Archive for placeofmedia

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Preparing for Launch

The summer is nearing an end and we are actively trying to get Community PlanIt ready for launch.  While the goal is to get the game ready for a national launch, on September 9th, we will start a three-week game with the Boston Public Schools.  We will engage students, teachers, and administrators in the game with the goal of getting everyone involved in making decisions about the future of the district.

All the game content will be available in three languages – English, Spanish and Haitian Creole – and we’re hoping that the dynamics of the system will foster some dialogue between linguistic groups.  But this is still a big question mark.

There is a live action debriefing meeting scheduled for October 4th.  At this time, players and non-players alike will be invited to discuss the results of the Community PlanIt process.  We will look at how everyone spent their tokens and we will open up a community wide discussion about next steps.  This is a big experiment.  I fully expect that the dialogue will be civil, but as schools are an emotional topic for nearly every stakeholder, we are quite interested in seeing how the game system can accomodate emotional discord.

Design-based Approach to Communities and Technologies

The way people use ICTs in their daily lives is infinitely varied.  These variations are associated with socio-economic background, geographical location, cultural capital and a number of other factors.  While the scholarly debate has been rich in regards to understanding how individuals and communities integrate new ICTs into their everyday lives, the debate has largely steered away from questions of design. In other words, how people accommodate existing and popular SNSs like Twitter and Facebook is limited by the design of a digital space that is meant to accomplish very particular things.  Facebook, Twitter, even Foursquare, are not meant to enhance local community life – so why should we expect them to succeed at this?  The excellent new study by Hampton, et. al entitled “How New Media Affords Network Diversity” provides fascinating evidence of how digital networks actually create more diverse geographically-based social networks, except in the case of social softare.  The heavy use of these systems lead to less diversity in local networks.  In other words, people who use Facebook a lot are less likely to talk to their neighbors.

This is very useful.  But it is not damning.  If digital networks are spaces of social architecture, we cannot assume that all networks inevitably lead to the same results.  We would never treat physical architecture this way.  We would never conclude that buildings lead to less social interaction.  We might say that mini-malls result in certain social behavior, or skyscrapers, but never buildings in general.  Accordingly, we need to address the design of digital networks in any assessment of how the digital affects local community.  And, we should continue to look at experimental practices that extend the possibilities of local, networked life.  Foursquare does not equal location-based social networking.  It certainly has brought these services into the public awareness, but it in no way should frame the debate about them.

In a design-based approach to communities and technologies, the evaluation of networked spaces is always connected to the intricacies of that space’s design.  How can location-based social networks make people aware of local geography, local resources, and communities?  What design elements lead to feelings of co-presence and an increase in social capital?  Let’s move beyond the debate about the efficacy of buildings and towards a conversation about the design of social architecture and the affordances of designed digital networks for local life.

Attention to Location

I find myself paying to attention to how people pay attention.  I’m starting to frame my design considerations around this problematic.  For instance, in our Community PlanIt game, one way of stating our goal is to make urban planning fun.  We are turning public participation into a game by inserting a basic mission structure onto a feedback mechanism.  That’s interesting and I hope quite useful.  But the other thing we’re doing is reorganizing how people pay attention to a locality.  How they, to use the neologism of my new book, inhabit net localities.  Net localities are spaces defined by their combinatorial make-up of digital networks and physical extension.  And they demand a unique form of attention – from one perspective, they demand a mental cycling between what is present and absent.  Any time a digital network is brought to bear on the specificity of a physical space, that space is altered by the attentional make-up of the people who inhabit it.

Community PlanIt seeks to change neighborhood engagement by changing the way people pay attention to neighborhood issues.  The mobile game platform is designed to be played casually, to integrate into everyday life, to become a presence, without dominating interaction.  Too often we think of attention as all or nothing.  The strategy of designing a game around local engagement is precisely to combat these totalizing assumptions of attention so that engagement is achievable and enjoyable.

I am still considering how best to study the game as a matter of attention.  What does it mean rhetorically when you replace terms like civic engagement with civic attention?  Does that help us get away from the sometimes stifling paradigms of democratic process and into something that might actually be tweaked with good design?  I hope so.

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.  

 

Local Engagement Games

There is extensive literature documenting the benefits of games for learning.  Educators are beginning to embrace the use of games for teaching history, science, or math it is becoming clear that they provide a mechanism through which content can be made fun and relevant to learners.   There is also evidence that games enable learning outside of formal educational environments.  The work of James Gee and others reveal that everyday or casual gameplay creates a context for players to exercise skills in community building, collaboration, problem solving, and design.  Consider the various levels of mastery required for a successful raid in World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.  These games frame their war-themed content within what Ian Bogost terms a procedural rhetoric.  In other words, gameplay requires an understanding, if not a mastery, of the procedures underlying the content.  The meaning comes from the tasks of gameplay movement, collection, collaboration, and strategy more so than they do from the specific themes of the games narrative.

            When considering games in this light, the possibilities are endless.  They can provide a mechanism for teaching content, and they can provide a mechanism through which learners can reframe content by scrutinizing their underlying systems.  As such, there has been a surge of interest in designing games for civic learning.  Noteworthy is the suite of games called icivics, which incorporates games for teaching about all branches of the American government.  Justice Sandra Day OConner is a big supporter of this initiative. Players can be a senator, or a judge and solve problems inherent to those positions, while learning about the structure of government.  As Justice OConner said at the recent Games for Change conference in New York City, kids today dont know much about civics.  Employing a game, fun and engaging, is surely a useful way to make them know more. 

            But when we get into the realm of civics and games, there arises the inevitable question about the outcomes of learning.  What does learning about civics do and is there a correlation between learning, engagement and action?  This is nearly an impossible question to answer, as it would be foolhardy to assume that one act of gameplay can result in a distinct action.  However, it is worthwhile to interrogate how gameplay can be integrated into a social context and establish a framework for existing engagement.   Can a game reframe actual civic participation in such a way that the participation is better understood and/or more sustainable?  This is the question that is driving my work in what I call local engagement games games that 1) scaffold an existing form of engagement, 2) create an ethical context for engagement, and 3) open up cooperative spaces both in and out of the game.   Our recently completed Participatory Chinatown game was designed with this in mind.  It is designed for the specific context of an existing framework of participation the community meeting.  It is designed to augment the individuals conception of their neighborhood through roleplay.  And, it requires dialogue, conversation and collaboration within the game and invites the same on the website.  The goal is not to teach civics, but to scaffold an existing civic activity in such a manner that takes full advantages of the affordances of digital games and social media.

            Local Engagement Games are games whose primary objective is to make players attentive to their local environment and community.  They are geographically specific in orientation and their objectives move beyond participation to active and sustained attention to local matters.  While there is a lot of discussion about games and civic engagement, it is clear that to arrive at this goal we need to consider a game a situational component to existing forms of participation as opposed to thinking that a game (or any technology) can, in isolation, build platforms for civic engagement.  Being engaged in local life, whether its participating in a community meeting, or simply planting a flower in a sidewalk tree basin, requires first a sense of connection and ownership to a locality, and second, a framework for real-world action.  Just as violent video games will not compel me to act violently, civic games will not compel me to act civically.  Whether we want violence or local engagement, for a persuasive game to result in physical action, we need to build on top of the structures of social encounters that already exist.