Archive for games

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Civic Framing

Mission 3 of the Detroit 24/7 game on Community PlanIt

We are nearly at the end of a Community PlanIt game in the City of Detroit. Organized by Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning, 1000 players signed up for the game and completed nearly 8000 challenges in three weeks. Considering numbers alone, we can say that the process has been a success. Getting people to turn out for planning meetings is very difficult, and planners are used to working with numbers in the double digits instead of in the quadruple digits. Instead of assembling 30 people in a room for the purpose of providing feedback, Community PlanIt significantly increased that number and adjusted the feedback loop so that people could connect and learn laterally from others in the community.

In addition to simply providing opportunities online to respond to planner-created challenges, Community PlanIt is designed to meaningfully frame the context of planning. Players are tasked with completing challenges within themed missions and are rewarded with points and badges. In talking to players and planners, these framing devices are key to making the system work. It is qualitatively different than responding to questions on Facebook or posting a tweet about your neighborhood. The difference is in understanding where your information is going and why it is going there.

People signing up for Community PlanIt at launch event

Civic framing is the design of a community process. This happens all the time in analog formats – community meetings, meet-ups, protests, etc. But there is a misplaced notion that simply adding an online forum, the frame of the offline context will be extended. In fact, often online interactions obfuscate the message and diffuse the conversation. The goal of Community PlanIt is to build an online civic frame that structures community interactions towards a common goal.

The biggest problem in achieving this is one of trust. Do people trust that their input is being heard? Do people trust that relationships within a system are authentic? Trust is certainly not easily achieved, especially when there is a history of poor civic framing, but it is becoming increasingly clear that specific, uniquely delimited systems are necessary for establishing a context for this trust. As the game in Detroit wraps up and as we work towards the game finale Get Together! at the Detroit Public Library on June 6th, it is our top priority to enable people to use the civic frame for their own purposes.

The game will continue to exist in a post-mortem state for anyone who is interested in looking at the results, and we will make the anonymized raw data available on the website. Data transparency, coupled with meaningful framing, is the formula we’re using for civic engagement.

 

Community PlanIt in Boston Public Schools

How do you convince people to take time out of their busy schedules, leave their home around dinner time, perhaps get a babysitter, all in order to participate in a slow-moving conversation about something very abstract? It’s not easy. While the debates in local community centers might be invigorating; and in the best of situations, they represent meaningful deliberation about important issues in people’s lives, they also represent power inequalities (both in terms of who shows up and who is comfortable speaking).

Digital media have irreversibly changed communication patterns within most communities. People are increasingly accessing local news on mobile devices, reading the newspaper online, interfacing with government websites, and sharing opinions on social networking services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter. That these forms of communication are not widely incorporated into planning processes demonstrates a bias of one exclusionary tactic over another. It is typically understood as more effective and equitable to have 20 people in a room discussing the recent school board decision, for example, than to have 200 people online discussing the same thing. The assumption is that the “digital divide” excludes people. And it does. But the assumption is also that limiting the engagement process to face-to-face town hall meetings does not exclude. And it does as well.

There are limitations of access to both physical meetings and technologically mediated connections. If there were a spectrum from totally mediated to totally unmediated, there would be power differentials on either side. The solution, as with most solutions, is found somewhere in the middle. But public agencies, from governments to school boards, continue to err on the side of the unmediated. The fact that the majority of planning processes rely disproportionately on the town hall-style meeting suggests a real lag between public process and the public’s process.

Introducing Community PlanIt

For this reason, we developed Community PlanIt, an online platform designed to re-imagine the process of engagement through the logic of games.  Community PlanIt is a mission-based game that asks people within a local community to “map the future.” The game lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks and is designed to culminate in a face-to-face meeting where players can debrief and meet decision-makers. Players earn points by answering questions about themselves and their community. The more questions they answer, the more influence they gain in the overall planning. The logic is to reward learning with the amplification of voice.

We pilot tested Community PlanIt with the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The school district was interested in engaging the public in a conversation about their “accountability framework.” In recent years, BPS has undertaken a series of broad district-wide reforms aligned to its Acceleration Agenda goals and strategies.  The Agenda’s targets are appropriate district-wide aims; but BPS had not yet created a set of uniform performance expectations for individual schools, nor devised a way for the district and external stakeholders to evaluate schools based on performance and on the opportunities they offer students.

The “School Support and Accountability Framework” was created for this purpose.  The Framework’s goal is to align all school stakeholders around a common definition of school excellence and to empower school leaders, teachers, and parents to strive toward this shared standard. After an initial public engagement process that included a series of face-to-face meetings, that garnered a total of 70 participants, BPS was interested in expanding the reach and effectiveness.

Made possible through a partnership between the Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, Community PlanIt was implemented from September 15 to October 20, 2011. The game culminated in a face-to-face meeting on the evening of the last day. The objective of the game was to engage students, parents, and other community stakeholders on aspects of the proposed BPS support and accountability framework.  Students were to be a special focus of the engagement – and to this end Home, Inc,a local non-profit organization that teaches video production and media analysis to educators and youth, was brought in as a new partner.  Seven students working with Home, Inc. served as “technology interpreters” for the game – leading discussion within the game by posting videos and engaging with other participants, and using social media and face-to-face outreach to encourage their fellow students to enter the game and the conversation.

The BPS game was comprised of seven five-day missions – each with a set of activities related to a theme or priority in BPS’s accountability framework.  The BPS Office of Accountability chose the six priorities (growth, proficiency, achievement gaps, attendance, school environment and safety, and student/family engagement) as well as “opportunities to learn” – as the themes for each mission.  Users completed activities, created and responded to “challenges” – questions or tasks posed by other users in the game, and earned points and PlanIt Tokens.  All game content was translated into Spanish and Haitian-Creole, the two most prominent languages (besides English) spoken by BPS families.

Outcomes

Over the course of the 35-day game, over 400 community members signed up to play and set up user profiles – indicating a user “type,” gender, race, income and education level, and any custom “affiliations.”  260 users completed at least one activity in the game and left comments.  Of these users, 104 were students, 64 parents, 19 teachers, 26 administrators, and 44 classified their user type as “other.”  Only five played in Spanish, and zero played in Haitian Creole. As a percentage of all users, 40% (181 users) earned zero points, 29% (129 users) earned between 1 and 100 points, 18% (81 users) earned between 100 and 500 points, 7% (30 users) earned between 500 and 1000 points, and 6% (25 users) earned more than 1000 points.  These 1000+ point “super-users” completed more than 40 activities each on average.  And in many cases, their response to a single activity contained multiple-paragraph answers to extremely complex questions. It is noteworthy that there was no overlap between super-users and participants in the previous engagement process.

Feedback generated through Community PlanIt was significant. Over 2600 comments were entered into the system and hundreds of conversations started about everything from social media policy to racial bias in teaching.  The Community PlanIt pilot provides evidence of the effectiveness of the general approach. The feedback generated by the system will factor into the decision-making process. And despite its failures in reaching difficult-to-reach populations, by a number of other measures, it surpassed expectations of non-technological approaches.

The game is currently being redesigned and redeployed in other contexts. On May 1, it will launch in Detroit as part of the Detroit Works Project’s efforts to engage the public in long-term planning. On May 3rd, it will launch in the City of Quincy, MA. And it is likely that the game will be used again in the Boston Public Schools as part of the district’s efforts to engage the public in issues of school assignment. Community PlanIt is illustrative of an approach to local community planning that incorporates the affordances of the web by focusing on networks, collaboration, and sharing. Planning is more than just a solicitation of feedback from the community. It is about creating conversations that are productive, sustainable and enriching.

Immersive Planning

Methods of engaging communities in urban planning decisions have remained relatively stagnant. Groups of people are assembled into community centers, school cafeterias, and libraries and are asked to provide input on the professional discourse of architects and planners. They are shown drawings, computer generated renderings, even 3D models and are then “listened to” as a means of informing the process. While these practices are designed to elicit useful, one-time feedback, they are not designed to build real understanding, or to provide the framework from which to build trust between the constituents, designers and stakeholders. Cities, towns, neighborhoods, and blocks are lived spaces. Design facilitates social interaction, individual perceptions and cultural production – but it is not an end in itself.

The strategy of “Immersive Planning,” on the other hand, begins from the assumption that community engagement through shared, collaborative experiences of space provides the necessary framework from which people can meaningfully engage in the urban planning process. Inviting communities to participate in the transformation of their lived spaces is not simply about assisting in the design; but also, and more importantly, it is about creating the trust and understanding necessary for trained professionals to collaborate with the lay public on reaching good decisions. Immersive planning typically implements new media tools to reproduce the qualities of urban space, including:

1) an individual’s co-presence with others (public spaces are typically not solitary)

2) participation (public spaces typically invite some kind of participation from shopping to talking to eating);

3) social experience (public spaces are not experienced out of context – individuals bring financial hardships, fast pace of modern life, and relationships to them).

Immersive planning builds off of some existing experimentation in planning practice: Participatory GIS (PGIS), where groups collaborate on designing and plotting maps, and visualization, where 3D, realistic fly throughs are created to give lay people a sense of cinematic realism.  But these existing methods of engagement are lacking in some important ways.  While PGIS is collaborative, it is largely abstract and cerebral; and while visualization implies immersion, it does so only through cinematic distance.  Immersive planning, on the other hand, is an attempt to correlate the best qualities of these various techniques, providing a platform for collaboration and cooperation, while also providing a premise for presence through narrative and role play.

In short, immersive planning connotes immersion both in a virtual space, but also in issues and social experience.  After all, urban space is nothing, if not immersive.

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

We’ve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for “augmented deliberation,” but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in people’s ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to “inhabit” their avatar “as if” they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they weren’t sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, we’re taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  I’ve partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and we’re using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, “Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments,” they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone else’s digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., “I did poorly on the test because I didn’t sleep well the night before.”).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., “He did poorly on the test because he’s not that bright.”).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what we’re trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say “gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances,” not simply to say “those people don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re missing.”

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game we’re designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes.

The Geography of Virtual Worlds

I’m editing a special issue of the journal Space and Culture on the “Geography of Virtual Worlds.” Here’s a draft of the introduction. It’s still in process, but it might give some sense of what I think will be a very interesting issue.

This evening I am home in front of the fireplace, chatting with friends and looking out the window onto a wide expanse of ocean. Not far from my beach house, there are dance clubs, art spaces, snowy mountain peaks, and classrooms. I am only seconds from London, Berlin, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And without much effort I can summon my friends from around the world to join me in my spa. You’re probably wondering how, on a professor’s salary, I can afford all this. The answer: log onto Second Life.
Second Life is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). But it’s not a game. Unlike other virtual environments like World of Warcraft or even The Sims Online, there is no built-in objective to the Second Life world. And yet, millions of users have “moved in” and participated in creating it – from building homes like the one described above, to building natural landscapes, and even entire cities. At the time of this writing, the world is composed of nearly 900 square kilometers of virtual landscape (Linden, 2008) used for everything from simple chat to collaborative work, performance, education, commerce and of course, sex. Corporations such as Nike, Toyota, and IBM have created presences there. The Center for Disease Control and the Red Cross have set up services. Universities are teaching classes. Entrepreneurs are selling everything from virtual real estate to physical paintings. And pornography abounds.

So while Second Life is not a game, it does seem to have a dominant objective – commerce. Real money is traded in the form of “Linden Dollars” – an online token that exchanges at 270 per US dollar. And unlike other virtual environments with less formal economies, Second Life users don’t need to rely on third party trading sites like eBay. All currency transfers take place on the company’s website. Second Life has enjoyed rapid growth since its launch in 2003 largely because the motivation of market exchange is built into the business model. It is for this reason that some commentators have characterized it as a three dimensional extension of the Web (Kirkpatrick, 2006). But these views seem to ignore the rather important peculiarities of the three dimensional platform. While MUVEs like Second Life, There.com and Metaverse are direct descendants of text-based multi-user domains (MUDs) and their graphical counterparts (MOOs), the 3D immersive qualities of these contemporary spaces suggest a significant divergence from traditional chat rooms and message boards. MUVEs provide a level of engagement that is quite different from the 2D Web. It is for this reason that a number of commercial spaces in Second Life remain empty. Many of the companies and services that initially rushed to build virtual stores and offices have failed to bring people to their sites. For these companies, the strategy was simply to reproduce their web presence in three dimensions –building flat product panels dispersed in space and not considering the specificity of user experience in the virtual environment. What was ill considered in these ventures was the centrality of the spatially located avatar in all interactions. In other words, instead of searching for a product, clicking on it, reading reviews and then purchasing, my avatar has to first walk through a space and find the product. Or instead of a chat room, where communication is represented as words in a browser window, avatars in a MUVE have to organize themselves in a pattern conducive to conversation. They have to stand next to each other, sit on a park bench, or fly to a far-flung corner of the sky. In short, MUVEs re-introduce space into digitally mediated communication.

The way bodies are organized in space is determined by multiple factors, including gender, design (street, church, club, etc.), event (art installation, class, wedding, etc.), ownership, and many other vertices of spatial organization. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2007) refer to this as infrastructure. While they write specifically about pervasive computing, or computing in physical environments, their thesis applies quite well to MUVEs. They argue that spatial organization, including distance and presence, informs the meaning of individual spaces and, in turn, informs the nature of communication within those spaces. This general concept is well supported by research that has investigated the nature of communication in virtual environments. In a particularly interesting study about spatial infrastructure in MUVEs, Yee et al. concluded that offline personal space norms applied to avatar interactions in Second Life (2007). By measuring avatar movement, they learned that female avatars tend to stand closer together than their male counterparts. In addition, they concluded that males tend to stand farther away from each other outside than they do inside. These conventions are parallel to real-world, physical behaviors. Beyond Second Life, extensive research has been conducted in various other MUVEs. Martey and Stromer-Galley (2007), in their study of the The Sims Online, conclude that the metaphor of the “house” is primary in shaping a player’s sense of “appropriate behavior.” And Taylor, in her study of Everquest, points to the centrality of the body metaphor: “Bodies,” she writes, “act not only as a conduit through which we participate in society but as a mechanism through which communities themselves are performed. They facilitate not only the production of identities, but social relationships and communication” (2006, 117). Bodies, and their relationship to objects and structures (including other virtual bodies), are generally proscriptive of user behavior and social interactions in MUVEs. Dourish and Bell’s concept of infrastructure adds the organizing context of space into all of these studies.

Understanding the context of virtual space is no simple task. Considering that virtual space is infinitely malleable, how is it that it comes to affect communication? One would think that, because of the open-ended nature of the technology, virtual space would emerge in a manner unconnected to physical space. Unbounded by physics, space could assemble within any organizational principle – color, time, number, or emotional register. And yet, within most MUVEs, there is an abundance of metaphors to physical space. Why do avatars need houses, beds, or even chairs? They don’t get cold, they don’t need to sleep, and their legs don’t ache from standing all day. Second Life, for instance, is filled with familiar habitations, from bedrooms, to lounges, clubs and swimming pools. Virtual houses have kitchens and showers, parks have benches, and beaches have towels to protect against virtual sand creeping into virtual bathing suits. While it is possible that in the early stages of adoption, MUVE users, like users of any new technology, gravitate towards the familiar (consider the Web’s heavy reliance on desktop and room metaphors), it is more likely that physical space, as a socially vetted context, will remain the most useful metaphor for the navigation of MUVEs. While operating systems only suggest space (i.e. the desktop) as an organizing principle, MUVEs are fundamentally built around that principle.

But the utility of these metaphors extend beyond spatial orientation. The abundance of city sims (simulations) in Second Life suggests that users are also drawn to familiar places. One could walk the streets of London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Berlin, Dublin, and Zurich, just to name a few. “Debs Regent,” the owner of the London sim and UK ex-pat living in Portugal, explained that the project of building the Knightsbridge neighborhood in London was a labor of love. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have [London] in SL so I don’t get homesick. There are lots of ex-pats out there. Not just ex-pats in other countries, but in the UK too – people who miss their roots just like I did. So we recreated Knightsbridge in SL” (Gordon, 2007). Debs assembled an all-volunteer team to build the city, which currently includes everything from true-to-life detail on all the buildings, several double-decker buses and a working Underground that moves from Knightsbridge to the under-construction Chelsea neighborhood. The long-term goal of the project is to recreate the entire city of London. There is no completion date set – because completion is not really the point. The group of people that gather in the London sim are there because they enjoy the process. It’s a collaborative building project that has reconnected a number of people to the city. And my conversations with the people involved in Berlin and Dublin revealed very similar stories. These people are using Second Life not to escape the confines of physical space, but to work collaboratively to create a familiar environment. The familiarity of the represented space is central to the user experience. And the immersive qualities of the technology, facilitated by the spatial parameters of avatar-led navigation, offer a sense of presence not possible in traditional Web media. In this sense, place becomes yet another potential infrastructural component of virtual space.

Spatial practices within Second Life, and other similar MUVEs, are much too varied to characterize in a singularly cohesive manner. From the touristic impulses of city sims, to collaborative workspaces employed by corporations, to elaborate fan communities, art spaces and classrooms, to real world design scenarios, the technological affordances of MUVEs provide new frameworks for social interaction that are fundamentally organized around space.

This special issue of Space and Culture brings together scholarship across disciplines to better formulate questions that need to be asked as virtual worlds integrate with the 2D web. Rebecca and Charlie Nesson describe a class taught at Harvard University in the spring of 2007 where Second Life was combined with the physical classroom to organize local and global populations around a single curriculum. The articles by Eric Kabisch and Lily Chen are each concerned with deciphering the correlation between virtual and physical spaces. Kabisch describes his own project called Datascape that merges physical and virtual in what he calls a “hybrid environment.” And Chen argues for a greater emphasis on “social spaces” in virtual design as opposed to what she sees as the currently dominant one-to-one correspondence between the physical space and its reproduction. The article by Shaowen Bardzell and Will Odom explores the function of virtual space by looking at a particular Gorean fan community in Second Life. The article addresses how 3D space facilitates the creation of “emotional places,” and makes the argument that the design of MUVEs should be influenced by these kinds of practices. And finally, Gene Koo and myself contribute an article about a program we started in Boston, Massachusetts that employs Second Life as a means of engaging people in the city’s neighborhoods in a collaborative design process. Ultimately, we argue that enabling groups to engage simultaneously in virtual and physical spaces opens up possibilities for group identification and communitarian action.
Each of the articles in this volume seeks to explore the complex geography of virtual worlds. But what’s apparent in all the work is the lack of emphasis on virtuality. More important is how the virtual interfaces with the physical. While MUVEs are worlds unto themselves, they are both windows and mirrors of the embodied world of physical space. Untangling this relationship is the task at hand.

References

Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: Meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design.
Gordon, E. (2007). Personal communication with “Debs regent”. Interview in Second Life
Kirkpatrick, D. (2006, November 10). No, second life is not overhyped. CNNMoney.com. http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/09/technology/fastforward_secondlife.fortune/index.htm.
Linden, P. (2008). Year-end updates, and thanks for the emmy. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from http://blog.secondlife.com/2008/01/09/year-end-updates-and-thanks-for-the-emmy/
Martey, R. M., & Stromer-Galley, J. (2007). The digital dollhouse: Context and social norms in the sims online. Games and Culture, 2(4), 314-334.
Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., & Merget, D. (2007). The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal norms in online virtual environments. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 115-121.