Gaming City Planning: Community PlanIt in Detroit

Community PlanIt is an online game platform for local, community planning. It is a time-delimited, mission-based game, where players earn points and complete missions by answering questions and engaging in challenges related to a planning process.  All the while, they’re able to meet other stakeholders, try out ideas, and understand where their opinions fit into the larger planning effort.

Community PlanIt is not simply a local forum to share ideas. It is a specific intervention into the process of urban/town planning, which is most commonly organized around sporadic town hall meetings and a non-existent or simplistic narrative. All too often, when planners plan, the public retreats or takes the defensive position. “What planning process?” or “You’re not going to build that project here!” So, Community PlanIt turns planning into a story, structured through simple interactions and game mechanics, and invites the public to shape the narrative.

We started work on the platform last year. It was first tested in Lowell, MA as part of a city visioning process. We did a larger pilot in fall 2011 with Boston Public Schools to engage the public in the question of “what makes a quality school?” And this spring, we did another city visioning project in Quincy, MA and were part of a citywide long term planning effort in Detroit.

Detroit 24/7 Game Finale Video from Community PlanIt on Vimeo.

The Detroit project was called Detroit 24/7 and was designed in collaboration with Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning. It lasted 21 days, and consisted of three weeklong missions. In that time, 1033 players registered and created over 8400 comments about their experience with city as it is now and where they think it should go in the future. After the missions ended, there was a Game Finale meeting at the Central branch of the Detroit Public Library, where over 120 people showed up to celebrate players’ accomplishments and to plan for next steps.

People in Detroit gather at Game Finale meeting at the Detroit Public Library

These numbers are impressive and encouraging.  And when you add to that the fact that 42% of players were between the ages of 14 and 17, and 74% were 35 or under, you have an impressive demographic shift in a process that is too often stereotyped as geriatric. But Community PlanIt was not only for young people. Some of the most active players were over 50 and were energized by the participation of youth. In general, the people who played the game were not your usual suspects. Many of the highest point earners have never been to a planning meeting in the past and those that typically dominate in-person planning meetings were not the highest point earners.

Unlike a traditional planning process, we consider the data collected to be community property. All the missions will remain on the site in a view-only state, and the data will be accessible in summary visualizations, like this interactive map and wordcloud. We will also make the raw, anonymized data available to organizations or individuals who want it.

Gaming Engagement

People played Community PlanIt because they cared about the issues, not because they wanted to play a game.  We used game mechanics, such as points and mission completion, as onboarding techniques – they increased people’s initial motivation to participate in the process – however, they did not maintain that interest. Players reported that curiosity about other players’ ideas and a sense of purpose around the planning process are what ultimately kept them coming back for more.  The leaderboard was only partly successful in maintaining interest. No surprise, however. This is a common problem with leader boards – once certain players pull ahead, it becomes near impossible for the casual player to “succeed.” This typically does not discourage players, it simply encourages them to ignore the leaderboard.

The most successful game mechanic was the framing of the process through time-delimited missions. Missions lasted only one week, and each had a very distinct theme that was communicated via an introductory video. The missions were: “Share Your Detroit,” “Living in Detroit,” and “Getting Around Detroit.” Players received an email at the start and end of each mission. And there was a direct correlation between the start of a mission and the amount of use. Interestingly, players reported that besides curiosity about what people were saying (you had to answer a question yourself before you could see others’ answers), completing missions was a major motivator. While players could earn badges for completing missions, the badge itself didn’t seem to matter as much as simply achieving the goal of doing all the challenges before time ran out.

Youth playing at the Teen Hype Center at the Detroit Public Library

There is a lot of debate about the value of gamification, specifically regarding the tension between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. For example, if a kid only eats dinner because of the promise of dessert, does she fail to develop the habits of mind necessary for healthy eating? In Community PlanIt, it was very clear that the extrinsic motivators (points, badges, missions) never replaced the need for existing intrinsic motivations. The desire to learn about and participate in the local community drove use, and the game mechanics simply introduced the possibilities of that use. One of the things that characterized the players in Detroit, whether they were 14 years-old or 70, was a deep concern for the future of the city. The game provided an onramp and a roadmap to participate, but didn’t necessarily create the desire to travel.

The Importance of Backspace

Community PlanIt was a place to share ideas in a public process without the pressures typically associated with public speaking. Many people feel more comfortable expressing themselves when they’re able to think about what they’re going to say before they say it.  In a focus group we did with an all-girl high school, one person had this to say: “I felt really comfortable expressing myself on Community PlanIt because if I didn’t like something I wrote, I could just hit backspace. In real life, you stutter or don’t always say what you really want to say.” This was a common sentiment. Many players, both young and old, expressed their appreciation of non-proximate, asynchronous communication. People liked having time to formulate their opinions without fear of real-time, negative reaction.  While face-to-face conversations are often touted as the gold standard for democratic deliberation, people felt more capable of participating with the pressures of these face-to-face forums removed.

Screenshot of Detroit 24/7 on Community PlanIt

Still, the face-to-face town hall meeting remains the accepted platform for democratic participation. One reason for this is the technological divide. Many people don’t have access to broadband; therefore, the conclusion is that the only truly accessible form of participation is the town hall meeting. But, this logic is flawed. Many people don’t have time, the comfort, or the inclination, to come to a town hall meeting at six o’clock on a Tuesday night.  This is also a divide. Online platforms, whether it’s Community PlanIt or something else, are essential tools for onboarding democracy. We need to give people some time, a compelling story, some motivation…and a backspace.

My Dad Couldn’t Find the Mouse

We made a very deliberate decision to create a system for youth and adults. Too often, youth are excluded from planning processes (ironically, considering they’re the ones who are being planned for). And if they’re included, it’s typically in a parallel youth process. Community PlanIt was designed as a common space where youth and adults can meaningfully interact. Many of the adult participants reported that they felt good about youth having such a presence in the system. Even if they didn’t directly interact, it was important for adults to know that the youth were there. Similarly, while youth players mostly interacted with each other and their teachers, knowing that it was an official, adult space, framed their sense of public and, consequently, the tone of their answers and replies.

We also found that intergenerational collaboration happened on the family level. Many youth reported that they would talk about the game with their parents, and if they didn’t know the answer to something, they would engage their parents in a conversation before completing a challenge. Interestingly, when we asked them if they invited their parents to register for the game and play on their own, they often said no. One student said, “I tried to show my dad the game, but he couldn’t find the mouse.” So, while the youth were very happy that adults were participating and listening to what they said in the game, their sense of the adult public did not include their parents.

Conversely, while adults typically expressed their satisfaction with youth participation, they also tended to maintain stereotypes of games and online forums. One participant, who loved playing the game, told us that she had to ask her daughter to help her upload photos. When we asked her if she asked her daughter to register for the game herself, she said no, because her daughter’s “already on Facebook.” So, even though this woman found Community PlanIt to be a meaningful and powerful experience, she still characterized it as “the Internet” and didn’t want her daughter using it.

The (mis)perception of games and “the Internet” is a major factor in understanding the future of public participation. Whether it’s youth charting online spaces that are both their own and shared, or adults bracketing the process as “only the Internet,” these perceptions will shape how people trust and authenticate public processes. Let’s face it: in the public sector, it is still more legitimate to have a face-to-face meeting with 10 people than it is to have an online game with 1000 people. Even though Community PlanIt expanded who participated, and largely increased the quality and satisfaction of that participation, challenges remain not just in convincing planners to adopt new online platforms, but also in convincing the public that these forms are legitimate.

Time will tell in Detroit. The data is being used to inform the long term plan of the city. It is also being made available to community groups, advocacy groups, or whoever else sees the potential. But perhaps more importantly, the game framed the planning process in the city as a story that everyone gets to tell, not just a few planners. It started conversations, made people aware of resources, places, and other people in the city, and established the groundwork to do it again.

 

 

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