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.

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 FothStephen ColemanEthan 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Design Action Research for Government (DARG) project (part 2 of 2)

In addition to research oriented around projects, DARG is also engaged in some context-setting research on the changing face of government.

 

Perceptions of new media amongst government officials 

The use of new media tools in government is shaped by the perceptions of government officials (elected and appointed). We have embarked on a national study that will consist of between 20 and 30 semi-structured interviews with officials from a variety of cities. The study will explore the following questions: How do city officials currently use social networking sites to connect with citizens? How could online platforms be designed to better meet the needs of city officials? What do elected officials envision as the challenges and opportunities for using social media to engage citizens?

 

New Approaches for Partnerships

Relationships between civic institutions and local organizations are most often hierarchical and entrenched. Requests for projects (RFPs) require jumping through bureaucratic hoops and knowledge of the system; dispensing fiscal aid to neighborhoods or advocacy groups often must be done without attention to micro-level conditions. In order to provide locally-productive solutions and open the civic process to new and different groups, innovation in technology must be accompanied by innovation in process.

In order to foster more collaborative relationships between government and stakeholders, the DARG project is experimenting with new kinds of partnerships.  These include partnerships with universities & community groups, residents, and private businesses.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with Universities & Community Groups

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has connected with the Community Innovation Lab (CIL) at Harvard University to create a course-based model for sourcing ideas. The course, taught in two consecutive semesters (Spring 2012 and Fall 2012), produced over 12 ideas currently being considered for implementation. The CIL had students propose technological solutions for community problems in cooperation with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the Orchard Gardens Residents Association and Uphams Corner Main Streets.

The DARG project is evaluating this approach, evaluating its ability to serve as a source for creating original and effective solutions to long-standing community issues.  In order to measure this, we are gathering data regarding the communities’ perceptions of success of the projects through a series of in-depth interviews with relevant community groups. Perception is key in this undertaking, as community groups’ understanding of their relationship to the city, universities, their own efficacy, and the success of projects implemented under these plans are the main markers of successful restructuring of how ideas and interventions are sourced. Additionally, we will investigate the actual implementation of these plans by employing ethnographic observation of their use within the community. The long-term plan for assessing this area involves iterating and refining the CIL class and implementations of the ideas it generates. Best practices observed from the CIL will be used to develop new methods of restructuring relationships of service provision.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with Residents

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has connected with IDEO, a leading design firm, to propose a new approach to handling residential trash in Boston.  Problems with trash and litter are routinely the most frequent resident complaint heard by the City.  Rather than addressing this problem by looking only at refining the City’s existing operations, this effort with IDEO, supported by the DARG project, is crafting a solution that stems from engagement with residents and an analysis of their interests and behaviors.

Through the evaluation and documentation of the pilot project, we will help record the efficacy of this more interactive approach to the improvement of municipal services.

 

Partnering on Problem Solving with the Private Sector

Traditionally, when government is looking for a private sector company to partner with, it issues a request for proposal.  For the reasons mentioned above, this process can exclude some potential respondents and the ideas they might have.  With support from the DARG project, the City of Boston was able to experiment with a different approach.

The City ran an open competition for companies that could help small & local businesses use social media to drive in-store sales.  Dozens of companies, from a range of sectors and of various sizes, responded, netting a wide array of potential approaches.  The selected winner of the competition is actively working with small businesses and already showing success.  We will document this competition process as an alternative to the traditional RFP approach to partnering with the private sector.

Across all of these projects, we will not only draw conclusions regarding best practices for engaging the public, but will create recommendations designed to scale across cities. By building a network of organizations and innovators within and between cities, the DARG project ultimately seeks to reduce the cost and risk of implementing new technologies in the civic space.

 

Design Action Research for Government (DARG) Project (part 1 of 2)

I’m excited to talk about a new project. This description was written with my colleague Jesse Baldwin-Philippi. The Design Action Research for Government (DARG) project is a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College. The goal of the DARG project is to advance the capacity of local governments to foster civic engagement through technological innovations. Its mission is to provide a conceptual framework and evaluative capacity to guide city-level innovations that create opportunities for the public to meaningfully engage in the creation and study of public life.

The DARG project is a model for collaboration between governments and universities. The project employs techniques of action and design research to source, create, and study civic technology projects. It seeks to build strong collaborations with communities in order to increase the effectiveness of civic experimentation and to maximize learning opportunities. Undertaking a research program that goes beyond traditional measures of engagement, the DARG project also aims to improve the way research concerning civic media in governance takes place. Ultimately, the DARG project aims to transform common practices of government innovation from a model of top-down intervention and evaluation to one of participatory design and research.

What follows is a description of the current research that falls under the DARG project umbrella. Most research projects have a design component and include both traditional research outcomes and digital tools or new processes. Findings and process documentation will be disseminated in blogs, video summaries and academic publications.

PROJECTS

New Digital Tools

Government tends to think about civic participation as transactional—citizens receive information and provide feedback to decision-makers through town hall meetings or web portals. These transactions then become the primary indicators of successful civic engagement strategies; baseline numbers such as meeting attendance, unique hits on a government website, and number of online transactions are the primary markers of success. But online interactions such as deliberation and sharing information are foundational to local community and organizational outreach, and should be considered when evaluating how and why people engage in public life. Through the DARG project, we  seek to experiment with and evaluate tools that move civic engagement from a merely transactional process with government to one that is interactive.

Through a series of case studies, we evaluate civic engagement in a networked context. We assert that digital technologies do not simply increase government efficiency, but in the context of civic engagement, actually can create what we call meaningful inefficiencies. Month-long games around planning issues, social networks layered on top of service request apps, or social media competitions—can be both meaningful and productive. Through empirical, exploratory, and design-based research, the DARG project will provide a rigorous framework for conceptualizing and evaluating networked civic engagement. Below is a description of our active research projects focused on new tools.

Citizenship and Mobile Reporting

In an attempt to provide citizens with faster, more accessible, information and services, civic innovators in cities all over the world have produced a sizeable cache of open data and apps delivering fast and convenient services. While committed to these efforts, the DARG project seeks to expand upon them by understanding the affordances of making service delivery a social experience. More than just a process that can be productive on an individual level, service delivery in a networked context can also improves citizens’ feelings of connectedness to local community and levels of both personal and collective efficacy.

 

Reporting tool in the City of Boston

Citizens Connect is a mobile reporting tool developed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2009. We are conducting a study that looks at how the unique peer-to-peer qualities of the mobile app increase feelings of collective efficacy and neighborhood cohesion. We are currently surveying users and non-users (people who have reported via the city’s telephone hotline) to understand the specific affordances of the mobile application and whether or not digital and networked connectivity through Citizens Connect changes the quality of engagement.

Civic reputation systems and online relationships

Street Cred is a civic badging API being developed through the DARG project to test the value of reputation and social interactions within service delivery. Street Cred adds value to everyday civic transactions by allowing citizens to earn badges, compete with friends and neighbors and share civic accomplishments. The software is currently in development and will be piloted within Citizens Connect in June 2013. After the initial pilot study, which will include analysis of user data, online surveys and focus groups, we will iterate the design and expand the API to other apps used in Boston, including Community PlanIt and Street Bump, as well as offline engagements such as neighborhood meetings and public forums. A larger study of Street Cred is planned for September 2013.

Collective Efficacy and Planning Games

The problem of civic engagement is often understood as a lack of participation. People do not show up to meetings, they do not engage in their civic institutions or communicate with decision-makers.  Engagement strategies often involve a lot of bean counting, where the quantity of people participating is more important than the quality of participation created. Through the DARG project, we seek to change this discourse. We seek to deepen engagement by creating opportunities for what we call distracted engagement. Distracted engagement allows for small-scale civic activities that are short, but also ongoing, and which habituate citizens to civic practices. Reciprocal discussion and deliberation results in a system where citizens get feedback, rather than simply voicing their ideas. While encouraging these behaviors, and assessing their prevalence we also ask two larger research questions: Do civic habits lead to civic learning? Does going through the motions in one aspect of civic life lead to a more reflective engagement with another?

 

community planit is an online game for local planning

Community PlanIt (CPI) is an online mission-based game that connects local communities around planning issues. It was developed by the Engagement Game Lab and has so far been played in Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The goal of CPI is to earn coins that can be pledged to real life causes. The three causes with the most coins at the end of the game win real money. The general mechanics include individual questions that can be answered individually and visualized collectively. CPI encourages reciprocal, ongoing discussion and deliberation amongst players. Preliminary research on CPI has indicated that it successfully fosters ongoing deliberation that is viewed as directly beneficial to both institutions and citizens. Further research will focus on the game’s ability to produce civic learning, which we define as the effect of combining participation with the opportunity to reflect.

Social Media for Everyday Democracy

Social media does not democracy make. While there are extraordinary examples during the Arab Spring, for example, of Facebook and Twitter enabling mass assembly and connecting local movements to the globe, there are many more examples of everyday democracy where technology has fallen flat. In the United States, elected officials often use Facebook to connect with constituents and poll opinions. But there is a clear distinction between the mostly bottom-up use of social media for macro-coordination in the name of democratic protest, and the mostly top-down use of the media to collect opinions. While both serve some aspect of democratic participation, they are qualitatively unique phenomena.

Each has a unique assumption about the user/citizen. The activist model assumes a passionate user that, heated by the moment, will assemble or take action. The everyday democracy model assumes a dispassionate user who can, given only the channel to communicate, provide good, rational ideas. Of course, in practice, it’s never this clear cut. Protesters can be dispassionate, and those providing feedback to government can be quite passionate.

Governments are not interested in enabling mass protest. They typically want to take actions to avoid it. And, one reasonable action they can take would be to enable everyday democracy by providing good channels for feedback. Increasingly, governments and civic organizations, especially within the United States, are doing this. So, as they work social media into their outreach plans, they often employ models that assume dispassionate citizens that are simply waiting to communicate their brilliant, well-reasoned ideas.

Whenever I deploy a social media tool within a local context, the question I get more than any other is: “can you name an idea that someone posed in the system that was actually implemented?” The answer is typically “no.” But more to the point: why would it matter? It is hardly democratic for a single idea to cut through the fat and rise to the top. The hope, I would hope, would be for an idea to gain traction, to transform, and to meaningfully persuade others so that a wider conversation can take place. I typically don’t get questions about the context of dialogue, or the learning objectives of the process; only, did social media mine the one brilliant idea? Or, perhaps more accurately, did social media mine the one brilliant idea that we already knew we wanted to implement?

There is a simple lesson in all of this: social media for everyday democracy cannot be about discrete ideas from the dispassionate citizen. It has to establish context, opportunity for dialogue, modes of sharing and connecting, which go beyond the mechanisms currently in place. If we just build tools that open up decontextualized channels via text or SMS, we are no closer to meaningful democratic participation. We just have more people participating in a system that doesn’t work.