In thinking about the game design work we are doing, I have previously made the distinction between participation and engagement. Loosely, I have defined engagement as sustained attention to a driver of participation. And I have made the argument that engagement is a more desirous design goal as it is potentially more sustainable, whereas participation is, by definition, fleeting.
In reading John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, I have found some support for the idea that what I am calling engagement is intimately tied to experience. Dewey says experience includes an active and passive element.
On the active hand, experience is trying – a meaning which is made explicit in the connected term experiment. On the passive, it is undergoing. When we experience something, we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences. We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return…mere activity does not constitute experience (139).
This distinction between activity and experience is similar to the distinction between participation and engagement. Experience requires the person experiencing to be able to reflect upon the connection between the activity and the the results.
It is not experience when a child merely sticks his fingers into a flame; it is experience when the movement is connected with the pain which he undergoes in consequence (140).
Dewey is saying that experience is connected to meaning, and short of that it is not experience. This is precisely the same problem in the civic media space. Getting people to do something is too often seen as good enough. When in fact, the goal needs to be forging connections between doing stuff and the consequences of doing stuff. An app that gets people to click on a link is not in itself constructive of learning. Learning happens when the user is given the opportunity to reflect upon that clicking.
Ultimately, Dewey argues that an educational system focused on mere activity is one that simply reinforces its existing biases and is incapable of true democracy. He argues that learning is experiencing. The same is true in the civic space: technologies should be built around experience, not activity. This is the best way to engage the public.