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.