In ED ZED OMEGA, seven high school students who “dropped out loud” from high school sparked dialogs about the quality and direction of education today.
In our fiction, over the summer of 2012 a group of Minneapolis high school students decided not to return to school in the fall. They were very open, even vocal, about their reasons. They talked with each other and posted videos to their Facebook pages. They debated the textbook justifications for traditional education with people online. They discovered many alternative educational paths and posed questions to the people who have walked them. They listened hard as people told their stories about high school – what worked, what didn’t. Everybody, it seemed, has something to say about school.
The seven “Zed Omega” students had more than an academic interest. Day by day and week by week, they acted on what they were learning.
A few adults took an interest in what they were doing: Mary Johnson, a guidance counselor, and Alan Greye and Zephyr Yilmaz, who set up a hub site for them at edzedomega.org. At the site the Zed Omegas hammered in the wayposts of their individual journeys: they posted emails they had received, audio of phone calls, links to online resources, and videos of themselves thinking their thoughts and living their lives. They engaged other teen and young adult voices. By the end of the fall semester, the Zed Omegas had amassed 800 pieces of evidence illustrating the current state of education from the inside point of view.
Along the way, a fascinating thing happened. People noticed how the Zed Omegas opened up the dialog about education. Agree with them or not, the Zed Omegas asked the questions that got people talking about how and what young people should learn. The Zed Omegas met students in high schools and were twice invited to lead activities during teen events at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Their presence in person brought questions about purposes and methods of school out of the abstract into the immediate and real.
The Zed Omega characters seemed real because the young actors playing them were channeling aspects of their real-life experience – and because the characters were indeed unscripted. People play-interacted with the Zed Omegas; freed from real-life consequence, people could tell the Zed Omegas what they truly thought. As an “authentic fiction,” the script for each Zed Omega was written in real time by the realistic encounters the character had with people interacting with the game.
Authentic fiction is an emerging genre of storymaking, made possible by online social media and other communication platforms. In an authentic fiction, instigators create a story space but the story itself is multi-authored via crowdsourcing: it emerges organically to fill the story space. Other than ED ZED OMEGA, WORLD WITHOUT OIL is the most prominent example (2007).
Public media, educators and cultural institutions follow developments in authentic fiction because its strengths map to their missions. Authentic fictions are easy to play, scale to large numbers of participants, encourage peer-peer learning, and leverage existing social media to reach the widest possible demographics. As serious play, authentic fictions open people to new ideas; although they are fictions, the authenticity of the experiences often creates lasting impressions on participants and observers.