October 21, 2020

Learning in Another World via the ExoTerra Imagination Lab

The ExoTerra game challenges colonial narratives, and its associated paperwork is necessary to preserve the chance of publishing student work.

Like so many universities all around the world, the pandemic has resulted in massive upheaval, huge changes in curricular education, and a loss of in-person interaction at the University of Chicago. And for everyone, not just those in Chicago, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests have had a profound and positive impact on bringing awareness around systemic racial injustice.

So when I was asked by the College to develop tools for fellow faculty to adapt teaching during COVID, I had these lessons in mind, and I settled on trying for a carefully implemented, thoughtful, but unorthodox new teaching format: a role-playing game, like Model UN, but based in a virtual online community. Individual classes in all divisions of the university from STEM to arts could incorporate this pedagogy as a tool for students to apply their course knowledge. I decided to call it ExoTerra.

In ExoTerra, students imagine themselves on a space colony ship traveling from Earth to a newly terraformed planet where they must design a new world. The students are split into lab sections to design specific elements of the world. Thus, an economics course might be the committee in charge of designing the new world’s economic policies, an animal biology course its ocean biosphere, an architecture course its capital city, a philosophy course its educational curriculum, et cetera.

Of course, because of the history of the United States and of western European colonization’s impact on society, I was very aware of the connection between space colony narratives and Earth’s colonial history. I chose to center ExoTerra on space colonization precisely in order to engage the harmful legacy of colonialism in human history, and the problematic invocations of colonialism in some speculative fiction. As I wrote in the program proposal, “A course on postcolonial literature might develop a plan for the new society to address and memorialize the relationship between space colonization and Earth’s colonial histories, while an arts course might create maps, building designs, an anthem, or artworks for the new world,” and this and related issues were something I watched my students take incredibly seriously. The program intentionally problematizes the genre of space expansion narratives and games in order to push students to deconstruct these issues.

I’m thrilled with the results of this in my own class and on the general pedagogy of the university. In the last few months, my faculty collaborators have used ExoTerra as a tool to bring these issues into courses on subjects including climate change, the politics of health care, human rights, policing, education, and social inequality. It’s been incorporated into the America in the World Civilization course, which forefronts indigenous voices, as well as a variety of other Core and signature courses. When recruiting science fiction and fantasy authors as guest speakers and collaborators for the project, I have prioritized authors of color, indigenous voices, and authors whose work addresses issues of colonization and social and racial injustice.

But the world and pedagogy of ExoTerra goes far deeper than what the nearly 500 student players see as they create their personal characters and move through the pre-planned story game world (something akin to a Dungeons & Dragons module). There are also volunteers, who are helping me create the materials necessary to turn my world and story into a game. This includes the written game documents (such as in-world newspaper articles or puzzles) and technical aspects like video editing or programming. Volunteers include students, but also individuals from outside the University, including alumni, researchers at other institutions, and professionals working in fields from medicine to journalism. This was built into the program purposefully in order to create opportunities for students to professionally network in fields of interest.

The work of the writer volunteers is incredible and not to be undervalued, especially the students. One of my big hopes in the project is to publish an anthology afterward, a book that collects stories by various writers set in the game world I created, based on the prompts, events, plot, and characters I developed. The stories in the collection would be written by our volunteers, a mixture of our students, and established professional authors, including me. If this happens, all the writers, including the students, who are published will be paid and credited for their stories, and I intend to do my best to thank all the players and other project volunteers in the book as well—at least, I will thank as many as the publisher will allow! Sadly, anthologies typically don’t make very much money, but for a new writer—such as a student—having a story published alongside well-known writers can be a great career boost. That’s the biggest motivation both for me and the other professional writers who are helping to create an anthology: We are excited to help launch young writers’ careers.

There were many unseen hurdles to launching this radical new way of teaching, researching, and ultimately, writing. I asked my literary agent, a copyright lawyer, and University representatives to draw up paperwork that would best protect the possibility of publishing an anthology of stories set in the game world. All of them were excited with the potential for this endeavor and helped me with the intellectual property and waivers I needed to obtain from students in order to proceed. In order to ensure the anthology could be published, players were asked to sign a waiver, similar to waivers typical in commercial game development, which was substantially guided by and wholly approved by University legal counsel. University administrators were part of the process at every step and are enthusiastic at the prospect of the anthology’s publication, which will celebrate the University’s development of this innovative new pedagogy as one of the positive fruits of this difficult time. Serving as the copyright holder and main editor for the anthology places a great ethical burden upon me, and I am honored by the trust the students and participating writers are placing in me. We hope that after all contributing writers are paid for their stories there will be enough to donate some of the anthology’s proceeds to the College. I intend to be both transparent and accountable at every stage for how I handle the anthology and the course of ExoTerra, which I hope will be a great career step for an amazing group of young writers and young thinkers.

I extend a very sincere invitation: I and the ExoTerra team members who join me in signing this letter are happy to be contacted with further questions and to share game documents with anyone interested in learning more.

Ada Palmer

The following ExoTerra participants, collaborators, and members of the University community have signed on to this statement to indicate their willingness to answer questions about the project:

Ada Palmer, Associate Professor of History, Author
Ben Indeglia, Class of 2022
Amanda Chacón, Class of 2024
Samuel Johnson, Class of 2024
Anthony Mojave Thomas, Library Software Developer
J.D. Morancy, Class of 2022
Lisa Rosen, Senior Lecturer and Associate Director, Committee on Education
Chad Broughton, Associate Instructional Professor, Public Policy
Matthew Kruer, Assistant Professor of History, University of Chicago
Luke Bretscher, Class of 2015
Eric Jiahan Zhao, Class of 2023
Alon Levy, Research Scholar, Marron Institute of Urban Research
Kevin Martin, Pulmonary / Critical Care Physician
Ronan M. O’Callaghan, Class of 2023
Jo Walton, Science Fiction writer
Laura Ribeiro, Class of 2023
Hanna Manente Nunes, PhD Candidate in Latin American History
Kristen Hendricks, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Rutgers University
Samuel F. Birkenkamp, Entrepreneur (Teaologie LLC)
Matthew Ender, Software Engineer
Matt Granoff, English Teacher
Elise Darragh-Ford, PhD Student in Physics, Class of 2019
Clarissa Mullig, Class of 2022
Zachary Kurland, Class of 2021
Gregory Montoya-Mora, PhD Candidate in United States History
Julian Stiel, Class of 2024