Game, Built on iThrive Sim, Preps Teens for Natural Disasters
New One Love Game Uses SEL to Help Young People Learn to Love Better
Make It A Gameful School Year: Meeting Teens Where They Are With Play
iThrive Games Named a 2022-2023 Tools Competition Winner
We Asked Gamers About Their Hard Days at Play NYC. Here’s What We Learned.
Our Biggest Takeaways from the 2023 Games for Change Festival
Co-Designing Wellness-Supporting Games with and for Teens
When Museums Design Experiences for How Teens Learn and Develop
Your Workforce Development Program Needs This Crucial Component
Questions to Ask When Creating Meaning-Making Experiences for Teens
The Social and Emotional Learning Opportunities in Video Games
Discovery, Expansion, and Design: Our Five Most Popular Blog Posts in 2022
Fugees Family, iThrive Launch ‘Our Threads’, A Connection-Building Card Game
iThrive Sim: What Embodied Play Ignited in a HS Social Studies Class
Five Game Design Skills You’ll Build as a Teen Playtester or Co-Designer
Game Design for International Relations: iThrive Studio in Olang, Italy
Supporting a Friend in an Unhealthy Relationship Takes Courage. Teens Say That Takes Practice.
Curiosity Propels Discovery. How Are We Supporting It in Teens?
SEED Designers Share History & Harm of Surveillance in New Escape Room Game
Teens Know What They Need to Be Healthy and Thrive. It’s Time We Listen.
New Narrative Game Raises Awareness of ACEs & Their Impact on Youth Mental Health
HS Students Learn How to Be Conscious Consumers of Media Through Play
iThrive Shares Wins with Affordance, SEED Institute at 2022 Serious Play Awards
How Games and Play Support Transformative Civic Engagement in Teens
SEEDs’ New Game Pushes for Change in Massachusetts’ Child Welfare System
The Teen Mental Health Crisis is Real. Game Designers & Developers Can Help.
New PLAY Program Invites Teens to Design Games That Explore Policy Issues
SEED Designers Bring Games & Experiences to The Heller School at Brandeis
In Times of Stress, I Turn to Cooking Games. Here’s How They Help Me Cope.
One Thing Mental Health Practitioners Who Work With Teens Must Know
What Playing Video Games Taught Me about the World and the People in It
Game Design Supports Deep Learning. Here’s How It Can Help School Communities.
How Social and Emotional Learning Nurtures the Teen Brain
How Are We Teaching Teens to Prepare for and Respond to Natural Disasters?
A Love Letter to UNO and the Connection the Classic Card Game Creates
Refugee Students Use Game Design to Support Schools Welcoming Refugees
iThrive’s 2021 Annual Report Celebrates Teen Genius, Community, and Play
Teen Mental Health: Five Tips for Making the Most of Your Social Media Use
Join iThrive’s Teen Advisory Council and Co-Design Exciting Gaming Experiences
Teen Mental Health: Use This 2-Min. Exercise When Difficult Emotions Surface
Leveling Up: How Playing Video Games Helped Me Find Passion and Purpose
Vol. 3 of Journal of Games, Self, & Society Examines How Games Transform Us
2021 Was a Year of Co-Creation, Collaborative Learning, and Play
iThrive Sim Helps Homeschoolers Connect And Collaborate With Play
Let’s Start Calling Social & Emotional Skills What They Are—Essential Skills
What Teaching Hard History Does for Teens’ Social and Emotional Learning
New Game Design Toolkit Supports Teens in Leading Systems Change
Creating ‘We’ and Restoring ‘Us’ with Civics and Social-Emotional Learning
Use This SEL Activity to Help Your Students Explore Their COVID-19 Emotions
iThrive, Middlebury Institute Awarded DHS Grant for New Simulation Game
High School Teachers, Share Your Feedback on the New, Improved iThrive Sim
Stories Add Heart to History. This Project Uses Them to Teach About Migration.
Teens Have Big Emotions. How Can We Help HS Students Navigate Them?
Game-Based Learning Reads: Three Books That Will Make You a GBL Believer
World Affairs Council of Philadelphia Uses iThrive Sim to Prep Future Leaders
iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance Wins Gold at AAM’s 2021 Muse Awards
Youth Designers Collaborating with iThrive Games Win Serious Play Award
Burgeoning Journalists Try on Their Roles in New Media Literacy Game
Add Play to Your Summer School Schedule: Virtual Conferences in July
History Informs Our Understanding of Our Country. Let’s Tell It Truthfully.
Media Literacy and Responsible Civic Engagement Go Hand-in-Hand
Learn about the Power of Play at these Upcoming Conferences
Civics Ed and Social-Emotional Learning Today, A Stronger Democracy Tomorrow
Use this SEL Activity to Help Your Students Process Pandemic Grief and Loss
iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance Named a 2021 GLAMi Award Winner
Exploring Juvenile Justice and Mental Health with Teen Game Designers (Part 2)
Exploring Juvenile Justice and Mental Health with Teen Game Designers (Part 1)
iThrive Sim Named a Finalist for Two 2021 EdTech Cool Tool Awards
The Science of Political Division and How SEL Skills Respond to It
Conflict Resolution: Using Role Play to Practice Disagreeing Respectfully
2020 Annual Report: A Year of Play, Co-Creation, and Community
Designing for Equity: Five Principles for Curriculum Development
Diversify Your HS ELA Reading List With These Poems by Writers of Color
10 YA Novels by Authors of Color for Your HS English Classroom
Self-Awareness: Nurture It in Your Students with This SEL Exercise on Values
Purpose: Helping Students Explore How to Impact the World Around Them
An Insurrection Happened. Here’s an SEL Tool to Help Students Process It.
2020 Wrap-Up: A Gameful Year of Connection, Creativity, and Play
Civics Is Social and Emotional. We’re Using Play to Teach It That Way.
The Power of Play: Finding Hope and Community in World of Warcraft
Virtual Classroom Management Tips: Supporting Connection With Play
Help Us Innovate Civics with Play and SEL: Vote for iThrive Games at SXSW EDU
Power of Play: Finding New Friends and Perspectives in Destiny
iThrive Games to Join The Great Exchange: Student Engagement Summit
iThrive’s Juvenile Justice System Project Fosters New Partnerships
Virtual Classroom Management Strategies: Norm Setting in 3 Steps
Self-Care Tips for Educators: Discover New Practices at The Lounge on 10/28
Welcome to The Lounge: A Place for Teachers to Connect and Share Ideas
Call for Abstracts: Volume 3 of Journal of Games, Self, & Society
Call for Nominations: iThrive Games’ Educator Advisory Council
Game-Based Learning 101: How to Choose A Video Game for a HS English Class
Reflecting on the Power of Play: The Game of Life is Not a Game at All
Engaged Students, Engaged Citizens: iThrive Content Now on Composer
Urban Assembly Students Create COVID-19 Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story
Civics and Gameplay: What Teens Say About iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance
#EdChat: The Importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Play and Possibility: Highlights from Games for Change (#G4C2020)
Power of Play: Tackling First-Day Jitters With a Game of CNUNO
How to Choose a Video Game for Learning in HS English Classrooms
Role-Playing Simulations Offer Unique Opportunities for Teen Engagement
Connect with iThrive Games at the 2020 Games For Change Festival!
iThrive Games Receives NEH CARES Grant for Distance Learning Program
Three Reasons Embedded Social and Emotional Learning Works
Power of Play: Teens Explore Connection and Meaning Through Gameplay
iThrive Games Foundation: Statement on Racism and Police Brutality
Announcing New Game-Based Unit Created for Distance Learning
How Game-Based Learning Can Take Your Class to New Heights
Three Ways to Prepare a Supportive Online or Remote Environment
Virtual iThrive Game Design Studio Melds Design Thinking and SEL
New Issue of Journal of Games, Self, & Society Suggests New Paths in Game Design, Accessibility
Staying Connected While Social Distancing: Working from Home Edition
COVID Self-Care Package: Practicing #SELatHome
Staying Connected While Social Distancing: Games for Emotional Coping
Atlanta Teens Use Game Design Studio to Explore Injustice in Schools
Games To Play While Social Distancing: MMORPGs
Four Ways to Fight the Virus of Misinformation with Media Literacy
Social Distancing and Staying Connected Through Games
Expanding the Power of Play with Game Design Studio
Talking to Your Teen About Healthy Gaming
Expanding Our Vision for Civics Education: iThrive Sim Intersects Play, Civics, & Social and Emotional Learning
Coming Soon: New Issue of Journal of Games, Self, and Society
Game Design with the Next Generation of Changemakers
About iThrive’s Journal of Games, Self, and Society (JGSS)
Super Mario Maker 2: No Limits
Teen Perspectives on Sleep and Social Media: What Research (and Game Design) Reveals
Exploring Youth Experiences of the Juvenile Justice System in Boston
Constructing Worlds: Where Games, Making, and Meaning Meet
Evolving Our Mission and Vision
A Window into Playtesting with Teens
iThrive’s Juvenile Justice System Project Aims to Support Black Youth
From Our Founder: iThrive’s Origin Story
Animal Crossing: An Example In and Out of Game
Persona and The Unintended Influence of Game Design
Octopath Traveler and Helping Others
Designing with Teens, For Teens
Tabletop RPGs and Learning to Live with Failure
Meet Our New Teen Blogger!
Journal of Games, Self, & Society: Issue 1
Mental Health Awareness Month
Introduction to iThrive’s Clinicians Guides
Extra Credits and Mental Health Month
Video Games and Suicide Prevention
Game-Based Social and Emotional Learning for High School English Class – Part Two
Call for Abstracts: Issue 2 of the Journal of Games, Self, & Society
Exploring the Intersection of Video Games and Mental Health
Grief and Job Loss: Tips for Coping with the Social and Emotional Impact of Layoffs
Game-Based Social and Emotional Learning for High School English Class
New Year. New Website.
Live Action Role Playing To Support Healthy Teen Development
UNESCO MGIEP TECH
The Power of Teens
A Canadian Game Jam On Mental Health and Teens? Mais Oui!
About iThrive's Critical Strengths Engine
Game Culture is As Important As the Game
The 2018 Design Hive: Plenty of Buzz, and a Real Bee
Virtual Reality and the Search For Happiness
Friendly Competition: Starting an eSports League at My High School
Put a Badge On It! Using Digital Badges to Support Social and Emotional Learning
Student Game Developers Win for Compassion in Accessibility
Seeking Contributors to iThrive's New, Peer-Reviewed Journal of Games, Self, and Society
Gaming Disorder and the World Health Organization
Overwatch Endorsements and Promoting Player Kindness
iThrive’s Resources for Educators: Using Games to Engage the Whole Teen
How Difficult Video Games Inspire Me in My Career at Microsoft
"Link"ing Games and Therapy: A Triforce Intervention
Mental Health in Games: 3 Design Tropes that Need to Die
Game-Based Learning in the Classroom: 3 Essential Questions
Co-op Therapy: Using Video Games to Connect with Teen Clients
Sea of Thieves: Anchored in Positive Design
How Games Change the World by Modeling the Truth
An Interview with Kinful: Bringing Cross-Cultural Empathy to Schools with VR
Nier: Automata – True Kindness in Games Requires Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice – Why the World Needs a Hero with a Mental Illness
Wallop! You Died (Again): Growth Mindset and Cuphead
Meaningfully and Realistically Using Games in the Classroom
About Game Jams
VR and Empathy: Tread Carefully
How Bad Data Have Given Video Games a Bad Rap (and How To Read Beyond the Headlines)
We Can’t Design Games for Teens Without This
Oxenfree: Spooky and Meaningful Halloween Play
My Favorite Games from IndieCade 2017
That’s a Wrap on Design Hive 3
Making a Game in One Hour: The Power of Our Choices
Heidi McDonald Has Been Promoted to Senior Creative Director of iThrive Games
Putting It in Context: Using Commercial Video Games in Education
Psychology and Game Design: One Possible Future Path
Come See iThrive Games at IPPA and Serious Play!
Games for Personal Growth: A Design Process
Seeking Contributors: Special Issue of Well Played
GUIDE: A Video Game for Challenging Your Fears
Zest in Video Games: Teens Need Some Excitement
Brie Code: Cultivating "Tru Luv" for Video Games
Purpose in Games: Empowering Teens To Explore Who They Are
John Krajewski, "Eco" Developer, On Play that Saves the World
From Angst to Engagement: Insights from our DePaul University Game Jam
Doris Rusch, Deep Games Developer, Talks Designing for Empathy
Congrats to Colleen Macklin: HEVGA Fellow and Game(s) Changer
Video Games: A Safe Place to Wonder
Curiosity Takes Us to the Mun an Beyond
Celebrating Random Acts of Kindness
I Haven’t Leveled Up…Yet: Growth Mindset in Video Games (Part 2)
I Haven’t Leveled Up…Yet: Growth Mindset in Video Games (Part I)
Design to Thrive: The MAGFest 2017 Game Jam
Video Games Can Boost Empathy
Why Do Teens Play Video Games?
Thriving Teens Use Their Superpowers

What is Power, and How Do We Get to Peace? Global Youth Have Answers.

By iThrive Games

October 27, 1962, was a day that could have changed the course of world history. 

That Saturday, the U.S.S. Beale dropped a series of non-lethal depth charges onto the B-59, a Soviet Union-operated and nuclear-armed submarine found near the U.S. blockade line around Cuba. Used to deter underwater warfare and intended as a warning, the charges sought to force the B-59 to the water's surface.

The captain aboard the B-59 had no way of knowing these were intended as warning shots. He had no contact from Moscow for several days, meaning no instruction, and after plummeting deeper into the waters to shield from the U.S. Navy's pursuers, his sub could not pick up or monitor radio traffic. Mistaking these warning shots as live explosives, the captain angrily convinced his men to arm the sub's nuclear-tipped torpedo and prepare for an attack under the belief that he was witnessing the start of World War III. If it had not been for the protocol that required all three of the B-59's senior officers to agree before initiating a nuclear launch, it could have been. 

Though the captain was in favor, the sub's second in command refused to give consent. Instead, he calmed the captain down and coolly convinced his fellow officers to wait for Moscow's orders. His deliberate, careful action in a moment colored by fear and threat, real and perceived, eventually brought the B-59 back to Russia without incident. Most people did not know of his impactful decision until over 40 years later. 

Like many events during the four decades of global political tension known as the Cold War, this close call signified the world's fragility at the time. The decision-making on the B-59 also mirrors how crucial the social and emotional were, as it motivated and underpinned every geopolitical move that could, if not made carefully, segue and cement doomsday. 

Over the last year and with funding by the XQ Institute, the iThrive Games team has been co-designing Diplomacy in Action, a innovative learning experience (LX) that invites high school students in U.S. history classrooms to explore how the social and emotional show up in the intricacies of Cold War geopolitics. The co-design team includes The History Co: Lab's Fernande Raine, Ludic Learning's Paul Darvasi, Professor Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, XQ's Matt Owens, and over 60 young people. Over the LX's six weeks, students are immersed in the Cold War. Through constructive and collaborative play and inquiry- and project-based learning, students assemble their historical insights and social and emotional skills into what becomes a Peacekeeper's Toolkit. As they step into their roles as U.S. diplomats to foreign countries in the LX's concluding iThrive Sim multiplayer simulation game experience, the Toolkit is their practical guide, helping them manage conflict alongside their peers. By the end of the game-based learning experience, students walk away with a deeper understanding of how fear and threat states impact decisions, of how power steers and shows up in global and domestic conflict, and real-time practice of critical thinking, responsible decision-making, and negotiation in tense times—social and emotional skills transferable to their real lives.

A CO-DESIGNED LX: BRIDGING INTENT WITH APPROACH

At iThrive Games, we firmly believe that empathy narrows the gap between intent and impact.

In the early envisioning of the Diplomacy in Action LX, our collaborative team of subject matter experts with backgrounds in history, adolescent development, social and emotional learning, serious game design, and game-based learning shared hopes of this LX being a memorable one for teens, intended to be interactive and deeply engaging for them. To ensure this, iThrive employed its strengths-based, co-design approach with teens and young adults, engaging them as thought and design partners throughout the LX's development.

Learn more about iThrive's co-design approach here.

 

Knowing we further our empathy through community and co-design, we made it a priority to create co-design contexts supportive of discovery for young people, ones that supported their emotional safety, challenged them cognitively, and helped them surface and express their ideas. By enlisting their expertise, genius, lenses, and experiences through co-design, the youth co-designers who've worked alongside us have been vital to helping make the LX all the more relevant to the teens it will reach. 

WHAT GLOBAL YOUTH CO-DESIGNERS SAY

Co-designing with young people is always a joy, and last November, when the iThrive team gathered virtually with 16 teens and young adults living in more than a dozen countries, was no different. Through the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit that connects youth across difference and distance, our design team met with interns from their Content Creation Lab across two sessions where they helped us co-design surrounding elements of the LX and playtest a prototype of its simulation game component. 

Aligned with our intent to make this learning experience one that effectively considered power in multiple expressions and culturally responsive definitions of what power is, it was truly an honor to welcome a global lens in the creation of it. By interweaving it with the views and perspectives of young people from across the globe, the LX becomes even more resonant for the learners it reaches, reflecting both the diversity in today's world and the inclusion that will be central to it.

Here are a few of the takeaways from our last co-design session with the Global Nomads Group, marking some of our most memorable moments of knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing:

'US VS. THEM': UNPACKING POLARIZATION

Our design team, seeking to make the Diplomacy in Action LX applicable to the real world, invited young people to share their views on division and unity in today's world.

Their perspectives and thoughts helped our team think even more creatively about how to meet young people where they are in how they view polarization—a phenomenon that, throughout the Cold War and history, concentrated power in echo chambers and reinforced and exacerbated conflict.

With their thoughts, our team expanded its operating understanding of powers' multiple expressions.

ASSESSING POWER OVER, POWER WITH, AND POWER TO

The 'Power Y' infographic appears frequently throughout the Cold War-inspired Diplomacy in Action LX and is a visual representation of three expressions of power—power over (meaning control), power to (meaning capability to do something), and power with (meaning shared power grown through partnership and collaboration).

To support the instructional design of a lesson plan for the LX that encouraged students to explore these expressions of power, our design team invited Global Nomads Group's youth interns to map and share how power manifests in their lives, communities, and screens.

Their insights influenced how the LX prompts learners to plot power plays and chart diplomacy, using real-life examples to help them understand how power was expressed throughout the Cold War.

THE MAKINGS OF AND PATHWAYS TO PEACE

One of our favorite questions presented to youth co-designers throughout this LX's development prompts them to dive into the makings of peace. Our design team asked the group about the tools needed to combat division, manage conflict in today's world, and unite people across differences, much like Global Nomads Group's mission.

We asked the co-designers to convey what's needed at a micro and individual level and the tools leaders today need to make peace real. Many of their responses captured an array of skills, practices, and initiatives they viewed as necessary to achieve that goal.

From their thought partnership came directive and discernment on which surrounding elements were ultimately weaved into Diplomacy in Action's six-week LX of the many aspects of the Cold War that could've been included and explored. Their thoughts on what would be in a toolkit meant to support peace helped us shape the inquiry-based learning tracks throughout the LX, ensuring they align with what they view as vital to diplomacy today.

A special thank you to the young people at the Global Nomads Group, their facilitators, and all who joined us to help co-design Diplomacy in Action and co-create an offering reflective of ideas beyond our borders. Below, check out a highlight reel of the full co-design session, and sign up for iThrive's mailing list to be notified when the LX is available for piloting!

Our Year of Knowledge-Building, Knowledge-Sharing & Play

By iThrive Games

Joy enriches. As a connector, joy helps realize the 'we' and nourishes the 'us' that directs how we gather, steers how we imagine, and inspires what we create. 

This year, joy guided our work alongside young people, nonprofits, government agencies, school communities, research institutions, game developers, subject matter experts, and learning experience designers. With teens and our partners, we built knowledge, shared knowledge, and co-designed transformative experiences for teens supportive of their learning, mental health, and thriving.

Throughout 2023, partnership propelled impact and possibility, helping us and those we collaborated with expand it in places where teens learn and play. Collaboration and community-building were consistently parts of all we did this year— from our co-design sessions that led to co-created games and learning experiences to the conferences and panels we were part of. In togetherness, we pooled strengths with teens and others. We leveraged the diversity of our experience and expertise and those we merged genius with to accelerate progress toward the world we each yearn—one where young people have the tools to live full, safe, healthy, and purposeful lives. It was amazing.

In celebration of what the year has been and all that is to come, here is a look back on eight joy-filled memories in no particular order, as well as our favorite collaborative moments, and unforgettable highlights from 2023: 

#8. PLAYTESTING CADENCE FORD AT PLAY NYC

At Playcrafting's Play NYC this year, an event that magnified the power of play and brought hundreds of game industry professionals, indie game developers, and game designers together to exhibit their games to players and peers, we shared an iteration of Cadence Ford, the single-player, text-based strategy game we created with the One Love Foundation and Playmatics, LLC.


Building on One Love's mission to empower young people with the life-saving prevention education, tools, and resources they need to see the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, Cadence Ford supports young people in learning to love better, in being with partners who practice healthy Love and communicating with loved ones who are in unhealthy relationships. While New Yorkers of all ages played the game demo and shared feedback, teens, many of whom went on to become members of our Teen Hub, were particularly moved by the game's storyline, mechanics, and captivating 2D art. Read about Cadence Ford's co-design process and the forum for listening to and learning from young people we created at Play NYC.

#7. OUR CO-DESIGN WITH TEENS AT THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY 

For the students from Thomas A. Edison High School who gathered at the New York Historical Society with us, History Co: Lab, a graphic notetaker, and others in Educating for American Democracy (EAD)'s network in November 2023, the co-design workshop presented an opportunity rare in their worlds—a chance to share how they envision democracy and impact civic learning that supports the future of it.

Our Game Design Studio model at the center of the co-design experience engaged them not just as students at the end of learning experiences but also as thought partners in co-designing them, setting the stage for meaningful co-creation. The teens, who ended up devising and developing a prototype for a new interactive EAD-inspired card game created to inspire high-quality civic learning experiences by the end of the workshop, called it "promising," "progressive," "unique," "revitalizing," and "relief." Read how the model brought many across the civic education ecosystem together and what came of the teens' collaborative experience. 

#6. THE LAUNCH OF OUR DESIGNING FOR TEEN THRIVING MAILING LIST

Impact-driven nonprofits, youth-serving programs, and government agencies trust us to preserve their commitment to teen wellness and thriving.

This year, we launched Designing for Teen Thriving, a mailing list that gives people like them access to the resources and insight of iThrive's game designers, learning experience designers, and teen social and emotional development experts. Subscribing to the list helps individuals looking to create developmentally nourishing experiences and wellness-supporting games for teens (with us or on their own) ensure what they create meets young people where they are and supports their thriving. 

Join the Designing for Teen Thriving mailing list today!

#5. THE SOFT LAUNCH OF DISASTER MIND, AN ITHRIVE SIM GAME MADE WITH FEMA

The work of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery is as emotional as it is manual. Disaster Mind, the single-player simulation game built on the iThrive Sim platform with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 8, supports young people's understanding of it. 

This year, the FEMA Region 8 team soft-launched the game after one and a half years of development. 

Young people who've playtested the game have reported feeling more confident in preparing for an emergency, managing the associated stress, and understanding the intentional mindset that underpins disaster preparedness. Many also have relayed plans to turn their awareness into action, mentioning specific disasters and sharing plans to talk to their families about exit plans, emergency kits, and meeting locations. Dive into the Disaster Mind's co-design process and explore what teens had to say about its readiness and resilience-building play experience.

#4. OUR CO-DESIGN WITH H.S. STUDENTS FROM THE GLOBAL NOMADS GROUP

Also this year, as part of an exciting learning experience design project currently underway with History Co: Lab and the XQ Institute, members of the iThrive Games team had the opportunity to gather virtually with high school students from the Global Nomads Group across two co-design sessions. 

True to our norm of iterating for impact, the young people, hailing from several countries across the world, met with us to go over parts of the game-based, social and emotional skill-building experience we're creating, lending their ideas, feedback, and expertise to make it as engaging, accessible, inclusive, and resonant as possible. The play-filled meetings featured icebreakers, stretches, constructive questions, and Jamboards. It was an honor to learn from them while supporting their design thinking in the connective experience.

#3. ITHRIVE SIM NAMED A LEARNING ENGINEERING TOOLS COMPETITION WINNER

This year, the iThrive Games team was named one of the 32 winners of this year's Learning Engineering Tools Competition, selected from over 1,000 edtech innovation proposals submitted worldwide. 

The win and accompanying $100,000 Growth Phase award in the Transforming Assessments track enables our team to expand iThrive Sim, our playful engine that hosts, powers, and evaluates immersive and interactive role-playing simulation games, with new ways to measure and assess the teen social and emotional learning fostered in them while developing alongside others in the growing learning engineering discipline. We are honored to share this win with our software development partners at Affordance Studio and EdTech Recharge's Kripa Sundar. Learn more about the Tools Competition and the expanded iThrive Sim to come.

#2. THE CONFERENCE CONNECTIONS

Attending game-filled, educational, and ed-tech conferences was an absolute favorite for us this year. 

At Games for Change, we learned tons from designers, researchers, and changemakers, and at ED TECH WEEK NYC, we explore how tech innovation continues to support access, learning, and workforce development.

Members of our team also had the opportunity to showcase our co-designed games at ED Games Expo and PLAY NYC and lead discussions elsewhere too. In March, as part of MA Civic Learning Week, we shared on iThrive Sim's transformative civic learning games for high school classrooms. At ASU+GSV Summit in April, our Executive Director and Chief Scientist Susan Rivers talked about the necessity of social and emotional skills in today and tomorrow's careers on an American Student Assistance panel alongside others invested in the thriving of this generation's learners. At NSLA's Summer Learning Summit in October, she joined the Education Innovation Stage with other thoughtful experts to discuss learning and youth development that can inspire, challenge and deepen summer learning. 

Each space we shared with others was carried by joy and animated by an eagerness to connect and collaborate with others eager to merge genius and create better systems of care and learning.

#1. OUR CREATIVE COMMONS-LICENSED, GAME-BASED LEARNING LIBRARY

Access enables impact. This year, we opened access to our game-based, social and emotional learning educational resources by licensing them under Creative Commons. Educators and teen-serving adults who care deeply about young people's thriving can merge it with their work and expertise.

Each iThrive Curriculum unit, iThrive Sim curricular surround, iThrive Game Design Kit, iThrive Game Guide, and iThrive-authored PDF resource can be remixed, redistributed, and built upon. Dive into them!

Whether you're a teen who co-designed or playtested with us, a partner or collaborator who co-created with us, an educator who brought our resources to your students, a game designer who used our game-making resources, or a supporter who read our blogs and cheered us on, we appreciate each of you for the many ways you engaged with us this year. A heartfelt thank you for sharing in our vision of teen learning and thriving, and happy new year to you and yours!

Teen-Centered Co-Design Gets Us To a Playful Solution to Online Extremism

By iThrive Games

Teens deserve our care and commitment. 

At iThrive Games, our why starts with this simple fact. Young people are doing the work of adolescence in a world marked by unique features and challenges. They thrive when they are supported by systems of care and learning that strengthens their resistance to those challenges. Connecting them to tools that help them live fully and safely is how we do this.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, our work is always impact-driven. Our team of adolescent development, game design, and learning science experts, alongside a network of teen co-designers and collaborators, have spent the last six years co-imagining playful solutions that transform learning and wellness in youth-serving settings and spaces. Since our founding in 2014, iThrive's  'why' has been grounded in our vision of a world where teens are actively engaged, seen, and valued by society, have the necessary support to live healthy, purposeful lives, and where the adults in their worlds have social and emotional learning tools they can bring to the young people they teach and gather with that are as effective as they are engaging.

Shoulder to shoulder with the museums, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, libraries, schools, and research institutions we've worked with, we've fortified our why and discovered more nuanced ones alongside them that share in the same vein of commitment to teen thriving. The impactful games and learning experiences we've made with and for teens mirror and echo our why, bringing it and our learning-science-backed design principles to domains ranging from transformative civic education and disaster preparedness to dating violence prevention and school community-building.

Incidents like what happened at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last May cement our why. Marked by an act of white supremacist violence, that Saturday lives in infamy. An 18-year-old, self-described in a manifesto as an ethnonationalist, entered a Tops in a predominantly Black neighborhood armed with a semi-automatic weapon and attacked the people in it. His hate crime, which took ten lives and injured three more, was broadcasted via Twitch, a video game live streaming platform. Communication technologies and social media platforms of the like were used to plan, prepare, and publicize this domestic act of terror. The same tools significantly contributed to his radicalization.

Extremist actors are increasingly targeting adolescents online for recruitment, and while hate in today's digitized world grows more accessible to them, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) programs still fail to accurately address the specific needs of this audience. High schools across the United States—hubs for their growth and learning—remain unequipped to contend with the escalating challenge.

With funding provided through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) FY21 Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant program and in partnership with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, the iThrive Games team has spent the last two years developing a new role-playing simulation game, designed for teens to develop their awareness and resistance to radicalization and build their resilience within their local networks. 

To make this a game-based learning intervention that effectively equips adolescents with a lifetime of resilience and helps schools build capacity for P/CVE program administration, iThrive Games has been employing its co-design approach with select schools across the country, inviting young people to take part in participatory design activities that support their voice, design thinking, and agency. The co-creative experience thus far with educators and teens hailing from different neighborhoods in Monterey, CA, Middlebury, VT, Boulder, CO, New York, NY, and Boston, has been another testament that how we create is as important as what we create. Through teen-centered co-design, we innovative, responsive, and relevant solutions, and through the empathic listening it enables, we affirm our why.

CREATING A CONTEXT FOR DISCOVERY AND DESIGN

Participatory design is impactful design. What comes of iThrive's co-design approach with teens—both the context for discovery it creates and the thought partnership it fosters—proves it. 

iThrive has facilitated in-person and remote co-design sessions as part of this DHS TVTP FY21 grant-funded project, bringing over 90 young people together with adult stakeholders nationwide. Our Game Design Studio model—a strengths-based, participatory one that rejigs and revolutionizes the typical focus group—invites teens to the table to share their wisdom, beliefs, and perceptions related to extremism and radicalization and empathize, define, ideate, and imagine playful solutions together. Through it, empathy maps turn into affinity ones that have informed and inspired the game-based learning experience we've been developing with the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, CA.

Our co-design sessions are designed to engage teens thoughtfully, centering their wisdom of their own lived experiences. We  merged learning science together with subject matter expertise, established norms for psychological safety, employed design thinking prompts supportive of experimentation, reflection, and learning, and engaged in empathic awareness and listening to enrich the co-creative space.

The parts that make the whole of a co-creative space led primed for impactful design and shared discovery.

THE DESIGN THINKING

Our Game Design Studio (GDS) model combines the science of teens' social and emotional development, systems thinking, and gamemaking to leverage the power of play and the breadth of game design to magnify teens' strengths and support meaningful co-creation. The design thinking activities folded into a co-design session via the GDS model helps guide a collective investigation into a social issue, in this case, radicalization and extremism, where teens are creatively prompted to define the human needs that underlie it, map their own experiences, ideate alongside experts, and create solutions reflected in games they envision and prototype.

In line with the model, each co-design session introduced teens to the social issue and invited them to respond to visuals, existing game prototypes, and open-ended prompts that elicit their experiences and perceptions related to the radicalization of young people. Their reactions to hypothetical situations and responses to questions about misinformation, authority, isolation, and more were documented.

Explore iThrive's free-to-download Game Design Studio Toolkit which, includes examples of learning-science-backed design thinking activities created to deeply engage teens.

After reflecting on definitions, understandings, strengths, and vulnerabilities related to extremism and radicalization, teen co-designers took part in the imagining, designing, and refining of game components, like characters, rules, mechanics, win and loss states, folding in their expertise, experiences, and awareness to support the development of the game to come.

THE SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTISE

Vital to each lab of discovery and design assembled as part of this project were the subject matter experts who've enriched each co-creative space with rich, tailored insight. The specialized expertise of the SMEs who worked with us and our partners at the CTEC at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies added to the knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing that animated the experience. Their research, paired with our teen co-designers' takes and lived experiences, got us to a simulation game prototype that supports community resilience to extremism.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

Norms matter in spaces shared with young people, especially when those spaces strive to be generative. To support the psychological safety of the teens who participated in the co-design sessions, facilitators, stakeholders, and participants were asked and reminded not to disclose any private health information, self-incriminating information, or political, religious, or ideological beliefs. Participants were also asked to abstain from naming or identifying anyone involved in criminal or radical activity. By being transparent about these norms, we set expectations that helped establish the co-design session as a safe and secure place for teens.

THE LEARNING SCIENCE 

Learning is situated, active, and socially constructed. We orient teen and adult co-design session participants around this truth so the games and learning experiences they imagine with us create equitable outcomes in the young people they reach. Learning science, as both a design principle and a lever for research, encourages co-designers to consider accessibility, engagement, representation, action, and expression as they brainstorm. This shared understanding of how learning happens awakens a social and collaborative view of it in our co-design sessions, and the lens supports the innovative and impactful thinking that happens.

THE EMPATHIC LISTENING

At iThrive Games, we make it a point to listen empathically to the teens we co-design with to ensure what they and adult stakeholders share gets captured in the game-based solution we co-create. Empathic listening practices, like mapping similarities in experiences, embracing silence, and affirming others' input by restating and paraphrasing, show up in the space, be it in person or virtual, to set the scene for in-depth reflection, dialogue, and imagining. The result is a participatory environment where all involved feel included and have a stake in shaping the solution that's brought us together.

"Our co-design approach invites teens to share in the duty of devising a sustainable solution," shares iThrive's Executive Director and Chief Scientist Susan E. Rivers, Ph. D. "As thought partners, they are taking part in the co-imagining and building of transformative interventions and designing for change. The game-based learning experience to come seeks to support teens' awareness, well-being, and resistance. Every component of it is a reflection of our teen experts."

THE GAME-BASED P/CVE SOLUTION TO COME

"Sometimes they're the only people you know."

"People have a strong desire to be a part of something."

"People deserve love and support. Some people feel that love from their friends that they don't get at home."

"You wanna know the group will be there to defend you and protect you."

"You want someone you can rely on."

Transcriptions of co-design sessions facilitated over the course of this project reveal an undoubtable throughline in the lived experiences of teens coming from rural, urban, and suburban backgrounds—the role and power of the peer. Unpacking both needs and challenges via the Game Design Studio model with them and counterrorism experts from the Middlebury Institute for International Studies brought all to understand that connection and community matter, and that the trusted peer is an agent of change in teens' worlds, uniquely able to intervene in friends' lives and influence friends' behavior.

The tech-supported simulation game we're creating with specialists at CTEC on the iThrive Sim platform magnifies this critical understanding and uses examples based on real-world extremist recruitment efforts to develop a play experience that helps young people recognize the signs of potential grooming and exploitation by extremist actors, comprehend the impact of offensive, racially charged, violent, and hateful comedy and satire, build awareness of the indicators of extremist recruitment in communities, and resist extremist influence in online and physical communities.

The role-playing game's latest iteration invites players to take on the duty of a peer and assume various roles in the fight against extremism, like researchers, teachers, law enforcement officers, community members, and media members, to combat radicalization in their schools and communities. Coming Spring 2024, the game's 'learn-by-doing' approach will activate awareness and social-emotional skill-building in the high school students it reaches. Developed for teens and with teens, the P/CVE solution strives to support young people in being young people. In line with our why, it is care in action. 

SIGN UP TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN THE ITHRIVE SIM ROLE-PLAYING SIMULATION GAME CREATED WITH TEENS, COUNTERRORISTS, AND ANTI-VIOLENCE EXPERTS IS AVAILABLE.

Making Civic Learning Meaningful With and For Young People

By iThrive Games

"Promising." 

"Progressive."

"Unique."

"Revitalizing."

"Relief."

When Moiz, Tanisha, Ibad, Jaiden, and Samirah were asked to describe in one word the workshop they took part in with designers and museum educators from Educating for American Democracy's civic learning community earlier this month, the students from Thomas A. Edison CTE High School shared these, capturing how resonant and rewarding the co-design experience was for each of them.

Through iThrive's Game Design Studio, the playful, strength-based participatory design model that steered the afternoon workshop, the teens were engaged as equals and experts as they spent three-and-a-half hours vision-setting, imagining, and ideating alongside others in the civic education ecosystem. For the 17-year-olds, the collaborative space presented an opportunity rare in their worlds—a chance to share how they envision democracy and impact learning that supports the future of it. "[This] really gave me reassurance," shared Ibad. "There are people working to make our future better using our own opinions."

Brought together at the New York Historical Society by a project with Educating for American Democracy (EAD), an initiative working to reimagine history and civics education and make it a national priority, the students joined with iThrive Games, History Co:Lab, and Every Museum a Civic Museum, museum educators from Intrepid Museum, the New York Public Library, and the National Museum of American History, curriculum developers from Re-Imagining Migration, and graphic notetaker Aaron Mayper to create a versatile tool that supports the design and development of inquiry-based civic learning experiences.

Pairing the teens with learning-science-backed tools to help them mine their genius and craft playful solutions alongside peers and subject matter experts, iThrive's Game Design Studio model facilitated the day's knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing, setting the stage for meaningful co-creation. By the end of the workshop, we had a paper prototype of an interactive card game that animates and amplifies driving questions in EAD's Roadmap. With the session carried by teens' curiosity, creativity, and wisdom, the day was a testament to what teen-centered co-design can do and the impactful solutions it brings forth through radical collaboration.

CO-DESIGNING FOR MEANINGFUL CIVIC LEARNING

Civic learning supports both individual and collective thriving.

Studies conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship and researchers show that civic learning  inspires socially responsible civic engagement, increasing a person's likelihood of voting. Beyond motivating the fulfillment of civic duties, when high-quality civic learning experiences prompt students to think critically about current socio-political events, students are more likely to engage in civil discourse with their peers. Despite this benefit, 92% of teachers are reported to shut down and stop conversations between students when argumentative or contentious.

There is a clear need for high-quality civic learning curricula that effectively supports inquiry and triggers curiosity in young people while accounting for what they and those who educate them experience. Only through radical collaboration and intentional partnership can we hit all the marks. The learning-science-backed Game Design Studio model brings both into shared spaces. Its use earlier this month at a synergetic workshop with HS students to create an interactive learning experience design tool reveals what the inventive and playful co-design method can do for civic education.

THE DESIGN CHALLENGE: BUILDING THE DECK

When teen and adult participants gathered at the New York Historical Society to co-create with each other, the goal of the session was clear—develop a resource that helps educators in all public spaces devise and design civic learning experiences that stimulate discussion, debate, reflection, and critical thought about American democracy. The resource needed to align with EAD's Framework and support the imaginations of educators and learning experience designers while being user-friendly and versatile enough for use across all grade levels. 

Drawing inspiration from XQ Institute's competency cards, everyone in attendance knew early on that whatever we created together would, by design, support a rethinking of educational experiences. In this case, that meant enlivening civics and history in a communally defined and teen-centered way.

THE CO-DESIGN EXPERIENCE

The Game Design Studio (GDS) model was devised by social psychologists, accessibility experts, and learning scientists to create a supportive context for discovery where teens feel safe, seen, and heard, and where they connect about issues important and relevant to them (not just what adults think is important). 

Explore the activities inspired by  iThrive Games' Game Design Studio model in our Game Design Studio Toolkit.

True to the model, the session at the New York Historical Society started with the students learning more about the day's opportunity to influence civic learning for democracy. After they were given an overview of the goals and intended impact of the Educating for American Democracy's Roadmap, adult participants began to trickle in and when everyone was in attendance, the workshop kicked off with play. Educators, teachers, and designers played Our Threads, a connection-building question card game iThrive developed with Fugees Family, Inc., to warm up to each other and after playing a few rounds and reflecting on what a card game can do, joined forces to create a vision for the day. While naming these goals, the workshop's participants also talked through their definitions of a democracy that is inclusive of and healthy for everyone. These high dreams anchored us and our work together as the co-design session progressed.

Aaron Myper, a graphic notetaker, supported the co-design session with drawings and doodles that helped record the insights shared.

The icebreaker conversations and play were followed by empathy mapping exercises, where teens and educators reflected and shared their lived experiences as students and teachers. Deepening everyone's understanding of what the other feels, thinks, and does helped the group define success criteria together and clarify all that our learning experience design tool needed to address in order to be effective.

Then came the brainstorming.

Working collaboratively in small groups, students and educators began ideating ways to reflect the experiences and needs of students and teachers in an interactive card game that pulled from themes and design challenges in EAD's roadmap. Small groups shared their ideas with the larger group for feedback in support of fine-tuning.

Teens join with teachers, learning experience designers, and museum educators to co-design. As part of the collaborative experience, teens explore the XQ Institute's competency cards.

Ideas came to life when groups created prototypes that were tested and refined. Toward the end of the workshop, teens pitched to the larger group on the creative solutions they devised with others. An early prototype of the interactive card game to come, developed with the support of graphic notetaker Aaron Mayper, seeks to help educators create civic learning experiences for teens that prompt them to ask difficult questions and answer them through analysis and discussion.The first iteration of the game asks users to pick a card from a deck of 'big' questions from the EAD roadmap, like "What is power?" and "What is a social contract?" and pair it with contextual factors like year, racial identity, gender, and location from another deck that modify how the question is answered. Teen co-designers also suggested adding 'to me' wild cards to the game's deck to encourage learners to reflect deeply on their own identities and values. 

The co-design experience was an impactful one that encouraged teens to define meaningful civic education and invited their influence over how its envisioned by educators. From their hands-on role comes a tool that inspires civic learning experiences in public spaces everywhere that are relevant to them, reflective of their hopes for democracy, and responsive to their educational needs.

THE POWER OF 'CO' GETS US TO IMPACT

"My voice as a student was heard," shared Moiz. "My opinion was valued."

"I realized that as a young person my voice does align with those older than me," echoed Tanisha.

"This workshop has changed the way I think about democracy. I have learned that my voice matters and makes a difference. Even if I cannot vote, I can still make an impact by sharing my perspective in this space."

Using the Game Design Studio model, teens are engaged as experts and thought partners throughout the co-design experience.

For the high school students who took part in this co-designing workshop, as well as the adult participants, the Game Design Studio (GDS) model that anchored the day helped create an all-embracing experience. By designing civic learning experiences in this collaborative way with teens, we integrate their vision for the world they will one day inherit in the planning of them with a method of cooperation that affirms and empowers them.

"Today's youth are tomorrow's future," shares iThrive's Executive Director, Susan E. Rivers. "When the Game Design Studio model is brought to the civic learning space to support the co-design of compelling learning experiences, it disrupts a limiting view of young people as just learners by engaging them from the start as thought partners too."

The co-creative space both teens and adults helped establish that Wednesday afternoon attests to how radical, intentional, and inclusive collaboration can inspire new ways of thinking, doing, and being.The output of the joint experience—an interactive card game and learning experience design tool—are the creative and impactful solutions that come from thoughtfully merging teen genius with subject matter experts. The teen co-designers' reflections show the GDS model's impact on the personal level and its unique ability to deeply engage teens in building better systems of learning. 

"The only way to design a new system is not just to "involve" young people in the process: we have to engage in intergenerational co-creation," shares Fernande Raine, CEO and Founder of The History Co:Lab. "Many organizations create token roles for youth that are little more than fig leaves on blatantly adult-centric systems. We want to create spaces for the genius of the teen brain to help imagine and steer us towards the future that this world needs."

Our co-design model and approach honors the strengths of teens who are uniquely wired to learn by fully engaging them in their genius, and with it we are accelerating progress toward a world where young people are heard, healthy, and co-creators of systems supportive of their thriving.

CONNECT WITH THE HISTORY CO:LAB AT THE 2023 NCSS ANNUAL CONFERENCE IN NASHVILLE, TN, TO PLAYTEST OUR PROTOTYPE OF THE INTERACTIVE CARD GAME!

FEMA’s New Game, Built on iThrive Sim, Preps Teens for Natural Disasters

By iThrive Games

With natural disasters come disruptions and decisions.

Disaster Mind, a game created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in partnership with iThrive Games, simulates all three in an immersive experience that makes the power of preparedness clear to all who play it.

The game puts the player in a world where they must navigate severe weather events, stay informed, and make decisions that impact how the story unfolds. Players expand their understanding of disaster preparedness as they contend with the unexpected, manage its accompanying stress, and act timely and effectively while under it.

Disaster Mind has been both thought- and action-provoking. The teens and young adults who have playtested it tell us that they are applying their game-based learnings to their real worlds and real lives soon after playing. "I should go home and make sure my family is prepared just in case something happens, " shared one teen after playing. "I've discussed with my family about disasters. We are making plans for them and intend on making them as clear and as direct as possible for everyone to stay safe during disasters," shared another. 

As a resilience-building game, Disaster Mind seeks to empower young people with transformative education that helps them reach similar realizations. The impactful gameplay aims to activate and support their planning, involvement, and leadership in their network's preparedness efforts. "Young people are agents of change in their households, schools, and communities," shares Daniel Nyquist, the National Preparedness Deputy Director of FEMA Region 8. "iThrive helped us lean into their wisdom and lived experiences to design and produce Disaster Mind, and in the end, we have a compelling game that meaningfully helps their peers build skills supportive of their resilience and practices reflective of an intentional mindset."

DESIGNING FOR IMPACT: THE CO-DESIGN PROCESS

Our co-design process with and for teens is care in action and when brought to collaborations with partnering organizations, like FEMA, helps create a supportive context for discovery and powerful game design.

Explore some of the activities that make up iThrive Games' Game Design Studio model here.

The development of Disaster Mind began with co-design workshops with teens living in the states and territories served by FEMA Region VII (twenty-nine Tribal Nations, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming). These gatherings sought to gauge their needs and understanding of the challenge Disaster Mind seeks to address. Teen co-designers surfaced themes that were top-of-mind for them, including the wellbeing of their pets, resource coordination, knowing which experts to trust, and cultivating the emotional ability to cope with disasters.

A snapshot of a Google Jamboard from an early co-design session held with teens virtually.

"Throughout this process, teens have been vulnerable, open, and generous in the sharing out of their ideas and wisdom. In their self-awareness, they've tapped into their firsthand experiences with hard topics to help make Disaster Mind relevant and responsive to their needs," shared Jane Lee, Senior Director of Operations and Mental Health at iThrive Games after our first co-design session in March 2022.  "What they have contributed with their time, creativity, and retelling of their experiences navigating disruptions and shifts, has translated into a resonant resilience-building activity for their peers." 

The themes and experiences teens shared with the design team and FEMA's emergency management specialists turned into actionable insights that informed Disaster Mind's content, ensuring the play experience we created was relevant, memorable, and responsive for teens. 

MINDSET MATTERS IN DISASTER MIND 

The work of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery is emotional. To convey this authentically and meaningfully in Disaster Mind, iThrive Sim—an award-winning platform that hosts single-player and multiplayer social and emotional skill-building simulations—was selected as the game's engine.

"iThrive Sim supports a 'learn by doing' approach where teens' emotions are ignited and used to support their active social and emotional skill-building," shares Dr. Susan Rivers, iThrive Games' Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "Each game offered via the platform is steered by teens' improvised interactions and real-time decisions, while the tech enables the modulation of stress and monitors in-game behaviors taken in response."

Screenshots of Disaster Mind, hosted exclusively on the iThrive Sim platform.

Using iThrive Sim's game mechanics, Disaster Mind invites players to practice social and emotional skills, like emotional regulation and responsible decision-making, while strategizing and solving their way through the game. By scaffolding this valuable skill-building with educational content meant to prepare teens for disasters, players grow familiar with the practices to lean on when complex emotions surface and the constructive mental pathways to call on when a natural disaster occurs.

Mindset matters as gameplay supports young people in being aware and actionable. Teens come to see through Disaster Mind's impactful play experience that underpinning the creation of a supply kit, or emergency go bag is an intentional mindset where one believes emergencies can happen to them and knows how to prepare.

'KNOW WHAT YOU PLAN TO DO': WHAT TEENS SAY ABOUT DISASTER MIND

True to our co-design process, teens across the country have been playing and testing Disaster Mind ahead of its launch later this year. Players reported feeling more confident in being able to prepare for an emergency and in managing the associated stress. Most report that they intend to talk to their family about an emergency preparedness plan, with many mentioning specific disasters, exit plans, emergency kits, and meeting locations.

After playtesting Disaster Mind, teens shared the following:

  • "This game made me realize these types of disasters can really happen to anyone and you should always be prepared for the worst."
  • "I think that it would be important in terms of cell service or other accidents to have a solid plan."
  • "I now know to have a defined plan to be prepared if there were to be a natural disaster, especially if the family gets split, we should have a meeting spot."
  • "Like it said in the game, you never know or never expect it to happen to you but it very well can."
  • "I do intend on asking my parents if we do have a plan for if there were an earthquake. Living in an earthquake prone place, I realized that it is essential to have a plan with my family."
  • "After [this] simulation, I feel like it is important to know what you plan to do."

The post-game reflections shared by young people attest to the power of the simulation. "Natural disasters are a challenge in today's world and will surely be one in the world teens and future generations will inherit," shares Stephanie Poore, the National Preparedness Branch Chief of FEMA Region 8." With Disaster Mind, our goal is to ensure teens are ready, aware, prepared, and practicing the skills that support their capacity when they strike." 

GET NOTIFIED WHEN DISASTER MIND LAUNCHES

New One Love Game Uses SEL to Help Young People Learn to Love Better

By iThrive Games

One in three young people will have an unhealthy relationship before reaching adulthood. 

Interpersonal violence remains the third leading cause of adolescent death, contributing to one in every five teen suicides.

The need for more awareness-building and preventive interventions that help teens live full, safe, and healthy lives is unmistakable. Cadence Ford, a new mobile game made by the One Love Foundation in partnership with iThrive Games and Playmatics, LLC, responds to it with a safe and playful space for young people to familiarize themselves with unhealthy behaviors that may surface in relationships. As players interact with each story in the game, they are tasked with figuring out how to talk with their friends about uncomfortable issues and how to offer assistance in each of their unique circumstances. Through play, the game meets teens and young adults where they are to support their social and emotional learning and practice of constructive relationship skills.

"Cadence Ford builds on One Love's mission to bring life-saving prevention education to young people and expands on our honoring of Yeardley Love—a daughter, friend, and student-athlete whose life was tragically cut short by an ex-boyfriend in 2010 three weeks shy of graduating from the University in Virginia," shares Madeline Hopper, Senior Product Manager at the One Love Foundation. "Our goal with this game is to equip young people with the tools to love better, be with partners who practice healthy love, and advocate for healthy relationships. Because those tools are social and emotional, we were glad to have iThrive Games—experts in young people's social and emotional learning—be our partners throughout its development."

Our team joins One Love, and the teens and young adults who have played the game so far in hopes that Cadence Ford helps every person it reaches be aware, self-preserving, and better support systems for their friends in a world where antisocial interactions and unhealthy relationships are likely to be encountered. "We want all who play Cadence Ford to come to it with curiosity," shares Susan Rivers, Ph.D., iThrive's Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "And we want them to leave it empowered and better prepared to be ambassadors and practitioners of safe love and healthy communication."

MEANINGFUL GAMEPLAY, MEANINGFUL LEARNING

Cadence Ford sets forth a time-bending adventure in a charming town. Clocks have stopped, and the once-thriving community has fallen apart. The player must travel back to meet former friends, explore their stories, solve their mysteries, unearth past mistakes, and change the future before the present takes hold.

To do this, the player must make critical decisions throughout the game with how they communicate and interact with those past connections. Words must be chosen carefully since their friends' futures depend on it.

iThrive's teen social and emotional health expertise helped direct Cadence Ford's development cycle and supported the team's decision to make the game a text-based strategy one. In doing so, the play experience would build players' relationship skills by enabling their agency to make decisions and learn from them. "Games have always been microcosms of the real world, making them a springboard for exploring new ways of doing and being," shares Jane Lee, iThrive's Senior Director of Operations and Mental Health. "With Cadence Ford, we wanted to create a low-stakes, thought-provoking environment for young people to arrive at new understandings of who they are and the world around them. By making it a choice-filled offering, we offer young people a context to think expansively, arrive at learnings authentically, and fail safely."

The game's mechanics assist players in navigating uneasy settings. Each of its interactive character stories helps sharpen the players' ability to listen actively, attend to conflict through productive communication, better understand restorative practices, recognize unhealthy behaviors, and uphold healthy ones.

Young people demand and deserve an ecosystem of care to do the social and emotional work that starts in early adolescence safely. Cadence Ford fits into that ecosystem by connecting them to this transformative social and emotional learning through play—a tool they're familiar with.

CO-DESIGNING STARTS WITH AND NOURISHES TEEN GENIUS

Beyond just using play as a lever for meaningful learning, the resonance of Cadence Ford is due mainly to its development alongside teens. iThrive's innovative co-design approach with young people was employed from the beginning to support us in folding in the wisdom of teens whose insights and feedback were integrated into the final play experience.

Everyone involved in the design and development of this game values the inquiry and imagination of young people. Teens and young adults in One Love and iThrive Games' networks were at the table from start to finish and developed their game design and social and emotional skills throughout the process. 

Explore some of the activities that make up iThrive Games' Game Design Studio model here.

The Game Design Studio model at the heart of our co-design approach is a strengths-based one, and bringing it to the young people we co-created Cadence Ford with helped them uncover and share their thoughts. In co-design workshops, they shared perceptions on the importance of healthy relationships, defining what healthy and unhealthy signs of a relationship look like in their worlds and minds, and exploring with peers how to best navigate discomfort when it appears in the body and in peer relationships. Each of the co-designers and playtesters who lent their genius to Cadence Ford was compensated for their ingenuity as thought partners throughout this shared endeavor. 

WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE SAY ABOUT CADENCE FORD

The play experience in Cadence Ford is yet another testament to the power of game-based learning. When young people who played the game for the first time were asked, "What did you learn about talking to friends in unhealthy relationships?" they shared responses that reflected their sharpened relationship skills and communication practices like "star[ing off small before jumping into the topic" and aiming to "understand their situation while encouraging healthy habits." Others shared that through the game, they "learned some new lines to help [themselves] and friends cope with relationship and friendship situations," "how to spot unhealthy behavior in a relationship," and "how to respond in situations where you see someone you know in these unhealthy relationships."

Like the many who have played the game and been a part of its making, we want Cadence Ford to assist young people in learning to be champions of healthy love and be with partners who practice it. "Yeardley's legacy of joy lives on in this game," shares Hopper. "At One Love, we work to change the statistics around relationship abuse one conversation at a time. With Cadence Ford, we're promoting that change one play session at a time."

DOWNLOAD AND PLAY 'CADENCE FORD' ON THE APP STORE

Make It A Gameful School Year: Meeting Teens Where They Are With Play

By iThrive Games

"I'm always going to enjoy a lesson where you can learn and have fun... It helps keep the students focused and even helps motivate them. I know I'm motivated to find out what happens next," shared a high school senior who, along with peers in his humanities class, was one of the first to gather around an Xbox One, play What Remains of Edith Finch, and meaningfully learn from it using our iThrive Curriculum unit, Museum of Me.

Games like What Remains of Edith Finch merge mechanics, worldbuilding, and challenges to deliver emotional and immersive experiences to all who play them. For the 85% of teens in the United States who play them (International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction), they are a solid and steady source of joy, connection, and entertainment.

At iThrive Games, we see the curiosity, embrace, and eagerness activated in teens by a never-before-seen start screen as a launchpad for social and emotional learning (SEL)—a transformative skill-building practice proven to protect and promote their mental health. Our team folds in what we know about the transcending and emotion-evoking power of games into a unique multidisciplinary, user-centered, and participatory approach that brings teens, researchers, game developers, and our adolescent development experts to the table to envision, create, and test tools that support teen thriving.

The games and game-based learning experiences we've co-designed alongside libraries, museums, schools, and youth-serving organizations we work with fully recruit the feelings conjured through play to create a wellness-supporting experience that centers teens' social and emotional needs. We use play to bring SEL to young people in a developmentally responsive way with games that invite them to uncover and nourish their strengths, craft and answer their own questions—activities that expand their understanding of themselves, others, and the world around them. 

Beyond enthusiasts, we are ambassadors of play. Our team's first-hand witnessing of what games do (and can do) over the last five years has affirmed our belief in their unique capacity to support young people's thriving. We fully encourage educators, program coordinators, and all working with teens this school year to bring them into the spaces they share with them to see the power of play first-hand, too. Keep reading for resources, recommendations, and insights that support the integration of games in teen-serving settings and their use in teen-centered ways.

WHAT PLAY DOES (AND CAN DO) FOR TEENS

Play is beneficial for all of us, but for teens especially. Here are five things play does for young people, and can support, enable, and elevate when brought into the spaces where young people gather and learn:

Play activates deep learning and personal growth. Games present opportunities for teens to engage interactively and think expansively. Environmental storytelling coupled with mechanics that govern and guide the player's actions and the game's response to them give way to an experiential context where teens build knowledge while exercising personal agency—the conditions for deep, meaningful learning. "Games offer teens the ability to fully inhabit the world of a video game, to embody characters with agency along with the chance to impact the world and characters around them," shares Susan E. Rivers, PhD, iThrive's Executive Director & Chief Scientist. "They offer the agency and low-risk experimentation that teens rarely get but sorely need to discover who they want to be."

Play supports social and emotional development. Games make us feel. They delight us, challenge us, calm us, frustrate us, and excite us. They can prompt problem-solving, conflict resolution, and empathy, provoking opportunities that support teens' social and emotional learning. Social and emotional learning is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as "the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."

"How Social and Emotional Skills Shore Up Teen Mental Health." iThrive Games. https://tinyurl.com/what-sel-does-for-teens

Games provide a social space ripe with opportunities for young people to lean into these tasks, as well as developmental ones like identity exploration, establishing and exercising independence, and finding their place in community.

Play soothes. Games transport and immerse teens in new worlds, and with the space to interact as a new character and confront conquerable challenges comes the opportunity for stress reduction, self-gratification, and flow states. In countless co-design sessions with teens, we've heard that games are an outlet for relaxing and unwinding, providing a constructive space for coping, breaking for a bit, and pressing pause in challenging moments. 

Play fosters connection. When teens play with peers, be it competition or collaboration, they socialize and connect, tasks paramount to their mental health. In the connective spaces games offer, teens can share their triumph and joy with others. They can work together toward a shared in-game goal and, sometimes, tackle the fallout of a shared loss in powerful bond-building experiences.

INTEGRATING PLAY WHEREVER TEENS LEARN AND GATHER

The work of adolescence has always been social and emotional, and young people need tools and strategies to help them navigate it. What games do for teens make them a useful means of support, and when enlisted by adults in their world as a medium of engagement, they are further solidified as valuable parts of young peoples' toolkits.

For all looking to leverage the power of play this school year while in community with teens, here are three ways to do so:

1. Pull in a game-based learning curriculum, or create your own. 

Game-based learning supports educators in using the power of games to define and support their students' learning outcomes. When lesson plans leverage video games—an entry point familiar to most teens—they pave the way for a culturally responsive learning experience supportive of innovative thinking, deep learning, and in the case of our standards-aligned iThrive Curriculum units, A Moment in Time, Museum of Me, and Sam's Journey) that center themes relevant to teens like navigating identity exploration, relationships, and social media, their social and emotional development too. For educators who value accessibility also, game-based learning aligns with Universal Design for Learning principles. As a stark differentiation from traditional learning approaches, games help educators reach and engage teens with a practice that acknowledges that teens are vast and wonderful, engaging with concepts from different access points. Here's how to choose a video game for a high school humanities or English class and a case example of how iThrive Games does so.

2. Employ role-playing simulations to support a 'learn by doing' approach. 

Role-playing simulations engage teens in a high-energy experience with hands-on learning as they are challenged to strategize and act. Multiplayer ones, particularly, invite them to interact and investigate with each other and pursue shared goals. The embodied learning accompanying the role-playing propels their curiosity and motivation to explore possibilities transferable to real-life contexts.

High school students playing iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance. See the gameplay in action here.

The simulations offered via iThrive Sim, our award-winning simulation platform that hosts dynamic role-playing games that scaffold educational content with social and emotional skill-building activities, encourage teens to learn by doing. Each one in our core civics library (Lives in Balance, Leading Through Crisis, and Follow the Facts) invites teens to play alongside their peers, prompts them to draw on their own experiences and their social and emotional skills while making decisions, demonstrate critical thinking, acquire and interpret information, and navigate challenges collaboratively. Dive into the social and emotional skill-building and civic learning that happens in each iThrive Sim game experience here.

3. Unleash teen creativity by inviting them to be game designers.

Why? As teens progress through adolescence and develop their capacity to reason thoughtfully and think critically, this three-letter question becomes all the more important and prominent in their lives. The cognitive growth teens undergo propels them to investigate the 'whys' that shape how they live and see their world. They move from thinking concretely and heavily relying on physical observations to thinking abstractly about possibilities. In this last major phase of development, where teens are primed to learn and adapt, curiosity becomes a growth point, and game design uniquely nurtures it in them. Our Game Design Studio Toolkit, developed in collaboration with EdTogether, sandbox games like Minecraft, and game-making tools like Roblox, provide teens with a springboard for unpacking complex challenges, investigating questions, and stepping fully into their creativity.

Games are unsurpassed in their ability to engage teens in physical and virtual worlds deeply. They offer teens a safe space to wander and wonder, exercise their innate curiosity, and build new understandings of themselves and each other. When used as a medium for engaging with young people in the spaces where they gather, they become more than entertainment—they become levers for social and emotional support.

How are you using play this school year? Let us know on Twitter by tweeting us @iThriveGames using the hashtag #GamesforThriving, and stay updated with our game-based resources and game design work, done with and for teens, by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.

iThrive Games Named a 2022-2023 Tools Competition Winner

By iThrive Games

NEWTON, MA - Today, iThrive Games was named one of 32 winners of the 2022-2023 Tools Competition. The nonprofit, which leads the development of wellness-supporting games and interactive experiences designed with and for teens, joins teams from 12 countries being awarded more than $4 million to develop and expand tools that will impact 35 million learners by 2026.

As winners in the Transforming Assessments track and recipients of a Growth Phase award, iThrive Games will receive $100,000 to expand its proprietary simulation game engine, iThrive Sim, with new ways to measure and assess the teen social and emotional learning (SEL) happening on the platform through play.

iThrive Sim authors and delivers immersive and interactive simulation games for teens that translate into meaningful learning experiences in the spaces (in-person and online) where they gather. Since launching in 2020, the game engine, built with iThrive Games' software development partners Affordance Studio, has been cemented as an ed tech tool supportive of deep and enduring social and emotional learning, peer connection, and collaborative problem-solving, earning recognition for its innovative approach to learning and unique response to the educational needs of the COVID-19 classroom. Explore iThrive Sim's dynamic features here.

The Tools Competition win enables the iThrive Games team to build new data collection and assessment capabilities onto the iThrive Sim platform that will allow teens, educators, and teen-serving adults who facilitate games on the platform to measure and evaluate the social and emotional skill-building iThrive Sim games facilitate, expanding the game engine's responsiveness to a growing demand for holistic and experiential learning tools that support social and emotional needs as well as academic ones. Self-reported assessments and expanded monitoring of in-game behaviors will help teen players reflect and become aware of how they collaborate and respond to stress and connect them with tools to calibrate. With the expansion too,iThrive Sim game facilitators will be able to access individual and aggregate reports after each play experience, empowering them with valuable insights to support the planning of personalized SEL interventions.

"iThrive Sim embeds SEL opportunities to support and enliven teen-centered learning across so many topics, from civics education to counterterrorism, from game theory to emergency preparedness, and more," says Susan Rivers, Ph.D., iThrive Games' Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "This Tools Competition win enables our team to continue designing interactive experiences with and for teens on the iThrive Sim platform that are as fun as they are impactful, ones that not only amplify teens' strengths but also equip them with a play-driven way to measure and grow them."

As one of the largest edtech competitions in the world, awarding nearly $10 million to 80 ed tech innovators to date, the Tools Competition aims to grow the field of learning engineering by spurring ed tech innovations that leverage big data to support learning science research and the needs of learners worldwide. This year was its third cycle, generating more than 1,000 proposals from 73 countries.

The 32 winning teams from the 2022-203 cohort hail from institutions and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, and it is an honor for iThrive Games to be among them. Recognized and supported through the Tools Competition, the win recognizes and supports each team in tackling solutions to improve students' K-12 math competency following the sharpest declines in decades, address equity in education, bolster students' problem-solving and emotional skills, and unlock career training opportunities for adults via virtual reality. The next cycle of the Tools Competition will launch on September 21, 2023. To learn more, sign up to attend the virtual competition launch event here

"It's been an honor to take part in the Tools Competition this cycle and learn alongside other ed tech innovators who are bridging their expertise with others from different disciplines to craft solutions that accelerate learning and maximize our understanding of what works for young people's wellness and learning," shares Dr. Rivers and the iThrive Games team. "Our work as a nonprofit over the last five years has centered young people's learning and their social and emotional health. We're eager and excited to build on this mission and on what we know already to deliver even more transformative solutions powered by iThrive Sim and impactful play."

To stay updated with iThrive Games' impact-driven game development and experience design work as well as iThrive Sim's expansion, subscribe to iThrive's monthly newsletter here.

A full list of the 2022-2023 Learning Engineering Tools Competition winners and their projects can be found here.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Eghosa Asemota, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications, eghosa.asemota@ithrivegames.org   

ABOUT ITHRIVE GAMES

iThrive Games Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that leads the development of wellness-supporting games and tools, designed with and for teens. Our team of adolescent development experts builds on 30+ years of combined instructional and game design experience to create compelling and accessible experiences that nurture teens' genius by folding in social and emotional skill-building—a practice proven to nourish mental health and learning.

ABOUT THE LEARNING ENGINEERING TOOLS COMPETITION

The Tools Competition ran two funding opportunities this year: The Learning Engineering Tools Competition focused on Pre-K-12 learners and was supported by Schmidt Futures; Kenneth C. Griffin, Citadel, and Citadel Securities; the Walton Family Foundation; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and AlleyCorp. The DARPA AI Tools for Adult Learning opportunity is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The competition is administered by Georgia State University and The Learning Agency.

We Asked Gamers About Their Hard Days at Play NYC. Here’s What We Learned.

By iThrive Games

Our ability to feel is what makes us human. It is fundamental to who we are, underlying how we connect and the realities we co-create.

It supports our sense of self, helping us unpack our thoughts and reactions, build awareness of what's happening around us, and deepen our knowledge of ourselves in relation to the world we live in.

Games make us feel. They delight us, challenge us, calm us, frustrate us, connect us, and excite us. They're also uniquely captivating, not just in what they portray aesthetically and demand mechanically, but because of the state of embrace they insist on those who play them. Encountering a never seen start screen or the unopened box of a new tabletop game, we are ready, willing, and receptive to knowledge. Play's ability to get us to put our guard down, be curious, and engage with new possibilities helps create the conditions for transformation and meaningful learning.

Earlier this month, the iThrive team showcased at Playcrafting's Play NYC—an event that magnified the power of play and brought hundreds of game industry professionals, indie game developers, and game designers together to exhibit their games to players and peers. There, we shared Cadence, a single-player, text-based strategy game we created with the One Love Foundation and Playmatics, LLC. Cadence invites players to explore three of their friends' stories and converse with them via real-time dialogue choices that affect their friendships and outcomes. Building on One Love's mission to empower young people with the life-saving prevention education, tools, and resources they need to see the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships, Cadence supports young people in learning to love better, in being with partners who practice healthy love, and communicating with loved ones who are in unhealthy relationships. While New Yorkers of all ages played a demo of the game and shared feedback, teens, many of whom went on to become members of our Teen Hub, were particularly moved by the game's storyline, mechanics, and captivating 2D art.

Beyond the valuable feedback we received on Cadence, slated for release later this year, the experience provided another opportunity for our team to create a forum for listening to and learning from young people. At PLAY NYC, we marked a large glass bowl with the question, "What makes you feel better on your hard days?", and teens and young adults anonymously shared the following:

ARE WE LISTENING?

Tucked in each of these answers is a guidepost for innovation—caring, joy, connection, self-expression. Creating safe spaces where teens are heard and listened to with the intent to understand them has guided our game development and experience design work over the last five years, and empathic listening and design is what has made the impactful play experiences we've designed with and for teens possible. The needs echoed and desires illuminated in the responses we elicit from young people in the safe spaces our social and emotional learning experts create (in this case, a glass bowl, and lime green Post-it notes) are folded into the game concepts we envision with clients and collaborators

Empathic listening has long been a driver of breakthrough thinking. Being in community with teens and young adults has helped us think expansively and collaboratively. We've found that empathy, when practiced consistently, is essential to transformative change and central to the knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing that informs the design of meaningful solutions.

iThrive's co-design approach, which gives teens the tools to step into their genius and explore their needs, is care in action. Our approach creatively empowers young people with new ways to tap into their genius, share their experiences and wisdom with others, advocate for the support they deserve, and create with us the experiences they want to see.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that nearly half of U.S.-based high school students are experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, it is on all of us in the game design ecosystem to create the spaces, in person and digital, to listen and effectively gauge the thriving of end users. With over 90 percent of teens and young adults self-identifying as gamers, every game designer, developer, and writer has the tools to meet them where they are and equip them with valuable knowledge, tools, and support. It is on all of us always to ask, "Are we listening?"

ARE WE SUPPORTING?

The learning that comes from listening allows all designers and developers to respond constructively, and offer support in meaningful ways. Games are already socially and emotionally valuable, and when tailored to teens and young adults' strengths, developmental needs, and insights, they become vessels for further social and emotional support. 

Our adolescent development experts work with and for young people, and in partnership with libraries, museums, government agencies, and organizations that care about them, fully recruit the feelings that play evokes to support teens' social and emotional health. The science of adolescence and evidence-based practices that support positive teen growth are folded into the games, game-based tools, and interactive learning experiences we create. Questions like "How does this enliven teens to practice healthy skills like exploring their identity, engaging with their community, and taking purposeful action in the world?"; "How does this invite teens to regularly notice emotions, helping them notice the thoughts, sensations, and behaviors that accompany their feelings?"; or "How does this normalize help-seeking?" steer the game development process we lead, ending in a play experience that nourishes young people in ways supportive of their wellness, learning, and thriving

At Play NYC, we shared questions like these on a printout version of our 10 Things to Know When Designing for Teens resource, given to other game designers and developers eager to go beyond listening and to start responding and supporting young people's social and emotional needs. We're happy to now make that resource accessible to everyone and downloadable via the Resource Hub on our website.

Asking and listening helps us understand people and ideas. That insight and evidence-based practices nudge us toward wellness-supporting games and more impactful play experiences for young people. For the design team or studio looking to elevate the impact of the games they create for young audiences, connect with us today for a consulting report benchmarking your game in development against the science and sharing recommendations on ways to fold in social and emotional skill-building—a practice proven to protect and promote teen mental health.

Together, we can and should advance wellness wherever young people are. Join in.

Our Biggest Takeaways from the 2023 Games for Change Festival

By eghosa

The 2023 Games for Change Festival marked the 20th anniversary of a cross-sector gathering of game developers, designers, journalists, writers, scientists, researchers, educators, changemakers, and more—all connected by their love of play and belief in its power to drive social change. Like its predecessors, this year's Festival continued its legacy of generating knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing, with talks that nudged us all to think expansively about our work and mindfully about our influence leveraging a medium played by millions of people.

Members of the iThrive Games team had the honor of attending both days of the 2023 Games for Change Festival in New York City, where we swapped stories, shared experiences, and made new connections. We had the honor of sitting in on sessions led by game design teams, funders, and nonprofit professionals that left us inspired, affirmed, and eager to join forces with others also designing transformative wellness and learning experiences powered by play. We collected many insights and possibilities relevant to our mission to design meaningfully with and for teens.

AFFINITY ELEVATES IMPACT, AND INTEGRITY IS BY DESIGN.

Impactful games and play experiences begin with intention. In a talk titled "How Our Values Impact Our Games' Cultural Influence," Kate Edwards, CEO of Geogrify and CXO/co-founder of SetJetters, explored games' cultural contribution, nudging listeners to remember that all content carries culture, all culture is a reflection of values, and the values we uphold and embrace consistently are what catalyze change. Her talk made clear that all of us in the game development space—from triple AAA studios to indie hubs—have a duty to think critically, iteratively, and unpretentiously about what is real and represented in the games we create, and how our values show up in them. If we pride ourselves on being impactful game designers who care about social change and inclusivity, it is on us to do the work to figure out how our games will be perceived by those they'll reach.

Jeffrey Burrell, Global Head of Social Impact at Riot Games, spoke on how the game design company has enlisted the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to inform and support their overall impact strategy. He also highlighted what happens when intentions are accompanied by a values-based approach and a commitment to understanding problems as framed by those most affected by them. Jeffrey implored us all to embrace an 'outside-in' approach that elevates what players care about rather than an 'inside-out' one that centers what designers think they care about. In pulling on the SDGs, as well as using in-game surveys to understand better the hopes and values of players residing in the 20+ regions Riot Games has a presence in, the company has been able to maximize their direct impact on those players' lives under the pillars of education, citizenship, opportunity, and sustainability.

It felt amazing to hear others affirm and share through their experiences how participatory approaches have animated and preserved the intentions of other game design teams and supported their impact. At iThrive Games, our co-design model with teens enlists their genius and perspectives in the exploratory research that begins before game development, throughout the design process, and during playtesting to ensure what we create with and for them and our clients and partners is truly impactful and wellness-supporting. Beyond just a value that lives statically on our website, our co-design model creates an affinity with young people, allowing us to reach and engage them better, effectively supporting their social and emotional development through play. We consistently use our co-design model to be in integrity with our mission as a teen-serving and impact-driven nonprofit.

 

RESTORATIVE AND TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE OFFER SOLUTIONS AND GUIDEPOSTS FOR ALL OF US.

A throughline across several talks, project briefs, and topic tables our team attended were transformative and restorative justice principles and practices increasingly being recruited and embodied by game industry professionals, researchers, and program coordinators earnestly committed to harm reduction and co-creating a better world, online and in real life.

Jae Lin's talk, "So You've Been Canceled. Now What?" began with the powerful words of Mariame Kaba, inviting us to explore how an apology can effectively communicate and capture both accountability for and acknowledgment of harm. Centering transformative justice, as Jae shared, supports us all in making space for multiple truths, separating guilt from shame, interrupting patterns of harm, and minimizing defensiveness. Their unpacking of an apology truly aligned with harm reduction supports us all in creating a culture of healing and restoration in the gaming and game-making communities we're a part of and beyond.

Restorative justice principles surfaced too in the "You've (Not) Been Warned: Content Warnings, Psychological Safety, the Audience, and You" project brief led by Take This's Community Director, Dr. Kelli Dunlap, as she covered the necessity of content warnings and the duty all interactive media designers have to provide them. Restorative justice heralds respect as an integral component because it enables a safe experience for all involved. Dr. Dunlap emphasized this point, stressing that psychological safety requires consideration for the player. "Trauma is not comfort," she shared. "And no one can grow while in survival mode."

Another resonant session iThrive members had the honor to join was led by Mishka Palacios De Caro, President of Fundav and coordinator of Demeter, a game-making education program administered in prisons in Argentina. In their heartfelt sharing of the program's goals as well as the stories and games that came of it, we were reminded of why restorative and transformative justice principles are needed in all places where we learn, play, and gather—to support a collective shift from a punitive mindset to an empathetic one that supports a safer, healthier world for everyone.

Generative magic comes from gathering with like-minded people, united by a shared commitment to social change and impact. All who participated in the two-day Games for Change Festival experienced this firsthand as they connected with others across sectors to start engineering new collaborative, playful solutions. Like them, the iThrive Games team looks forward to following up, learning more, working with, and gathering again with those we connected with at #G4C2023. Happy playing!

Co-Designing Wellness-Supporting Games with and for Teens

By eghosa

The work of adolescence is a social and emotional lift. Too often, adults in teens' worlds forget that, choosing to define young people by their vulnerabilities in an increasingly tumultuous world rather than by the magnificence they embody every single day to navigate it.

Doing teenhood in today's world is unparalleled to previous experiences. Mental health outcomes in young people have worsened with the prevalence of social media and the life-altering changes brought forth by the pandemic. In March 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially declared a youth mental health crisis.

There is a role that each of us in the game design world can play to help create and positively contribute to the ecosystem of support that teens need to live healthily and thrive.

Our 10 Things to Know When Designing for Teens resource, available exclusively to our Designing for Teen Thriving newsletter subscribers, shares insights and guiding questions crafted by iThrive's adolescent developmental experts that help designers center teens' strengths and vulnerabilities in the experiences they create for them. 

What follows are two case examples that capture how iThrive's collaborative game design work has applied the resource's insights to create impactful play experiences. The science of adolescence paired with our unique co-design model have made each of the games highlighted here a springboard for social and emotional skill-building, connection, and exploration. 

ITHRIVE GAMES' CO-DESIGN MODEL

Teens demand our care and commitment. At iThrive Games, our co-design model with teens is care in action. The model, devised by teen mental health and learning experts, equips teens with cognitive and creative tools that help them step into their genius. By centering teen magnificence  with its strengths-based approach, iThrive's co-design model sets the scene for teens to feel safe to share their thoughts and experiences, heard about the issues they care about, and challenged to think through solutions with their peers and subject matter experts. It revolutionizes standard focus group setups and UX research strategies with immersive, hands-on activities, creating a supportive, teen-centered context for discovery. As a core part of the collaborative design approach we bring to our clients and partners, iThrive's co-design model is a throughline in these case examples.

CASE EXAMPLE #1: DISASTER MIND

                                 

Severe weather events over the last few years prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to explore new ways to prepare communities in times of crisis. In late 2021, FEMA reached out to iThrive Games, fully understanding that young people would be integral to their efforts. As positive influencers, teens are uniquely capable of bringing the message of disaster preparedness to friends, families, and communities. Disaster Mind, a single-player web-based game launching later this year, equips teens with vital emergency management skills and knowledge, training and activating them to be prepared for natural disasters.

Last year, the United States experienced 18 natural disasters, including winter storms, cold waves, heat waves, floods, droughts, tornado outbreaks, and three tropical cyclones. The intensity and frequency of these incidents firmly establish it as a stressor in the lives of teens, especially the ones living in areas more vulnerable to natural disasters. Disaster Mind offers teens an immersive, readiness and resilience-building experience that will help them develop and practice skills to respond to the need for ways to cope with and navigate natural disasters.

To create a Disaster Mind we drew on our evidence-based 10 Things to Know When Designing for Teens design principles. One insight is that teens are still learning to control impulses and emotions. With connections still developing in their prefrontal cortexes, it is relatively more challenging for most teens to gauge the consequences of their actions than it is for most adults.  Another is that teens are also facing a lot of stress during their adolescent years and need flexible ways to cope and navigate the stressors they contend with in their daily lives.


Screenshots from Disaster Mind (beta), built with FEMA on the iThrive Sim platform.

iThrive Sim's tech enables the modulation of stress experienced by each player and monitors in-game behaviors taken in response.

Hosted on iThrive Sim, a platform that authors and hosts playful, social, and emotional learning experiences, the game's storyline and mechanics work together to help players notice the connections between their emotions, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors as they make decisions while immersed in a crisis. With each decision impacting how the game unfolds, teens also practice responsible-decision making and self-management.

True to our co-design model, Disaster Mind  was created with emergency management experts at FEMA Region VIII, which serves 29 Tribal Nations, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, and teens from those states who each helped inform the game's learning outcomes and story elements. Their wisdom and contributions highlighted a deep concern for their pets, a wishful desire for coordinated plans, and a need for strategies that combat feelings of loneliness and helplessness. These insights and wisdom were folded into Disaster Mind to ensure it reflects how teens frame challenges. By doing so and tactfully responding to teens' developmental needs, Disaster Mind delivers a resonant, teen-centered play experience that helps all who play it understand that stress management skills, the right mindset, preparation, and essential conversations with family and community members can prevent an emergency from becoming a full-blown catastrophe. "An engaging simulation is a fantastic tool for laying down the mental pathways we need to activate in times of crisis," shares Daniel Nyquist and Stephanie Poore from FEMA Region VIII. "That's why we are thrilled to be designing a disaster preparedness simulation with the iThrive team. iThrive's unique co-design approach is illuminating how to mobilize young people's creativity and distinct strengths in service of building mindsets and skills needed for resiliency across disaster preparedness, response, and recovery."

CASE EXAMPLE #2: CADENCE

            

One in every three young people will have an unhealthy relationship before they become adults. Interpersonal violence remains the third leading cause of adolescent death, contributing to one in every five teen suicides. Founded to honor the life of Yeardley Love, a daughter, friend, and student-athlete whose life was tragically cut short by an ex-boyfriend weeks shy of graduating from college, the One Love Foundation has worked to bring life-saving prevention education to young people over the last thirteen years. In 2022, they approached iThrive Games, seeking to amplify their educational programming with a new medium—a game. From the clear need for more accessible, awareness-building, and preventive interventions to support teens in living full, safe, and healthy lives comes Cadence, a text-based strategy video game launching later this year. The goal of Cadence is to equip all teens who play it with the know-how and skills to have and advocate for healthy relationships.

Our evidence-based 10 Things to Know When Designing for Teens resource guided our creative design choices for Cadence. Teens are working hard to figure out who they are in their adolescent years. To do this self-work productively, they need social spaces to interact, experiment, negotiate, and resolve conflicts safely. Teens also need access to experiences, environments, and relationships that help them grow positively. Cadence, produced by iThrive Games and developed with Playmatics, LLC, responds to these needs by providing a playful, low-risk, and low-stake space where teens can engage in self-work and practice relationship skills.


Screenshots from Cadence (beta), currently being play tested by iThrive's teen advisory members and teens in One Love's network.


The single-player game invites teens to go back in time and explore critical events in three of their  friends' lives. While interacting with each story, players must notice details of their friends' lives and figure out how to talk with them about uncomfortable issues. Meaningful gameplay fosters meaningful learning as teens practice having difficult conversations and familiarize themselves with unhealthy behaviors that may surface in relationships.

As a direct-to-teen experience, the development of Cadence began with iThrive's co-design model, allowing our design team to fold teen wisdom into the playful experience. The co-design process began with group discussions where teens in One Love's network and ours shared their perceptions on the importance of healthy relationships, defined what healthy and unhealthy signs of a relationship look like in their worlds and minds, and explored how they navigate discomfort in the body and in their peer relationships. Ultimately, their insights and ideas along with  the science of adolescence,makes Cadence a wellness-supporting experience for players. "Cadence provides a low-stakes space for players to practice supporting a friend navigating an unhealthy relationship while providing the player with life-saving prevention education for themselves as well," shares Megan Shackleton, Chief Program Officer at One Love. "iThrive's co-design model was vital to making this game truly teen-centered - everything from ensuring the interpersonal challenges in the game were reflective of their worlds to the game dynamics being engaging and fun. From iThrive's careful partnership with youth comes a relatable and impactful play experience we're excited to share with the world."

A CALL TO ACTION FOR ALL GAME AND EXPERIENCE DESIGNERS

With 90% of teens self-identifying as gamers, games are an unparalleled lever for accessing and 

supporting young people at a critical time in their development. With this access comes the opportunity to empower them with real-world applicable knowledge and opportunities to strengthen and practice social and emotional skills vital to protecting and promoting their mental health. 

At iThrive, we're committed to taking part in the knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing that add to the ecosystem of affirmation, love, and support all young people deserve. As we work alongside teens with our clients and partners, we continue to build, share, and co-design our way toward a world where every teen is valued, proactively challenged, and cared for. We're reminded that in synergy, there is impact, and in this shared commitment to teen thriving, there is progress and a horizon full of teen wellness-supporting possibilities to explore. 

Our team is eager to support your experience design needs. Share more about your project with us today.

When Museums Design Experiences for How Teens Learn and Develop

By iThrive Games

The COVID-19 pandemic affected all spaces where gathering happens—museums included.

In the face of unprecedented shifts and challenges, museums innovated and devised new ways to engage with young people safely. iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, for example, is a tech-powered simulation game we created with the masterminds behind the Situation Room Experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum to bring forth new digital spaces for teen collaborative learning and play at their museum. The in-person and virtual classroom-optimized experience won a gold American Alliance of Museums (AAM) MUSE Award and a bronze MuseWeb GLAMi Award in 2021. 

As museums work to recover pre-pandemic visitation numbers, the opportunity to lean into innovation presents itself once again. Building appeal to teens, who are already deepening their social awareness in informal spaces and are actively engaged in civic discourse, offers a promising pathway for increasing visitation and cultivating a pipeline of lifelong museum supporters and allies in the missions of museums too. Data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study shows that over 60% of adult museum visitors first attended them as adolescents, building the case and design directive for more experiences meaningfully showcasing history to young people. The science of adolescence lends valuable insight that can support the design of exhibits and experiences that are engaging, relevant, and accessible to teens—ones that prepare them for the world they are already asking questions about and are eager to inherit. Centering how teens learn supports museum design teams in building on these entry points meaningfully and fostering transformative learning in each of their youth visitors.

WHY YOUTH VISITATION AT MUSEUMS MATTERS

Curiosity has always been the emotional engine behind discovery. When young people visit museums, they exercise curiosity as they engage with history, art, cultures, science and more. The social awareness they build is vital in a world where empathy inspires and steers co-creation. "Museums offer critical spaces, beyond the walls of the classroom, where effective learning can, or rather needs to take place," says Dr. Fernande Raine, founder of History Co:Lab. "Museums are a chance for young people to see what is possible, what dreams have been held, what fights have been fought, what pitfalls must be avoided, and which horizons we might steer towards. When museums really invite young people in, they have the chance to activate them as changemakers."

HOW MUSEUMS SUPPORT SOCIAL AWARENESS IN YOUNG PEOPLE

Museums hold cultural knowledge and are a celebration of our collective heritage. Highlighting the genius and experiences that have existed throughout human history, museums support youth visitors in exploring stories different from their own, deepening their understanding of other cultures and perspectives, naming our connective threads, and developing an appreciation of them. The Music HerStory: Women and Music of Social Change exhibit at the National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center, for example, expertly weaves and displays media collections from the Smithsonian Libraries and Archive and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to highlight the central role women changemakers, groundbreakers, and tradition-bearers have played in shaping America's musical landscape and steward social progress. Experiences like this deepen social awareness in young people of our connectedness and catalyze wonder and curiosity into how the past connects with our present.

Museums also cultivate togetherness by creating a communal space where all attendees, young and old, seek and engage with novelty at the same time. This shared activity brings forth a sense of coherence that museum educators have used as a springboard to enhance community and enrich young people's understanding of the world and their place in it. For instance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC hosts artifacts like Harriet Tubman's hymnal and Nat Turner's Bible and highlights the richness of the African-American experience and the profound influence of African-Americans. Striving to ignite critical thinking and stimulate thinking that supports community-building, NMAAHC provides educational resources that foster discussions and reflections on race and identity that helps youth attendees arrive at the understanding reflected in James Baldwin's words displayed on its atrium wall: "...history is literally present in all that we do."

Reflected in each of these museums is a desire to empower visitors to take the learning they acquire to the world. Creating compelling experiences and exhibits at museums that engage young people in their genius ensures this happens at scale, as teens, now and always, have always been the disruptors of norms and devisers of change. "We need our museums to choose to intentionally design their spaces for young people so that the social awareness they build while there effectively prepares them to lead social change," shares Dr. Raine. "When we connect young people to experiences that prompt their curiosity and sharpen their capacity to fully engage in it, we're prepping them for the world they'll inherit."

DESIGNING MUSEUM EXPERIENCES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

When exhibits and experiences are designed to evoke curiosity in young people, museums enable them to deepen their grasp of the past, present, and future, and engage in empathy and perspective-taking while doing so. This work falls in the realm of social and emotional learning—a process defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as one where young people "acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."

Over the last five years at iThrive Games, we have partnered with museums, libraries, nonprofits, and youth-serving programs to co-create games, tools, and experiences for and with teens that center what they want, need, and how they uniquely learn. Folding the brain science of adolescence into each of these has allowed us to turn them each into social and emotional skill-building experiences that are developmentally nourishing and memorable for young people.

TIPS FOR DESIGNING MUSEUM EXPERIENCES FOR TEENS

With social awareness already in play, museums have a one-up in adding transformative, social and emotional learning-rich experiences and exhibits to their museums that are appealing to teens, invite them to meaningfully exercise their curiosity, and add to a resonant showcasing of history. Here are five expert-informed tips and recommendations for museums looking to build their appeal to young visitors and create resonant experiences for youth groups:

AIM TO CREATE AND FACILITATE MEANING-MAKING LEARNING EXPERIENCES, NOT DIRECTIVE ONES. 

In adolescence, teens reach a cognitive peak and get wiser about the world. They easily see through attempts to manipulate or preach to them and don't respond well to hypocrisy, unfairness, or imposition. The most supportive and engaging form of learning for young people at this stage of development are experiences that invite meaning-making

Meaning-making experiences effectively account for what teens already know and the questions they are asking themselves while empowering them to be active in their learning. "The best museum exhibitions and interpretive programs ask visitors to make meaning for themselves," shares Sarah Jencks, History Co: Lab's Deputy Director of Museum Learning. "They establish dialogic frameworks, asking visitors to connect their personal experiences and the current world to their collections and places and the stories and people that bring them to life. The work of museum educators is to cultivate curiosity and empathy in visitors, setting up conditions that allow the visitors to make their own meaning and then, in the right circumstances, to share them with one another."

When meaning-making experiences happen at museums, they become settings for young people to construct valuable knowledge and learn lifelong understandings.

ENLIST THE BODY IN TEENS' LEARNING AND DISCOVERY. 

As white matter increases in the brain's command center during adolescence, teens' brains form new connections, optimizing how they communicate information and how quickly they process it. Uniquely wired to learn, teens have an expanded ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve, multitask, and turn what they think, feel, see, hear, taste, and experience into wisdom. Embodied activities that enlist the body in teens' discovery and construction of new knowledge can be offered at museums to fully engage and build on this magnificence. At iThrive Games, we advocate for play and often enlist it in the tools and experiences we co-create with our partners as a lever for meaningful learning. "Play, both solo and interactive, invites new ways to be creative," shares Dr. Susan Rivers, iThrive Games' Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "It forces a novelty on all involved, often evoking emotions and compelling full-body engagement—two parts that make games uniquely nourishing spaces for young people to learn."

SUPPORT TEENS IN CRAFTING THE WORLD THEY'RE YEARNING FOR.

A 2022 survey developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University reported that 32 percent of youth have signed a petition or joined a boycott, and 1 in 7 have participated in a march or demonstration. The Tufts survey also revealed that 76% of respondents believe they have the power to change the country. Creating experiences at museums that sharpen teens' social and emotional skills, especially relational ones, help teens take on the 'wicked' challenges of the world they are already curious about. iThrive Sim games, for example, invited digital youth visitors of the Reagan Museum to strengthen their capacity to make responsible decisions, disagree constructively, analyze problems, and solve complex issues through collaborative play. Experiences that prepare young people for the problems of today and tomorrow empowers them with the wisdom and cognitive tools to co-create the world they are yearning for.

DESIGN FOR ACCESSIBILITY TO DESIGN FOR IMPACT.

When museums account for the diverse ways young learners gain access to, interact with, or benefit from the information in the experiences and exhibits they offer, they become all the more impactful. The best accessibility practices, like the ones outlined in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, affirm that multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression optimize relevance, value, and authenticity for learners and promote deeper understandings. When these practices are paired with robust testing across different groups of young people, the end results are transformative museum experiences and exhibits that make an impact on how teens view themselves, each other, and the world.

"There is an opportunity," shares Dr. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at Ed Together and long-time iThrive collaborator, "for museums to affirm young people's identities, respond to their diverse learning styles, and also present more productive and generative ways of gathering to the world." Dr. Rappolt-Schlichtmann says, "How we invite young people into the work of learning is how museums facilitate transformative impact."

By designing experiences and exhibits that account for how young people learn and what they want to learn, museums can create compelling and accessible invitations for teens to work in their genius and be curious about the past and present while developing the skills and wisdom essential to building the future they're eager for. iThrive and its network of collaborators are excited to take on this design challenge with museums and steer this innovation together.

LOOKING FOR MORE INSIGHTS ON HOW TO CREATE MUSEUM EXPERIENCES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE? 

Join our Designing for Teen Thriving mailing list for free resources and tips on how to design meaningful youth programs, products, and experiences informed by the science of adolescence.

Your Workforce Development Program Needs This Crucial Component

By iThrive Games

Today's workforce development programs crafted for adults and young people draw their directive from the everpresent skills gap in the U.S.'s ever-evolving labor force.

Seeking to sustain a pipeline of talent for the estimated 165.4 million jobs that will exist by 2030, these programs enlist an array of approaches that address the mismatch between the abilities employers want in a candidate and those that job seekers possess. Creating pathways for high-attrition sectors with growing needs at a time of unseen technological sophistication has brought forth programmatic focuses on industry-specific and technical skill-building. 

Lacking in emphasis are the social and emotional skills vital to any collaborative setting. And all jobs are collaborative when they encompass human interaction. Be it a high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech job, having a growth mindset, the ability to work collaboratively, responsibly, constructively, adaptively, and empathically, and the competence to manage stress and regulate emotions is remarkably valuable.

These essential skills are powered by social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL, defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), is "the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions." SEL needs to be folded into workforce development programs, especially those designed for young people, to enhance the resilience and capacity of tomorrow's problem solvers, communicators, and critical thinkers, arming them with the tools to show up in the workplace productively in a human-centered way.

THE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILL GAP IN THE U.S. WORKFORCE

A wealth of data exists that builds the case for integrating social and emotional learning in workforce development programs preparing candidates for the demands of today's world and tomorrow's.

WHAT EMPLOYERS SAY, WANT, AND VALUE

A recent Zety survey of 200 hiring managers revealed that 61 percent of people in recruiting positions view transferable social and emotional skills as more important than technical ones in the U.S. workforce, ranking teamwork, emotional awareness, decision-making, and stress management amongst the top 10. A 2018 McKinsey Global Institute discussion paper affirms too that social and emotional skills are becoming more crucial as artificial intelligence takes over more physical, repetitive, and basic cognitive tasks, reporting that the top three missing in automated industries are problem-solving or critical thinking, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication skills. [1]

'THE TALENT MISMATCH'

Research not only shows that employers view the skills acquired through social and emotional learning as necessary for employability, but it also shows they face a real challenge in finding job candidates that possess them. A report shared by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education (CTE) Consortium, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) reported that 31 percent of employers in the U.S. and globally find it hard to recruit qualified workers because of "a talent mismatch between workers' qualifications and the combinations of skills employers want." [2] In the manufacturing industry, for example, while prospects have the necessary technical skills, problem-solving is the number one skill deficiency employers report. [3]

Your Workforce Development Program Needs This Crucial Piece

Responding to the current demand for social and emotional skills, multiple workforce development frameworks recommend that employers support their employees with lifelong learning and training opportunities. To build a workforce for the future, these approaches also call for sustained efforts and initiatives to strengthen youth's employability and work readiness that reflects the behavioral and technical skills valued both in the workplace and society. When delivered in a way that accounts for how young people learn, social and emotional learning is the lever through which this meaningful preparation of youth happens.

INTEGRATING SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING INTO YOUR YOUTH WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

Our work with teens and young adults over the last five years at iThrive Games gives us the honor to witness their genius firsthand and join our wisdom with theirs to bring a deep understanding of what youth need and want to programs, initiatives, and products aiming to support them meaningfully. Our team's expertise in adolescent development and learning, along with our co-designing approach, has effectively made the result of every design challenge our partners present us with into a wellness-supporting tool or experience for young people.

WHAT THE SCIENCE OF ADOLESCENCE SAYS

Integrating social and emotional learning into workforce development programs geared to engage youth makes those vital career readiness initiatives wellness-supporting ones too. Brain science shows that young people are neurologically wired for lifelong learning and are shaped by the experiences they are connected to. [4] Presenting them with meaningful experiences allows teens and young adults to experiment, build vital social and emotional competencies, and develop a growth mindset that is psychologically nurturing and supportive of the emotional intelligence needed to thrive in all collaborative spaces, including the workplace.

HOW TO ADD SEL TO YOUR YOUTH CAREER READINESS OR WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

For anyone looking to cultivate career readiness for youth that accounts for the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace, here are three evidence-based and expert-informed tips on how to integrate social and emotional learning in a youth job training and workforce development program, proven to support youth meaningfully:

MAKE IT A COMMON PRACTICE TO DELIBERATELY MODEL SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS, BEHAVIORS, AND ATTITUDES.

Demonstrating and modeling bodily awareness helps young people build their skills for recognizing and naming emotions, which is critical to being able to manage them, and supports their comfort in displaying and communicating them with others. "Being able to name emotions with specificity, especially unpleasant ones, actually helps to lessen their intensity," shares iThrive's Dr. Susan Rivers. "When the adults in young people's lives work to expand their own emotional vocabulary and share with youth how emotions show up in their lives, they create a transformative precedent. Being fulfilled requires being aware of our emotions, and not knowing how to label feelings as they arise can create feelings of shame, and unexpressed shame can be incredibly destructive." 

INTEGRATE RESTORATIVE PRACTICES THROUGHOUT YOUR WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM.

Restorative practices outlined by organizations like the Center for Restorative Process and the National Education Association (NEA) align with the aims of social and emotional learning by helping to create an intentional setting that allows teens to build familiarity with the behaviors, skills, and norms of engagement most conducive to community-building and collective thriving.

CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PLAYFUL EXPERIENCES THAT DYNAMICALLY ENGAGE YOUTH (AND ADULTS). 

Despite the heat that video games get, it has been proven that teens learn best through play—a tool they know well. "Playfulness allows for a deliberate shift into curiosity and readiness to learn and engage with others and with new knowledge," says Dr. Susan Rivers. "We approach play with an open mind and often with anticipatory joy, this reduces  some of the pressure to perform and impress." In these spaces, young people are free to try on different ways of thinking, relating, and interacting with each other and the world, expanding their flexibility and repertoire of skills for navigating the real world. Our iThrive Sim role-playing simulation games, for example, offer a playful addition to any youth program seeking to support teens in strengthening their capacity to make responsible decisions, disagree constructively, analyze problems, and solve wicked and complex challenges.

Social and emotional learning is an always practice that has a permanent place in a world where relational work exists. Integrating it as a component of workforce development programs, especially career readiness ones developed for young people, favors a holistic approach that not only aligns with cross-sector demand but also accelerates progress toward a world where all have the tools and opportunities to live full, healthy, safe, and purposeful lives.

LOOKING FOR MORE INSIGHTS AND TOOLS TO HELP ENRICH YOUR WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM?

Join in on the knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing at the 2023 ASU+GSV Summit on Tuesday, April 18, from 2:30 to 3:10 pm PT for Skills for Tomorrow's Careers, an insightful and interactive panel discussion on youth career readiness featuring Next Gen HQ's Dylan Gambarella, iThrive's Susan Rivers, America Succeeds' Stephanie Short and Data Science 4 Everyone's Zarek Drozda and moderated by Skillsline's Courtney Reilly. In the meantime, join our Designing for Teen Thriving mailing list for free resources and tips on how to design meaningful youth programs, products, and experiences informed by the science of adolescence.

References:
[1] McKinsey Global Institute, Skills Shift Automation and the Future of the Workforce (May 2018)
[2] Association for Career and Technical Education, National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, & Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). Up to the challenge: The role of career and technical education and 21st century skills in college and career readiness.
[3] Committee for Children, Why Social and Emotional Learning and Employability Skills Should Be Prioritized in Education
[4] Matthias J Gruber, Yana Fandakova. Curiosity in childhood and adolescence — what can we learn from the brain. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.03.031.

Questions to Ask When Creating Meaning-Making Experiences for Teens

By iThrive Games

Knowledge is personal. Learning happens in context.

As mirrors, makers, and conduits of life, our brains are influenced by our surroundings. What we know reflects the sum of our past experiences in the settings we've navigated. What we learn rests on how we integrate new discoveries with what we already know. We construct novel understandings as we work to make sense of what we learn — to make meaning of it. 

This psychological process, termed meaning-making, is an active one that uniquely meets the needs and strengths of the magnificence of the teen brain. Research shows that when encouraged in educational settings, meaning-making nourishes the developing brain, maximizing learning for teens.. For everyone working in teen-serving spaces and settings, then, the design challenge is to create more experiences that enable discovery, ones that prompt the construction of knowledge rather than the passive acceptance of it. [1]

WHAT MEANING-MAKING EXPERIENCES DO FOR THE TEEN BRAIN

For teens, meaning-making experiences are psychologically nurturing. They are also formative experiences for teens because of how they uniquely respond to the activity and changing connectivity of their growing brains. As myelin (or white matter) increases in the frontal lobe (the brain's command center) throughout adolescence, the neurons in teens' brains form new connections, optimizing how information is communicated and how quickly it gets processed. This strengthened neurocircuitry supports an enhanced ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve, multitask, and turn what young people think, feel, see, hear, taste, and experience into wisdom. [2] The brain's emotional centers in the limbic system also develop during this period of neurological change, prompting a hypersensitivity to risk and reward, and a tendency to react quickly in response to surroundings. [3]

Teachers and students share reflections on the meaning-making experience in iThrive Curriculum: Museum of Me, a game-based learning curricular unit designed for 11th and 12th-grade classrooms.

Meaning-making experiences meet teens where they are developmentally by creating the settings for teens to safely engage in identity exploration, novelty seeking, and other behaviors that accompany this time of rapid brain maturation.

DESIGNING MEANING-MAKING EXPERIENCES AND ENVIRONMENTS

At iThrive Games, we know teens' personal interpretations, including their emotions, are pedagogically significant. We value their interpretations, and our co-design experiences leverage and expand them. From our iThrive Sim role-playing games developed with museums and government institutions to the downloadable game-based curricular units we've co-authored with educators, the meaning-making experiences we create with our clients and partners are intentionally designed to build social and emotional skills vital to teen thriving. 

We ask ourselves four fundamental questions when engineering meaning-making experiences for teens. We encourage others who are designing meaning-making experiences to ask these as well. 

WHAT WILL LEARNER ACCOUNTABILITY LOOK LIKE?

Creating optimal pathways for learner-generated understandings means there will need to be multiple methods to demonstrate learning. True to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, we design meaning-making experiences that place as much importance on the process of learning as the demonstration of learning. We invite teens to exercise their need for agency as they make choices in how they express and reflect on their learning. 

WHAT OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE FOR INTERACTIVE AND/OR INQUIRY-BASED LEARNING?

Hands-on activities that present wicked challenges, create dissonance, and support experimentation in teen learners help create meaning-making experiences for them that enable real-world applications.

HOW ARE KNOWLEDGE AND AUTHORITY SHARED? 

Meaning-making experiences often shift the power dynamics traditionally seen in educational settings where teens learn "from" rather than alongside teachers. Deliberate norm-setting discussions, like the ones included as Pre-Sim activities in our iThrive Sim curricular surrounds, support turning the teacher's role from a directive one to an interactive and facilitative one where learners' questions and interests are elevated, and learners direct their learning.

HOW DOES EMOTION SURFACE IN THE LEARNING PROCESS, AND HOW DOES IT ENRICH IT?

Because emotions substantially influence cognitive tasks like perception, regulation, recollection, reasoning, and problem-solving, they also guide meaning-making. Embodied activities, like playful ones that enlist the body and mind in the learning process, use emotion to maximize meaning-making experiences, enriching them with opportunities to sharpen teens' social and emotional skills.

The wondrous changes that occur in the teen brain uniquely wire young people for learning, and meaning-making experiences help add to this magnificence. Our duty as adults who care about positive teen development is to connect young people to meaning-making experiences along with other preventive and protective tools that serve their wellness and thriving. 

Get actionable insights, resource-rich tips, and updates on our work partnering across sectors to design experiences for teen learning and wellness by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on LinkedIn!

References

[1]  Elliott, S.N., Kratochwill, T.R., Littlefield Cook, J. & Travers, J. (2000). Educational psychology: Effective teaching, effective learning (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill College.

[2] Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the Adolescent Brain. Saint James School of Medicine, Kralendijk, Bonaire, The Netherlands: Dove Medical Press Ltd. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 9, 449-461.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/ 

[3]  Giedd, J.N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N.O., Castellanos, F.X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A.C., & Rapoport, J.L. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study. Nature neuroscience, 2(10), 861-863. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10491603/

The Social and Emotional Learning Opportunities in Video Games

By iThrive Games

The Last of Us. Elden Ring. Oregon Trail. Pokemon.

Though these popular video games vary in genre and generation, they share a throughline of social and emotional skills. 

Video games, often microcosms of the real world, mirror daily stressors, challenges, and relationship dynamics. They also reference the emotional tools we lean on to navigate them. The ideas and questions that surface while playing video games, reflected in their characters, plots, elements, and mechanics, provide us with springboards to try on and construct new understandings of self, others, and the world around us. As one teen author shared in our Power of Play series, "Gaming is not just a simple time waster...It has the power to connect and teach people like no other media can."

Immersive and interactive by nature, video games are unparalleled in their potential to help all who play them reflect on, practice, and familiarize themselves with the skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that support wellness and thriving. Their social and emotional value makes them powerful levers for social and emotional learning.

What Social and Emotional Skill-Building Play Does for Teen Wellness

Play is a bolster to wellness for all of us, but for teens especially. 

The work of adolescence has always been social and emotional. Young people need tools and strategies to help them navigate it. Gameplay offers a way to meet them where they are and offers transformative and fun experiences. 

At iThrive Games, we fold what we know about the transcending and emotion-evoking power of games into a unique multidisciplinary, user-centered, and participatory approach that brings teens, scientists, game developers, and adolescent development experts to the table to envision, create, and test tools that support teen thriving. With over 90% of teens playing video games, we put forth play as a lever for deep learning to the libraries, museums, schools, and youth-serving organizations we work with. 

Games are unsurpassed in their ability to deeply engage teens in physical and virtual worlds to support their social and emotional development. They offer teens a safe space to wander and wonder, exercise their innate curiosity, and build new understandings of themselves and each other. The game-based tools and experiences we've created with partners and clients invite teens to practice how to disagree constructively, how to critically evaluate media messages, and how to manage stress. Performing these activities, tasks, and challenges, teens explore and experiment, sharpening the essential social and emotional skills that protect their mental health and support their wellness.

Download iThrive Games' How Social and Emotional Skills Shore Up Teen Mental Health infographic here.

A Look at the SEL Springboards in Your Favorite Video Games

Countless video games support players' social and emotional learning, presenting them with tasks, storylines, and challenges that reference or enlist the use of core social and emotional skills. Here's a look at a few:

  • Self-Awareness in games can look like players self-selecting based on characters' strengths and weaknesses (Super Smash Bros. Ultimate), adopting a growth mindset (Minecraft), or them developing resilience to feedback (Super Meat Boy).
  • Social Awareness in games can look like players empathizing with characters (That Dragon, Cancer), engaging from multiple perspectives (NieR:Automata, Octopath Traveler), or reflecting on how decisions impact other players or characters (This War of Mine).
  • Relationship Skills are practiced in cooperative play experiences (Fortnite, Destiny 2) and can entail negotiating, problem-solving, and collaborating with others.
  • Responsible Decision-Making in games can look like players weighing and watching the consequences of their choices to inform future ones (The Wolf Among Us) or trying different approaches and assessing results (Mass Effect).
  • Self-Management presents itself in all games that invite players to persist through difficulty, prompting the feeling and managing of emotions like pride, frustration, gratitude, betrayal, guilt, forgiveness, complicity, and triumph.

Designing for teen thriving has led us to develop social and emotional skill-building games that deeply engage and connect young people in civics, media literacy, and current events. Our game guides offer tips for mental health practitioners who want to leverage games to connect with their teen clients. Our game-based curriculum units help teachers to transform learning in their high school English classrooms. These offerings are inspired by the wondrous magic of play and the potential games have in accelerating progress where all of us, young people especially, have the tools to thrive socially, emotionally, and cognitively. 

Join our mailing list here to learn more about our work designing for teen thriving.

Discovery, Expansion, and Design: Our Five Most Popular Blog Posts in 2022

By iThrive Games

Imagine a world where every teen has the tools to live a full, healthy, and purposeful life.

At iThrive Games, we view play as a vehicle capable of supporting the shaping of that world and the realization of it. Games, with their lure and immersiveness, invite and reward a wonder that nourishes young people's social and emotional selves by offering them safe spaces to reflect, discover, inquire, experiment, and sharpen essential skills. Our team of adolescent development and instructional design experts see these playful spaces as generative ones ripe with entry points for meaningful learning and mental health support. Working closely with and for teens, we develop social and emotional skill-building games and experiences that bring wellness to the spaces they learn and gather in. The iThrive approach has helped organizations, institutions, and schools that care deeply about teen thriving, envision, create, and test interactive tools that complement and expand on their work and mission while accelerating progress toward a world where young people can thrive. 

In 2022, our work continued with more co-design and co-creation, more knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing, and more insights and moving stories shared on our blog that highlight the genius of young people and the transformative power of embodied play. Here is a list of the top five most-read pieces of the year:

New Narrative Game Raises Awareness of ACEs & Their Impact on Youth Mental Health

The SEED Institute, a collaborative effort between Transition HOPE, iThrive Games, and BMA Ten Point Coalition, was a game design studio led by youth of color (ages 14 to 28) who used their experiences in and adjacent to the cradle-to-prison pipeline to create games that depict inequities and advocate for social change. The tabletop, desktop, and virtual reality (VR) games and game prototypes SEED designers created were developed using the iThrive Studio model. Take a look back at this write-up on Children of the Flame, a game envisioned by the young designers in partnership with iThrive and FableVision Studios. The design team's goal: Get everyone who plays it to understand the impact of adolescent childhood experiences (ACEs) and commit to trauma-informed practices that help reduce the harm.

Teens Know What They Need to Be Healthy and Thrive. It's Time We Listen.

At iThrive, we have long centered social and emotional skill-building in our understanding of teen thriving. In adolescence, this is important, but it is not sufficient in the world young people are navigating. From being in community with teens over the last five years and asking them what thriving means to them comes our new, expanded definition of teen thriving that amplifies what they most want and need. Here's how it will instruct iThrive's next chapter of co-creation.

HS Students Learn How to Be Conscious Consumers of Media Through Play

Teens live in a digital world marked by a never-ending stream of information. Supporting their ability to access, evaluate, analyze, communicate, and act on that information is a crucial part of their thriving. iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts builds these media literacy skills through immersive play, inviting high school students to step into the newsroom as journalists and editors tasked with reporting on a breaking story. The game, hosted exclusively on the iThrive Sim platform, mirrors the stressors members of the media navigate providing teens with opportunities to flex and sharpen their social and emotional skills. In July, students at the Collegiate School in Richmond, VA played the simulation game in groups of five. Read what they took away from it.

Game Design for International Relations: iThrive Studio in Olang, Italy

iThrive Studio: Olang, hosted by iThrive's Susan E. Rivers, PhD and History Co:Lab's Fernande Raine, PhD in October, as part of Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes' Summer Academy, invited university students to use game design as a tool for unpacking challenges in international relations. Using history as a guide and design as a lever for imagining and calibrating ideas, 20 students conceived, constructed, and pitched six game prototypes by the end of the two-week experience, each presenting solutions to social issues that matter to them. Read what the student game designers learned about power and play

Supporting a Friend in an Unhealthy Relationship Takes Courage. Teens Say That Takes Practice.

This year, we continued our work supporting One Love, a foundation that connects young people to life-saving prevention education, on a game that will empower the teens who play it with the know-how and skills to recognize and reduce unhealthy behaviors and advocate for healthy relationships. Core to the game's development are the teens we are co-designing with and learning from. Read what they've shared with us so far.

This year has been one of exciting collaboration and tremendous learning. Whether you're a teen who co-designed or playtested with us, a collaborator who trusted our insight, an educator who brought one of our resources to your classroom, or a supporter who cheered us on, we appreciate each of you for the many ways you engaged with us this year. A heartfelt thank you for your commitment to teen thriving!

Fugees Family, iThrive Launch ‘Our Threads’, A Connection-Building Card Game

By iThrive Games

BOSTON—Earlier this month, the Fugees Family in partnership with iThrive Games launched Our Threads, a question card game envisioned and created to help set the scene for empathy, connection, and curiosity in schools, especially between refugee and non-refugee students.

Our Threads was sparked by a question posed to 22 Fugees Academy high school students at an iThrive Studio: "What do you want teachers and other students to know, feel, say, and do when they connect with students who are new to this country and to their school?" After two days of stories, knowledge-sharing, collaborative thinking, and play, answers to this question began to take shape in games that highlighted a universal desire for empathy and tools to help facilitate it. 

"Empathy is essential to the world we all want to live in," shares Luma Mufleh, founder of the Fugees Family, which works to advance educational justice for refugee and immigrant youth by reimagining schools and retraining teachers. The Fugees team is also steering meaningful work to support the 60,000 estimated Afghan refugees resettling in the United States. "At Fugees Family, we lead with empathy. Our hope is that Our Threads helps spread the message and model that so much of what we seek to address and redress in the world is uncovered in community and while in connection to one another. It all begins with listening to and understanding each other."

In the generative space that was iThrive Studio: Fugees, students, reflecting on their stories, jotted down hundreds of connection-building questions that would be useful to anyone tasked with welcoming new students into a school community. After brainstorming questions, swapping decks, and iteratively testing them in groups, students decided which questions to keep. The iThrive Studio experience and the creations that came of it demonstrate the unique avenue game design provides to young people. It supports them in exercising their creativity, thinking analytically, and contributing meaningfully toward creating the world they want to live in.

"The beauty of Our Threads and the intent behind the game mirrors the magnificence of its young designers," says Susan Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games, a nonprofit that uses games and game design to support teens' social and emotional development, wellness, and thriving. "Whenever young people are given the reins to imagine freely along with the tools to delve deep into issues affecting them and their communities, we're reminded of why co-creation with them is vital to all that seeks to be sustainable. No one can take on a design challenge the way the young mind can."

For over 16 years, the Fugees Family has effectively used soccer as a tool for supporting students resettling in towns and cities across the U.S. in feeling understood, welcomed, and cared for. Our Threads, with its thoughtful mix of 108 light and thought-provoking questions and ornate, patterned covers representative of the 22 countries Fugees students hail from, builds on the same model - one in which play becomes a lever for care, compassion, and connection.

Our Threads ($34.99) is available now for anyone to purchase and is guaranteed to make a wonderful gift and addition to any holiday festivity. Purchase it exclusively on The Game Crafter website here.

iThrive Sim: What Embodied Play Ignited in a HS Social Studies Class

By iThrive Games

Play—like the learning and connection it fosters—is transformative.

To psychologist Peter Gray, Ph.D., play is an imaginative and active pursuit where the means are valued more than the ends. At iThrive Games, we know its power and use it to engage teens in their genius and meet their unique developmental needs, like identity exploration, social engagement, creative expression, and novelty. 

A recent Nature article written by researchers from the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent affirms what we've known from being in community with teens over the last five years: experiences matter. The data shows that as the teen brain develops, nurturing it with opportunities for young people to explore, make meaning, connect, and discover purpose fosters mental health and reduces the likelihood of a crisis. The interactive, embodied learning experiences we create with and for teens expertly embed these wellness-supporting opportunities, enlisting the body, mind, and emotion-evoking power of play to build social and emotional skills vital to teen thriving.

The experiences our iThrive Sim role-playing simulation games have created in classrooms across the nation are testaments to what embodied play can and continues to do for young people. Using online play and tech—two mediums teens know well—standards-aligned civic learning is fully integrated  with interactive opportunities for self-regulation, peer connection, and real-world applications. Since iThrive Sim launched, over 2,500 middle and high school students have played a game on the platform, where they have had the chance to compromise, negotiate, and collaborate meaningfully with peers in real-time to work through complex crises and 'wicked' challenges. Middle and high school educators who have brought iThrive Sim into their classrooms and facilitated one or more of its tech-supported games have remarked on how the experience enriched their classroom with a new way of learning and connecting. 

Below, high school social studies educator Anthony Maida from the Methacton School District in Philadelphia, PA, shares his experience bringing iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts to his classroom and witnessing firsthand transformative learning in his students.

Q: What is your philosophy on teaching and how does iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts fit into it?

A: I guess I'd sum up my philosophy of teaching by saying that this job isn't really academic. Much like parenting, teaching seems much more like a relational pursuit than an academic one, so building good relationships with kids is the most important step in the educational process for me. With that, I'm trying to create experiences and opportunities in my classroom that move away from the transactional relationships that students and teachers often have with one another and more toward the transformational experiences necessary to show true student growth. This is where iThrive and Follow the Facts stand out to me. I've watched 17- and 18-year-old students who might otherwise be disengaged in their own learning step up and take an active role. I'm seeing kids with their own challenges really engrossed in what they're experiencing.

Q: What does social and emotional learning (SEL) mean to you, and how has iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts supported it in your classroom?

A: When I hear social and emotional learning (SEL), my mind immediately goes to building and fostering empathy in students. More than any content I teach, I'm hoping that kids walk out of high school in their senior years a little more willing and able to understand what their peers might be experiencing. While running Follow the Facts, I can see students interact with peers they may have never spoken to or even considered in their previous 12 years of school together. The content on the platform is so engaging that it brings together a group of students with really diverse backgrounds and experiences, and they all work toward a common goal.

Q: What shifts or moments during the play experience stood out to you?

A: When my classes are going through Follow the Facts, I am listening and watching as they have conversations with one another surrounding the issues presented in the Sim, such as keeping people safe or being honest in their reporting. It is no secret that many students are coming to schools today experiencing anxiety around a whole host of issues, especially in the wake of the pandemic. The most rewarding part of the experience for me was seeing students who may experience some level of anxiety in every other interaction during their day come out of their shells and totally engage with their peers in a way that might not otherwise have been possible. Students who might have struggled to find their voice in a large class suddenly spoke up, advocating for a position in our class simulation. I think that gets to the transformational part of education.

Learn more about iThrive Sim and register to bring iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts and our other tech-supported simulation games to your classroom.

Five Game Design Skills You’ll Build as a Teen Playtester or Co-Designer

By iThrive Games

Game design

Behind the games we know and love are teams of dedicated individuals committed to creating play experiences that transform and connect us. At iThrive Games, we embrace the same spirit of collaboration in the wellness games we envision, test, and co-design with and for teens. 

Our paid co-design and playtesting sessions invite teens to apply their wisdom and genius to the development of games that engage and support them and their peers meaningfully. In our shared engineering of impactful and interactive experiences, teens, often gamers themselves, build skills foundational to game design. Here are five ways the knowledge and familiarity teens acquire from co-designing and playtesting support their pursuit of careers in those fields:

  1. Playtesting and co-design strengthen analytical skills. Having an analytical frame of mind supports game designers in poking, prying, and evaluating their way through problems and to new solutions and ideas. When teens playtest or co-design with us, they nurture their analytical skills as they assess play experiences and note pain points, opportunities for improvement, and ideas for expansion.
  2. Co-designers and playtesters deepen their understanding of core game design components, like scripting and concept art, and game development themes, like agility and iteration. By the end of a co-design or playtesting session with iThrive, teens who've participated are exposed to the many cogs involved in the creative process, building familiarity with the language used to describe its parts and the activities it takes to get to launch.
  3. Great playtesters and co-designers are great communicators. Core to the work of a game designer is communicating and coordinating with artists, programmers, and other stakeholders. Providing clear feedback to team members, technical and non-technical, is vital to supporting their work toward a compelling end product. Teens who co-design and playtest games at iThrive are prompted to practice effective communication when evaluating play experiences and share critique that fosters actionable insights.
  4. Playtesting and co-designing sharpen creativity and conceptual thinking. Creativity powers innovation in game design and beyond. Playtesters who offer feedback on games they get to exclusively preview are adding their genius to the well of creativity that makes our play experiences memorable and meaningful to young people. Joining in the creative collaboration, teens who work with us often conceptualize new ideas and share them with our team, spurring add-ons that enrich the playful experiences iThrive creates.
  5. To co-design or playtest is to be adaptable. The task of co-designing and playtesting insists on an openness to new experiences, practices, and techniques. This openness is common to game designers who often and actively seek out new ways of doing things and embed their learnings in the play experiences they create. 

Teens who playtest and co-design with iThrive have remarked that the experience "allowed me to meet new people who were also interested in the same things I was" and "add my ideas to a project that will someday become a reality." Invite the teens you know to join in on the game design process and take part in the development of our new, exciting collaborations by joining THE HUB!

INVITE THE TEEN YOU KNOW TO JOIN 'THE HUB'

Game Design for International Relations: iThrive Studio in Olang, Italy

By iThrive Games

Nestled amidst the beauty of northern Italy is Olang, a predominately German-speaking comune (or municipality) home to less than 5,000 people. In September, iThrive's Executive Director and Chief Scientist Susan Rivers, PhD, joined forces with History Co:Lab founder Fernande Raine, PhD, for an iThrive Studio hosted as part of the Summer Academy for university students hosted by Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. Amongst the over 100 students attending the Academy, 20 participated in the two-week experience, creating five game prototypes, each reflective of international relations and social issues that matter to them.

History Co:Lab and iThrive Games' shared belief in the genius of young people and their creative potential to build and imagine a better world surfaced in the discussions and interactive activities that colored each day of the summer program. History Co:Lab, an incubator for systems change and of youth-led media products that bring history to life, prompts young people to engage constructively with the past and use it as a springboard for independent thinking, mapping purpose, and activating change-making. 

"From the work I do across the globe, I know young people are committed and ready to take action on the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow," shares Fernande. "But they need to deeply learn history; history is the foundation, guide, and inspiration for imagining a better world. Centering play is essential to create conditions for the transformative learning that young people crave."

Play is central to the iThrive Studio model. In partnership with schools, universities, and youth-serving organizations, iThrive Studios uniquely challenge and nurture the genius of young people, strengthening cognitive, social, and emotional skills vital to their thriving through collaborative game development. With them, we invite teens and young adults to unpack challenges, construct solutions with their peers, create and test games that reflect those solutions, and ignite social change.

What transpired in Olang was a testament to both organizations' commitment to supporting the thriving of young people through experiential learning. In the first week, students led discussions from the syllabus Fernande, a social entrepreneur and historian, curated to explore themes vital to international relations and the work of sustainable world-building. On Monday, students explored state power, new and old, examining how factors like technology and military capability influence it. On Tuesday, they reflected on the alchemy of peace, unpacking the parts, values, and vision that could advance it. The rest of the week saw rich discussions where students defined community and the economic models and systems, real and envisioned, that can help or hinder it.

iThrive's Susan Rivers, Ph.D. and History Co:Lab's Fernande Raine, Ph.D., joined 20 university students in Olang, Italy last month for a powerful exploration of international relations through the lens of game design.

Weaver, historian, and founder of History Co: Lab, Fernande Raine, PhD, at Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes.

In the second week, Susan facilitated iThrive Studio sessions that immersed students in systems and design thinking working with the content they covered in the first week. The game design workshops invited them to meaningfully reflect on the world they live in and envision the world they want to create, all while discovering and affirming the strengths they have and can use with others to make that world real. The game prototypes that students created as part of iThrive Studio: Olang addressed real-world challenges, including climate change, an international issue, amid conflicting state agendas and the crafty "tricks" used in disinformation spread. The prototypes also explored the power of voice and public speaking, the rules and dynamics of political negotiation, and the connectedness of themes across moments in history.

iThrive's Susan Rivers, Ph.D. and History Co:Lab's Fernande Raine, Ph.D., joined 20 university students in Olang, Italy last month for a powerful exploration of international relations through the lens of game design.

Game pitches presented by students at the Summer Academy, hosted by Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes.

When asked about the most exciting part of the experience, students shared that it was their unique introduction to game design and a newfound grasp on what play can evoke in minds and in the world. In completing their first game design project using iThrive's approach, students gained a new understanding of "[the] connection between theoretical international relations and the implications for a game," "[the] psychological effects of games," "[how] emotions help to learn," and "how to introduce complex concepts in a playful way."

"There's an incredible richness in what young people can learn and uncover from playing and designing games," shares iThrive's Susan Rivers. "iThrive Studio nourishes the magnificence they already possess by sharpening their creative problem-solving skills and supporting their ability to be in the world with curiosity and empathy."

Students left iThrive Studio: Olang motivated and inspired by the opportunity to work fully in their genius, thinking critically about how we design communities that care for self, others, and the planet, and voicing their perspectives on the systems that affect them. The connection-building and social and emotional learning fostered in this uniquely generative space invoked lasting knowledge each designer could take into the real world. Summed up perfectly by the students, "making a game takes creativity and openness,"..."my biggest takeaway from this experience is to follow the creative impulses, dare more, and think outside of the box."

Supporting a Friend in an Unhealthy Relationship Takes Courage. Teens Say That Takes Practice.

By iThrive Games

Adolescence is a time of rapid social development. The bonds teens make during this time play a crucial role in helping them begin to establish independence from family and make their way into the wider world. Healthy peer relationships are a reliable support for teens as they navigate and cope with the wonders and challenges that come with growing into young adulthood. Unhealthy relationships, on the other hand, can gnaw at self and safety and may have life-altering consequences.

Social and emotional skills are the building blocks of healthy relationships. Far from 'soft,' they are essential. At iThrive Games, we use play to build these crucial skills in teens to support their thriving as individuals, members of their communities, and members of the world at large. Our social and emotional learning games and tech tools nurture empathy and curiosity in young people while strengthening their ability to name and understand their emotions, and recognize and reduce unhealthy behaviors. 

We are excited to continue our work supporting emotional resilience in teens with a new collaboration with One Love, a foundation working toward a world of healthier relationships by educating and empowering young people to bring life-changing relationship education to their communities. 

One Love shares immersive content as part of its work to empower young people with the tools to identify unhealthy relationship behaviors. Unhealthy Connections is their latest public service announcement (PSA) campaign spotlighting unhealthy digital communication.

One Love is creating a game that builds on its mission of connecting young people to life-saving prevention education, empowering all who play it with the know-how and skills to have and advocate for healthy relationships. iThrive is supporting the design process with positive youth development insights that make the game a meaningful opportunity for teens to build social and emotional skills.

"Meeting teens where they are means meeting them in the digital spaces they spend time in and with the tools they are familiar with," shares Jane Lee, iThrive's Senior Director of Operations and Mental Health. "The game One Love is creating builds on what we already know about play and its unique ability to inspire young people to try on new ways of being and doing. The goal is to support One Love in creating something teens can take into their communities and use in their own personal lives."

Both iThrive and One Love center young people's genius and rely on their strengths, creativity, and influence to create tools with a wide-reaching impact. We're co-designing with teens to build nuanced understandings of how they view the work of helping a friend navigate an unhealthy relationship. Asked how they would define care and support in this circumstance, here are some the insights teens shared:

  • Care and support start with building knowledge and sharing resources. In our co-design sessions, teens who knew the 10 Signs of Unhealthy Relationships and completed a One Love workshop rated their confidence and responsibility to help a friend much higher than those who had not. "We know the signs and have the ability to help." "We all have a responsibility to do something when we see something wrong, especially for those of us who have the resources and the information." Strengthening teens' ability to recognize unhealthy relationship behaviors empowers them to intervene when they surface. 

  • Being curious is a critical part of care and support. Teens shared that their genuine care for friends helps them gauge changes in their friends' emotional states and moods. "You want to see your friends happy, and when a friend is in an unhealthy relationship, they're not happy." "Friends can be losing parts of themselves; their identity." When friendships are close, care in them often looks like keeping a pulse on what's inhibiting thriving, and asking questions to help restore health.

  • Having the opportunity to role-play or practice having hard conversations would help teens build the courage to follow through. Teens shared that having the ability to practice what to say and see the possible outcomes of hard conversations with friends about their relationships would support them in building confidence and courage to help a friend. Games excel at providing these opportunities for safe practice. When young people are immersed in worlds that mirror their own, prompted to confront similar tensions, and exposed to all plausible what ifs, they build skills they can bring back to their real lives.

iThrive is eager to fold these insights into the game One Love is creating and help make a meaningful play experience where teens learn skills they need to actively take part in creating a healthier, safer, and more loving world. Follow One Love on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when the game is available for play!

Curiosity Propels Discovery. How Are We Supporting It in Teens?

By iThrive Games

Why?

As teens progress through adolescence and develop their capacity to reason thoughtfully and think critically, this three-letter question becomes all the more important and prominent in their lives. The cognitive growth teens undergo propels them to investigate the 'whys' that shape how they live and see their world. They move from thinking concretely and heavily relying on physical observations to thinking abstractly about possibilities. In this last major phase of development, where teens are primed to learn and adapt, curiosity becomes a growth point, and game design uniquely nurtures it in them.

One of the best things we can do for teens as adults who care about their learning and wellbeing is strengthen their ability to poke, pry, and imagine with purpose. For us here at iThrive, care is a verb. We show our care for teens by actively centering their magnificence, creating experiences with and for them that build on their genius and support their thriving. Our iThrive Studio programs and workshops bring collaborative game development experiences to teen groups that meaningfully engage them in complex and creative thinking about the world they live in, the systems they navigate, and the social change they would like to see.

This summer, we partnered with the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to co-host the Policy Leadership Advocacy by Youth, or PLAY, Program on the University of Virginia campus. With funding from the Jefferson Trust, 50 high school students experienced a weeklong exploration of policy that featured resume-building workshops and lunch-and-learns with real-world policy leaders. Each day of the PLAY Program began with an iThrive Studio workshop where teens used activities from our Game Design Studio Toolkit to dig into the social issues they care about and the big questions they have in the space of a game. A suite of teen-developed game prototypes came from these daily workshops, each centering a societal challenge and possible solutions.

Curiosity drives discovery. Here's how our iThrive Studio programs use game design to nurture it in teens, helping them poke, pry, and imagine with purpose.

Artifacts made by teens who participated in the Policy Leadership Advocacy by Youth, or PLAY, Program held at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Game design is a powerful lever for schools, organizations, and programs looking to support and maximize the creative potential of the teens they teach, know, and gather with. Here are three ways the game design approach we use in iThrive Studio programs helps young people build the social, emotional, and cognitive skills to be curious and stay curious.

  • Design thinking activates systems thinking. As designers, teens outline rules, characters, ways of progressing, and win and loss states to craft structured games. To create a play experience that holistically represents the systems they want to examine, teens must break down components to understand a bigger picture and, in doing so, are nudged to delve deep and think concretely about the specific changes they want to see. "There are so many ways that you can help solve world problems," shared one teen in the PLAY Program. "I learned new ways to think about them."

  • Game design supports metacognition. The design challenge teens are presented with during an iThrive Studio program invites them to think critically about what they want people to feel, think, say, and do after they play the games they create, along with the mechanics needed to facilitate those responses. As teens work through the challenge, they are constantly thinking about thinking as they consider how closely their creations have embodied their perspectives and how others view and respond to the same ideas. "When making a game promoting policy, it needs to be committed to the topic," shared one teen on the last day of the PLAY Program. "The game should make you feel what you're trying to address about a policy issue."

  • When creating a game, experimentation is rewarded. iThrive Studio programs create opportunities for teens to share their game prototypes with their peers, gather feedback, and revisit their creations to fine-tune and configure new ideas. This iterative practice supports teens' divergent problem-solving skills as each snag pointed out in a playtest becomes a pathway to new learnings and discoveries. From this expanded view comes a more comprehensive understanding of the power teens have and the role they can play in addressing issues they care about. "It's the fact that no matter how few or how many, or who you are as a person, you can make a difference in your world," shared one PLAY participant on the last day of the program.

Core to our vision of teen thriving is helping young people connect with and contribute to their communities and supporting them in noticing a desire for greater meaning and purpose. Curiosity plays an integral role in each of these aims as a precursor for empathy and an engine for ingenuity. Our iThrive Studio programs provide teens with a generative space to exercise their curiosity, and safely explore, try on, and configure new ideas. The social, emotional, and cognitive skills that teens strengthen while immersed in the program support their capacity to take on the design challenge of shaping the world they want to live in together and joining in the work with a spirit of inquiry. Learn more about our iThrive Studio programs and contact us to start the process of bringing one to your school, organization, or group this year.

SEED Designers Share History & Harm of Surveillance in New Escape Room Game

By iThrive Games

BOSTON—The SEED Institute, a youth-led game design studio collaboratively launched by Transition HOPE, BMA TenPoint, and iThrive Games, was awarded a Summer of Healing grant in July 2022. The funding enabled SEED Designers to bring As They Watch Us, the latest addition to their game library, to shared spaces in Boston, MA, and use its eye-opening play experience to foster conversations about surveillance rooted in truth and restoration with community members.

The SEED Institute creates games that amplify its design team members' lived experiences and perspectives on the cradle-to-prison pipeline, inviting all who play the games to join in their commitment to disrupting its harm. SEED Designers continued their social change work this summer with The Heller School's Racial Justice and Tech Policy Initiative (RJxTP). From their research and discussions with graduate students, researchers, and policymakers came the prototype for As They Watch Us, an escape-room-style PC game that powerfully names and shares how Black and Brown bodies have been surveilled and overpoliced throughout history and to this day.

"As They Watch Us is a game based on the injustice that comes with surveillance and how it affected and still affects the world around us today," shares Jordan, a SEED Designer. "To make it, we researched the oppression that was and still is surveillance, and that research is the very lifeblood of the game. You look through texts, images, and other aspects of four different rooms representative of four different time periods - slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and today - to find and put together all the pieces of the puzzle about surveillance and its impact."

As They Watch Us uniquely illustrates the throughline of surveillance in Black and Brown communities and its harm in an immersive way that invites players to make meaning of what they encounter as they explore. Using iThrive Games' game design studio approach, SEED Designers merge design thinking with systems thinking. They carefully examine their lived experiences, the historical origins of oppressive systems they navigate or witness, and the policies that enable their ongoing structural harm. "A game presents a compelling and concrete way to think about systems, and the critical thinking involved in that is high level," shares Susan Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games. "From that critical thinking comes opportunities for SEED Designers to name how things were, how things are, and how things could be."

This summer, SEED Designers brought a prototype of As They Watch Us to We Belong, a youth leadership program led by Boston Police officers Jeff Lopes and Jorge Diaz at Northeastern University. Community members playtested the game and shared learnings and feedback with SEED Designers. Like those who've played games developed by the SEED Institute, community members applauded the play experience for its creativity, resonance, and truth-telling.

The Summer of Healing grant was awarded by Heal America, a movement to fight racial injustice with love and redemption. For SEED Designers, amplifying truth, be it historical or personal, fosters an understanding that sets the scene for reform and reparation. "SEED is trying to teach what is not being taught," shares Jordan. "The racism that has rotted in this country is there and has been there for hundreds of years, so why haven't people been educated? That is the reason for this game. To educate younger generations on surveillance and inequities in technology, to create policies that protect the privacy of Black and Brown communities, and to amend policies that disproportionately harm them."

To Janelle Ridley, founder of Transition HOPE and Associate Director of RJxTP, this centering of young people's perspectives and voices is necessary to disrupt surveillance tactics and the top-down approaches to policy solutions that perpetuate them in different forms throughout history. "We rely heavily on the adults who make these decisions, but they're not the ones that are boots on the ground," she shares. "They're not proximate to the community, and they're not proximate to the system itself. Youth need to inform what policies need to look like and where the changes need to be made."

The spaces, dialogue, and action that the SEED Designers have hosted and ignited with As They Watch Us and the other games they've created is a testament to the brilliance and boldness they've channeled throughout the game development process in advocating for themselves and their communities. "SEED is not an external intervention that people helicoptered in and dumped on the community," shares Rev. David Wright, Executive Director of BMA Ten Point. "This is homegrown. This is organic. This is an intervention that helps people build the resiliency within themselves to be able to make the change that they want to make."

And to Jordan, "all of this is for a better future."

Learn more about the SEED Institute and its library of games at www.seed-institute.com.

Media Contact
Eghosa Asemota
Director of Marketing and Communications, iThrive Games
eghosa.asemota[@]ithrivegames.org

Teens Know What They Need to Be Healthy and Thrive. It’s Time We Listen.

By iThrive Games

What does it mean for teens to thrive?

At iThrive, we use games and game design to support teen thriving. In our 2017 white paper, we defined teen thriving as teens' "accumulating intrapersonal and interpersonal assets while progressing forward through adolescence." This is true, but it's not sufficient.

We see and hear firsthand that teens are uniquely positioned to see injustices and hold society to a clear and higher standard. Over the past 5 years, we have asked hundreds of teens what thriving means to them, and what they most want and need to thrive. We have listened deeply as we've worked side-by-side with them to envision and design elements of a more just, supportive world.  

Our revised definition reflects the heart, admiration, and dedication we see and feel when we do this youth-centered work. They come away from it saying things like, "I realize now the change I can have on the world" and "This process ... has given me the empowerment not only to make decisions in my daily life but also to learn about how the systems that have already been created work and how to disrupt them through games. I feel very happy to be part of this and help promote social change." 

Our revised definition also incorporates the latest scientific advancements in the teen brain and evidence about what works in positive youth development, social and emotional learning, and mental health.

The world and our perceptions of it have undergone seismic shifts in the years since iThrive was formed, and the ways we define and aim to support teen thriving have adapted in kind. The work of adolescence has always been social and emotional, but it is uniquely demanding for teens today who are navigating unprecedented social issues, all of which require action and accountability. At the forefront of movements demanding both are young people who are imagining what a just, supportive world could be and who are diligently and inventively pushing for new possibilities in the world they'll inherit. But their vital engagement in the world is being threatened by a youth mental health crisis that has been deemed a national emergency, so there is great urgency for adults and society at large to do more to support teens' mental health and well-being.

A NEW DEFINITION

Teens thrive when they, and the settings that serve them, take full advantage of the unique magnificence of the teen brain to optimize personal growth and well-being, establish healthy interdependence in supportive and affirming communities, and propel progress toward a more just world and a healthier planet.

"THE UNIQUE MAGNIFICENCE OF THE TEEN BRAIN."

What's uniquely magnificent about the teen brain? Research in the last two decades has revealed that the teen brain changes at an astonishing rate and is more "plastic" than it will ever be again. When teens have supportive relationships, experiences, and settings, the brain changes they're undergoing result in young people who, compared to adults, are generally more zestful and vibrant, more willing to take healthy risks, better positioned to think creatively about innovative solutions to problems, and more driven to engage and connect socially. In a world in which teens are thriving, both teens and the settings that serve them are aware of and supporting the development and healthy channeling of these amazing superpowers. 

Of course, a magnificent teen brain exists within an individual self, nested within a community of people and resources, further nested within the world at large. Teen thriving needs to consider and encompass what is happening in each of these domains.

SELF: "OPTIMIZE PERSONAL GROWTH AND WELL-BEING."

Teens who are thriving in the domain of "SELF" feel physically and emotionally healthy and "alive" and are engaged in regulating their behavior and pursuing and accomplishing things that matter to them. OR, they have the internal awareness and tools they need to notice when something feels "off" and to skillfully manage difficult emotions or advocate for extra help. Settings that support teens to thrive in the domain of "SELF" meet their physical and emotional needs (including the need to build social and emotional skills) and provide meaningful opportunities to learn, achieve, and grow on each teen's unique path.

In teens' words: Thriving is "passion," "feeling confident in themselves," "being happy with where you are mentally, physically, and socially," "having goals and working towards those goals," and "being organized" and "able to deal with pressure."

COMMUNITY: "ESTABLISH HEALTHY INTERDEPENDENCE IN SUPPORTIVE AND AFFIRMING COMMUNITIES."

Teens who are thriving in the domain of "COMMUNITY" can make meaningful contributions to social settings where they experience caring and connection with people who affirm their evolving identities by offering them freedom and time to be themselves. They are also learning and using the skills of interdependence, balancing trust and reliance with satisfying levels of autonomy. OR, they are noticing a mismatch between their needs and available resources and are learning the skills to identify and advocate for how their communities could better support them. Settings that are supporting teens' thriving in communities see and affirm all teens for who they are, connect them with services and resources they need, and set high expectations for teens accompanied by the guidance and opportunities to meet those expectations.

In teens' words: "Teens thriving means that they are in an environment where they can be completely themselves," and "where their needs, both mental and physical, are heard, understood, and met." Thriving means having "a space of love" and "sharing your ideas with each other and helping people in need," like through "volunteering, cleaning up places, or advocating for small-scale reform." It also means "having a healthy balance between home and school life," "time for activities one enjoys as well as opportunities to recharge," and "time to process and explore our identities."

At the PLAY (Policy, Leadership, and Advocacy by Youth) Program last month, high school students from across the Piedmont region of Virginia gathered with staff from iThrive Games and UVA Batten for a week-long program. There, they used game design activities from our Game Design Studio Toolkit to explore policy issues that impact them and today's teens along with potential solutions. In response to one of our world-building activities, teens shared and illustrated their visions of thriving (pictured above).

WORLD: "PROPEL PROGRESS TOWARD A MORE JUST WORLD AND HEALTHIER PLANET."

Finally, teens who are thriving in the domain of "WORLD" show a curiosity and striving towards understanding the "bigger picture" and having an impact beyond their immediate lives and surroundings. OR, they can notice a desire for greater meaning and purpose and seek guidance on healthy ways to establish that meaning. Settings can support teens' thriving in the "WORLD" domain when the adults within them model ethical and effective leadership and informed and prosocial cross-cultural engagement, and when they remain open to the innovative and out-of-the-box solutions to global problems that teens are uniquely positioned to try. 

In teens' words: Teens who are thriving are "going out of their comfort zone to give their input and effort to a situation or problem that needs help" and "advocating for change where we can and when we can." Some teens said, "My friends and family and getting to learn and experience new things gives my life purpose or meaning" and "I derive meaning out of my everyday life, I have goals that I would like to achieve..., I have friends and family I care for, and I have things I enjoy doing....I'm just alive so I might as well find purpose in the things that come my way every day."

The question of 'how do we support teens?' cannot be answered unless we are in community with teens and commit to actively listening to them. Their perceptiveness and ingenuity inspire us and guide the programming, resources, and partnerships we put into the world in support of their thriving.

Stay tuned to learn more about how our work is supporting this vision of teen thriving and sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on ways to get involved. 

New Narrative Game Raises Awareness of ACEs & Their Impact on Youth Mental Health

By iThrive Games

"Afraid."
"Disturbed."
"Sad."
"Aware."

These are some of the emotions that Malik, Dana, and Luisa—three of the SEED Designers behind Children of the Flame—want people to feel while playing it. Expanding the SEED Institute's library of games that gives voice to their lived experiences as young people, Children of the Flame is a trauma-informed, single-player narrative game that invites players to engage with a set of characters in a meaningful and awareness-building way. All characters are young people of color who attend the same predominantly white high school and are enrolled in a METCO program there. One afternoon, all characters end up in the same detention room. The player behind the headset must figure out what led the characters to be in trouble. Clicking on each character enables the player to be transported to that character's home, where they can explore their room and neighborhood to learn more about their life, family, and community.

A look at this first vertical slice of the single-player virtual reality (VR) game, Children of the Flame.

Children of the Flame's immersive story structure weaves in generational trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines ACEs as potentially traumatic events that happen in childhood (0-17 years). "Everyone experiences ACEs differently and not all young people who experience them will be impacted negatively. Of course, the more ACEs that one experiences, the more likely there is to be a negative impact," says Dr. Lora Henderson, an assistant professor and licensed clinical psychologist who collaborated with SEED Designers on a workbook that'll accompany the game and deepen understanding of the impact of ACEs and trauma. "ACEs and the subsequent trauma they can cause often result in physiological and psychological responses that get in the way of typical adolescent development." 

Understanding the need to protect young people's physical and psychological development, the young architects behind Children of the Flame intend for it to be educational and preventative for teenagers in middle and high school. In each character's roombuilt with game development partners at FableVision Studios—SEED Designers nested opportunities for players to familiarize themselves with ACEs, supporting young people in understanding their developmental impact and influence on physical and mental health. As Luisa said, "having a little bit of knowledge can make a difference." "ACEs can affect anyone," Dana echoed. "Everyone can have trauma or a blocked memory that does not let them see that they also suffer from ACEs too."

The games SEED Designers make and share with the public help create the conditions to better support young people as they develop into adulthood. iThrive Games works closely with the youth design team supporting them with mentorship and guidance that helps them apply and translate their lived experiences into games that reflect the nuances of their journey to stakeholders and advocate for the systems change they'd like to see. Janelle Ridley, Director of the SEED Institute, sees the use of game design as a valuable method for telling stories in a resonant way that ignites action. "This allows other young people to tell their stories in a way that doesn't keep them at guard," shares Ridley. "[It] is a way of having uncomfortable conversations in a manner that allows people to really grasp at what the context and the content of what is actually happening."

Teens who play Children of the Flame and go through its accompanying workbook learn to identify how ACEs and trauma affect how bodies and brains develop. The rich dialogue and visuals in each character's backstory expose teens who have had ACEs to ways that they can seek support, including finding a trusted adult and using language to communicate to others the help they need.

The in-depth research and conversations with mental health practitioners and community members that supported the design and development of Children of the Flame helped SEED Designers make sense of their own experiences. From their introspection and unpacking of their own trauma came supportive tips shared from a place of hope and a desire to disrupt harmful cycles. "[Making this game] helped me reflect and re-evaluate my own life." shares Malik. "I want [players] to know it's not normal what they're going through. And it's not too late." 

Advocating for structural supports that will reduce the impact of ACEs, Children of the Flame is also a way for police officers, members of community organizations, school personnel, and other adult stakeholders to deepen their awareness of the need for trauma-based approaches, their understanding of trauma-informed practices, and their commitment to adopting those practices in their work."Trauma-informed practices and approaches create a sense of safety and humanity for young people who are involved in systems," says Dr. Henderson. "By using trauma-informed approaches, systems can ensure that they are not re-traumatizing their young people and that they are uplifting their voices and including them in making decisions that impact them."

Reducing the occurrence of ACEs cannot happen without awareness, and the development of systems that mitigate the impact of ACEs on young people's life outcomes cannot happen without youth voices and ideas steering the change. The social change that SEED Designers want to see and contribute to with Children of the Flame is rooted in this belief. As we observe National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month this July, we're reminded that the unique mental health challenges faced by communities of color are exacerbated by a system that demonstrably over-polices and under-protects them. "Children of the Flame provides a gameplay experience that speaks truthfully about young people's lived experiences in this system," shares Susan Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games. "This game springboards support to young people, calling all who care about them and staff the spaces they navigate to embody the trauma-informed practices that help reduce the harm."

The first chapter of Children of the Flame is slated to launch later this year as a virtual reality experience and desktop game. The game along with its accompanying workbook will be used to engage stakeholders and raise funds to support its full development. Sign up today to be one of the first people notified when the first chapter of this game becomes available.

HS Students Learn How to Be Conscious Consumers of Media Through Play

By iThrive Games

How are we preparing teens to thrive in the world they'll inherit?

At iThrive Games, this question has guided us since the start, shaped our values, and prompted the co-design approach we take with young people, which magnifies, nurtures, and builds on their brilliance. We believe teen thriving goes hand-in-hand with teen genius, and to a significant degree, the latter informs the former. Recognizing the magnificence of the teen brain has led us to co-create with young people experiences that meet them where they are, nourish them socially and emotionally, strengthen their 21st-century skills, and deepen their understanding of themselves, others, and the world. iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts, a tech-supported role-playing simulation game hosted on the iThrive Sim platform, is a byproduct of the collaborative work we, along with our partners at the Situation Room Experience, did with teen co-designers and playtesters across the nation whose ideas and feedback continue to inform the iterative design process behind the game. The result of our ongoing partnership with young people is an engaging media literacy skill-building simulation game for teens that brings civic learning to life in a meaningful, relevant, and memorable way for them through play.

Recently, high school students from Collegiate School in Richmond, VA, playtested a beta version of iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts. Making use of iThrive Sim's flexible tech, which works in any space with access to a Wi-Fi connection and 1:1 devices, students, both virtually and in person, stepped into their roles as journalists and news editors tasked with reporting on a breaking story with accuracy and without bias. Working in editorial teams of five, students contended with information shared via social media chirps, direct messages, and updates from government institutions and members of the public that they received through the iThrive Sim platform. In doing so, teens practiced how to source information and identify and respond to bias, using what they deduced to inform the content of the story they shared by the end of the game. 

In playing iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts, teens learn by doing. After playing through the two-episode, 60-minute simulation game together, students at Collegiate School shared that the game helped them see firsthand how the media shapes public opinion and informs civic behavior, and that they felt the responsibility of that role. "It was fast-paced, which made the game fun and intense," shared one student. "Our team had to communicate to maintain a high trust level with the public, so it was good to form connections." Another remarked, "The best part was seeing the public's responses to decisions we made."

iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts mirrors the stressors members of the media navigate, providing a meaningful social and emotional skill-building opportunity for teens through embodied learning. Students navigate some of the pressures that accompany the 24-hour news cycle together and self-manage while under stress. From this, Collegiate School students deepened their understanding of the dynamics in the digital space and their impact on the institutions we all navigate. "The experience felt very real," shares one teen. "I learned that even random, anonymous people on the internet can cause public riots and outrage."

As with all things that come with doing hard work with others, students at Collegiate School shared the following about the new friendships and connections they built with their peers as they worked through the decisions that led to the story they broke together: 

  • "It was fun to make decisions as a team and think through the best course of action."
  • "We sat at the same table and talked about it all with our group. It was really fun to investigate."
  • "It was really fun to interact with my teammates. This brought us closer, and we had a lot of laughs." 
  • "I enjoyed collaborating with some of the students I hadn't talked to."
  • "I enjoyed the experience and how it helped me get closer with my teammates and learn about a career I wouldn't have thought about doing."

Teens navigate a digital world marked by a never-ending stream of information. We see the ability to access, evaluate, analyze, act on, and communicate information as core skills that support teens in meaningfully contributing to the world they'll inherit and steer change in together. In iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts, teens practice how to effectively source information and learn how to evaluate the quality and truth of what they encounter. Co-creating this role-playing simulation game with teens like the students at the Collegiate School has enabled us to put forth into the world an immersive civic learning experience that helps teens build an awareness of bias and its impact on reporting and interpreting information. We invite you to bring the beta version of iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts to your youth group this summer or to students this fall at no cost and use play to support teen thriving.

iThrive Shares Wins with Affordance, SEED Institute at 2022 Serious Play Awards

By iThrive Games

For Immediate Release: June 29, 2022

BOSTON— iThrive Games is pleased to announce two shared wins from the 2022 International Serious Play Awards, a program that honors outstanding commercial and student-developed games created for educational use.

iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, created with our software development partners at Affordance Studio and the masterminds behind the Situation Room Experience, won a gold medal in the K-12 Education category, while Selling Dreams, the latest from youth game designers at the SEED Institute, won silver in the Non-Profit Training category.

Both digital games are hosted on the iThrive Sim platform, a lever for embodied learning and real-time interpersonal connection launched in 2020 to support the unique educational needs of the COVID-19 classroom. On an easy-to-use interface, players are asked to adopt roles, and are presented with unique information and decisions they must wrestle with in real-time. The players make choices that have ripple effects and drive the game forward. The device-agnostic, web-based software uses synchronous and asynchronous information delivery mechanisms to get players to work together and engage with the information they encounter in different ways. The immersion that iThrive Sim facilitates promotes enduring understandings that can be built upon in post-play debriefing sessions.

iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, played by over 1,600 students and counting, uses iThrive Sim's dynamic features to enliven teen civic learning through student-led connection, improvisation, and embedded opportunities to grow 21st-century competencies. The interactive experience invites teens to play as government officials tasked with making tough decisions in response to a fictional pandemic. As players work through the 35-minute, tech-supported experience together, they evaluate data and lean into social and emotional skills like collaborating, advocating for their points of view and constituents, and compromising with each other to chart a path forward in uncertain times. Curricular surrounds and activities pair with the role-playing simulation game to deepen and extend the civics educational experience.

Selling Dreams, launching later this summer, uses iThrive Sim's immersive platform to tell SEED Designers' stories in an honest and resonant way that names the structural harm and shortcomings they've observed and experienced in Massachusetts' child welfare system. The single-player game invites case workers and youth-serving adults to take on the role of a Guardian tasked with meeting the needs of the young people they encounter and helping them through their unique challenges. In their role as a supportive actor, each Guardian must stay on top of files, messages, and relevant news sent to them about the youth they serve. Players must make decisions throughout the game using the insight they gather about how to engage with those in their care. With the 30-minute game, SEED Designers highlight the demands and stressors experienced by case workers tasked with disrupting the harm while providing a meaningful training opportunity to think critically about the behaviors that encompass truly responsive care and support.

Both digital games attest to the boundless creativity the iThrive Sim authoring platform supports. The content management system used on the platform allows for the development and editing of role-playing scenarios that fit the unique needs of each audience. The iThrive team is excited to invite new partners to use iThrive Sim and support them in creating new interactive, accessible, and scalable learning experiences.

"The iThrive Sim platform is embedding social and emotional learning opportunities to enliven teen-centered learning across so many topics, from civics to relationship health, to emergency preparedness, and more," says Susan Rivers, iThrive Executive Director and Chief Scientist. "One of iThrive's greatest joys is in co-creating new iThrive Sim scenarios with partners — young people and adults alike — in various sectors to amplify teens' strengths and interpersonal connections and make deep learning not only possible but immensely fun and impactful."

To learn more about the iThrive Sim authoring platform, click here. To contact us for questions related to licensing and developing experiences on the iThrive Sim platform, click here.

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Media Contact: Eghosa Asemota (eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org)

About iThrive GamesiThrive Games prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership with them to co-create a world where their brilliance is honored, nurtured, and amplified. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient.

How Games and Play Support Transformative Civic Engagement in Teens

By iThrive Games

The teen brain is magnificent, and youth-led efforts to organize and realize gun safety, climate action, and reparative racial justice within their lifetime attest to it.

Our work as adults who care about young people is to meet them where they are developmentally and shower them with experiences that build on and add to the breadth of their genius. Games engage teens deeply and can prompt the connection, reflection, and creativity needed to support them in building the social and emotional capacity to co-create transformative solutions together.

Transformative civic engagement that centers our collective well-being begins and ends with our sense of community. This definition of community widens as we deepen our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us. By providing a safe space to wander, learn, test, and create, games become learning environments for young people to do this. Games offer contexts where young people can explore and practice self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, navigating relationships healthily, and regulating emotions. These core social and emotional skills are civic skills that help young people be informed and responsible members of society.

At iThrive Games, we create with and for teens game-based learning experiences that support them in being in the world they'll inherit with empathy and curiosity. Our resources and the games we've co-designed and launched offer experiences that build teens' social and emotional competence in a meaningful way. In Accidental Queens' A Normal Lost Phone, for example, players are invited to explore a lost smartphone and uncover the story of who it belongs to. Players must stay in the space of curiosity to 'win' the game. In doing so, they build their social awareness of how others think, behave, and feel as they sift through the phone's content and decode what they encounter. High school students who've played the game while using iThrive Curriculum: Sam's Journey in their classrooms have remarked on the transformative learning that comes from the game's immersive storytelling and the investigative lens players put on while working through it. After playing the game, one high school senior shared, "We had a long discussion about our original perceptions of people. This just completely changed my understanding. It made me feel a certain way. It made me think a certain way."

This approach of using play as an avenue for young people to practice core social and emotional skills is also enlisted in our iThrive Sim collection of games. Like A Normal Lost Phone, iThrive Sim role-playing games enable embodied learning that nurtures young people's change-making abilities. Young people are invited to play as government officials who must gather information sent in real-time, analyze it, and think critically about alternatives and consequences before making decisions in times of crisis together. Teens who've played through an iThrive Sim game try on new perspectives and get needed practice as they embody the self-management that negotiation and compromise require, learn to honor dissent, and strengthen their ability to make responsible decisions in collaborative settings. These faculties are central to a well-functioning society.

Games mirror our world and have the capacity to ignite new possibilities in it and in the young people who play them. We see games not only as valuable tools for social and emotional learning but also as springboards for knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing. At this year's Games for Change Festival, iThrive's Executive Director and Chief Scientist Susan Rivers will be continuing the conversation with a virtual session titled, 'Designing Games for Civic Skills: The Power of Creation.' There, she'll be diving into how iThrive's Game Design Studio approach uniquely supports systems thinking in young people through game design, helping them magnify their civic voice, and co-create solutions to challenges in their communities. Register to tune in on Saturday, July 16 at 2:30 p.m. EDT and be a part of the discussion!

SEEDs’ New Game Pushes for Change in Massachusetts’ Child Welfare System

By iThrive Games

"The system is set up against our community, and it shouldn't be this way," says Kaleya, one of the young designers at the SEED Institute behind Selling Dreams, a single-player online simulation game developed on the iThrive Sim platform. "This game is a wake-up call."

Selling Dreams invites players to take on the role of a Guardian tasked with meeting the needs of the young people they encounter and helping them through their unique challenges. In their role as a supportive actor, each Guardian must stay on top of files, messages, and relevant news sent to them about the youth they serve. Players must make decisions throughout the game using the insight they gather about how to engage with those in their care. These decisions are all final, have different consequences, and can impact the Guardian's 'Respect Meter,' which gauges the level of trust and rapport the young people have toward the player.

"This game shows you what kids are facing—false promises that are being made by the system," shares Bernado, the lead designer behind the SEED Institute's award-winning board game, The Run Around. Like its predecessor, Selling Dreams mirrors the lived experiences of SEED (System Educated Expert Disruptors) Designers who navigate or have navigated Massachusetts' juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The SEED Designers' stories and experiences inform the game's content, reflecting the interactions and relationships they've had with adults to prescribe what was needed in the crucial moment they were in. The designers are training the case workers tasked with disrupting the harm they've personally experienced by inviting them to confront similar harms in the game, and think critically about the behaviors that encompass truly responsive care and support. "Selling Dreams gives the player hands-on experience at taking on the role of a guardian," says Justin, a SEED Designer voicing several of the videos and audio clips featured in the game. "You get a caseload of different youth and have to make the best decisions in order to help their cases."

 

The short simulation game not only aims to transform the behaviors of the people who staff MA's youth-serving systems but also advocates for structural change by those who design those systems. "There are many stressors and competing demands experienced by adults who are charged with supporting young people in the juvenile justice or child welfare system," says Kaleya, "and these systems heavily affect the youth in our community." These factors in Selling Dreams mirror the real-life circumstances of caseworkers in MA and across the country, reflected in each Guardian's assigned caseload and the pacing of updates they receive. "There's a huge pressure on the Guardian to make the right choices and focus on their cases," says Justin. As the SEED designers note in the impactful play experience they've created with Selling Dreams, part of the work to support young people is making the delivery of responsive care structurally possible in Massachusetts and across the nation.

Amidst an intensifying youth mental health crisis, the work to support the well-being of young people demands that we challenge our assumptions about what is needed to keep them safe and support their health and thriving. It takes honesty to design a system of support that meets young people; core to that honesty is the voice of young people. Selling Dreams tells the SEED Designers' stories in an immersive and truthful way that names the structural harm and shortcomings in Massachusetts' child welfare system. The game provides a meaningful training opportunity for youth-serving adults to think critically about how they're showing up for adolescents. It is the SEED Designers' hope that in this current system where young people are functionally voiceless in expressing their needs, this game equips all adults who work in systems that impact young people like them with the insight to approach, engage, and respond to them meaningfully. As shared by SEED Designer Bernado, the goal is for those who play Selling Dream to walk away from the experience with a renewed commitment to "paying attention, listening to the kids, and creating more opportunity for them." In realizing these behaviors, we create an ecosystem of youth-serving actors rooted in care, empathy, and intention.

This summer, Selling Dreams will join the SEED Institute's growing library of games played with stakeholders in Massachusetts and shared with the world to advocate and ignite systems change. Sign up here to be notified when the online game launches and is available for purchase.

The Teen Mental Health Crisis is Real. Game Designers & Developers Can Help.

By iThrive Games

This post is the last in our five-part series, Supporting Teen Mental Health, which shares tools and insights that support educators, parents, and youth-serving adults in showing up for teens in this moment of need. Read earlier posts in the series about mindfully managing difficult emotions, using social media actively and intentionally, nurturing the teen brain with school-based social and emotional learning opportunities, and applying culturally responsive approaches in therapeutic interactions with teens

Veteran game designer, Jason VandenBerghe, wrote for iThrive Games in 2018 that "If we want to make a large, positive change in our world, I believe the best route is to focus on providing teens with better models for the world." If teens needed better models for the world four years ago, how much more do they—and all of us—need them in 2022? 

This month alone, two 18-year-olds separately made the ruinous decision to commit mass murder—one in a racially charged event in Buffalo, NY, and the other in Uvalde, TX. U.S. teenagers wake up every day to more evidence of gun violence, societal strife, greed and corruption in places of power, shrinking opportunities for financial security, and the threat of climate catastrophe. It's no small wonder that rates of mental health struggles among teens are higher than ever.  

Video games and social media are too often the easy scapegoats for teens' mental health challenges. In reality, the impact of digital technologies on youth mental health and well-being is complicated, and conclusions in the research are mixed. We know that's largely because "digital technologies" vary as widely as the teens who use them and the circumstances in which they're used. Of course, playing video games under some conditions can be disruptive to the healthy functioning of some, and can facilitate the healthy functioning of others. So, what's the responsibility of a game designer or developer? 

At iThrive, we value and know that it is both possible and imperative to empathize deeply with and design ethically for teens. One of the best ways we've found to do this: Co-design with teens the digital tools they use. A youth-centered approach to digital technology design is among the recommendations put forth by the U.S. Surgeon General in his Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health. When we design with teens, for teens, the digital experiences they engage with are both likelier to do no harm at this vulnerable developmental moment, and likelier to amplify teens' immense capacity to thrive emotionally, socially, cognitively, and physically. 

There's so much that's fascinating and motivating about the teen brain and how it's changing. For designers, we've boiled it down to a list of 10 things to know when designing for this unique window of both opportunity and vulnerability to best support teens' mental health.

TEENS ARE:

  • BUILDING HABITS FOR LIFE: Teens' brains are undergoing the last major restructuring of development, making the teen years the perfect time to build skills and habits that help them throughout life. But negative habits "stick" more at this time, too.

  • CATCHING ONTO YOU, FAST: Teens are getting wiser about the world. They're reaching a cognitive peak and learn very quickly. They easily see through attempts to manipulate or preach to them and don't respond well to hypocrisy or unfairness.

  • IN NEED OF POSITIVE CONNECTIONS: Above all, teens need access to strengthening experiences, environments, and relationships that help them grow in positive ways. They want to be close to adults, even as they figure out how to be more independent.

  • MORE TOLERANT THAN TEENS USED TO BE: Teens today value diversity and acceptance even more than previous generations. They care about authentic inclusion and diversity.

  • NOT JUST "WEIRD:" Obvious, but worth remembering, teens aren't just Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic countries. They need their uniqueness and diversity to be reflected in the spaces where they spend time.

  • SENSITIVE TO REWARDS, ESPECIALLY SOCIAL ONES: Teens have more dopamine circulating in their brains than adults. They are very sensitive to "feel-good" rewards like those in video games. Teens do riskier things when other teens are around, partly to earn status and respect.

  • STILL LEARNING TO CONTROL IMPULSES & EMOTIONS: Teens are still developing connections in the prefrontal cortex. They have a more challenging time controlling impulses and emotions and predicting the consequences of their actions than they will in the future.

  • IN NEED OF MORE SLEEP: Teens need more sleep than adults to thrive, and they might need support to make the best choices and set boundaries for their health.

  • FACING A LOT OF STRESS: Teens are under a ton of pressure. Also, if they are going to appear, most mental illnesses show up between early adolescence and young adulthood. Teens need ways to cope and to be able to seek help without stigma.

  • TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHO THEY ARE: Teens want to try on different roles and expressions and figure out where they belong. They need social spaces to interact, experiment, negotiate, and resolve conflicts. But toxicity and bullying should be proactively prevented in these spaces.

So, if you're a designer or developer of experiences teens use, how much do you think about their needs at this developmental moment? What models of the world are you making for them? And are teens a part of your design process?  

Creating spaces that foster teens' mental health and well-being is a team effort. iThrive is here to support you. We offer Game Design Kits, evidence-based guides to designing for mental health, and specific components of teen thriving like growth mindset and zest. We also specialize in custom design services that draw on teens' genius and creative problem-solving energy. Reach out to find out how you can use our co-design approach at your studio or organization.

New PLAY Program Invites Teens to Design Games That Explore Policy Issues

By iThrive Games

As agents of change, teens have the curiosity to ask the big questions, the tenacity to unpack social issues, the brilliance to dream up solutions that respond to them, and the willpower to make those solutions real. At iThrive Games, we work with and for teens, creating learning experiences that center play and game design to meet them where they are, engage them in their genius, and nurture their change-making abilities and social and emotional skills.

This summer, we're excited to join forces with the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and build on our library of teen-centered learning experiences with the PLAY (Policy, Leadership, and Advocacy by Youth) Program. The PLAY Program will bring 40 high school students from across the Piedmont, VA area together for an all-expense-paid, week-long program at the University of Virginia. Students will use game design activities from our Game Design Studio Toolkit to explore policy issues and potential solutions that impact them and today's teens. 

From policies around mental health to education to homelessness to gun control, teens will also connect with real-world policy leaders and gain exposure to the practical "toolkits" they use in their own impactful careers. Professional development opportunities like resume- and college essay-writing workshops will complement other interactive activities like a field trip to the Moton Museum—the birthplace of the U.S. student civil rights movement-and a graduation luncheon.

Thanks to a generous donation from the Jefferson Trust, all expenses, including meals and transportation, will be covered. The program will run from Monday to Friday, July 18 to 22, from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily (ending at 1 p.m. on July 22). Participants should be high school students committed to engaging with other teens throughout the program and making a positive impact in their communities at its conclusion. Invite the teens you know to apply by Wednesday, June 15th!

APPLY TO JOIN THE PLAY PROGRAM






SEED Designers Bring Games & Experiences to The Heller School at Brandeis

By iThrive Games

This summer, youth designers at the SEED Institute are bringing their expertise (and games) about the harmful systems they've navigated to graduate students at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

Those who are most impacted by systemic harm know what's needed to disrupt it.

This belief is a foundational one at the SEED Institute, a collaborative effort between Transition HOPE, iThrive Games, and the Black Ministerial Alliance-Ten Point Coalition. At the Institute, young people are SEEDs—System Educated Expert Disruptors. Synthesizing their lived experiences navigating systems of oppression into structured games, SEED Designers use play to advocate for meaningful change in youth-serving institutions. They then bring the games to sessions with community stakeholders throughout Boston, where the designers facilitate play-based conversations to share knowledge, identify and unpack inequities, and imagine possibilities for systems that truly nurture youth. The work of the Institute so far has been powered by SEED Designers' inventiveness and their commitment to building relationships and facilitating conversations that ignite and inspire action.

For a few designers at the SEED Institute, advocacy began with Transition HOPE's Summer of HOPE 2018, an initiative that paired them with graduate students and faculty at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Working as research assistants over seven weeks, the SEED Designers had the opportunity to learn more about how structural violence impacts day-to-day life. Meanwhile, the graduate students and faculty learned more about how to best support young people.

This year, the SEED Institute will continue this vital work with The Heller School's newly launched Racial Justice and Tech Policy Initiative (RJxTP). Through this initiative, SEED Designers will engage in research and develop a game as part of the Hidden Bias Research Prize. RJxTP aims to create more opportunities for knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing between and among youth designers, graduate students, researchers, and policymakers. SEED Designers will use their stories, wisdom, understandings, and ideas to contribute to the dismantling of systems of injustice. Check out the video below for a glimpse of the collaborative work ahead:

Stay in the loop! To quote one of the designers at the SEED Institute, "awareness is like a fire—and that's what we're here for; to spread that fire and spark change in somebody's mind." Keep up with the SEED Institute's design team as they develop and launch new games, and press forward with their advocacy and awareness-building through play, by signing up for our mailing list today.

In Times of Stress, I Turn to Cooking Games. Here’s How They Help Me Cope.

By iThrive Games

The Power of Play blog series invites teens across the nation to share stories and reflections that highlight the ways games have helped them learn more about themselves, create new bonds, and better understand others. We're excited to continue the series with a reflection written and submitted by Ashley, a high school student based in Philadelphia, PA, on the ways cooking games have helped her destress and connect with herself in crucial moments.

Many people play games to pass the time and because they enjoy the effect games have on them. They have a relieving effect, and they are a way for people to forget about their problems temporarily. 

Typically, I am a person who relies on other people to help me cope with whatever crisis I'm in to help get me through it. I also rely on games to help get me through it. Games are a one-stop type of thing that will never leave you. Games are there for you whenever, any time of the day. I am such an overthinker and struggle with self-confidence. When something devastating happens in my life, all I can think about is all the negative consequences that it will bring. That's it. Nothing. No one else. But having games, something to go to at any time of the day, has been really helpful. Playing them helps me forget about my problems in that moment. 

I enjoy baking and cooking and the excitement that comes as I savor every second, minute, and hour before the food is ready. Cooking has always been a way for me to be and feel productive. I love the feeling that comes with making good food. You are so busy thinking about how good you want the food to be or how you do not want to mess up a recipe that you just feel more present and focused. Nothing else matters.

I found that same feeling in cooking games. Games like Cooking Mama, Cooking Fever, and Diner Dash help me take a pause from the world. I usually play anything that involves clear goals and the use of my time management skills. Cooking games mean a lot to me. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always had a passion for cooking because my mom cooks every day. Even if we have so much food leftover from the previous night, she will still cook something new the following day because of the relief it brings. I use cooking games in the same way. They help me deal with the problems I wish to overcome. In these games, there are numerous restaurants where you have to make and serve your "customers" food and drinks, and you earn money in exchange. The higher the level, the harder the difficulty range will be. The harder you push, the more productive and focused you feel.

These games are close to my heart not only because it brings me joy to serve others but also because, even if only for a little bit, it makes me forget about unpleasant things I can't control. These games also allow me to express my creativity through food. And what's not to love about that?

We are always looking to amplify teens' voices and share their stories that attest to how games help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Have something to share? Send us your thoughts, stories, ideas, and reflections at contact@ithrivegames.org  with a brief blurb about yourself to see it on our blog this year!

One Thing Mental Health Practitioners Who Work With Teens Must Know

By iThrive Games

This post is the next in our series, Supporting Teen Mental Health, which shares tools and insights that support educators, parents, and youth-serving adults in showing up for teens in this moment of need. Read earlier posts in the series about mindfully managing difficult emotions, using social media actively and intentionally, and nurturing the teen brain with school-based social and emotional learning opportunities. 

Teens' mental health difficulties and needs have peaked since the start of the pandemic, culminating in what leading U.S. child and adolescent health organizations have deemed a national emergency. As mental health practitioners strive to meet diverse teens where they are at this time of crisis—in part one spurred on and exacerbated by racial inequities—they need tools and approaches that offer authentic entry points for building rapport and trust. 

The U.S. Surgeon General's 2021 Advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health, stresses the need to "recognize that a variety of cultural and other factors shape whether children and families are able or willing to seek mental health services. Accordingly, services should be culturally appropriate, offered in multiple languages (including ASL), and delivered by a diverse mental health workforce." Using culturally appropriate tools and approaches invites teens and their families to engage as equal partners in improving and maintaining young people's mental health. Critically, this approach also amplifies and celebrates existing strengths and connections that are unique to each young person's cultural background and social network. 

At iThrive, we've witnessed how games can be a powerful part of culturally responsive approaches to supporting teens' social and emotional skills, which are critical for mental health across the lifespan, both in schools and in therapeutic settings. That's because games of all kinds have the power to tell compelling stories, not just about the characters within them but about the players who play them, revealing truths about who they are and the world they inhabit. As one high school senior said of iThrive Curriculum: Museum of Me, our unit based around the game What Remains of Edith Finch: "You learn some things about yourself and others. It's nice to know that your [sic] not alone in seeing yourself a certain way. It's kind of relieving to know other people feel the same ways about themselves."

In an effort to help youth-serving practitioners better support teens with culturally responsive tools and approaches, iThrive's Senior Director of Learning Michelle Bertoli  interviewed Lora Henderson, a licensed clinical psychologist, former educator, and assistant professor at James Madison University who specializes in supporting the mental health of young people in underserved populations. In the interview transcribed below, she shares best practices and tools — including game-based approaches — for engaging authentically with diverse teens in support of their health and healing. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle: In your own work, how do you identify and define culturally responsive tools and practices?  

Lora: I work at the intersection of education, mental health, and social and emotional learning. I define culturally responsive practices, or CRPs, as actions practitioners can take to build on students' strengths and cultural frames of reference. In the classroom, this might mean drawing connections between the curriculum and students' home lives and cultural experiences. In a clinical setting, it might include showcasing materials, games, books, and posters that reflect students' cultural backgrounds and experiences. 

Michelle: And how do you get a sense of what's going to be culturally relevant and useful to students? It takes time to get to know them and you don't want to make assumptions.

Lora: Yes, that can be difficult because you don't want to fall into stereotypes about groups. We often go into our interactions with children and families with our own biases and assumptions about their cultural groups. Sometimes those things map onto their experiences and other times they don't. So, I do a lot of building relationships with kids, asking them what they did over the weekend, how their family celebrates holidays. Those small things aren't therapy, per se, but are really important to getting to know kids and their families and what culture means to them and looks like in their own contexts. 

Michelle: At iThrive, we design our games and game-based tools with equity, representation, and accessibility as core pillars. From a practitioner's perspective, how do these design principles make a difference for supporting teen mental health and well-being?

Lora: We can expect youth to have improved outcomes when they can connect to the materials, games, or information being shared with them. When we design with youth, put them at the center, and make them experts, like everyone at iThrive really does, it can maximize positive youth engagement with the tools you're creating. At iThrive, it's a bidirectional process: the youth designers get to build social and emotional skills and increase their well-being, and peers who play the games also get to learn from the youth designers' expertise and experiences. That process can have large positive effects for the designers and their peers alike. 

Michelle: What tools, including games or game-based approaches, do you use to strengthen young people's awareness and embracing of their cultural identities? 

Lora: From my time as an elementary school teacher to my current role as an assistant professor and licensed clinical psychologist, my first job is to build rapport and authentic relationships with youth. All of the other positive outcomes are couched in that initial positive relationship that creates a safe space for youth and families to feel accepted. That's how I demonstrate my respect, openness, and acceptance of their cultural identities. In my classroom and therapy office, I ensured that the books, pictures, and posters reflected the diversity of my clients so that youth could see themselves in my office and know that it was a safe space to be themselves. 

In therapy, I play lots of tabletop, board, and card games with youth. As one example, I've played a lot of Spades with Black families who play it at home, to bring an aspect of their culture into the room. I have emotions/feelings playing cards, so as we're playing Spades, and they get a "9" with an angry face on it, we talk about times when they were angry or observed someone else being angry, and how they managed those feelings. I really like to incorporate games that youth are already playing and then infuse mental health and social and emotional components into them. In in-patient settings, youth have taught me card games that they learned while in the hospital or juvenile detention. I let them lead the play. It's one way I demonstrate that I accept and value their lived experiences.

Michelle: How has embracing your own cultural identity as a practitioner helped you hone your professional skills? How have games played a role in this?

Lora: As a Black woman, I have had to examine my own biases and experiences to help me acknowledge the systemic racism that I experience in this country AND the privileges that I have as an employed, cisgender professional with a doctoral degree. While games have to be facilitated thoughtfully and in a sensitive way, gameful activities like "Step in the Circle," "Cross the Line," "Four Corners," and the "Privilege Walk" have helped me with my own personal exploration. I have moved away from the "Privilege Walk" activity because it visually moves privileged individuals ahead and those with less privilege behind and can perpetuate bias, but it was a meaningful activity for me when I did it about 10 years ago. It was the first time that I was really able to reflect on my privileges and challenges as a Black woman. The other activities that I mentioned still have the visual component of stepping into the circle, crossing the line, or going to the corner that aligns with youth experiences, but they remove the cumulative visual effect of moving further ahead or further behind.

Michelle: How would you recommend other clinicians who are not as practiced in culturally responsive approaches with young people begin to build those muscles?

Lora: The best way to become more culturally responsive is to engage with youth and listen to them. Reading the literature and learning about cultural responsiveness, humility, and competence is important, and still there's nothing like just talking to youth. Inevitably, they'll tell you that it doesn't work exactly how it's explained in textbooks or scholarly articles. 

But before talking to youth, anyone who wants to be culturally responsive needs to engage in self-reflection about their own biases and assumptions about people from other cultural groups. It can help to have a group that you talk to about these things for accountability and outside perspectives. I can't stress how important doing that personal work is before stepping into work with youth. We don't want them to be our test subjects or to cause unintentional harm by doing things we think are culturally responsive but might be missing the mark and actually doing harm. 

Talk to youth about what they like to do, what they enjoy, how they celebrate holidays. Get to know them in an authentic way.

Michelle: How can practitioners manage the fear or uncertainty they may have about making mistakes or unintentionally doing harm when striving to be more culturally responsive?

Lora: I think mindfulness-based techniques are really helpful. If you feel yourself getting nervous or unsure, stop and take a few breaths. Center yourself and remind yourself why you're doing this work. So many of us go from meeting to meeting to facilitating a workshop, etc. Sometimes just taking that breath can help settle your nerves and get you ready for those intersections.

Also, I think it can be fine and even acceptable to acknowledge differences between youth. You can highlight both obvious differences and similarities to help youth notice commonalities they share. Let youth know that you're trying, that you're maybe from a different cultural background and you might stumble, and you want to know about it if you do so you can do better next time. You need a safe space, too, in order to learn when you've made a mistake. It all comes back to authentic relationships because if you don't have that and you miss the mark, youth won't tell you. They might keep trucking along with the program or activity but the outcomes may not be as positive as they could have been.

Michelle: What are some resources you would recommend to practitioners who want to learn more about culturally responsive practices?

Lora: I lean heavily on the Double-Check framework. It's from education but applies in therapy as well. A shorthand tool it uses is the acronym CARES: Connections with curriculum, Authentic relationships, Reflective thinking, Effective communication, and Sensitivity to students' cultures.

For people who want to go even deeper, I also recommend this review of CRPs from an education perspective. 

Michelle: Thank you so much for your time and insights, Lora!

[End of Interview]

Mental health practitioners seeking to find new ways to meaningfully engage and support teens from a diversity of backgrounds can also find inspiration in iThrive's Game Guides, which highlight unique ways to check in with teens and touch on their emotional experiences through the lens of some of their favorite games including Minecraft, Fortnite, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

iThrive's Game Design Studio Toolkit is another rich resource for using games as systems to engage teens in complex, aspirational thinking that has its roots in awareness of their unique personal experiences. Individuals who aspire to something even more innovative can also make use of iThrive's design services to envision and realize completely fresh game-based approaches. 

What are some ways you use games or game-based approaches in therapeutic interactions with young people? Let us know at contact@ithrivegames.org!

What Playing Video Games Taught Me about the World and the People in It

By iThrive Games

This post is the next in the Power of Play blog series, which shares posts from teens reflecting on the many ways games have helped them connect with others, find community, explore new perspectives, and discover new possibilities for themselves. We're excited to continue the series with a reflection written and submitted by Tony, a high school student based in Philadelphia, PA, who shares some of the ways video games have mirrored, enriched, and influenced his world.

Video games have played an important role in my life and shaping how I perceive things. Although they may not be real, some video games portray the real world and make you ponder on things you normally wouldn't. Video games have been a gateway to great things for me. I have met some of my best friends and have gotten through hardships with games as they shape who I am and my life. Three video games specifically have altered my way of thinking, those games being Detroit: Become Human, Life is Strange 2, and Batman: The Telltale Series.

In the game Detroit: Become Human, we are taken into a futuristic period, one in which humans have created cybernetic androids to perform tasks and labor for them. This takes a turn when the androids become conscious and want to be treated as equal and not merely property. This game was one of the first in which I thought about ethics and what the morally correct thing to do would be. This game developed my critical thinking due to its really creative way of displaying discrimination. Although they're not human, the androids still have a consciousness and make choices. This game helped shape some of my thought processes. 

Life is Strange 2 is another one that comes to mind when I think of games that are a key element of who I am. This game follows the story of two boys who are living in an ordinary life until an instance occurs that immediately resonated with me. The boys, who are Mexican, have an altercation with a white male and the police arrive. The policeman immediately points his gun at the Mexican boys. This happens all of the time in real life in black and brown communities and I'm glad the game showed this. Police often see people of color as a threat when that's not the case. Things like this being mentioned in video games are another reason why video games are so great to me.

In another game, Batman: The Telltale Series, one of the most important themes and takeaways is how people around you and events can alter you and your perception of life. Batman witnessed his parents die. Joker becomes the Joker due to the manipulations of others and things of that nature. Recently, I had an event which altered the entire way I perceive life and how I go about it. Batman: The Telltale Series showcased to me how environments and circumstances shape who we are and how we live our lives.

Overall, I feel that although video games have this negative stigma associated with them, for me, and most likely others, video games are meaningful. They help me not only better understand myself but also the world and environment around me. They highlight questions about ethics and showcase real-world issues that need to be discussed like police discrimination against people of color. In my life, video games have been an escape from all the craziness and helped calm me. They are a key element in making me who I am. 

We are always looking to amplify teen voice and share their stories that attest to how games help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Have something to share? Send us your thoughts, stories, ideas, and reflections at contact@ithrivegames.org with a brief blurb about yourself to see it on our blog this year!

Game Design Supports Deep Learning. Here’s How It Can Help School Communities.

By iThrive Games

Engaged learning and connection help us get to the world we're all yearning for—one where we all have the social and emotional faculties to work collaboratively with empathy and curiosity in support of our collective thriving.

At iThrive, we see game design and play as springboards for both, creating connective pathways for knowledge sharing and knowledge building. We invite teachers and students to be game designers as a way to activate deep learning. In using game elements like rules, characters, ways of progressing, and win and loss states to craft a structured game reflective of lived experiences, the game designer has the chance to think concretely about the specific changes they want to see in the systems they navigate. The game they create, in turn, offers a play experience that opens up space for dialogue, exploration, and empathic listening, setting the stage for deep reflection that inspires movement from aspiration to action.

On March 30, iThrive's Susan Rivers and Transition HOPE's Janelle Ridley brought game design to High Tech High Graduate School of Education's Deeper Learning 2022 Education Conference in a deep dive crafted to engage educators in innovative and collaborative thinking. Attendees of their "Game Design for Understanding and Learning" workshop were invited to use game design techniques to reflect on their experiences, connect with other educators who care deeply about student thriving, and envision new practices that support deep learning.

Pulling from our Game Design Studio Toolkit, the four-hour workshop began with play. We played The Run Around, a game created by SEED Designers, and a prototype of one of the games developed by Fugees Family students. These served as an introduction to iThrive's unique use of game design in youth-centered spaces to support generative thinking and social change. Play and icebreakers were followed by empathy mapping, where educators were invited to reflect on their lived experiences as learners and teachers. After analyzing their reflections and noting the shared themes among them, participants synthesized the themes to define core needs, challenges, and possibilities. Working collaboratively in groups, educators then gathered to ideate ways to represent their stories and experiences using game mechanics and world-building tactics. Those ideas came to life in the participants' prototyped game boards and accompanying materials, which were exchanged and playtested by other groups for feedback. From this interactive experience came deep reflection on the needs and wants of students and educators, how things are in education, and how things could be.

The Warm-Up, Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test sequence taken from the Game Design Studio Toolkit.

By the end of the "Game Design for Understanding and Learning" deep dive, 25 educators created four game prototypes that focused on topics such as the importance of designing learning experiences for student agency; the unreasonable demands placed on teachers; how a culture of deeper learning, in contrast to a culture of testing, leads to student success ; and supporting students to embrace productive struggle. Each of these games was demoed at the Deeper Learning Showcase later that afternoon.


Game prototypes shared at the Deeper Learning 2022 Showcase. 

Participants in the deep dive shared that crafting a game based on their lived experience was a great way to solidify their thoughts, think critically about systems they've navigated, and identify ways to change those systems. All were excited and engaged by the deep learning and reflection that surfaced from the experience, with teachers afterward calling game design "collaborative," "relevant," and "an interesting way to view issues and problems."

"The openness and curiosity that comes from play, which is energy giving, creates opportunity for imagination, and to think about what could be next," shares iThrive's Susan Rivers. "Bringing the Game Design Studio approach to Deeper Learning was an opportunity to support teachers in reflecting on new ways of doing and being in and outside of the classroom in service of young people's thriving."

For educators and administrators interested in unpacking challenges in their school communities or sparking new ideas that contribute to educator and student thriving, we invite you to use design thinking activities from our Game Design Studio Toolkit in your brainstorming. Activities included within the complete kit support active listening, needs mapping, and iterative testing to ensure the solutions you dream up with your team are relevant and responsive to your school's unique goals.

Here's a glimpse of what's on the other end of the exploration the Toolkit guides its users through in the context of education:

Game Design Supports Deep Learning. Here's How It Can Help School Communities.

Interested in using game design to support design thinking and program development in your school community? Contact us to explore facilitation options crafted to help educators and administrators co-design youth-centered solutions with their students.

How Social and Emotional Learning Nurtures the Teen Brain

By iThrive Games

This post is the next in our series, Supporting Teen Mental Health, which shares tools and insights that support educators, parents, and youth-serving adults in showing up for teens in this moment of need. Read earlier posts in the series about mindfully managing difficult emotions and using social media actively and intentionally. 

"My understanding of myself changed a great deal." 

"I learned how to be a better friend."

"I was able to deal with aspects of myself that I never really had before."

"It's nice to know that you're not alone in seeing yourself a certain way."

Each of these quotes shared by teens is a testament to what happens when schools provide them with meaningful opportunities to actively explore who they are and who they want to be in the world and to build the social and emotional skills that support their mental health and development.

Adolescence is the last major window of neuroplasticity, a time when the teen brain is open to incredible learning potential, on one hand, and heightened vulnerability, on the other. Half of all serious mental health disorders in adults begin by age 14, making early prevention and intervention critical. High quality social and emotional learning interventions have been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression and lower levels of emotional distress among young people. But even teens who are not experiencing mental health struggles have specific developmental needs when it comes to maintaining and improving mental health. These include having opportunities to figure out who they are, to experience autonomy and independence, and to refine their relationship skills as interactions with both peers and adults in their lives become deeper and more complex. Each of these skills, and many more, are the aim and outcome of quality school-based social and emotional learning efforts.

The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health notes the role school communities can play in helping young people find "a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and belonging," supporting them in "managing their mental health challenges." Accordingly, they recommend that educators, school staff, and school districts continue to "expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development." Mental health supports fall on a continuum of care, and high quality social and emotional learning programs are a "Tier 1" intervention, meaning they provide fundamental coping skills all students in a school community need, even as some students will require more intensive and targeted types of mental health support. 

The Advisory mentions that creating the foundation for "a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation" where young people can thrive begins with creating "accessible space in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities." To us, "access" means meeting teens where they are developmentally with tools they are familiar with and inviting them to the table when those tools are being developed to share how and what they want to learn. At iThrive, we specialize in creating social and emotional learning experiences that enlist the power of play and respond to teens' unique developmental needs. By design, we prioritize teen voice, personal relevance, and student choice in what we create with and for young people. The genius, creativity, and insight of the teens we work with continues to steer our game and curriculum development work, resulting in memorable and meaningful learning experiences that engage them deeply.

For educators and administrators looking to prioritize their students' mental health, social and emotional learning opportunities and the core skill-building they foster can be a powerful and transformative lever.

HERE ARE THREE WAYS TO ENHANCE YOUR SCHOOL OR DISTRICT COMMUNITY'S COMMITMENT TO SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILL DEVELOPMENT IN TEENS: 

1. CALL SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS WHAT THEY ARE: ESSENTIAL SKILLS. 

We've written about it before, and it bears repeating. How we talk about something impacts how it is received and regarded. In a world where polarization and hatred threaten our unity, we can't afford to downgrade competencies like self-awareness, self-regulation, showing empathy and care, effectively advocating for ourselves and others, and making responsible decisions for the greater good to "soft skills." Raising the profile of these core skills to an educational and humanistic priority sets the scene for innovative programming and instruction that responds to and addresses students' needs. To quote a member of our Educator Advisory Council, "Education is not an academic pursuit, it's a relational one. They listen to me because of the relationship, not because I'm the teacher." Meeting social and emotional needs is, simply put, the foundation for effective learning.

2. FIND TOOLS THAT EMBED SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING INTO CORE ACADEMIC CONTENT

Social and emotional learning efforts are powerful when evidence-based tools are embedded into the content students are already learning, and there's often a natural alignment. Our iThrive Sim role-playing simulation games designed for high school social studies classes, for example, build on the natural synergy between civics education and social and emotional competencies. As students collaborate to make decisions that drive each iThrive Sim scenario forward, they expand their civic knowledge while practicing core social and emotional skills like managing stress, regulating emotions, and making responsible decisions. Likewise, iThrive Curriculum's learning units pair with immersive games to support high school English and humanities educators in discussing self- and social awareness, self-management, and relationship skills with their students. As students work through these curricular units together, the narrative at the center of the game becomes an organic springboard for meaningful reflection and conversations about identity, relationships, and communication.

3. ADOPT AN EQUITY LENS. 

Emotions and social connections drive learning. In that sense, social and emotional learning is ultimately about ensuring students' preparedness and ability to learn; all students deserve that fair chance. Implementing high-quality and evidence-based social and emotional learning experiences is a key step toward equity in your school or district community. Taking it a step further, social and emotional learning experiences themselves should be designed with equity and access in mind. iThrive's tools are designed to be representative of and accessible to diverse learners in line with our commitment to equity and universal design for learning principles. Gabbrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, an internationally recognized expert in learning science and accessible learning, calls our offerings, "the most innovative, integrated social and emotional learning work I've seen in the high school space."

Social and emotional learning opportunities tend to teens' whole selves. They help young people look inward and deepen their ability to know themselves, name their needs, regulate their feelings and behaviors, and embrace others with empathy and curiosity. Committing to these three practices to support social and emotional learning efforts will meaningfully move school communities toward helping students develop core skills and competencies that support their mental health and emotional resilience, setting them up for thriving far beyond school walls.

How Are We Teaching Teens to Prepare for and Respond to Natural Disasters?

By iThrive Games

2021 saw a record number of catastrophic natural disasters and weather emergencies throughout the United States. Wildfires ravaged the West Coast, destructive flooding engulfed the East, extreme temperatures enveloped the South and Pacific Northwest, and the Atlantic hurricane season—the third-most active one in history—produced 21 storms.

The intensity and frequency of these natural disasters prompt important questions about disaster preparedness—what can we do to ensure our safety and the wellbeing of our communities in times of crisis? We think the answer must enlist the creativity and perspectives of young people, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agrees. They view young people as "positive influencers" uniquely capable of bringing the message of preparedness home to their families. Like FEMA, we believe that equipping young people with emergency management skills is a crucial part of engaging whole communities. Together, we're creating a new iThrive Sim scenario that strengthens teens' emergency preparedness through play.

The new hands-on learning experience, designed in partnership with Federal Emergency Management Agency Region VIII, will be hosted on the award-winning iThrive Sim platform, which uniquely merges tech, role-play, social and emotional learning, and online gameplay to deeply engage teens with rich storylines and with core content. The resulting role-playing simulation scenario will help FEMA increase access to training opportunities and better reach young people living in underserved and rural communities.

"While nothing highlights the importance of emergency preparedness quite as well as the visceral experience of a natural disaster, we don't want it to come to that," share Daniel Nyquist and Stephanie Poore from FEMA Region VIII. "An engaging simulation is a fantastic tool for laying down the mental pathways we need to activate in times of crisis. That's why we are thrilled to be designing a disaster preparedness simulation with the iThrive team. iThrive's unique co-design approach is illuminating how to mobilize young people's creativity and distinct strengths in service of building mindsets and skills needed for resiliency across disaster preparedness, response, and recovery."

A core principle of iThrive's co-design process is involving teens in the development of products, programs, and services that seek to engage them. As we work with FEMA to create this new tool for Region VIII, which serves 29 Tribal Nations, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, we've been in community with teens from those states to gauge their needs and weave their input into each step of the game design process. An initial co-design workshop with 15- and 16-year old teens surfaced themes that were top-of-mind for them, including ensuring the safety of pets, coordinating resources, trusting experts, and cultivating the emotional ability to cope with disasters. These themes are actionable insights that will inform the game's content and ensure what we create is relevant, memorable, and meaningful for teens.

How Are We Teaching Teens to Prepare for and Respond to Natural Disasters?

A snapshot of a Google Jamboard from a recent brainstorming session with teens featuring their responses.

As we work through the game development process, the wisdom of the teens we're working with continues to be both instructive and inspirational. "Teens never cease to impress me with their generosity, openness, and vulnerability when sharing about difficult topics—they get right to the heart of the issue with self-awareness and a solution-focused drive," shares Jane Lee, Senior Director of Operations and Mental Health at iThrive Games. "These teens have been through a remarkably challenging time, and it's only strengthened their resolve to build the skills and relationships they need to grow in their resilience." 

The iThrive Sim scenario, launching in late 2023, will support teens and their families in knowing what to do in an emergency situation, covering disaster preparedness and response. To stay updated with its launch, be sure to join our mailing list today.

A Love Letter to UNO and the Connection the Classic Card Game Creates

By iThrive Games

This post is the next in the Power of Play blog series, which shares posts from teens reflecting on the many ways games have helped them deal with life, discover possibility and purpose, and question the way things are in the world. We're excited to continue the series with the following post written and submitted by Carmen, a high school student based in Philadelphia, PA. Carmen shares a heartfelt appreciation for the classic card game UNO and its connective power.

I've played many games in my life. A lot of these games can sometimes end in arguments. Some games never even end-such as Monopoly-until everyone just gets up and walks away. But, there is one game that everyone knows and loves-a game that people of all ages, ethnicities, shapes, and colors play. That game is UNO.

Now, UNO may seem like a very basic game to choose, but it is truly amazing. I've never seen another game bring so many people from different backgrounds together. UNO is one of those games that people tend to make up their own rules for, so a group playing this game can get loud but it's all fun. Not only is UNO a good game to play to pass time, it's also very beneficial.

When playing this game it is very easy to escape the world. In UNO you have to pay attention to your hand and what the other players are throwing out. The goal of the game is to get rid of all of your cards before anyone else. The way you do this is by using either the color of the card or the number on it. There are a couple of special cards used in the game to keep it interesting, such as Reverse, Draw Two, Draw Four (which allows you to change the color), and Wild Card. 

UNO has really helped me through some hard times. It can easily change a group of strangers into a family. There have been times when I was going through things at home and a simple game of UNO with friends and family made me very happy and helped me to keep a positive spirit.

We are always looking to amplify teen voice and share their stories that attest to how games help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Have something to share? Send us your thoughts, stories, ideas, and reflections at contact@ithrivegames.org with a brief blurb about yourself to see it on our blog this year!

Refugee Students Use Game Design to Support Schools Welcoming Refugees

By iThrive Games

"What do you want teachers and other students to know, feel, say, and do when they connect with refugee students?"

On the morning of Wednesday, February 10th, members of the iThrive team posed this question to a group of experts—22 high school students from Fugees Family, a community-based school designed to meet the unique academic, social, and emotional needs of refugee students acclimating to life in the United States. What followed was two and a half days of deliberation expressed in story-sharing, collaborative thinking, imaginative drawing, and play, the insights from which will inform the creation of tabletop games that communicate an answer.

In December, Luma Mufleh, founder of the Fugees Family, approached iThrive and shared her desire to co-create with Fugees Family students resources that would highlight their expertise, communicate their experiences, build empathy, and ultimately, support schools across the nation who are accepting incoming communities of refugee youth. We knew then that game design, and the cognitive process it entails, was the way to go.

"Games are a safe way to learn about something," shares Luma. "We want to create empathy, so the games' content needs to come from those with lived experience. The games have to be through the lens of those who've experienced what it's like to be a refugee and enter a new country, school system, community, and lifestyle. And that's why it is super important to bring refugee students into the design."

iThrive's Game Design Studio program offers schools and youth-serving organizations a unique design thinking and social and emotional learning experience where teens play, analyze, reflect, connect, and design games that express their ideas and prompt change in those who play them. In bringing the Game Design Studio to Fugees students, our objective was to join the Fugees Family in their commitment to amplifying the voices of refugee youth. We committed to using what their students shared to develop games that center and highlight their courage, creativity, and resilience, and humanity.

Here's a snapshot of what was surfaced, shared, and dreamt up in our time together:

DAY 1: PLAY, IDEATION, AND MOOD BOARDS

The first day of the Game Design Studio began with play. Introductions were made during an icebreaker activity where each student and staff member shared their name and a dance move that everyone else in the group repeated and mirrored. The icebreaker was followed by an opening design activity that added new layers and variations to Rock-Paper-Scissors and invited students to name and explore mechanics that can be added and taken away to games to make the play experience more collaborative and comprehensive. Reflections on the 'Rockstar' and 'Giants-Wizards-Elves' versions of the classic game led to even more ideation as students played an array of board and card games, noting each game's components and reflecting on whether or not they'd like to incorporate them in the ones they were co-creating.

In the second part of the day, students explored how design can evoke emotions that enrich a game experience with depth and intention. After being assigned an emotion card that they were asked not to show to their peers, students grabbed a piece of paper and sketched out a scene reflective of the word on the card. Once done, students posted what they created on a board and did a gallery walk, making predictions about what mood each board communicated and noting how certain colors, imagery, patterns, and dialogue spurred visceral emotional reactions.Refugee Students Use Game Design to Support Schools In Welcoming Refugee Youth

Mood boards created by students from Fugees Family.

DAY 2: CHARACTER DESIGN, WORLD-BUILDING, AND PAPER PROTOTYPES

"What does your refugee superhero look like?"

The second day of the Fugees Family Game Design Studio kicked off with this prompt and an invitation to dream up game characters. Students thought critically about the parts of every superhero's story—their origin, transformations, life shifts, weaknesses, superpowers, and strengths—conceptualizing characters reflective of the students' own personal stories and brilliance. After drawing and documenting these characters, students were asked to draw the world that surrounds their character, one that encourages them to step into and stay in their full power.

Refugee Students Use Game Design to Support Schools In Welcoming Refugee Youth

Worlds and characters designed by students from Fugees Family.

With worlds and characters in hand, students reflected on a critical question: "If your superhero was stripped of their superpowers and taken from the world that supports their thriving and special abilities, what could empower them? What could discourage them?" Pulling from both their lived experiences and imaginations, students, working in groups, began to map out the attitudes, actions, and behaviors they associate with a genuinely welcoming environment along with the ones they see as othering and isolating. By the end of the first part of the day, together, students had created 100+ cards with insights that will be incorporated into future games and learning tools to support the work of Fugees Family.

The remainder of the day was dedicated to paper prototyping and playtesting. On a game board template, students worked in groups to assemble games that centered and used the cards they made and behaviors they mapped. In brainstorming together, students laid out their game's learning objectives, mechanics, rules, and win and loss states. The iterative process of playtesting their games with others and then fine-tuning them based on observations and feedback led to the development of five paper prototypes with components that will be incorporated into the final games.

DAY 3: PLAYTESTING, STORY-SHARING, AND LIFE MAPS

A common thread in each of the five prototypes developed by the designers on Day 2 was a desire to create a gameplay experience that helped teachers and students—refugee and non-refugee students—learn more about each other. On the morning of the last day of the Game Design Studio, students built on this throughline. Working in pairs, they drafted questions and conversation starters on index cards. Once done, they swapped decks with another team of student designers and playtested their questions, ensuring they were all accessible, welcoming, and connection-centered questions. By noon, students had compiled over 200 conversation starters that will be shared in a future game.

The last few hours at Camp Twin Lakes were full of personal stories and reflections on what refugees leave behind, what they encounter on their way to refuge, and what life is like when they arrive. After Luma shared her grandparents' story of fleeing Syria during the Assad regime, students, gathered in a circle, used it as a springboard to dig deep into their own stories and note the similarities in their experiences. 

For the last design activity, students spent time outdoors sketching out a life map that outlined the emotional journey of their lives so far. These maps, along with the creations and ideas generated up until then, will inspire a suite of games for teachers and non-refugee students that will support the welcoming of refugee youth who, as one student shared, "just want to be treated as human beings." As students and staff loaded onto the Fugees Family buses and left the camp, we were all reminded of what can come from co-creation and the role it plays in imagining new solutions.

"When we desire to imagine what a better future can be and needs to be, there's no one better to imagine and co-create with than teens," shared Susan E. Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games. "The teens from Fugees Family are the experts and the ultimate design partners in designing the tools schools and communities need to welcome families who have been forced to flee their countries. These teen designers bravely and candidly brought their lived experiences and expertise to Game Design Studio with the goal of helping schools offer safe and supportive and empowering environments for all students, including refugees. The schools they imagine are ones where all students—refugees and non-refugees—feel cared for and respected, where shared humanity is the connective tissue."       

The Fugees Family model, centered in soccer, encourages every student to work as a team member to support collective thriving and well-being on and off the field. We see the tabletop games that will be generated from this Game Design Studio session with Fugees Family students as an extension of that model. The students' genius and honesty will lead the way for better support of refugee students and help schools get better at togetherness. Sign up for our mailing list today to be one of the first people notified when the games launch.

To learn more about the Fugees Family and their mission to advance educational justice for refugee and immigrant youth, visit their website at www.fugeesfamily.org

iThrive’s 2021 Annual Report Celebrates Teen Genius, Community, and Play

By iThrive Games

Connection brings healing the same way co-creation brings innovation—through intention.

In 2021, we intentionally leaned into both, connecting with teens, educators, game developers, university partners, museums, and youth-serving organizations across the globe to co-design meaningful learning experiences that enlist the power of play to support teen thriving.

True to our mission and vision, we actively sought partners who want to engage young people in their genius and support them in developing the social and emotional skills to be in the world they will one day inherit with both empathy and curiosity. Bridging our partners' subject matter expertise with our co-design approach ensured that teen voice remained at the center of every tool, experience, and resource that sought to engage them. Our 2021 Annual Report, Building Community In Service of Teen Thriving, highlights all that we co-created, refined, and shared last year. Here are a some of the report's highlights:

  • Our commitment to knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing brought us to conferences where we connected, learned from, and shared with game designers, researchers, educators, administrators, policymakers, and other intersectional experts across the globe.
  • iThrive Sim, our award-winning ed tech tool that hosts immersive civic learning experiences, expanded with two new role-playing simulation scenarios: Leading Through Crisis and Follow the Facts, both of which were created with guidance and input from students, teachers, and subject matter experts.
  • In May, we launched iThrive Curriculum's third game-based learning unit, A Moment in Time, an eight-lesson social and emotional learning experience that pairs with the mobile game Florence and supports teens in reflecting on relationships, grief, loss, and life shifts.
  • Working in partnership with iThrive, youth designers at the SEED Institute created and launched The Run Around, a board game that mirrors their lived experiences in the juvenile justice system, authentically communicates its harm, and advocates for structural supports capable of disrupting it. Since launching, The Run Around has garnered press in The Boston Globe and won gold at Serious Games' 2021 Serious Play Awards.
  • Working with High Resolves Group and Rise, an initiative of Schmidt Futures, we have been working on curating transformative educational experiences and making them widely available through Symphony, a new online tool that supports student-centered and self-directed learning.

An all-of-us approach is needed in supporting youth as they navigate the complex challenges of this time. A special thank you to every teen, educator, and collaborator who connected with us in 2021 and joined us in our commitment to creating learning environments and shared spaces that ignite and value the potential of young people. 

READ OUR 2021 ANNUAL REPORT

Teen Mental Health: Five Tips for Making the Most of Your Social Media Use

By iThrive Games

This post is the next in our series, Supporting Teen Mental Health, which shares tools and insights that support youth-serving adults in showing up for teens in this moment of need. Click here to read the first post in the series about mindfully managing difficult emotions.

Social media use gets a bad rap, and there are certainly reasons for caution. As shared in the U.S. Surgeon General Advisory's recent report on teen mental health, in 2020, 81% of 14- to 22-year-olds said they used social media either "daily" or "almost constantly" and in some circumstances social media use has been linked to poor mental health outcomes.

These findings may be alarming to adults who care about young people and want to protect them online, but as one teen shared with us, "To a high schooler, representation on social media is a huge deal...they don't want authority stepping into their fun zone." Even though guidance and support can be helpful, adults often lead with fear and hammer on the dangers of social media without identifying the opportunities. Yes, we all can strive to be intentional in our use of social media. Adults can model that intentionality. Adults also can reframe social media as one important tool young people and adults can use to support things that matter to them. 

ACTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA USE VS. PASSIVE SOCIAL MEDIA USE

How well social media connects or isolates us depends partly on the behaviors we embody while using it. The Advisory reports on an important distinction between passive and active social media use, highlighting how healthier the latter is. 

An active social media user uses its platforms to enrich and simulate real life. They use social media to connect, share and talk to the people they know, and actively engage with communities that offer new perspectives or that share their interests and hobbies. On the other hand, a passive user does not directly engage with others on social media platforms. Instead of actively interacting with others, they wait for content to come to them. Research shows that passive use of social media induces feelings of isolation, sadness, and depression often spurred by viewing the lives of others. If we're all aware of the behaviors that support more positive and healthier experiences on social media, we know which usage patterns to strive for whenever we're online.

HOW TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIVELY AND MAKE THE MOST OF IT

We spoke to a few of the teens we've worked with to co-create learning experiences for high school classrooms and asked about how they engage with and on social media. Their answers point to how social media, when reframed as a relevant tool for teens and when used actively, supports self-regulation and social connection along with the exploration of self, emotions, thoughts, and interests. Whether you're a teen or an adult, these five tips can help you make the most of social media use so you can post and peruse with purpose:

1. SET YOUR INTENTION.

Why are you going on this social media platform right now? What are you looking for or hoping to feel? If it's simply to escape and avoid anything heavy for a little while, that's valid! Since these platforms are designed to pull you in and keep you on as long as possible, just notice without judgment when your use is drifting from your initial intention and take a pause to bring yourself back to it.

2. CONSIDER SOCIAL MEDIA USE AS ONE PART OF A HEALTHY MENTAL DIET.

Social media use can promote connection and contribute to mental and emotional health when used mindfully and in balance with other healthy behaviors like sleeping enough (7-9 hours for adults, 8-10 for teens), keeping your body moving, spending time with others in person, taking time to reflect on who you are and what you want, and more. Over a few days or weeks, notice what portion of your mental health "plate" social media takes up, and look for opportunities to continue to fine-tune your best balance.

3. CREATE AND EXPRESS.

Especially for teens, social media is a great place to make content and express the many aspects of a dynamic personal identity. Try your hand at making up a dance, sharing artwork, or narrating an experience that reflects who you are and what you care about. You can also make it a point to actively appreciate content you love that others create, like by adding your comments and reactions. This can be a good first step if you typically spend your time online consuming others' content without deeper engagement.

4. FIND YOUR PEOPLE.

Social media platforms connect us to the wider world. What a fantastic opportunity to both expand our perspectives and find others who help us to feel a sense of belonging. For teens, especially those struggling to find acceptance at home or in school for various reasons, reaching out for support on social media can be a lifeline. Search for (or create!) a group around a special interest. Request to join if the group is private, and then introduce yourself to get a conversation and connection started.

5. MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Now more than ever, social media is a platform that can ignite support for causes that better the world. Teens are so often at the forefront of changes like these. To really level-up your social media use, start an online petition or relief fund and share it with your friends and followers, or look for opportunities others have initiated where you can lend your voice, time, and talents. 

Social media offers meaningful opportunities and can be a sacred "fun zone" for teens. If you're an adult who cares about teens, reinforce those meaningful opportunities by highlighting them when you notice them. If you're a teen, consider sharing with the adults in your life about what social media allows you to do for your mental health and what intentional use looks and feels like to you. 

At iThrive, we are building engaging learning experiences where teens can experiment without judgment with different ways to express themselves and connect empathically with others. To stay up-to-date on our offerings and the latest posts in the Supporting Teen Mental Health series, sign up for our mailing list today.

Join iThrive’s Teen Advisory Council and Co-Design Exciting Gaming Experiences

By iThrive Games

Do you love playing games? Have you dreamt of creating a few? If you said yes, then we need you on iThrive Games' Teen Advisory Council.

Teens tell us all the time how games help them connect with friends, de-stress, strategize take-overs of new worlds, feel a sense of belonging, inspire new ways to learn, and so much more. At iThrive, we love games for all these reasons too, and our mission is to use them to make the world a better place. 

We have found that our game designs are better when we design them with teens. Teens challenge us, inspire us, and offer world views and perspectives that we admire and appreciate. 

We are launching a Teen Advisory Council and are looking for teens who love games and believe that game design and gameplay can make the world a better place. Members of iThrive Games' Teen Advisory Council are high school students—ages 13-17— who want to:

  • Brainstorm, co-design, and test new games and share feedback with game writers, game designers, and our game development team
  • Brainstorm new game designs and meaningful, immersive game-based learning experiences with us
  • Use their voice in writings, recordings, or designs to share their point of view and experiences about what teens need most right now on topics that may range from game reviews, new game designs, learning, wellness, and more

All members must be between the ages of 13 and 17. Members will serve for a one-year term (February 24, 2022 to February 24, 2023) with an option to renew and will receive a monthly stipend ($150/month).  Each month, we will ask you to engage with us on different activities which may include: 

  • Co-designing and testing new games or courses 
  • Providing feedback on design or content ideas for our games or courses
  • Completing brief surveys to share your ideas and opinions 
  • Attending a virtual meeting with members of the Teen Advisory Council  

We expect that monthly activities will take no more than 6-8 hours.

Applications to join the iThrive Games' Teen Advisory Council have been closed. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter for future updates and opportunities to beta test and consult on games.

Teen Mental Health: Use This 2-Min. Exercise When Difficult Emotions Surface

By iThrive Games

Unprecedented times come with unprecedented challenges, and the ones that today's young people face are tough to navigate. The data shared in the U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health confirms this. National surveys show that one in three high school students experiences persistent sadness or hopelessness. The world-shifting consequences of an ongoing pandemic coupled with the big emotions that accompany adolescence make our collective need to support teen mental health and well-being both urgent and necessary. 

INTRODUCING THE SUPPORTING TEEN MENTAL HEALTH SERIES

The prevalence of mental health challenges amongst youth requires an all-of-society effort to facilitate the individual and structural changes needed to support and protect teen thriving. Over the next few months, we'll be sharing vetted tools and actionable insights as part of a new five-post blog post series titled, Supporting Teen Mental Health. Mapping back to the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations, each post will feature helpful tips and resources designed to support all youth-serving adults in showing up for teens in this moment of need. 

To kick off the Supporting Teen Mental Health series, here's a quick and effective exercise that can be used and shared with teens (and adults!) to support them in getting grounded when big emotions surface.

PAUSE-BREATHE-NAME: A 2-MINUTE GROUNDING EXERCISE

Whether you're a teen or an adult, chances are you've had moments, shifts, and shocks in life that have brought up strong emotions. In those moments, it can be difficult to regulate those feelings. Pause-Breathe-Name is a quick exercise that can help us manage:

Pause: Start by noticing that a strong feeling has shown up for you and allowing yourself to take a pause before your next word or action.

Breathe: Next, take a couple of breaths. Allow your exhale to be longer than your inhale. This will help to calm your nervous system. As you breathe, try to notice where the strong feeling is showing up in your body. We often feel sadness in our throat, fear in our belly, and anger in our upper back, neck, and jaw. Joy tends to show up all over.

Name: Finally, work on naming the feeling in your head or out loud before returning to what you were doing. The act of naming emotions, especially the more unpleasant ones, actually helps lessen the intensity of those feelings. 

This exercise is part of the many social and emotional learning activities in our iThrive Sim role-playing simulation experiences. Students have shared that this exercise has helped them acknowledge moments of discomfort, frustration, and uneasiness they felt while playing as their character, and prepared them to  unpack those moments with their classmates. These skills are needed when we have difficult conversations, and practicing these skills helps to strengthen them. 

You can use the Pause-Breathe-Name exercise to ground yourself in times of stress and to name the feelings showing up in your body in those moments. What are some other exercises and practices you turn to to get grounded in times of stress? Share with us at contact@ithrivegames.org and stay updated on the latest in the Supporting Teen Mental Health blog series by joining our mailing list today

Leveling Up: How Playing Video Games Helped Me Find Passion and Purpose

By iThrive Games

Games have the power to transport us to new worlds where we can safely explore new possibilities and perspectives. They delight us, challenge us, calm us, frustrate us, connect us, excite us, and invite us to uncover new ways of doing and being. Anyone who's played a game, be it digital or tabletop, knows this firsthand.

At iThrive Games, we see springboards for transformation in play's social and emotional value. We believe that when the emotions games evoke are recruited for learning, the learning that happens goes deeper and lasts longer. We champion play as a constructive avenue for academic, social, and emotional growth, co-designing game-based learning experiences with high school students and teachers that leverage the power of play and support teen thriving.

Last year, we launched the Power of Play, a blog series that shared posts from teens reflecting on the many ways games have helped them deal with life, discover possibility and purpose, and question the way things are in the world. We're excited to resume the series this year with the following post from avid gamer Jacob Rivers, an incoming college freshman, who shares a heartfelt story about how video games supported his self-discovery and becoming, preparing him for his next level in life.

"Jake, enough with the video games and get your work done," a phrase I have heard over and over again since elementary school. Being diagnosed with ADD at a young age, school never came easy to me. However, when I opened my Nintendo DS for Christmas, instantly, I was fascinated playing just about any game I could get my hands on, and it helped me become more focused. Once the bus had dropped me off from school, I would run up to my room and immediately play video games. As school got harder and I was about to enter middle school, video games became a sense of escapism for me.

Middle school can be difficult, especially for me who had just moved to a new town and started a new school. Coming from a large city to a small town where I only knew three people was daunting. Although joining a baseball league in sixth grade alleviated the apprehension, I continued to rely on video games. It was around this time that I began to watch Youtubers to learn more and improve my skills. Once I noticed myself getting better, I started to explore the platform of multiplayer. As I transitioned into high school, I became more competitive, and my passion for video games increased.

I was fortunate enough to sign up for an elective as a freshman called App Inventor. It was this class that sparked my interest to one day make my own video game. Knowing what kids enjoy as entertainment and creating something on my own felt like an achievement I could accomplish, and it motivated me even more. Every chance I had, I would take classes to improve my knowledge in the field I wanted to pursue. During sophomore year, one of my friends built his own computer, and this intrigued me. After I had turned sixteen, I got a job to save up the money to make this project happen. It took a lot of time and research to learn how to build a computer and have all the necessary parts. When I completed it, I felt proud, and I knew this was only the beginning of my abilities with computers. As the pandemic hit, I took a leave of absence from work; this caused me to isolate myself from society, and I became more involved with the gaming aspect. When junior year rolled around, I returned back to work. A month later, I was hit by a car, and fortunately enough, I only broke my wrist. Even with this setback, I maintained good grades, and the gaming continued to keep me in check.

As I finish my senior year, I will have the opportunity to take an online coding class where I will learn how to use Python, Java, and C++. This will add to my expertise and give me a head start for what I wish to pursue in college. Looking back at my younger self coping with ADD, I've realized how much I have grown. With gaming, my struggles of focusing in school lessened. With my wish to major in Game Design, I hope one day to make a game not just for amusement but to help kids who have fought with similar learning disabilities like me. I have finally completed this "level" in my life. Now, it's time to start the next one.


We are always looking to amplify teen voice and share their stories that attest to how games help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Have something to share? Send us your thoughts, stories, ideas, and reflections at contact@ithrivegames.org with a brief blurb about yourself to see it on our blog this year!

Vol. 3 of Journal of Games, Self, & Society Examines How Games Transform Us

By iThrive Games

BOSTONJanuary 6, 2022. The global COVID-19 pandemic marked a time of unprecedented social isolation. With it came an uncovering of new ways of doing and being, ones that met our social and emotional need for safe but hearty connection. Amid stay-at-home orders, games played an integral role in cultivating spaces for people to gather, connect, learn, collaborate, and wander. The newest volume of the Journal of Games, Self, & Society examines the ways play supports this level of connection in young people at a crucial time, highlighting the ways games accompany and ignite transformation in how we understand ourselves, others, and society.

Produced by iThrive Games Foundation, published through ETC Press, and guest-edited by Claudia-Santi F. Fernandes and Grace Collins, Volume 3 of the Journal for Games, Self, & Society features novel insights into gaming behaviors that emerged during the pandemic. Finja Walsdorff, Claudius Clüver, and Max Kanderske share a fascinating analysis of how 'tend-and-befriend' games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that soared in popularity in 2020, respond to human needs and behaviors in times of uncertainty and crisis. 

Vol. 3 of the Journal also features a valuable case study for designers looking to create games that highlight systems of harm and erasure, and invoke an empathy capable of disrupting it. In an in-depth retrospective on the design choices made while creating Resilience—a game that centers the stories and plight of refugees, Drexel University's Lily Lauben, Justin Roszko, Alex Gallegos, and Zach Perry share how they cultivated an understanding of refugees' lived experiences that are not their own to create a transformative gameplay experience.

In addition to these two articles, Volume 3 of the Journal of Games, Self, & Society features two book excerpts from some of the most recent scholarship on game-based learning. In an excerpt from Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning, Matthew Farber Ed.D discusses the emotions evoked by play, and how educators can leverage them to support growth and connection. The introductory excerpt of Karen Schrier Ed.D's We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics included in this volume of the Journal explores how games supported humanity and connection amid social distancing, and how they encourage teen civic engagement and responsible decision-making.

The Journal ends with an announcement of the Games + Learning + Society (GLS) Conference's return in 2022 and a call for proposals from all who are interested in games and their contribution to cognitive/behavioral change, social movements, sustainability, and joy. 

The Journal's editor-in-chief, Susan Rivers, Ph.D., who is also the Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games Foundation, says that she hopes the insights featured in this volume support the creation of compelling games and game-based learning experiences for teens that recruit emotions to supercharge learning.

"This volume of the Journal of Games, Self, & Society emerged during the COVID pandemic," she shares. "The scholarship and writing included reflects novel games and design approaches that reflect this moment and inspire new ways for connection, learning, and transformation." 

 

About the Journal
The Journal of Games, Self, & Society (JGSS) is a peer-reviewed journal created and edited by iThrive Games Foundation and published by ETC Press. The journal highlights work focused on how games, game design, and gameplay contribute to a deeper understanding of learning, health, and humanity. It was created to foster interdisciplinary research, conversation, and community around game studies and games-related scholarship. Scholars from all disciplines are encouraged to participate.

About iThrive Games
iThrive Games Foundation prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership towards a world where all have the voice, choice, and agency to reach their full potential. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient, tools to support and protect their mental health and well-being, systems thinking they need to recognize inequity, and meaningful opportunities to imagine and design a better world.

Media Contact
Eghosa Asemota
Manager of Marketing, iThrive Games Foundation
eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org

2021 Was a Year of Co-Creation, Collaborative Learning, and Play

By iThrive Games

Whenever we are in connection, we learn about ourselves and each other. We entered 2021 with this belief in mind, seeking community with teens and educators to fully understand their challenges, desires, and needs in the classroom and beyond. From our commitment to knowledge-building came co-creation, and the development of new meaningful and collaborative learning experiences that resonate with young people, support their social and emotional development, and meet them where they are through play.

We were happy to release iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time, grow iThrive Sim's library with two new scenarios, Follow the Facts and Leading Through Crisis, and launch the Game Design Studio Toolkit after five years of collaboration. After equity reviews of Sam's Journey and Museum of Me, we updated both game-based learning units to include more means of engagement, representation, and action/expression and ensure all learners feel valued, seen, and supported in their genius. At the SEED Institute, we pressed forward in our partnership with Transition HOPE and engaged youth with lived experiences in the cradle-to-prison pipeline via game design, which led to the launch of The RunAround, a board game that highlights the hardships that lie in the journey from 'Maximum Security' to 'Home,' and opportunities to disrupt and dismantle them.

This year, we worked to provide teens with transformative opportunities to see possibilities they never before imagined, open up their thinking about themselves, each other, and the world, and build essential social and emotional skills that support them in stepping fully into their genius. Whether you downloaded an iThrive Curriculum unit, brought an iThrive Sim role-playing simulation scenario to your classroom, or read an article we shared, we appreciate you for the many ways you engaged with us this year. Below is a snapshot of the top five blog posts our readers viewed the most this year:

1. Teens Have Big Emotions. How Can We Help HS Students Navigate Them?: A rapidly developing brain in an increasingly complex world makes for big emotions. How can we help teens cope with them? HS educator and co-author of our game-based learning unit iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time Lauren Geschel shares: "recognize them as individuals," "validate their feelings," and "help them be self-aware and deliberate." 

2. High School Teachers, Share Your Feedback on the New, Improved iThrive Sim: Read about iThrive Sim's teacher-friendly interface, a feature recently added to the award-winning tool to support high school educators in customizing, facilitating, and steering iThrive Sim's role-playing simulation scenarios in a way that best meets their students' social, and emotional needs. 

3. Game-Based Learning Reads: Three Books That Will Make You a GBL Believer: With game-based learning, teachers use play to engage their students in their own learning, embracing student agency over student compliance. Read what seasoned educators and game-based learning experts Matthew Farber, Kat Schrier, and David Seelow say about it in this aggregate book review of their latest reads.

4. Burgeoning Journalists Try on Their Roles in New Media Literacy Game: In this digital age, more data is produced in a second than can be consumed in a lifetime. Our new role-playing simulation game iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts centers media literacy and nurtures players' ability to analyze, evaluate, and report on that data. Read what playing it did for two dozen high school students and burgeoning journalists at the Arizona State University's Summer Journalism Institute. 

5. Use this SEL Activity to Help Your Students Process Pandemic Grief and Loss: For teens, grief and loss have been palpable both personally and collectively over the last two years. This social-emotional learning activity invites your students to unpack and process their experiences of these emotions during the pandemic.

As the year winds down, we hope you continue prioritizing connection and wellness throughout the holiday season. Stay connected with us next year by signing up for our monthly newsletter, stocked with updates on our game-based learning products along with exclusive opportunities to try them with your students. Here's to more community, co-creation, and play in 2022.

iThrive Sim Helps Homeschoolers Connect And Collaborate With Play

By iThrive Games

iThrive Sim's first role-playing scenario launched in late 2020, a year that inspired us to elevate and prioritize human connection, and prompted new ways of fostering it. At the time, we heard educators voice a desire for resources that not only met the logistical needs of remote learning but also tended to the social and emotional needs of their students navigating a world of great uncertainty. Responding to this, we developed iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance in partnership with teens, teachers, and the makers of the Situation Room Experience, creating an immersive experience that supported new ways of connecting and engaging with others in learning spaces and beyond. Since launching, over 3,000 people have played an iThrive Sim scenario, activating and nurturing their social and emotional skills in a one-of-a-kind collaborative gaming experience awarded for its innovation and responsiveness.

Educators who've brought iThrive Sim to their in-person or virtual classrooms know firsthand how these civic learning experiences uniquely support engagement, connection, and social and emotional learning through play. Michael Hilbert, co-director of Cupola Academy, a nonprofit that offers weekly collaborative programs for homeschooled students, brought iThrive Sim to two cohorts of teens earlier this year. In the interview that follows, Michael shares how the tool aligns with Cupola Academy's belief in the value of collaboration and curiosity, and supports the learners they serve in embodying and exercising it.

Q: What was your experience using iThrive Sim with your homeschooled students? 

My group played Lives in Balance and Leading Through Crisis. My students were very interested in Leading Through Crisis because when we played the simulation, states were actively discussing [the applicability of the 25th Amendment]. The simulation was unfolding in front of them in the news every day, and they enjoyed being able to play out a very contemporary issue. They enjoyed Lives in Balance because of the application of the Constitution to everyday lifeit helped to drive home the point that the Constitution is a living document.

Q: How easy was it to use iThrive Sim? What resources did you find particularly useful?

As a group facilitator, I really appreciated the support materials that are available to students, such as the text of the amendments addressed in the simulations. [iThrive Sim] was very easy to use and supported student play though they were not all in the same physical location. The interface is very intuitive for young people, so the amount of tech support needed was very minimalthis makes implementation with homeschoolers very easy. 

Q: One throughline in the feedback we get from educators who've used iThrive Sim is the joy that comes from witnessing their students work collaboratively to address the crises in each scenario. From what you observed, how did the experience support connection?

I believe that iThrive Sim is a component of what we strive to achieve in all our programming — creating community and connection. The simulation provides a shared experience that nurtures the group's sense of community. I think that participating in the simulation helped them feel more connected because it creates situations where young people are given responsibility for a role, asked to participate in a fun and engaging way, and end up sharing values and beliefs with others (which is how you build relationships).

Q: Overall, how did the iThrive Sim experience support your engagement approach with homeschoolers? How did it respond to your student(s) learning style(s)? 

I believe that the online simulation was an excellent tool for interactive learners. The iThrive Sim platform allowed me to have the freedom to be present in the simulation, take notes on the decision-making process, and have content questions that lead to richer reflection and a complete learning experience.

Q: At iThrive, we like to say that civics is social and emotional, meaning that showing up for ourselves, our communities, and in the world requires social and emotional skills that support us in doing so with care, tact, and empathy. Were there any instances that you observed while your students were playing that attests to this? What do you hope your students take away from their gameplay experience?

Going through the simulations emphasized the difficulty in adhering to a respectful, empathetic process when under challenging time frames to make decisions. My students noted in both situations that they frequently ran out of time to make challenging decisions while having everyone's opinion fully heard, a very frequent situation with governing bodies. One of the opportunities for my groups was initiating a process-conscious approach for decision-making before they entered the next scenario. The reflection element of these exercises is so vital for the social and emotional growth of young people.

Sign up for our mailing list for exclusive opportunities to play and test new iThrive Sim role-playing scenarios. Learn more about iThrive Sim here.

Let’s Start Calling Social & Emotional Skills What They Are—Essential Skills

By iThrive Games

Before you read this article, take a look at your news feed.

You are more than likely to encounter an event or sentiment that attests to the increasingly polarizing and often unsettling world we live in and navigate. A recent survey published by USA Today shows that roughly half of Americans (48%) predict more destructive disagreements over the next ten years, but 93% say it's vital to reduce the country's current divides. How can we move toward realizing this unity amidst enduring divisiveness? We must build social and emotional skills. Social and emotional skills help us get better at togetherness. They are not 'soft'; they are essential, and nurturing them supports us in moving toward the more harmonious, just, and loving future we crave.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) refers to social and emotional skills as "weapons against the greatest threats of our time: ignorance - the closed mind; hate - the closed heart; and fear - the enemy of agency." Social and emotional skills support us in taking an honest look at ourselves, really seeing each other, working together to find solutions to the complex challenges we face, and then persevering in enacting those solutions. Within education, thoughtful and equitable attention to social and emotional skills demonstrates a real commitment to equity more broadly; we can't expect equal outcomes unless we ensure all students are equally ready to learn in the first place. Social and emotional skills are undoubtedly critical to this readiness.

For this generation of teens especially, social and emotional skills are not just important; they are necessary. Social and emotional learning is the process of building and practicing social and emotional skills in schools. At iThrive, we embed this process in the game-based tools we create for and with teens, and use the connective and reflection-prompting power of play to build their social and emotional skills. Our iThrive Curriculum units, Museum of Me, Sam's Journey, and A Moment in Time, pair standard-aligned lesson plans with immersive video games to create learning experiences relevant to teens in high school English classes. These game-based learning experiences use digital media to encourage them to explore their identity, their emotional landscape, and how they navigate social relationships. Our civics-centered iThrive Sim games, Lives in Balance, Leading Through Crisis, and Follow the Facts, engage teens not just by supporting their understanding of the mechanics of government but of themselves, their identities, values, and communities. Each of these online simulations presents an opportunity to try on new perspectives, embody constructive decision-making techniques through role-play, and reflect deeply on how decision-making affects others.

These offerings for high school classrooms and youth-centered spaces were designed to encourage teens to develop the social and emotional resources that enable them to think for themselves and join others, with both empathy and curiosity, in learning, building, and imagining a better world. They also support teens and the adults they share space with in understanding that social and emotional skills are relevant to all subjects and aspects of life. The language we use to describe and advocate for social and emotional learning should reflect its standing as an essential part of the future we're all striving to attain—one that empowers us to live, work and thrive collaboratively, resiliently, and productively. Raising SEL's profile from that of a 'soft skill' to an educational and humanistic priority helps get us there.

What Teaching Hard History Does for Teens’ Social and Emotional Learning

By iThrive Games

Teaching hard history helps students understand the implications of our past and their connections to our present. With this understanding, students are better positioned to confront future challenges and are primed to embody the social and emotional competencies that support them in being engaged, informed, and responsible members of society. 

At iThrive, we're committed to creating civic learning contexts that equip teens with the curiosity, practical experience, and social and emotional learning skills to handle and navigate the complex world we live in. Our iThrive Sim online role-playing simulation games, for example, invite high school students to step into the role of government officials tasked with making high-stake decisions that impact the public in profound ways. As students collaborate to analyze data and sources and chart a path forward in each of iThrive Sim's content-rich scenarios, they practice how to navigate sensitive themes and challenging issues in a healthy, curious, and thoughtful way.

On Wednesday, November 17 at 6 pm EST, we're excited to join forces with Facing History and Ourselves and Generation Citizen at Composer's "Teaching Tough History Through Civics & Social Emotional Learning" webinar to discuss strategies that support the integration of civic and social-emotional learning into history lessons that address tough themes and topics.

Teaching Tough History Through Civics & Social Emotional Learning

Register to join Composer's "Teaching Tough History Through Civics & Social Emotional Learning" webinar here.

There, our Senior Director of Learning, Michelle Bertoli, will highlight some of the social and emotional skill-building opportunities we've embedded in all of iThrive Sim's role-playing scenarios. Attendees will also learn from Dr. Shawn Clybor, who'll share how Composer, an award-winning curriculum design tool, helps teachers like him create dynamic learning experiences that prepare students for transformative civic engagement and meaningful civic action.

When teens who've played an iThrive Sim scenario share that the experience prepares them for "real-life situations and issues" or prompts them to reflect on what "we're all collectively facing, and why and how we should do a certain task," we're reminded of how teaching hard history supports them in showing up for themselves, their communities, and the world

At the individual level, teaching hard history topics enables them to see themselves as part of the larger historical narrative of our communities, country, and society. This supports students in building the self-awareness to challenge their assumptions, define their values, and figure out where things they love and are skilled at overlap with a need in the world. At the community level, teens build social awareness and relationship skills that support them in developing the competence to try on others' perspectives while expressing and refining their own. In learning about heavy historical topics and events, students also develop an informed worldview along with an understanding of systems of harm and injustice. This understanding equips them with the knowledge and motivation to advocate for a more just society and make responsible decisions for themselves and the collective. 

Teaching hard history can be challenging and may raise complex emotions for learners and educators alike, but when integrated with social and emotional learning, it becomes a powerful experience for students to reflect deeply about the world around them and the world they wish to live in. We're excited to dive into this topic further at the "Teaching Tough History Through Civics & Social Emotional Learning" webinar with educators across the globe. We hope to see you there


Composer is the first digital platform to offer a comprehensive collection of resources for activating a deeper sense of civic responsibility in students. As a one-stop marketplace, Composer enables educators to access a whole ecosystem of content providers in one place. They can search for and find resources that span civics, social justice, social and emotional learning, and global competence. Composer features over 1,000 high quality learning experiences from over 35 organizations, and provides research-based tools and guidance to support educators with curriculum planning. Serving educators working with grades 6-12 in both schools and non-traditional learning environments (afterschool programs, summer camps and/or home school), Composer is free to access for educators around the world. 

New Game Design Toolkit Supports Teens in Leading Systems Change

By iThrive Games

Games are microcosms of the real world, making play and game design springboards for possibility.

At iThrive, we use games to support teens in discovering new ways of doing and being. Our approach centers on their developmental needs, wielding the power of play and emotions to deepen their civic and social and emotional learning. At the core of each tool or experience we've created for and with young people is an unwavering belief in their genius and creative potential to build and imagine a better world. The Game Design Studio Toolkit, created in collaboration with EdTogether and made possible by the generous support from the DN Batten Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation, assists them in uncovering this within themselves, using game design to reflect, connect, ideate, and lead systems change.

The Game Design Studio Toolkit features 50+ activity guides and accompanying worksheets that merge design thinking, social justice, and social and emotional learning to support teens in exploring societal issues that they experience while thinking collaboratively and creatively about how to respond to them. As teens work through these activities together and create their own games, they engage in individual and collective reflection and action as they challenge their assumptions, redefine problems, and imagine new solutions.

"These field tested activities invite teens to consider their own expertise from their lived experience as they work to understand the systems that surround them," shares Susan E. Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of iThrive Games. "The activities tap into and build skills like self-reflection and self-expression, empathy and compassion, collaboration and critical thinking as a means to unpack the rules and structures that shape relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults in the many systems teens encounter. Game design offers an amazing, engaging way to merge systems thinking, design thinking, and social and emotional learning."

An identity-safe environment is essential to help teens feel valued, accepted, seen, and welcomed. Tips and design principles found throughout the Toolkit help adult facilitators create this and set the scene for sharing and belonging—two parts integral to co-creation.

"We know that emotion is the driver in learning and in life. It is the thing on which we base our relationships and orientation to the world," says Gabrielle Schlichtmann, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of EdTogether. "With this in mind, we designed the activities in the Game Design Studio Toolkit to fully engage teens in playing games, analyzing games, and making games. The activities tap into and foster their social and emotional skills." 

The social and emotional learning opportunities nested in each activity featured in the Game Design Studio Toolkit support the fostering of knowledge and attitudes across each of CASEL's five areas of social and emotional competence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. Each activity prompts teens to nurture and exercise these essential skills in areas necessary for individual and collective well-being.

"As youth work together to design games and grapple with important issues, they are developing the necessary SEL skills to make change in their schools, communities, and beyond," shares Lora Henderson, a clinical psychologist, Assistant Professor at the James Madison University, and contributor to the Game Design Studio Toolkit. "We have grown accustomed to manualized social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that teachers implement in the classroom but game design offers a flexible and innovative approach that allows youth to use and further develop SEL skills while also engaging in activities that require both critical and systems thinking."

The Game Design Studio Toolkit invites young people to unpack complex social challenges and understand the human needs involved so they can imagine, create, and test games that prompt new solutions. Built across 5-years of inspiring collaboration with teens and adults across the US, we hope the Toolkit encourages and supports teens in creating the world they want to live in.

Download the complete Toolkit to bring it to the teens in your school, out-of-school program, museum, library, and summer camp today. And let us know how you are using it!

Creating ‘We’ and Restoring ‘Us’ with Civics and Social-Emotional Learning

By iThrive Games

Transformative civic engagement that truly benefits collective well-being begins and ends with our sense of community. Widening our definition of community requires empathy and connection. How do we create meaningful experiences for teens that support them in practicing this? And how do we support them in recognizing different perspectives, understanding them, and applying that understanding to pursue common goals?

Our answer to these questions lies in the immersive civic learning and social and emotional skill-building experiences we create with and for teens that enlist the connective power of play. iThrive Sim's online role-playing simulation games invite students to take on roles—such as government officials, state governors, or reporters—who must work strategically with their peers to analyze and respond to complex challenges. Collaboration, critical thinking, and connection drive each iThrive Sim game forward as teens practice regulating emotions, exercising curiosity, and making decisions that consider self, others, and the world, developing needful wisdom and practical experience in a safe space.

History, social studies, and humanities educators across the globe have used our game-based approach to civic learning to nurture the social and emotional learning competencies that support transformative civic engagement in their classrooms. In the interview below, one of our iThrive Sim users, Karalee Wong Nakatsuka, an 8th grade history teacher based in Arcadia, California, shares how vital belonging, representation, and community-building are in her approach to teaching history and how iThrive Sim helps support that approach.

Q: Tell me about your passion for civics education. What inspires you, and why do you believe civic learning is so valuable for students?

A: I believe it's very important for everyone to see themselves as part of the whole. When I was in school, I didn't see myself in history, so I wasn't as civically engaged because I didn't see myself as part of the whole. Later on, through mentors, great civics conversations, and learning history through someone who looks like me, I did start to see myself as part of the whole and where I fit into the larger picture. Every Friday, I attend History Matters with Joan Freeman, and it's really helped me to make the connections between the past, and the present, as well as to reflect on how our empathetic understanding of history helps to inform our thoughts and actions as citizens of this democracy. History and civics need to be examined empathetically because laws and rules affect people, government decisions affect people, and voting affects people. I want my students to be able to connect with the past and the present. Representation is important, both in history and in life, and I want my students to see both people who do look like them, and those who do not. I want them to know they have power, responsibility, and that they can make a difference in many small ways, not just when they are old enough to vote. Being an engaged member of society as an 8th grader can mean being nice to a 6th grader, or picking up a piece of trash. Civics needs to be tangible and inclusive, and can be as simple as someone who shows up. 

Q: When teaching civics, what have you seen work really well with students? 

A: I teach in a school district where Asian students make up about 70% of the population. Asian American history, often left out in history classrooms, really resonates with my students, for both Asian and non-Asian students. They need to see both people who look like them to connect and those who don't to understand diversity and inclusivity. I use a global lens in my teaching to help students understand that history is not just American history and decisions that we make in America don't just affect people in our country. History across the globe is intertwined, and decisions we make locally affect people all over the world. 

Q: How has iThrive Sim supported your approach to civics education and your students' civic learning?

A: I used iThrive Sim this Spring and it invited students to learn about the government by participating in a challenging, engaging simulation, where they check public opinion, examine data, negotiate, and make informed decisions. It was great to have the opportunity to do iThrive Sim with all of my classes. There was one class where the group was quite engaged and one student in particular was really taking his job seriously, thinking about how to represent his constituents. That was a really powerful moment, and a great example of the impact of civic learning. 

Q: How have you seen the impact of civics on students long-term or outside of the classroom?

A: My school is in Arcadia, a small city which is in Los Angeles County. A few years ago, there was a controversy when the city council voted to get rid of a basketball court. One council member said he didn't like "the type" of people the court was attracting. Many felt it was a racist argument and the fight to save the court reflected the city's desire to be an inclusive welcoming community for all. Many people, including myself and some of my students, went to the city council meeting where people of all ages and backgrounds spoke about the importance of the basketball court. One of my students got up to speak, basketball in hand, and in the end, the basketball court was saved. Not only was I very proud of my students, but it was a great learning experience and example of civic action.

Q: In your experience, how did civics education change during the pandemic and remote learning? Now that your school is back in person, are those changes still reflected, or are there other shifts that you are seeing? 

A: Students are certainly happy to be back. They are more engaged, and community-building is so much easier in person. When we were remote, I would always keep the chat open during virtual learning to keep the communication going, help them build respect for each other, and ensure they felt heard. Given the circumstances, it worked well, but now we have in person weekly community circles where we do check-ins and shares. There are some students who are behind, and there are subtle differences in their skills, but we are working together. I have a cube-shaped microphone that I throw around to whoever is speaking. It's a great way to literally amplify student voices and ensure their peers are listening. We all want to be heard, so I want them to feel that their voices matter. In the day-to-day, it's easy to get caught up in content and forget to create community, and forget to talk to students. There isn't always an obvious community or 'we' in America, even though we all need that. This makes it easy to 'other' people, but also all the more important to create community with students.

Use This SEL Activity to Help Your Students Explore Their COVID-19 Emotions

By iThrive Games

"A mixed bag."

When asked about the emotions they have seen expressed/felt in their classroom since returning to in-person instruction at a recent iThrive Educator Advisory Council meeting, Lauren Geschel, a HS teacher and co-creator of iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time, shared this response. For many educators and students, the back-to-school experience can be described in a similar way: a mixed bag of emotions—some that point to pain from what's been lost over the course of this pandemic, but also many that point to possibility in what's to come.

Tending to the emotions that come with this moment in education requires both understanding and empathy. At iThrive Games, we use play as a tool to foster better understanding of self, others, and the world in high school classrooms, crafting game-based, social and emotional learning experiences that support educators in creating connection and presence, while honoring the wholeness of the teens they teach. So, when Lauren later shared the journal writing exercise that got her HS seniors present, engaged, and reflecting on the 'mixed bag' of emotions they've experienced over the last year and a half, we knew we had to share it. 

Activity: Pandemic Shifts

Providing in-class opportunities for students to explore their emotions helps create community in the classroom. Try dedicating some time during your next class session to Pandemic Shifts, a social-emotional learning activity that supports teens in being self-aware and reflecting on the shifts they've experienced and witnessed over the last 20 months:

  • In preparation for this activity, legibly write the following five-question prompts on five large sheets of paper (one per paper), then post them throughout your classroom:
    • What was the most shocking part of the pandemic period for you?
    • What was one positive that came out of the pandemic for you personally?
    • What have you realized about yourself during this time? 
    • What do you think has changed about the world that will never go back to the way it was before the pandemic? 
    • What scares you the most about the future? 
  • Have students take out five sheets of paper. Read each of the questions above aloud, allowing two to three minutes after each for students to respond to it. Let them know that their responses can be anonymous.
  • When students are done, ask them to tape their responses under the respective question prompts posted throughout the class. Allow 10-12 minutes for students to walk the room and read their peers' responses.
  • Once students have had a chance to read through their classmates' responses, allow 10-12 minutes for reflecting together about the activity. Remind students to be respectful of their peers. Here are some sample debriefing questions:
    • How did that experience feel?
    • What are some common threads and throughlines you noticed in your classmates' responses?
    • What are some norms we can create this school year that consider these responses?

For educators who bring this activity to their classrooms, we would love to hear how it went with your students. Please share your experience with us at contact@ithrivegames.org, and be sure to stay updated with our growing library of social-emotional learning offerings by signing up for our newsletter today.

iThrive, Middlebury Institute Awarded DHS Grant for New Simulation Game

By iThrive Games

Earlier this week, iThrive Games, in a joint project with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, was awarded one of 37 grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program.  

iThrive Games and the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies will work together to create a novel, game-based learning experience that educates and empowers adolescents to become more aware and more resistant to radicalization, thus building resilience within their local networks.

Our approach to role-playing simulations embeds social and emotional learning and integrates tech and online play. iThrive Sim's role-playing simulations illuminate systems in the world that can be largely invisible until a person is invited to work and improvise within them. Experiences like these can propel students' curiosity and motivation to explore new ways of interacting and making decisions that can improve dysfunctional systems, counter extremism, and produce a better world for all.

"Using games to foster belonging and connection is what we are about," said Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., Executive Director at iThrive Games. "We are saddened by the weaponization of belonging to advance radical agendas. This project is aligned with our mission to use game-based learning to support teens in recognizing true belonging and strengthening prosocial behavior."

Since teens are highly attuned to their emotions and social status, the experiential approach of role-playing meets them right where they are developmentally. The role-playing simulation game that will be created as a result of this grant will be designed to offer students opportunities to think about and practice self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Part of the work of the grant will be supporting the local community-building the capacity at the administration and school level for delivery of the game-based learning experience. 

According to a press release issued by the DHS, "The FY21 TVTP grants expand on the Department's new approach to prevention, which centers on providing local communities with evidence-based tools to help prevent violence while protecting civil rights and civil liberties and privacy rights. These grants will help local communities strengthen online and in-person prevention efforts, including by addressing early-risk factors that can lead to radicalization and violence."

High School Teachers, Share Your Feedback on the New, Improved iThrive Sim

By iThrive Games

iThrive Sim, designed to support high school educators in providing a deep civics learning experience role play through the lens of social-emotional learning, will soon be ready for teachers to facilitate! Since its debut, iThrive staff have facilitated the learning experience. We heard that educators want to be in the drivers' seat, running the simulations in a way that responds to their needs. We listened and are developing a new teacher-friendly interface for our three iThrive Sim scenarios that allows educators to run their own simulations in their in-person, virtual, or hybrid classroom.

Are you new to using iThrive Sim with your students? Each game merges online gameplay, immersive tech, and a content-rich storyline to engage HS students in a unique civic learning experience where they step into the role of leaders to make high-stakes decisions that impact the communities they represent. The new, self-guided versions of our iThrive Sim games are a great way to bring play, civics, and social-emotional learning to your high school classroom. Experience the best of our games, with the added benefits of being in the drivers' seat:

  1. Logistical Flexibility. Need an activity to engage your high school students on the spot? Want to run a simulation over multiple class periods? With self-facilitation for an iThrive Sim scenario, you'll have as much flexibility as you need. No need to schedule your classroom's Sim with a facilitator. 
  2. Customize Roles and Groups. You know your students best. Think a particular student would benefit from a challenge? Or do you have students that are extra competitive or reserved? With you as the facilitator, you will have a full range of assigning roles and groups to meet your high school students' needs best. Place them where you know they will thrive and have the best experience possible. 
  3. Engage with Your Students: Good facilitating fosters authentic engagement. When you know you're leading the discussion, you'll naturally be more engaged throughout the entire simulation and your high school students will too.
  4. Continued Support: Self-facilitating an iThrive Sim scenario does not mean you'll be totally on your own. When you sign up, you'll receive resources, checklists, prep materials, accompanying lesson plans and more, to support you in running a successful Sim for your class of high school students. Plus, our team is just an email away; we're always happy to answer any questions and provide technical support.
  5. Tie the Sim to Other Lessons: When you're in the driver's seat of an iThrive Sim scenario, you can easily reference previous lessons you've completed when relevant to the discussion and student experiences. In turn, you can challenge your high school students to draw more connections between content, resulting in a holistic learning experience. 
Interested in using an iThrive Sim scenario in your high school classroom?

We're looking for high school educators who can pilot our new self-guided version of iThrive Sim, and give us feedback on the new teacher-friendly interface and process. We know you're busy, so we are paying $100.00 for your time.  The pilot program will include:

Sign up below and we'll be in touch to get you and your high school students set up to play!

Stories Add Heart to History. This Project Uses Them to Teach About Migration.

By iThrive Games

This summer, iThrive Games, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Re-imagining Migration, Got History, and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum invited educators to collaborate on Moving Stories: From Personal to Policy, a project sparked by a desire to support teachers in facilitating challenging conversations with students around topics and events in history. 

The north star of the collaboration was three-fold: 

  • To model co-creation of learning experiences that are inspiring and help students not only learn about a historical moment but also connect more deeply with their own identity, realize the connection of personal story to policy, and take away a new commitment to/plan for advancing justice through civic engagement.
  • To create model learning experiences that can help shift the historical teaching paradigm away from single-narrative content-sharing to a place- and document-based democratic pedagogy that incorporates inquiry, awe, and play to achieve deep learning on core ethical, civic, and historical concepts.
  • To expand the networks and communities of practice of some amazing educators looking for cutting-edge ways to engage students.

Over the course of the four days, participants dove into primary source materials, co-created lesson plans, and had the opportunity to listen deeply to and learn from each other about how the topic of migration touches their personal lives and family stories. 

"Migration is a theme that connects all of humanity, and that was obvious in hearing the stories of each individual who made up this learning community," said Michelle Bertoli, Senior Director of Learning at iThrive Games. "It was amazing to see everyone's unique perspective and teaching/content expertise blend into cohesive peak learning experiences, with embedded social and emotional learning opportunities, that I feel confident will engage teachers and students in new and deeper ways of teaching and learning." 

The endeavor was not without challenges, such as finding ways to approach and meaningfully use primary sources with often an abundance of language that is now considered outdated, offensive, and exclusionary. One member of the learning community challenged the group to make sure they were not promoting "learning at the expense of someone else's trauma." With migration as a sensitive topic that's intimately tied to themes of othering, marginalization, xenophobia, oppression, and violence, participants contended with questions such as "How do we approach this critical topic in a way that invites rather than shuts down emotional engagement, for whom, and to what end?"

Participants also discussed the tension between historical sources that are in themselves "neutral" and the very real experience that reading them can cause deep pain, anger, and even feelings of shame for people who belong to and identify with groups who have historically been marginalized. 

These tensions highlight the need for social and emotional skill-building to be embedded within the learning experience. 

"Both self and social awareness, especially as they relate to refining identity and building empathy, were central throughout this process," said Bertoli. "Coming to the awareness that migration touches and connects us all and that even that common experience can play out so differently for people across backgrounds and contexts was a key theme of the workshop."  

Ultimately, the educational materials created are meant to serve teens in engaging more deeply with history so they can play a role in charting a new path forward.

"The activities we participated in and created made history feel alive, relevant, and emotional in a way that I have rarely experienced," said Bertoli. "I believe teens will truly come to the table for this type of experience: one where their personal, emotional, and familial connection to topics in history is not just included but actively highlighted and centered in the service of deep engagement, social and emotional development, and motivation to act justly in the present. I think these resources will invite those teens who avoid or merely "put up with" learning history to think and feel differently about engaging with and applying it."

The next steps for this project include refining the materials before sharing them more broadly and building on the co-creative process the group engaged in. For participants, moving the work forward remains essential. 

"Migration is essential to our shared social and economic future," said Adam Strom, Executive Director, Re-Imagining Migration.  "Yet, approaches to migration in schools are often fragmented or incomplete. As educators, we need to be laser-focused on developing the knowledge, skills, and habits that will prepare the next generation to work and live with people whose cultures, experiences, identities, and accents will increasingly be different from their own. Programs like this one are essential because they build understanding and support for reimagining the way we talk and teach about these foundational experiences."

Stay updated with our work co-designing learning experiences with history and social studies teachers by subscribing to our monthly newsletter!

Teens Have Big Emotions. How Can We Help HS Students Navigate Them?

By iThrive Games

Teenagers have big emotions, and many already have a lot of unresolved grief at that age. Normalizing big emotions and offering tools for navigating this reality can is why social-emotional learning tools are necessary in high school classrooms.

I have been teaching high schoolers for about 20 years, and I am always asked how I manage the classroom so effectively and get them to be so responsive and receptive to my lessons. The short answer is that I recognize them as individuals. I validate their feelings. And I help them be self-aware and deliberate.

Even though many students need their hand held when it comes to recognizing and then communicating emotions and feelings, many of them are more than willing to do so in a safe space. If you can create such a space for your students and if you can reach them on a deeper personal level, the results will astound you. So, how do I do that? One way is to start with iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time.

iThrive Games invited me to co-create a lesson plan that would pair with the immersive media game Florence. The first step was to download the app and "read" the story: one that navigated the day-to-day life of Florence, an Asian-Australian 25-year-old whose aimless nature is universal and timeless for many young people.

There was much to unpack before I set about writing the lesson plans. What would I want my students to get out of this story? What lessons could be learned? What universal truths appear?

I immediately saw an opportunity to showcase lessons on non-verbal communication and symbolism, both of which can apply to real life. The story was told entirely with no words spoken; even when the characters are arguing, there is sound but no words. The power of communication was shown through images, sounds, movement, and gestures. This created an opportunity to discuss how these kinds of communication are prevalent in the students' everyday lives, even though they may not realize it or even think about it. The beauty of Florence is that it can be used in any classroom, especially in classes for English Language Learners (ELL), due to this nature of storytelling.

Symbolism plays a major part, too, and I definitely saw a way to help students relate to this, especially with two of the main characters having Asian and Indian heritage. It opened up many opportunities for students to discuss what cultural symbols they have in their life and how their background shapes who they are as a person. Having students choose objects that have significance helps reinforce the importance of sentimentality and the potential deeper meaning of objects in their lives.

But the real meat of the journey of Florence really lies in the weighty and emotional themes. One of the first themes I felt was important in this story is one of self-realization and identity. While Florence is significantly older than the students who will be reading her story, all can relate to the task of trying to figure out what their place is in the world. I believe so many students feel very lost about where they are headed, but I also believe that very few admit this out loud (or even to themselves). Showing them that self-realization and awareness is a long journey and that people often make mistakes along the way is an important lesson to be gleaned from Florence.

Overall, this story hits on so many levels and so many themes: including relationships, love, self-awareness, growing up, and ultimately (and the most impactful)-dealing with grief and loss. No matter who they are, every student has experienced grief or loss: of a loved one, of a friendship, of a piece of themselves that no longer exists, of a special place, etc. Tapping into this and showing them that grief over loss of so many things in their lives is not only normal but also incredibly understandable and expected is so important for teenagers who often lack the coping skills to grapple with such ponderous emotions.

iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time opens up the door to these ideas and shows students that everyone struggles in one way or another and that it is all about how one learns to deal with their issues.

Game-Based Learning Reads: Three Books That Will Make You a GBL Believer

By iThrive Games

Game-based learning is part of iThrive's DNA as we support educators in bringing the power of play into the classroom. From impactful play and deep learning to personal transformation and social and emotional skill-building, the reasons to thoughtfully include games in educating young people continue to grow. Recently we have enjoyed the contributions of authors Matthew Farber, Karen Schrier, and David Seelow, who have written books adding to the body of knowledge related to game-based learning.

Kat Schrier - We The Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics

Karen Schrier, We The Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics

In this useful tome, Karen (Kat) Schrier explores the use of games in multiple contexts, from teaching ethics and civics, to creating connection and community, as well as for knowledge and action, and for critical thinking and inquiry. 

Written during the pandemic, the book begins by exploring the many ways games were of great support to humanity during the stay-at-home orders and beyond. The author then takes a balanced approach by questioning when and how best to use games alongside learning, while acknowledging the limitations of games. 

For educators who want to explore the power of games in the classroom, this one is a must-read.

Matthew Farber - Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning
Matthew Farber, Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning

One thing that comes through in Matthew Farber's book on games and social and emotional learning is his deep love of and expertise in both. And we know that not only from the pages of this book but also because Matthew is a long-time collaborator with the team here at iThrive, having co-created Museum of Me.

Also written during the pandemic, the book is a very readable cornucopia of topics that span first-person accounts of gameplay and thought-provoking explorations of the neuroscience of games to comparing social and emotional learning models and contending with how games do or don't teach compassion, empathy, and mindfulness. 

With practical information from links, lessons, and games, to well-woven-in peer-reviewed research, this book is useful to educators and caregivers who want to use games and understand why and how they are an asset for young people. 

David Seelow - Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning

David Seelow, Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom

In this collection of strategies for game-based learning, editor David Seelow has culled the best teachers, researchers, and games to provide hands-on guidance for adults looking to introduce games into their classroom or youth encounters. 

The introduction also stresses the multiple pathways one can take to succeed with game-based learning and ultimately help transform both teacher and student learning.

With contributors such as Paul Darvasi, Lindsay Portnoy, Claudia-Santi F. Fernandes, and more, the strategies offered within span empathy-building and support for wellness to project-based learning and useful feedback loops. A useful book for educators who want to use games to transform learning. 

Interested in integrating game-based learning in your classroom this fall? Check out our iThrive Curriculum units and newest iThrive Sim role-playing simulation games, Follow the Facts and Leading Through Crisis, to get started!

World Affairs Council of Philadelphia Uses iThrive Sim to Prep Future Leaders

By iThrive Games

"My main takeaway from today was how challenging, complicated, and stressful it is to lead through crisis, and how important it is to work with your team in those situations," said one Philadelphia-area high school student after playing iThrive Sim: Leading Through Crisis in the 2021 Summer Global Leadership Seminar hosted in July. 

What better way to learn about teamwork and collaborative leadership than to be thrust into the role of a crisis management team member during an international crisis? Twenty-four students had this opportunity through the summer program at World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonprofit dedicated to informing and engaging people of all ages on matters of national and international significance. Each year the organization hosts an educational seminar for high school students who are interested in global affairs, public policy, and foreign policy. 

This year, the Council opted to use iThrive Sim: Leading Through Crisis as part of its virtual programming. Staff said they thought the tech-enabled role playing simulation would be a really interesting addition to the summer program.

"One of our main topics for this leadership session was about constitutions and constitutional underpinnings of authority," said  Eric Bumbaca, Director of Student Programs. "The Leading Through Crisis simulation was a really good opportunity for our students to engage with constitutional issues and times when our constitution isn't necessarily clear or events around it cause some uncertainty." 

Students agreed. When asked what they learned, one student shared, "[I learned that] when leaders make choices, they aren't necessarily able to do what they feel is best, but rather they have to do what they think is best within the pressing circumstances of the decision."

Other students focused on the collaborative leadership and teamwork aspects, offering feedback such as, "It was fun to work through as a group," and "It was fun being able to learn about how to handle constitutional crises with other people."

Council staff shared that role-playing without tech allows for one to three decisions across the course of the event, but with tech-enhanced role-play, the negotiations have an amplified level of collaborative and individual decision-making. 

"The rapid decision-making is a very unique aspect of the iThrive program," said Eric. "With iThrive Sim you need to make decisions quickly and synthesize your rationale and reasoning for decisions very quickly. It's good practice for the students, and the roles that they are playing do need to make decisions rapidly."

Students enjoyed the tech aspect of the simulation. One student shared, "It was very immersive, and the interface was surprisingly easy to follow."

They also keyed into the social and emotional learning competency of responsible decision-making, a skill vital to 21-st century leadership.

"I really liked the entire simulation and decision-making aspects, because having to coordinate with my team members and make solo/duo/team decisions in very little time was stressful but fun."

Council staff are excited to use iThrive Sim again in their program.

"I think our students really enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a different way than they have in the past," said Eric. "Any time we ask them to get outside of their own belief systems or view of the world, it's a great opportunity for students to think about the world in different ways."

Interested in bringing iThrive Sim: Leading Through Crisis to your classroom this fall? Sign up today to get started!

iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance Wins Gold at AAM’s 2021 Muse Awards

By iThrive Games

BOSTON-iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance has been named a gold award winner in the MUSE Award 2021's 2020 Response category. Created by iThrive Games in partnership with Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance is designed to meet the need for engaged, authentic, and relevant learning experiences. This scenario thrusts the participants into a fictional, modern day pandemic where federalism comes to life as they take on the roles of government officials. The scenario has been successfully used with museum-based hybrid and virtual visitors, and in traditional educational spaces virtually, hybrid, and in person.

According to the website for the MUSE Awards, "The Media & Technology MUSE Awards recognize outstanding achievement in Galleries, Libraries, Archives or Museums (GLAM) media. Presented to institutions or independent producers who use digital media to enhance the GLAM experience and engage audiences, the MUSE awards celebrate scholarship, community, innovation, creativity, education and inclusiveness."

Susan E. Rivers, PhD, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive, sees tech-enabled role-playing as one of the most adaptable forms of interactive learning, whether it's in a classroom or at a museum, in person or online. 

"When we created Lives in Balance, we sought to meet the tremendous demand for robust interactive learning experiences, especially during this global pandemic," she said. "And we are pleased to be able to offer this scenario and others as we head into the new school year to support learning in various settings."

iThrive Games offers two additional iThrive Sim civics scenarios for learners who are high-school aged and older: Leading Through Crisis, which explores responsible decision making during a critical event, and Follow the Facts, which explores media literacy during a natural disaster.

"I am grateful for our exceptional advisory board of educators and the students who have played with us and shared their wisdom," said Mira Cohen, Director of Education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. "It's been a dream to empower youth learners with the decision-making tools to become thoughtful and caring leaders. 

To learn more about iThrive Sim, visit https://ithrivegames.org/ithrive-sim/. To learn more about additional programs at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, visit https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/.

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Media Contact
Eghosa Asemota
eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org

About iThrive Games
iThrive Games prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership towards a world where all have the voice, choice, and agency to reach their full potential. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient.

Youth Designers Collaborating with iThrive Games Win Serious Play Award

By iThrive Games

BOSTON—iThrive Games is pleased to announce that The Run Around, created by youth designers in partnership with iThrive; Janelle Ridley, Founder of Transition HOPE; AGNCY; Black Ministerial Alliance/Ten Point Coalition; and Dr. Beverley Cush Evans with Lesley University; won a gold medal in the category of Educational Tabletop Games in the 2021 International Serious Play Awards Program. The program honors outstanding commercial and student titles used for education or training. 

Created from the lived experiences of the youth who designed it, The Run Around is focused on raising awareness about inequalities in the justice system. The designers sought to use their voice to shed understanding on the emotional, mental, and spiritual bondage the system creates, as they do not want others to fall into the same traps

Staff members were inspired by the experience of working with the youth designers.

"The process of changing and dismantling unjust systems has to center the voices of those who have been impacted by it," said Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games. "I'm proud of the youth designers who shared their stories, challenges, and triumphs and collaborated to create this game that will educate adults on their lived experiences." 

The Run Around was developed to encourage empathy and change, with funding from the William T. Grant Foundation and the DN Batten Foundation. Game design and gameplay provide an opportunity to have important conversations around critical questions for designing systems that better support youth: how can systems help youth who are getting out of the justice system reintegrate successfully to stable living? How can we better understand young people's feelings, behaviors, and experiences to provide the structures, opportunities, and environments they need to thrive? 

To learn more about the SEED Institute, which highlights youth designers, click here.  Click here to read more information about the game design process.

###

Media Contact
Eghosa Asemota
eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org

ABOUT iTHRIVE GAMES
iThrive Games prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership towards a world where all have the voice, choice, and agency to reach their full potential. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient.

Burgeoning Journalists Try on Their Roles in New Media Literacy Game

By iThrive Games

Media literacy incentivizes good journalism. In early June, two dozen high school students enrolled in the Summer Journalism Institute at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, stepped into a simulated newsroom to play iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts and discovered this. Follow the Facts is a media literacy-centered, role-playing simulation game where players, acting as journalists, sift through information and sources to find and share the truth about a mysterious illness and an impending storm in New Orleans. 

Playing the roles of Lifestyle Reporter, Metro Reporter, Government Reporter, Opinion Reporter, and News Editor, students (in teams of five) engaged with in-game social and print media, practiced effective sourcing of information, explored bias, and engaged in collaboration. In a collaborative gaming experience that combined media literacy skill-building, social-emotional learning, and civics education, the 24 students who played got the chance to:

  • Describe how the media shapes public opinion and behavior.
  • Collaborate to see the bigger picture of a situation and create accurate news.
  • Successfully rank the quality and value of varying sources of information.
  • Practice effectively sourcing information in a digital world, an integral media literacy skill in the 21st century.
  • Become aware of and describe bias and its impact on reporting, selecting, and interpreting the news.
  • Demonstrate self-management while under stress.
  • Practice clear communication.

The burgeoning journalists were highly engaged. Halfway through the game, they shared their learnings around journalism and media literacy, such as:

  • "[I learned] To pay attention to details, work in teams, [and] make important formal decisions."
  • "I learned that it's important to gain public trust by putting out specific and true information."
  • "I learned how to make beneficial decisions under pressure. It also gave me the experience of being a journalist."
  • "I learned that journalists have to handle a lot of information at once and work together to make decisions."
  • "[I learned] journalists have a limited amount of time and must prioritize what they think is the best thing to do."
  • "[I learned] That you really need to communicate with your team to have all of the information."
  • "I learned that getting the facts/right info depends on how you choose your sources."
  • "[I learned] only take information from verifiable sources."

Staff were energized by the engagement and thoughtfulness of the players.

"It was validating to see the students really deliberating over the decisions in the game and collaborating with each other to make the best choice," said Michelle Bertoli, Senior Director of Learning. "There aren't easy answers, just like in real life. It's such a great opportunity to dig deep and practice managing your own attention and emotions while you work closely with others towards a common goal."

To close out the experience, iThrive staff will lead a debriefing session based on the pre-written curriculum that accompanies the media literacy-centered simulation game. Follow the Facts is now available for summer enrichment programs and other youth-serving experiences. Sign up today to play the game with your students!

Add Play to Your Summer School Schedule: Virtual Conferences in July

By iThrive Games

After an unprecedented year, summer school programs are underway in several states across the nation, with an increased focus on students' social and emotional health. Game-based learning uniquely aligns with the times. When games are used in the classroom, they offer students a space to immerse themselves in new information, actively apply that information while problem-solving, try on new perspectives, and work in self-directed independent ways. The connective power of games also supports community-building and empathy, making play a springboard for responsible civic engagement.

As school administrators and teachers explore ways to enrich their classrooms this summer and later this fall, we're excited to continue putting game-based learning and SEL front and center at upcoming conferences where iThrive staff will be presenting. If you're interested in bringing games to your summer school program or classroom next school year, here are some interactive meetings to put on your calendar this month:

2021 Games for Change Virtual Festival (Monday, July 12th to Wednesday, July 14th, 2021)

The 2021 Games for Change Virtual Festival will feature virtual sessions hosted by an array of thought leaders on the transformative power of games and immersive media. iThrive's Executive Director and Chief Scientist, Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., will be part of a session titled "Disinformation Games," where she'll discuss iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts, our new role-playing simulation game that supports media literacy skill-building. Join in on the session happening on Wednesday, July 14th at 5:30 ET/2:30 PT for a rousing discussion by registering here.

2021 NASSP National Principals Conference (Wednesday, July 14th to Friday, July 16th, 2021)

The theme of this year's NASSP National Principals Conference is "Together, We Will," with strands centering on equity, wellness, and innovation. We're excited to share our vision of how play supports each of these strands with all who'll be in attendance. In our interactive session, attendees will play iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, our online role-playing simulation game that focuses on federalism and states' rights and uses a pandemic as the backdrop for practicing negotiation and decision-making. Players, acting as state governors and federal officials, will be tasked with moving the action forward themselves, aided by online gameplay and iThrive Sim's dynamic tech. They must work individually and as a group to assess the information at hand, defend their points of view, and make decisions that produce the desired outcomes in time. Register here to attend this conference, get in on the game, and learn how play can enrich your summer school program or school this fall.

More Ways to Meet

This fall, we'll be back on the road, virtually and in person, to share more on games, play, and their contribution to students' academic growth and social and emotional learning. There are many ways to engage with us. Learn about our game-based learning curricula and role-playing simulation games guaranteed to boost student engagement in your summer school classroom. Send us an email. Or sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop with exclusive playtesting opportunities.

We look forward to connecting with you! 

History Informs Our Understanding of Our Country. Let’s Tell It Truthfully.

By iThrive Games

This June, the last surviving liberator of Auschwitz died at the age of 98. According to CNN, David Dushman was one of the soldiers who liberated the people being held at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Over time, Nazis murdered over one million Jewish people there.

As one of our staff read the article, she was reminded of meeting her college friend's grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor and still bore the tattooed numbers on her body. Seeing the tattoo she had only read about in history textbooks was a visceral and impactful experience for her.

As survivors and liberators of atrocities pass away, it begs the question, who has the courage to tell their story? How do we keep history and the past mistakes in our collective minds enough so that we don't recreate them in the present or future? And, how do we do this in a way that supports healing and does not stymy it? What role does our educational system play in making sure students know about past societal harms so that they can learn from history and do their part to create a world where those types of atrocities no longer happen?

To us, these questions are worth exploring. Our Executive Director and Chief Scientist, Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., has said that "Empowering teens as changemakers means engaging youth and communities in drawing on the past and present to create new knowledge." We think that teens are more than capable of contending with history to make choices that will result in a better future. 

Teens' brains are undergoing the last major restructuring of development, one nearly on par with early childhood brain growth. That means the teen years provide the perfect opportunity to build habits to support a healthy, productive, and engaged life. Teens are at a developmental moment defined by many strengths. Because of where their brains are developmentally, teens are at a place where they can examine the role of race and racism in history and our society and then use that understanding to envision how to relate to one another in ways that move us forward, toward greater equity for all. One hallmark of the teen developing brain is an aptitude for risk-taking; they can leverage this inclination to envision and offer up completely new ways of working together, being in community, and participating in democracy. 

Rather than viewing history as something to choose from selectively, teens are ready and willing to look at the whole with open eyes. And they can be supported in that when guided by skilled and compassionate educators in an educational system that promotes critical thinking and responsible participation in democracy.  

At iThrive Games, we are dedicated to thriving. And for us, thriving comes from facing and acknowledging hard truths and tough emotions and choosing to contend with those truths and emotions in service of taking action to build a more equitable and just for all humans. Whether it's with our game-based learning units that explore identity and relationships or our 21st-century skill-building simulation games, we believe in creating opportunities for teens to learn from history and flex the muscles they'll need to envision and enact an equitable future where all can thrive. 

Media Literacy and Responsible Civic Engagement Go Hand-in-Hand

By iThrive Games

We know that media literacy is essential. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns from various entities have influenced everything from our elections, public sentiment, and individual decision-making. Media literacy is part of the solution to combat misinformation. Educators who teach media literacy are helping students contend with important questions. How do we detect biases? What sources of information can we trust? How do we apply critical thinking to the information that we take in through written and visual media?

We think it's imperative that teens have the opportunity to practice media literacy in the classroom. Young people are curious, consume tons of media, and are more than equipped to think and talk through these hard questions. So we created iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts to assist educators in exploring media literacy in their classroom. In this role-playing simulation, students play reporters sifting through information and sources to find and share the truth about a mysterious illness and an impending storm in New Orleans.

iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts was created in collaboration with subject matter experts such as Elizabeth Smith, Assistant Professor in the Communications Division at Pepperdine University. We asked Ms. Smith to share her thoughts about the power of media literacy in the lives of young people. 

Q: WHY DO YOU BELIEVE MEDIA LITERACY IS SUCH AN IMPORTANT TOPIC FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS TO LEARN?

A: I believe media literacy is an important topic for people of all ages because, like it or not, we are surrounded by media all the time. The more literate we can become, the better we will be at understanding the origin, nature, and effects of our media consumption. More specifically, I think it is critical for us to invest in news literacy education with all learners, starting in kindergarten. High school students show us that they are not uninformed about news topics but find that many news outlets do not cover topics that they find relevant to their lives. Additionally, many high school students are confronted with news being shared on social media but aren't always clear what makes credible news, how news information evolves (especially in breaking news simulations), and what to think of the work of journalists. However, as high school students grow into adulthood, they will be asked to make informed decisions that will rely on credible, rigorously vetted information as news is. Knowing who and what is high-quality news information will help these emerging adults make informed decisions and understand others better. 

Q: WHAT ELEMENT DID YOU THINK WAS MOST IMPORTANT OR TRANSFORMATIVE IN ITHRIVE SIM: FOLLOW THE FACTS?

A: I think the most transformative element in iThrive Sim: Follow the Facts is making decisions about what information to share. This pushes students to make relatively quick decisions about what is correct. Sometimes the details that differentiate two different pieces of information are subtle, which means students have to pay close attention to make quick, timed decisions. They talk about these decisions with their teammates. I think two elements are important: 1) The decisions are timed, so they are making decisions about information to share in real-time, just as a journalist does but also just like they do when they are more casually using social media in their personal lives; 2) Discussing the decisions helps them to share and build knowledge. 

Q: HOW DO YOU SEE MEDIA LITERACY SUPPORTING RESPONSIBLE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?

A: Media literacy, but more specifically, news literacy, helps individuals understand what the news is and what questions to ask about news information. News literacy does not promote that individuals or communities should blindly trust the news. Rather, news literacy should empower individuals to ask good questions and understand the process behind reporting and news production. 

Q: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE GAME?

A: Honestly, I love the whole thing! My favorite part of the game is watching teams work together and hearing the way they support each other to make solid, informed decisions. 

BRING MEDIA LITERACY SKILL-BUILDING TO YOUR CLASSROOM

If you'd like to bring Follow the Facts to your high school classroom or summer program, let us know! You can sign up here to learn more information or to request a time slot for your class. The "news office" opens on Friday, June 25, 2021!

Learn about the Power of Play at these Upcoming Conferences

By iThrive Games

2021 SERIOUS PLAY CONFERENCE

The Serious Play Conference this year features different tracks and multiple sessions with the common theme of using games or simulations in training and education. Our session on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 from 2 to 3:15pm ET will be presented by Executive Director and Chief Scientist Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., and Senior Director of Communications Nicole Taylor. Stress Storm/New Norm: How Role-Playing Simulations Can Help will explore how role-playing simulations can be used in the workplace to assist leaders in identifying opportunities for coaching people managers and staff members. 

The ability to practice social and emotional skills such as self-management, emotional awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making under stress is necessary for a healthy culture and optimal performance. Being able to observe how leaders perform under stress is a high-value opportunity provided by role-playing simulations. Using iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, Susan and Nicole will share how a role-playing simulation can be used both to observe stress behaviors, assist people managers in identifying and working with their stress response, and provide opportunities for coaching to improve how staff members manage themselves and others. If this lights you up, register here

2021 ASCD CONFERENCE: EMPOWERED AND CONNECTED

The theme for this year's ASCD conference is Empowered and Connected. The annual conference is full of sessions that will accelerate your summer learning plans and help get you prepared for the school year. At our session, Susan Rivers will be joined by educators Paul Darvasi and Mira Cohen to present Play to Thrive: A Game-Based Approach to Social and Emotional Learning for High Schools. If you're heading to ASCD, this session will allow you to: 

  • Walk away with free, classroom-ready game-based social and emotional curriculum and tools to use immediately for in-person and distance high school humanities courses.
  • Understand how game-based learning approaches align with teens' specific developmental, social, and emotional needs.
  • Discover a roadmap for infusing core curriculum with playful, tech-supported interaction for high school students' social and emotional growth.

Sound useful for your classroom? Register for ASCD Empowered and Connected.

COALITION FOR JUVENILE JUSTICE (CJJ) 2021 ANNUAL CONFERENCE

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) is a nationwide coalition of State Advisory Groups (SAGs) and allies dedicated to preventing children and youth from becoming involved in the courts and upholding the highest standards of care when youth enter the juvenile justice system. At CJJ's 2021 virtual annual conference, iThrive's Susan Rivers, Transition HOPE's Janelle Ridley and iThrive youth designer Bernardo S. will be sharing a session on Friday, June 11th from 10 to 11:30am ET entitled "Designing Games with Youth Experts to Dismantle Unjust Systems." They'll share the story of youth game designers who created a game called The Run Around to delineate their lived experiences in the juvenile justice system and advocate for changes to it. They'll also share how decision-makers can bolster supports for the well-being of incarcerated youth. You can register for this event here

MORE WAYS TO CONNECT

Next month, we'll share the conferences iThrive is presenting at for the remainder of the summer. There are many ways to engage with us, and we look forward to connecting with you. 

Civics Ed and Social-Emotional Learning Today, A Stronger Democracy Tomorrow

By iThrive Games

A new report by the National Academy of Education, titled Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse, states that while content knowledge about our government's structure is important, so are the more subtle aspects that prepare us to participate responsibly in democracy.

"Also of crucial importance is the development of dispositions to value the exploration of complex issues, to consider multiple points of view, to weigh evidence and to empathize with others. So is the development of the ability to reason about moral and ethical issues rooted in basic democratic values. Such moral and ethical issues are often embedded in our democratic decision-making," writes Carol D. Lee, president-elect of the National Academy of Education, in a recent Washington Post article. 

CIVICS EDUCATION, SEL, AND RESPONSIBLE, DEMOCRATIC DECISION-MAKING

At iThrive Games, we wholeheartedly agree, and we have created iThrive Sim scenarios for the classrooms where students work to build these skills. Responsible decision making is central to participation in democracy, from choosing whom to vote for to choosing how to engage during times of community and societal change. We have seen evidence over the last year regarding the importance of these skills, as the nation has contended with addressing systemic racism and police brutality, navigating the pandemic, and managing the fallout from the January 6th insurrection.

Our civics role-playing simulations are designed to support the development of the dispositions Ms. Lee writes about in the passage above. Core to the learning objectives of all three of our role playing simulations are the social and emotional learning competencies of responsible decision-making and self-awareness. 

We create experiences, such as our Leading Through Crisis scenario, in which youth role-play civic engagement by doing the following:

  • Practicing making high-stakes decisions with far-reaching consequences under time pressure.
  • Demonstrating self-management while under stress.
  • Collaborating with others who have different immediate goals.
  • Practicing clear communication.
  • Summarizing a decision-making approach, including exploring pros and cons for a set of choices and thinking about the impact of including or omitting the perspectives of different individuals and groups.

We believe that the decisions we make impact not only ourselves, but others, and our community. Our hope is that civics role playing simulations such as ours will help prepare teens to practice civic reasoning and discourse in the way we will need to do in order to create the future we want.

Click here to learn how to bring an iThrive Sim virtual field trip to your classroom.

Use this SEL Activity to Help Your Students Process Pandemic Grief and Loss

By iThrive Games

For many teens this last year, grief and loss have been a part of life. For some it was the loss of in-person schooling and the accompanying social activities and for others it was missing or needing to adapt milestones and rites of passage, or grief that stemmed from sick family members or the over 500,000 souls in the U.S. lost to Covid. Whatever the specifics were, loss has been palpable both personally and collectively.

And now, as vaccinations are on the rise and we begin to emerge, the opportunity to see the rainbow after the rain is also here. We created iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time, to support teachers and teens in navigating these emotions together.

GRIEF AND GROWTH IN ITHRIVE CURRICULUM: A MOMENT IN TIME

A Moment in Time is a game-based learning unit for high school English Language Arts classes. Created in collaboration with iThrive staff, high school ELA teachers, and teachers in training, the unit uses the interactive story and video game Florence as the central text. Students follow Florence's journey through a few major life changes and see how she copes and grows as a result. It's a wonderful opportunity to support students in reflecting on their own journey with grief, loss, and change this past year, and exploring some positives that were on the other side of that storm.

According to one 10th grade teacher who piloted the iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time, "The students really got into it and went into a lot of depth in their reflections."

We look forward to educators' downloading the unit when it is launched at the end of May. In the meantime, we'd like to preview one exercise from the unit that can be of service as a standalone activity before the year ends, to help students process how they experienced the grief and loss of the pandemic. 

AN SEL ACTIVITY FOR GRIEF AND LOSS: "AFTER THE RAIN, THE RAINBOW"

Step 1: Invite students into present-moment awareness using a tool of your choosing. We like to set a timer for 45 seconds and invite students to take 10 belly breaths during that time. 

Step 2: Offer these journaling prompts for their self-reflection:

  1. How have you coped with a loss in your own life? Write down a strategy or two.
  2. What have you discovered about yourself in processing the loss?
  3. What is one positive thing that came out of the experience, even though there was loss?

Step 3: After sufficient journaling time, put students into pairs and allow them to discuss their answers to journaling prompt #3. 

Step 4: As a class, invite anyone to share with the whole group. 

This social and emotional learning exercise invites students to nurture their self-awareness and self-management skills while reflecting on their experiences of grief and loss. The iThrive Curriculum: A Moment in Time unit touches on the same themes across eight pre-written lessons for 9th and 10th grade ELA and humanities classes. Bring it to your classroom today!

iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance Named a 2021 GLAMi Award Winner

By iThrive Games

BOSTON--iThrive Sim won a bronze award in the GLAMi Award 2021's Interactive and Immersive category. Created by  iThrive Games in partnership with Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, iThrive Sim is an innovative virtual augmented reality experience that provides an opportunity for meaningful and engaging experiences. The sim is currently used with museum-based, hybrid, and virtual visitors, and in traditional educational spaces.

According to the website for MuseWeb, the host of the GLAMis, "The annual GLAMi (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) Awards recognize and celebrate innovative projects in the cultural heritage sector."

Susan E. Rivers, PhD, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive, sees immersive games as a true opportunity to support visitors in social and emotional learning: "Play is important for all of us," she said. "It brings us together in community. Play helps us create new solutions to problems...solutions we wouldn't have thought of otherwise."

iThrive Games is pleased to offer three iThrive Sim civics scenarios for learners who are high school aged and older: Lives in Balance, which explores collaboration and compromise during a pandemic, Leading Through Crisis, which explores responsible decision making during a critical event, and Follow the Facts, which explores media literacy during a natural disaster.

Mira Cohen, Director of Education at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, says the virtual simulation was an important way to keep visitors connected during the pandemic, and beyond. "Through engaging audiences in meaningful and fun in-depth experiences, using historical records and government documents, we are able to increase our audience base, keep our current audience base engaged and further appreciation for the value of record keeping to our democracy, she said."

To learn more about iThrive Sim, visit https://ithrivegames.org/ithrive-sim/. To learn more about additional programs at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, visit https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/.

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Media Contact
Eghosa Asemota
eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org

About iThrive Games
iThrive Games prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership towards a world where all have the voice, choice, and agency to reach their full potential. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient.

Exploring Juvenile Justice and Mental Health with Teen Game Designers (Part 2)

By iThrive Games

Part 1 of this series includes an overview of iThrive's Juvenile Justice System project and the framework for the Game Design Studio program. Click here to read Part 1.

It's called The Run Around. The goal of the board game is to be the first player to move all of your game pieces out of Maximum Security prison to Home. It's hard. It's frustrating. There are tons of setbacks. And it reflects the experiences of the youth designers who made it. The creative act, in the game design process, is part of how the designers cope with their experiences. 

‟We tried to shape the game the way the justice system is," said K.C., one of the designers of The Run Around. ‟And we tried to base our directions and rules on what would happen in real life. One of them was like, when we are on parole or talk to our case worker, any little thing can get us put back into the predicament that we were in before. So we made the rules and regulations in the game to show that. It was to show how hard it is for you to get out." 

While the subject matter was intense, K.C. found the design process enjoyable.

‟It was so fun," she said. ‟It was fun to see the finished product. It was fun making the rules and seeing other people get frustrated playing it [because our experience in the system is just as frustrating]. It was like when we were making the game, we were making it so people would get irritated because they wouldn't be able to win. And then seeing that they really did get mad. It was fun watching it become what it is now." 

Another game designer was lit up by the aesthetic of the game. 

‟I like the graphic designs of what we created," said R.D. "I like the clothes they have on. It looks very much like society right now."

mental health juvenile justice

K.C. agreed, saying, ‟They each have their own individuality."

Players advance their character through the game via the Choice cards. The Choice deck is stacked though. Only a few of the cards will actually allow you to leave prison. But watch out for traps! Landing on a Trap spot—and there are many—will cause you to move backward, lose a turn, or be sent back to prison. 

R.D. sees the toughness of the game as a key design choice to add realism.

‟For guys who have been in jail, I feel like they can relate to it," he said. ‟A lot of stuff said in the scenarios in the game...it's realistic."

mental health juvenile justice

The game designers put a lot of intentionality into the design of the six characters, named Naomi, Marven, Jay, James, Ty, and Ace.  

‟I created Marven," said M.A. "I relate a lot to Marven because my charge was similar. He gets caught up with friends and drugs and has to go to trial. People rat each other out." 

For M.A, it wasn't just the circumstances that he channeled into the game. It was also the emotions.

‟The same thing with depression and anxiety happened to me while I was waiting for trial," he said. 

And the final step of the game design process, which is to act, is set to happen over the next few months. The game designers will use The Run Around in workshops they are both designing and facilitating for stakeholders from the juvenile justice system in Boston beginning in May. They are also set to share their experiences at Games For Change this June. They are hoping that by sharing their experiences, decision makers can begin to create better support for youth who are system involved.

mental health juvenile justice

‟Anyone who goes through this has these feelings and the fact that it's a person of color doesn't make it any better," said M.A.

Exploring Juvenile Justice and Mental Health with Teen Game Designers (Part 1)

By iThrive Games

Since 2019, iThrive Games has been collaborating with partners to use games and game design to highlight the voices of Black youth involved with the juvenile justice system. Inequity in the provision of mental health services on the basis of race before, during, and after system involvement negatively impacts the health, well-being, employment opportunities, educational attainment, and relationships of individuals of color. Youth in our program use game design techniques to express their lived experiences with the justice system. They use the games they design to engage stakeholders in conversations about the inequities within the system and to identify how the systems could be improved to better meet the mental health needs of other young people who are subjected to the cradle-to-prison pipeline. 

The current cohort of youth hails from Boston. The participants have been system involved at some point of their lives and now have a round of game development under their belts. For the purposes of this article, we'll use initials for the names of the participants. 

These youth designers enhanced and completed a game called The Run Around, which was initially prototyped by an earlier cohort. The Run Around board game helps youth-serving adults and stakeholders understand how youth feel and explore opportunities to improve services and experiences for youth. The gameplay provides an opportunity to have important conversations around critical questions for supporting youth: how can we help youth who are getting out of the system reintegrate successfully to stable living?  How can we better understand the feelings and behaviors young people grapple with to provide the support they need before being swept into the system, and while in the system?

The youth designers created this game using iThrive's "Surfacing-Coping-Acting" co-design cycle. The goal of this approach is to invite teens to raise up (surface) and work productively (cope and act) with the experiences that make adolescence both an incredible and vulnerable developmental stage. 

"Social and emotional learning happens in community," said Susan Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of iThrive Games. "Belonging is key to our sense of wellbeing-especially so for teens as their brains continue to develop. Our co-design process not only supports well-being of the youth designers at this moment, but it also allows them to pay it forward by suggesting wellbeing supports for other youth who are involved with the system."

In the surfacing part of the design cycle, the youth designers shared some of the experiences they had when they were involved with the system. By sharing their experiences with each other, they validated one another's experiences and did the healing work listening and being listened to. Sharing difficult stories with others is one proven way to manage the discomfort and to challenge any fears that we're different or alone in our struggles.

K.C. shared what she thought was most important for people to understand about her experience.

"...It isn't easy at all. And we do go through struggles that we need help with," she said. "The world needs to know that the minority community goes through. It's sad that a lot of people in the world don't understand how messed up the justice system or school system is for minorities in the US today." 

M.A. found that using his experience to design a game reinforced something he felt he already knew.

"It wasn't a surprise but when I saw it being implemented in the game, I thought, oh, that's dope," he said. "The only white character in the game starts off in minimum security. That was an insight...because he's white he goes in minimum not maximum."

"Game design has the power to help youth understand the systems that impact their lives," said Janelle Ridley, Founder of Transition HOPE. "In community, by sharing experiences and reflecting together, they can move toward how best to use their own agency to impact those systems."

The act of sharing and creating together offered an opportunity for social and emotional learning for the game designers. 

"I knew it took a lot to make a game," said M.A.  "It takes more than a lot. It takes everybody. Everyone brings a different skill. It takes a lot of teamwork.  That's what I took away from the experience."


Part 2 of this series will explore the creation of the game and plans to share it with stakeholders.

 

iThrive Sim Named a Finalist for Two 2021 EdTech Cool Tool Awards

By iThrive Games
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 6, 2021

BOSTON—iThrive Sim is an EdTech Awards 2021 finalist in the categories of Games for Learning/Simulation Solution and New Products and Services. Created by iThrive Games and developed in partnership with the makers of the Situation Room Experience, the civics-based role-playing simulation features scenarios that make civics come alive for teens.

"iThrive Games believes that games and game design can help equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient," said Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D., Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games. "We are honored to be recognized for creating a tech-enabled role playing game that supports educators in creating engagement around civics—one of the most important topics in the classroom today." 

The EdTech Awards recognizes people in and around education for outstanding contributions in transforming education through technology to enrich the lives of learners everywhere. Celebrating its 11th year, the US-based program is the largest recognition program in all of education technology, recognizing the biggest names in edtech.

"The worldwide pandemic put education and training to the test, but remote learning and working—in many unexpected ways—ultimately brought us closer," said Victor Rivero, who as Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest, oversees the program.

As a finalist, iThrive Sim and the other finalists and winners were selected from the larger field and judged based on various criteria, including pedagogical workability, efficacy and results, support, clarity, value and potential.

"We are pleased to see iThrive being recognized for its offerings for teens and educators," said Dorothy Batten, Founder of iThrive Games. "And we are inspired to work even harder to support teachers in embedding social and emotional learning in core content."

iThrive Sim can be used in virtual, hybrid, or in-person classrooms. Visit iThrivegames.org to learn more about iThrive Sim.

###

MEDIA CONTACT
Eghosa Asemota
eghosa.asemota[at]ithrivegames.org

ABOUT ITHRIVE GAMES
iThrive Games prepares teens to thrive by meeting them where they are and working in partnership towards a world where all have the voice, choice, and agency to reach their full potential. We use games and game design to equip teens with the social and emotional skills they need to be healthy and resilient.

The Science of Political Division and How SEL Skills Respond to It

By iThrive Games

It's no secret that division and political sectarianism are on the rise. How and when do they spill over into the classroom? As teachers teach civics, their role is to highlight the work of participating in democracy. Though they are not advocating for one party over another, the end goal is to help students understand how each person can responsibly engage in democracy. 

This video from the Washington Post sparked in us a few ideas about how tools such as our role-playing simulation platform, iThrive Sim, might help teachers give students the opportunity to practice bridging  this division and come to shared understanding. 

First, experts in the video share a few of the building blocks of political division:

  • Othering: Seeing people as part of an out group, and having a favoritism for the in group
  • Aversion: Having a deep distaste or dislike for the out group
  • Moralization: Seeing people from the out group as on the other side of a moral divide and having different values than you 

These components of political division can make us feel threatened by what we perceive as the "other side," activating our fear response. An unchecked fear response can result in a range of behaviors, from not talking to or associating with those you perceive to be on the "other side" to out-and-out violence. This cycle is exacerbated by an eroded sense of shared reality (which will sound familiar if you read the RAND report on Truth Decay).

The experts offer a few suggestions for interrupting this cycle of political division:

  • De-escalate conflict by talking about values that the other person cares about
  • Take a step back and do a gut check to see if the threat you're feeling is real or perceived
  • Ensure you still see the humanity in the other person and are not seeing them as a caricature
Interrupting the Cycle of Political Division with SEL and Play

We believe that the connective power of play supports the nurturing of social-emotional skills that help interrupt cycles of political division. Our civics-centered role-playing simulations are built on this belief, helping teachers prepare students to navigate conflict as they engage in democracy today and in the future.

Our SEL-rich role-playing simulation, iThrive Sim: Lives in Balance, invites students to play the role of government officials who are navigating making the best possible decisions for their constituents during a pandemic. Students practice social-emotional skills aligned with interrupting the cycle of division, such as:

  • Describing the balance of individual rights and responsibilities in an organized society 
  • Practicing negotiating and compromising with people who don't share their point of view 
  • Advocating for their own and others' interests
  • Demonstrating self-management while under stress

Additionally, our social and emotional learning-focused curricular surrounds support students in practicing emotional awareness and doing deep reflection. To learn how to bring this free experience to your classroom, visit our website

We know this isn't the solution to the deep divide that teachers help students learn to navigate, but we see it as a step toward our desired future—a future that upholds democracy, regardless of political affiliation, while creating an equitable environment for all.  

Conflict Resolution: Using Role Play to Practice Disagreeing Respectfully

By iThrive Games

Solutions to big problems can arise from good debate. There is power in learning to disagree well, which we believe means maintaining respect for the humanity of the other person. A foundational aspect of our view that high school civics skills are skills for life is that disagreeing well is part of being an active participant in democracy. And being able to resolve conflict is part of being in relationship with others. 

The good news is that disagreeing well is a skill that can be taught, especially in the context of play. Teens today benefit from game-based educational experiences such as iThrive Sim, which teaches them how to disagree with respect so they and their peers can solve problems by collaborating across different perspectives. 

When we look to science to see how to disagree well, one theme that comes up is to find common ground. A recent study in Nature Neuroscience found that when volunteers agreed, they had more confidence in their own decisions and the decisions of others, and when they disagreed, they began to have less confidence in the view of others. This may seem anecdotally obvious (been in an argument lately?) but it does point a way toward disagreeing well-and that is to find common ground. Many disagreements, when we take the time to dig deeper, may have some hidden overlapping beliefs. 

With iThrive Sim, high school students practice finding common ground through role-playing scenarios. In our Lives in Balance scenario, students play the role of government officials trying to decide how to govern during a global pandemic. We have watched hundreds of students play the game and find ways to practice conflict resolution as they discuss different decisions. The most interesting playtests are those in which the students begin to grapple with what they have in common even as they debate their competing interests.

Lives in Balance enriches social studies and civics classes as teens try on negotiating and compromising with people who don't share their point of view and they balance advocating for their own and others' interests—all while practicing responsible decision-making. 

We are also playtesting two new scenarios: Leading Through Crisis, where students play members of a crisis response team grappling with the 25th amendment, and Follow the Facts, where students play journalists practicing information literacy as they report on a natural disaster with differing accounts of what's true. 

Bring Lives in Balance to your class or contact us to playtest our other two scenarios.