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.

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