Imagined Publics in an Online Civic Game

In May 2012, we ran a Community PlanIt game in the City of Detroit. The game was designed to solicit public feedback on the city’s master planning process. The game lasted for three weeks and attracted more than 1000 players. What’s particularly interesting about this game is that 47% of the users were 18 and under. While that number would not be surprising for a typical game, this game is not at all typical. It is a game designed specifically to engage people in an urban planning process – not your typical after school activity for teenagers.

One of the most intriguing findings from this game is not what people said about Detroit (and they said quite a bit – over 8600 comments recorded in the system!), but how people felt about who they were talking to. Adults and youth, while rarely interacting directly with each other, yet they were very aware that the other was “in the system.” In post-game interviews, adult players often mentioned how important it was that youth were “present.” They mentioned guiding the tone of their remarks in order to perform appropriately for the youth audience. They felt they needed to model behavior, which made them pay closer attention to grammar and content.

Likewise, many of the youth commented that while they were speaking directly to their youth peers, the presence of adults in the game was important to them. They didn’t seem to censor the content of their comments because of this, they continued to speak and perform for each other. However, the presence of adults was often mentioned as something that legitimized the process. Because adults were part of their imagined public, the youth felt as though someone outside of their own peer circles was paying attention to what they had to say.

So, distinct publics coexisted in an online space, without direct interaction. But the nature of communication was altered by how each imagined the presence of the other. This is a fascinating design challenge. And especially as we continue to develop within the civic space, it points to a fundamental design challenge – buildingĀ intergenerational online spaces that allow people to engage in multi-faceted, nuanced local communities.

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