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JoLT Summit Engineers Playful Innovation for Leadership Development

Media leaders, game design students and journalists came together to ask how leaders can encourage and sustain disruption.

The JoLT Summit brought together industry leaders, game designers and journalists to ask how media leaders can encourage and sustain disruption.

Can game design thinking work in the newsroom? Feedback from a recent summit at  American University (AU) points to “yes.”

Media leaders from Vox, The Washington Post, Gannett, USA Today and The Atlantic joined game designers and systems thinkers at the AU School of Communication (SOC) this spring for the first JoLT Summit to explore the intersection between engagement design and disruptive leadership.  

The JoLT initiative in game design and disruptive media leadership, made possible through a $250,000 Knight Foundation philanthropic grant, launched in January with an impressive roster of Student and Professional Fellows, who have helped to shape both the initiative and the summit.

The March summit was one of a series of events to drill down on how game design thinking user-centric, engagement-driven and iterative can help newsroom leaders.

“The media industry is ripe for mass disruption; however, many news executives have little-to-no idea how to transition into that future. JoLT can help these leaders by giving them frameworks to think broadly about how media can be practiced in a world where users have agency and act as republishers,” said Tory Hargro, design manager, USA Today and a JoLT Professional Fellow.

Summit participants, who included experts from Deloitte, IDEO, the Newseum and the Harvard Business School, had been carefully selected by the JoLT team to help propel the project forward in its quest to build and sustain responsive and responsible innovation in journalism and media.

"I love this idea of pumping design and game strategy thinking into newsrooms," said JoLT Facilitator Amy Eisman, a former journalist who directs SOC’s Master of Arts in Media Entrepreneurship program. "I am blown away by how crisply game designers think. They don't see limitations, they see problems to solve. Their approach is very refreshing and very relevant."

The day launched with a series of “JoLTs!” short, focused presentations to ground participants in the four pillars of JoLT: Game Design, Systems Thinking, Disruptive Leadership, and Journalism and Media. They were presented by Lindsay Grace, American University; Ann Kim, IDEO; Abed Ali, Deloitte; and Matt Thompson, Atlantic Media, and a JoLT Professional Fellow. Each presentation led to an intense discussion of ways to help foster and sustain a culture of healthy disruption.

“What has stuck with me most from the JoLT Summit is the concept of ‘disruptive leadership,’ says Andi McDaniel, director of content strategy and innovation for Twin Cities Public Television. “Prior to the gathering, I hadn't thought about the role of innovators at legacy institutions in those terms and the summit gave me a framework for understanding both what my role is, and why it's important to a healthy media ecosystem.”

The three JoLT Student Fellows, who are full-time students in AU’s Master of Arts in Game Design program, then facilitated a designed engagement called “Spark,” a game focused on compelling  teams to tell stories through tweets under increasingly restrictive rules. JoLT Student Fellow Kelli Dunlap explained, “We wanted to create an experience which reflected current industry limitations and struggles while simultaneously creating a safe space to stoke creativity and innovation.”

The game was followed by an opportunity for the fellows to capture immediate feedback on Spark so that it could be refined and improved. The back-and-forth between the designers and the players yielded lessons for all involved.

“There is immense value in embracing failure as an incentive to further explore, and we all should cherish feedback and input that will enable us to continually improve our products, our services and ourselves,” said Gannett Vice President of Product Mitch Gelman.

Because JoLT aims to put users at the center of the creative process, the next step involved crowdsourcing ideas to help determine what themes and topics JoLT should pursue as it moves forward.

Jeremy Gilbert of The Washington Post said, “All kinds of organizations face the same challenges: How do we challenge our culture and make ourselves better, how do we nurture the iconoclasts who can get us there and how can we have fun along the way.”

Building on the momentum of their efforts to date, the JoLT fellows will begin work on selected projects over the summer that will test some of the concepts raised in the summit.

Maggie Farley, an award-winning foreign correspondent at the Los Angeles Times and a JoLT Professional Fellow, said, “The summit pushed me to think of ways to create an experience out of information rather than just reporting it. The more personal connections we can create, the more engaged the news user will be.”