17 Feb

Games and Risk Management

The game consists of a total of six 3-minute levels, each getting progressively more difficult.  The game takes place on a fictional planet named Alora, one that is constantly threatened by incoming comets. The player tries to develop their city on Alora within this context of risk and they need to make decisions about when to invest finite resources in development while managing protection, research and insurance. The game encourages players to invest in all three modes of risk management, but is open to user discretion and the critical assessment of individual risks or circumstance. For example, in the first level where threats from comets are less substantial, there is less need for insurance. But it would be near impossible to pass the fourth level without insurance.

The game consists of a total of six 3-minute levels, each getting progressively more difficult. The game takes place on a fictional planet named Alora, one that is constantly threatened by incoming comets. The player tries to develop their city on Alora within this context of risk and they need to make decisions about when to invest finite resources in development while managing protection, research and insurance. The game encourages players to invest in all three modes of risk management, but is open to user discretion and the critical assessment of individual risks or circumstance. For example, in the first level where threats from comets are less substantial, there is less need for insurance. But it would be near impossible to pass the fourth level without insurance.

When the World Bank Institute made plans for a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) about the 2014 World Development Report, they decided to include an online game to explicate and frame the course content, believing that risk management is a very playable, highly complex system of decision-making introduced or amplified by climate change. The Development Report itself served as the centerpiece of this activity.

With an accelerated two month timeframe and a partnership with The Engagement Lab at Emerson College, the project was taken from conceptualization through production; the end result was Risk Horizon, a real-time strategy game about the balancing of three major variables in the development context: protection, insurance, and research. A success by any measure, it was released in October 2014 and within a week was played over 9600 times by 7184 players in 167 countries. MOOC students were required to play the game and asked to produce a 250-word reflection that connected learning in the game to their real world context.

Meta discussions and critical thinking

Because Risk Horizon was a required part of the MOOC, there was some resistance from students who didn’t understand why they were “being forced to play a game.” During the game, there was discussion in the MOOC forums wherein people questioned whether or not it was an appropriate form for their learning to take. These questions were typically met with responses from other students who shared game strategies and advocated for the value of the game as a learning strategy. As the game was a required activity, voluntary participation was not possible, threatening the fortitude of the magic circle, or that other space or state of play wherein players tacitly agree to the rules and norms of the game. This was offset, we believe, by the learning potential that emerged from the tension of it being required. The forum discussions productively focused on the question of “why a game?”, motivating students to step outside the system and critically assess the game design, structure and learning goals. Rarely do learners interrogate the logic of the learning system itself, where they question the balance of goals and incentives, the aesthetics and representation of content, and the morality of having fun while learning; Risk Horizon provided that opportunity for critical thinking towards the structure, as well as reflection about their place within it.

Learning Outcomes from the Game Itself

Beyond the meta-discussion about the game, we were able to identify some key learning outcomes in in gameplay. The data from the game showed that players who did the best distributed their resources more wisely. The research mechanic in the game requires the player to hold their mouse (or finger) over an incoming comet to learn about its estimated severity and chance of collision. The longer the player hovers over the comet, the more “early warning time” the player receives in case of a direct hit. Early warning time allows the player to draw connections between structures to amplify protection against an impending threat. The graph below shows that the players who did best spent more time researching threats. The importance of research was a key goal in the Development Report and it is clearly reflected in the player data.


Similarly, the average amount of resources spent on protection rose with each level, (except level 2). This is significant because it shows that players initially over-protected, corrected for that bias in level 2, and then progressively invested more in protection in subsequent levels. This increase in protection demonstrates that players learned how best to play the game the more they played it. This “learning while playing” is an important affordance of game-based pedagogy in that it demonstrates the tolerance of failure and experimentation towards mastery.

The data from Risk Horizon confirms what game-based pedagogy has identified: games are effective vehicles for teaching decision-making within complex systems. In the Global Development MOOC, this was reflected through the learner’s generation of reflective capacity through meta-game analysis, as well as their capacity for balancing and navigating the variables within a complex system. Risk Horizon, as such, was a layered learning activity, one promoting critical thinking and reflective capacity simultaneously.



07 Oct

Games in Egypt

During the week of the UN’s General Assembly meeting, the UNDP innovation team organized a series of workshops throughout the world as part of a networked event called Shift Week (with the implied meaning of shifting thinking in a range of sectors). Twenty-one workshops were put together on a range of topics from big data to crowdfunding, and took place in a range of countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.

Poster for public event in Cairo

I was invited to give a talk and facilitate a workshop on “games and gamification” in Cairo, Egypt. The goals, at first, were fairly clear: work with Egyptians and a few people from select UNDP country offices (including Cyprus, Macedonia, and Bhutan) to explore how games and game design could impact the work of development. Together with my colleague Steve Walter, managing director of the Engagement Lab, I headed to Cairo. During our four days in the city, we met with several organizations devoted to ITC and entrepreneurship (including TIEC and ITI), gave a talk to the local UNDP staff, presented a public lecture at the Greek Campus near Tahrir Square and provided a two-day workshop at ICECairo, a remarkable maker space in the same neighborhood, for youth throughout Cairo and northern Egypt. Over 600 people signed up for the public lecture and nearly 300 were in attendance, with 128 streaming it online. About 250 people applied to participate in the two-day workshop and 40 were accepted. These 40 people were intensely engaged throughout the workshop, and as a condition of their participation, agreed to devote two-hours a week for the next six months to continued work on their projects.

The overwhelming interest in the topic was exhilarating, if not a bit surprising. Why would so many Egyptians be interested in games for development? As it turns out, they weren’t. Most were interested in gamification as a business strategy. They figured that adding game elements to web development or existing products would enhance interest in their business. So when Steve and I presented a critique of gamification in its typical form as rote application of user experience strategies, and called for a greater emphasis on play as a principle of engagement, at first we were met with some confused, if not disappointed reactions. Many attendees of the public talk wanted to know the step-by-step strategy of gamification. When do you give out points and what online actions should trigger a badge? We challenged those assumptions—there is no simple solution to game design, motivated users are not necessarily engaged in a larger social context—we asserted. But many of the youth in attendance were un- or underemployed and they were looking for business opportunities. Games for development, in their minds, were games that helped them find jobs. They were looking for job skills, not abstractions about game design for development. Development was their employment. Period.


Winning group working on the design of TrashIt

This gave me pause. I never imagined that the development context of games should be focused on job skills. Our talk forwarded a theoretical argument about the centrality of play for civic and political engagement within a critique of gamification. Our workshop, too, resisted the addition of game mechanics to exiting processes in favor of a thoughtful design of playful experiences. With that conceit, we guided participants through the process of ideation, paper prototyping and play testing. They received hands on experience designing analog games, and explored the nuances of how games work and what they can do. Nine groups formed around areas of concern expressed by the participants, ranging from water management and green development to education and social innovation. At the end, participants voted on the best game. The winner was a game called “TrashIt,” a physical/board game about recycling and “upcylcing” for school kids in Egypt. The game was designed to create interactions between students and teachers, and generate creative thinking about how best to reuse materials in the classroom. By the end of the workshop, the game was playable and holds great promise for future development, either as an analog game or something digital and more scalable. The hope is that some members of the group will continue to work on the project and take it to the next phase.

Even though many people expected that they were going to gain immediately applicable job skills from the workshop, that was probably not what they received. They did, however, explore the possibilities of games and game-based thinking for their work and many participants were effusive about the experience. Several people approached us at the end of the workshop to say that they now think completely differently about games and gamification and the possibilities for both development and employment. What we could actually offer to Egyptians was a way of thinking that bridged social and civic solutions to development problems with the emerging markets in the country. While we didn’t disclose the magical checklist of gamified design, we provided a level of critical thinking and design experience that can hopefully lead to the creation of new social enterprises in the country.

As I mentioned, the workshop participants agreed to continue working on their projects for 1-2 hours a week. I imagine there will be some drop-off, but if the majority or even half c

Groups working on initial game designs

Groups working on initial game designs

ontinue at that pace, I have no doubt that something significant will emerge from the two days. While I feel great about the engagement of the participants and the content of the workshop, the real value in us coming from another country and organizing this event in Egypt was not the delivery of new knowledge; instead, the value of the game workshop in Egypt was establishing the context for self organization and networking around common interest and passions. Whether people left the workshop inspired to make games for social impact or to make a gamified website, they also left connected to others with similar interests and now a shared, rather intense experience of designing games.

We went to Egypt to inspire people to think through games as a mechanism for social change. I hope that happened. I know, however, that I was inspired. To talk to people about civic action in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was humbling. Egyptians know political unrest, they know uncertainty and they know the potential power of mobilization. Coming in from the outside, there was nothing we could offer in this regard. But, in our conversations, it is clear that there is palpable fatigue with the existing strategies for political and civic expression. Gathering in Tahrir Square in political protest may not be the most effective strategy anymore. So while we could make no normative assumptions about what a game could or should do in Egypt, we could propose new frameworks, constructs, and processes for the design and application of civic expression and action.  We didn’t leave with the killer game, as perhaps we had naively set out to do. We did leave with a strong desire to work with people in Egypt to aid in the emergence of games and game-based processes that are uniquely Egyptian.

12 Sep

Does play placate?

When people are asked to play a game to address a civic or social problem, are they purposely being distanced from the problem? Games, when they work, put players into a space of play, a space that is outside of everyday life, often independent of the barriers and consequences that comprise the everyday. So, when people play a game to open dialogue about corruption in Moldova, or play a game to facilitate cooperation on peace building efforts in Cyprus, the question is not simply “what is the experience of playing,” but also “what are the reasons for making or deploying the game and creating the social position of ‘player'”?

Students at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change design and playtest a game about corruption in Moldova.

Over the last several years, I have been involved in many game efforts with development and humanitarian organizations, working to develop games for collaboration, understanding, and dialogue all over the world. At the end of the month, I will be leading game design workshops in Egypt and in the Kingdom of Bhutan, each in partnership with the UNDP and local youth leaders to help them conceive of and deploy game-based approaches in their local context. As a game designer and researcher, I am interested in the connection between the game (as intervention) and the stated social problem. But what has been capturing my interest lately is  the political and social context in which a game gets conceived, designed and deployed. This last piece is an under recognized part of any game design process, especially when it’s in partnership with a political or development organization.

What does it mean for a government to make a player? Can players transcend the systems of play in which they operate to exercise real power? Does play placate? Or can the state of play mobilize and empower players to act? I’m going to attempt to answer these questions by looking at the context of game design within organizations. When and why do organizations decide to make games? What are their expectations of a game process? And what are the political or social gains for the game designer (or the organization initiating the design)?

I have interviewed over fifty organizations and game designers to try understand the meta-game design process that informs when, why and how games get designed and played. These questions will be the foundation for the next couple of blog posts, and I’m eager to hear thoughts and opinions on the topic.

24 Feb

Games versus Gamification in the Design of Systems for Social or Civic Action

In designing a game to address social or civic problems, there are always two parallel or conflicting goals: the goal of the game and the civic goal. The goal of the game is the prelusory goal, it exists within the game itself. The civic goal is what might be called extralusory, it exists outside of the game, although it often provides motivation or context for playing. For example, in a game like Spent, the goal to learn about poverty and personal budgeting is extralusory – it might be a reason to play the game, and it might motivate the player throughout the game, but it is not the goal a player has within the game. And there is typically further nuance where there is a distinction between the goal of the sponsoring organization or group (i.e. to fight poverty) and the goal of an individual player (i.e. to learn about poverty).  The challenge for the game designer, then, is to connect the multiple facets of the extralusor goals(s) with the prelusory goal.

This is what makes game design different from other sorts of design. In designing a non-game web platform, the designer would want to create parity between the goals of the system and the goals of the user. A website about poverty reduction would be designed around the user’s motivation to learn more about poverty reduction.  But in a game, where the act of playing necessitates a set of rules set apart from the rules of everyday life, the player behaves very different than the user. The player wants to play a game, regardless if she comes to it on her own or a teacher tells her to do it, she is motivated by the act of playing within a system. Consider Spent again. It has an extralusory goal of fighting poverty, but the player enters into the game with the prelusory goal of balancing her budget for as long as possible. She may not consider the extralusory goals when setting out to play the game; in fact, it’s probably best for the experience of gameplay that she doesn’t. And herein lies the challenge of designing games for social impact—finding the points of convergence between the lusory and extralusory. The game has social impact only when the player makes a conscious or unconscious connection between the two, without sacrificing the integrity of the game.

Too often, organizations seeking to “use” games resort to “gamification” as a means of motivating very specific, and predefined behaviors, where game mechanics (points, badges, etc.) are integrated into a system to encourage and reward certain behaviors. To gamify a system is to invite users into a system because of their extralusory goals, while using lusory goals as a means of encouraging the extralusory. The goal of a system for the user might be to “fight poverty,” but it is not to play the game—the user is given game-like rewards to motivate out-of-game behavior. While gamified systems have demonstrated effectiveness in generating more predefined actions—they can make people check in to places on Foursquare or accomplish basic tasks at work through Badgeville—absent play, they do little to motivate the unexpected or to inspire a rethinking of values or social context. A game, on the other hand, is meant to reshape expectations of values or social context. Games that encourage players to play the game while contextualizing play within a larger system, are not simply seeking to amplify predetermined behaviors, they are augmenting those behaviors through play.

In short, a game is not a series of mechanics within a fortified system; it is a system that is fundamentally and necessarily playable.

25 Oct

Why We Engage: How Theories of Human Behavior Contribute to Our Understanding of Civic Engagement in a Digital Era

For the last several years, the Engagement Game Lab has been doing research on the civic impacts of digital tools for democracy and community engagement. We have developed several games and tools and have taken a case study approach to understanding how they impact civic life. One of our game projects, Community PlanIt, has been played in over ten cities in North America and Europe, with each implementation providing unique insights into the intersections between civic technologies and community.

In 2010, a video game was used to inform the master planning process in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

But as we got deeper into this work, we felt increasingly without an academic home. There are individual scholars working in this area, including people like Marcus Foth, Stephen Coleman, Ethan Zuckerman, and several academic centers such as the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the GovLab at NYU, but there is no coherent literature or connective tissue. So as we continued to explore the intersections of technology and civic engagement and sought to properly ground the work within academic literatures, it became difficult to achieve clarity on the desired outcomes of our investigations. Was our goal to understand the nuances of the media or the intricacies of democratic process? And what kind of questions, through what academic literatures, could produce the best answers?

I’m trained as a media theorist with a focus on location-based media, but my questions about the media quickly got entangled with questions about democracy and civic life. My colleague and collaborator Jesse Baldwin-Philippi is a political communication scholar who specializes in campaigns and civic engagement, but she was confronted with disciplinary limitations as well. What happens when democratic processes are augmented by digital communication? What are the political, civic and social conditions that necessitate new tools and new approaches? How is trust generated and distributed differently across digital networks than across physical ones?

These questions fundamentally cut across disciplines. So we set out to review the literature on human behavior and civic engagement across multiple fields in the social sciences, including communications, social psychology, behavioral economics and sociology, with the goal of establishing a groundwork on which the field of civic media can be built. Despite our grand aspirations, however, the document we produced did not end up defining a field; but it does, I hope, bring together some foundational research and terms that can spark debate in what is clearly an emerging field. This literature review is meant to clarify common questions and concerns, and provide some background into the rich literature that preceded our current moment of crisis where we are collectively confronted with the need to understand how digital media is transforming democracy and civic life.

As part of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society working paper series, we are pleased to present this literature review.

11 Sep

Engagement Games

Serious games are sometimes defined as games that have purposeful design – games that aim to teach, motivate, or persuade its players. They are mostly used in classrooms, for teaching content ranging from science to civics. And the research on games and learning is significant, with scholars from a range of disciplines attempting to understand why games are particularly suited for specific kinds of learning.

I am interested in how games can be used to extend learning into deliberate actions take by players. In fact, at the Engagement Game Lab, we are designing games that seek to push the limits between play and civic action, such as organizing a community, reporting problems to government, advocating for causes, etc. Games where the acts of play are themselves civic actions are what I call “engagement games.” These games deliberately disrupt the “magic circle” of gameplay, where play takes place in a space apart from everyday life. In an engagement game, the game facilitates actions that have implications beyond the game. This is different than gamification, which adds game mechanics to actions in order to motivate them; an engagement game blurs the line between play and action, qualitatively transforming the action through play.

I began thinking about this with our game Community PlanIt that makes planning (education, urban, or policy) playful by framing an official planning process as a series of missions that result in the funding of real-world causes. This game forced me to consider the implications of a game that fails to respect the magic circle, a game where play has consequences and is not sufficiently distinct from everyday life. I began to wonder if the porousness of the magic circle could be a unique design consideration of engagement games. We designed Civic Seed with this in mind. It is a game designed to teach university students to “do” civic work with community partners. But, the actions taken within the game are compiled into a “civic resume” that players can share with community partners or faculty. This complexity of attaching consequence to play is the precise tension we are eager to pursue.

This is not because we think disrupting the magic circle makes better games, but because we think that play can be more effectively deployed in real civic contexts, and games can be a vehicle through which to make that happen. In my next couple of blog posts, I will look at each of our new games and discuss how they function as “engagement game” and how the strategic blurring of the magic circle can be productively deployed in civic life.

31 May

Goals of Play

Over the last year, we have discovered quite a lot about play. In our Community PlanIt research, in particular, we have seen that the simple framing of an “official process” as a game provides players with the permission to play. This permission alleviates the pressures of participation by diversifying the paths one takes to express themselves. Instead of just answering a question in an online poll that would serve as an official record of opinion, Community PlanIt, even though it also serves as an official record, gives players room to experiment with ideas and room to fail safely.

I have assumed for some time that the permission to play works pretty much the same way for players, regardless of who they are. But now I am fairly certain this assumption is wrong. When children play games, there is often something very different at stake. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim urges us to remember  “that for a child, a game is not “just a game” that he plays for the fun of it, or a distraction from more serious matters. For him, playing a game can be, and more often than not is, a serious undertaking: on its outcome rest his feelings of self-esteem and competence. To put it in adult terms, playing a game is a child’s true reality; this takes it far beyond the boundaries of its meaning for adults. Losing is not just a part of playing the game, as it is for adults (at least most of the time), but something that puts the child’s sense of his own competence in question and often undermines it.”

Now think of a game like Community PlanIt. It is a game that mediates a local planning process. There is something very real at stake for adults – the city plan or official record. What is intriguing about Bettleheim’s proposition, is that maybe those real world outcomes that motivate adult players are not the same real world outcomes that motivate youth players. We have seen in interviews with youth players that they are for more motivated by the mechanics of the game, not because they choose to focus on things that don’t matter, but because they choose to focus on things that can matter. Winning the game provides a sense of purpose that it might not for adults.

At the Engagement Game Lab, we talk a lot about intergenerational collaboration – but I think we’ve misunderstood the stakes. Adults play the game to see change in their community; youth play the game to master a system, to play at expertise where they are in other areas of their life, denied entry. Performance in the game is attached to this, not (at least at first) the external goal of civic participation. So, the goals of the game are the same for everyone, but the goals of play are different for youth and adults.

This is an area that I am quite excited to explore in more depth. How can we design a game where we anticipate divergent goals of play within the same game? Can we use these contrasting motivations to motivate the other group? Can we raise the stakes of play for adult players and can we raise the stakes of civic outcomes for youth players?

08 May

Playful Civics

Last weekend, I had the honor of being on a plenary panel at MIT8 talking about publics and counterpublics in a networked context. My remarks focused on the idea of playful civics – or, how play can be an important conceptual frame for understanding contemporary civic actions. Too often, the value of a civic action is determined by how much work it is. If a task is tedious and time consuming it makes a valuable contribution (attending a town hall meeting or door-to-door canvasing for signatures), whereas if a task is fun or too easy (advocating for something on Facebook or making a personal video about an issue and sharing it), it is frivolous. There is a fundamental problem with this logic. It suggests that meaning from civic actions derives from sacrifice, not pleasure. Perhaps more troubling, it suggests that there are clear channels through which people take civic actions which have established methods of evaluation (getting signatures on paper is difficult, voting requires effort, etc.).

It is increasingly clear to me that what we might call civic actions are quite varied and many of them are not uniquely definable as “work” or “tedium.” Civic actions are playful, and they involve experimentation and exploration more than the rote completion of pre-defined tasks. In fact, play is a valuable conceptual framework through which to understand civic actions. Play is:

  1. self-chosen and self-directed (players can choose to quit);
  2. an activity in which means are more valuable than ends;
  3. guided by rules
  4. imaginative and somehow separated from everyday life
Now consider this definition of play in three broad and often interconnected frames that facilitate civic actions: art making, story and games.

The Laundromat Project involves dozens of sites around New York City where communities create and play together.

Art Making includes the individual or collective production of an object (digital or material) that references or connects to an issue context, community or public institution. The Laundromat Project, as an example, is facilitated community art in laundromats throughout Greater New York City. The organization engages people in making things where they are, and facilitates connections between local communities that would not exist otherwise. Making art in this case is a playful act that strengthens local ties and community bonds. The final product is not as important as engaging people in a process of making that is open-ended and playful.
Stories can be a playful way for communities or individuals to represent themselves. Communities are often grounded by stories – and people connect to their communities by inserting their personal narrative trajectory into them. Activists are mythologized to mobilize personal narratives, aspects of city histories are evoked, and sometimes external narratives are placed on top of a local narrative to motivate particular actions. The Harry Potter Alliance uses a movie narrative to inspire youth to take real actions in the world. Hundreds of thousands of youth from all over the world have been motivated to take action on issues such as getting Warner Bros to invest in free trade chocolate for its products. Harry Potter is the framework, and the Alliance simply provides permission for people to play within the narrative to connect to real world causes. And even the Tea Party uses myths of a particular event and historical figures to frame particular actions and justify political alliances. This demonstrates that play is not inherently progressive; it simply opens up possibilities to engage in the world.

Jane McGonigal's Urgent Evoke framed the process of engagement and connected thousands of players from around the world

Games are not the same thing as play. Games operationalize play – when well designed, they provide a meaningful frame from which to act. I am interested in the small but growing number of games that frame civic actions. My lab’s game Community PlanIt, for example, is designed to provide a playful context for urban planning. The game has demonstrated the ability to bring youth and adults together in common play experiences, which instead of devaluing the end product, actually serves to legitimize actions from the perspective of players. Other games, such as Jane McGonigal’s Evoke frame individual actions within larger campaigns and allow players to craft real world problem-solving within the fictional challenge of “saving the world.”
Playful civics is a way of thinking about civic engagement that is open-ended, creative, and meaningful. It moves beyond trying to motivate people to do what we already imagine needs to be done, and creates a sandbox where civic actions are liberated from traditional outcomes and civic leaders are drawn from where we least expect them.
01 May

What are civic actions?

In 2000, the sociologist Robert Putnam was unambiguous in his concern that the new World Wide Web was leading to the decay of civic engagement. People were simply spending too much time online and becoming more comfortable with being disconnected from their physical space. Much has changed since the days of Alta Vista and personal homepages, but specifically the proliferation of social media and what I have elsewhere called net locality have led to a complex civic landscape where civic actions exist well beyond geographic communities and institutions. It is possible to advocate and to organize entirely online. Protesting Facebook’s newest privacy policy is a civic action, signing an online petition against the passage of SOPA and PIPA is a civic action, even joining a Kickstarter campaign to get a website funded can be a civic action. These “online” actions are civic insofar as they are taken to affect change in a community or institution outside of one’s private domain. In other words, the deliberate taking part in any social situation that extends beyond one’s immediate family and home can be considered civic.


While expansive, this definition can be troubling. One of the values associated with civic engagement is commitment and responsibility to an outside social situation. In an ideal case, voting in a presidential election demonstrates not simply participation, but a commitment to an external institution (government) and the responsibility that comes along with participating. Or in the Harry Potter Alliance, as an example, when young people advocate for changes in corporate policies by rallying together with other Harry Potter fans, there is responsibility to the fan community, beyond one’s personal reputation, represented by the Alliance. Whether these actions take place online or offline is not important; instead, the relative responsibility that the actor feels to the institution or community, indicates the “thickness” of the engagement.   When the action is taken towards an ephemeral issues without institutional or geographic grounding (liking a group on Facebook, for example), it is more difficult for the individual to feel a sense of commitment or responsibility. The civic action is qualitatively different, even though its basic mechanics are the same.


Responsibility is dependent on the relative presence of an institution in one’s life. If one feels little connection to the city in which they live, for example, they are less likely to feel responsible for interactions with their local government. But if one spends eight hours a day in World of Warcraft, then they are quite likely to act to better the community of players, perhaps even to improve the game world.


The reality is that people are spending a large amount of time online and they are accomplishing everyday tasks, from reading the news to chatting with friends, on their computers or phones. The institutions to which young people feel responsible are the ones that interface with everyday life, and not the ones that appear to represent distant structures outside of lived reality. And as government remains married to its original (read: authentic) modality of town halls and voting booths, than government becomes a distant institution, one that seems increasingly distant and irrelevant to civic life. So civic actions are not in decline, in fact there is good evidence to suggest that this generation is more civically minded than previous generations, only the target of their actions and the publics they cultivate are outside traditional government and institutions.


Civic actions are increasingly accessible, shareable and playful. They are accessible in so far as the institutions or communities with which people interact have a presence in their everyday lives with clear channels of communication. They are shareable in that actors tend to legitimize actions by sharing them with a clearly articulated community of actors. For example, when sharing something on Facebook, the user has an understanding of the audience for that post. When posting a comment on a newspaper website, for example, there is only a generalizable concept of audience. And they are playful in that there is room for interpretation and exploration in the act itself as opposed to it being prescribed with clear outcomes. Voting in a presidential election is not playful, but engaging in a participatory budgeting process is.


This is how people are engaging in the world and this is how individual actors are taking responsibility for institutions and communities. It is imperative that government understands what civic engagement looks like and work towards establishing points of connection that match these practices. Most governments are still working towards putting services online. That’s just not enough. If government as an institution is going to matter to young people, it needs to enable interactions that are accessible, shareable and playful.

26 Mar

Door-touching and civic virtue

Recently I spent a lot of time watching people walk in and out of the doors of the Forest Hills subway station in Boston. As people rushed out of the station during the afternoon commute, motivated by a desire to catch a connecting bus or to simply get to the next thing, earbuds firmly positioned in ears, they had little opportunity to see the immediate environment and the people within it. That is, unless, they touched the door.  You see, the station doors served as an important conduit between people and their surroundings.

There are two ways in which people moved in and out of the station – with touching the door and without touching the door. The door, aided by hydraulics, closes slowly once opened, introducing the opportunity for people to slink through it after it is pushed. It is possible for five or six people to pass through from a single hearty push. If one can no longer fit through the closing door, they are forced to push the door open so that they might get through. But with that simple touch, the door-toucher becomes a very different kind of user. They now find themselves responsible for the environment, compelled to hold the door for the people behind them as they similarly stream out of the station. Simply touching the door makes the person complicit in the function of the door, and as such, invested in the environment that the door mediates. Conversely, the door-passer (one who does not touch the door) continues to walk through without the added responsibility for the people around them.

How is it that merely touching the door creates responsibility for the environment? The door-toucher can no longer pass through the environment with the absolution of social responsibility. They are now part of the socio-technical system (which includes human and non-human actors), partly responsible for its function. And they remain responsible until the next human actor enters the system.

As I watched people navigating the complexity of the hydraulic door closer, I was struck by the pro-social benefits of touching the door. The door-touchers were immediately made aware of their social obligation within a socio-technical system and were forced to contend with their responsibility for other human actors in the train station. The door is a pro-social technology that has significant implications for the design of civic media. As I consider the challenge of designing apps, online experiences, or games that cultivate civic engagement, it seems that the primary design goal is to create door-touchers. The goal is to make users aware of the socio-technical system in which they are operating and feel responsible for the human actors within it. The door accomplishes this in the train station – what would the technology look like that accomplishes this on the scale of the block, the neighborhood, or the city?

Can a mobile app transform users from door-passers to door-touchers? I, for one, am very eager to find out.