17 Feb

Games and Risk Management

The game consists of a total of six 3-minute levels, each getting progressively more difficult.  The game takes place on a fictional planet named Alora, one that is constantly threatened by incoming comets. The player tries to develop their city on Alora within this context of risk and they need to make decisions about when to invest finite resources in development while managing protection, research and insurance. The game encourages players to invest in all three modes of risk management, but is open to user discretion and the critical assessment of individual risks or circumstance. For example, in the first level where threats from comets are less substantial, there is less need for insurance. But it would be near impossible to pass the fourth level without insurance.

The game consists of a total of six 3-minute levels, each getting progressively more difficult. The game takes place on a fictional planet named Alora, one that is constantly threatened by incoming comets. The player tries to develop their city on Alora within this context of risk and they need to make decisions about when to invest finite resources in development while managing protection, research and insurance. The game encourages players to invest in all three modes of risk management, but is open to user discretion and the critical assessment of individual risks or circumstance. For example, in the first level where threats from comets are less substantial, there is less need for insurance. But it would be near impossible to pass the fourth level without insurance.

When the World Bank Institute made plans for a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) about the 2014 World Development Report, they decided to include an online game to explicate and frame the course content, believing that risk management is a very playable, highly complex system of decision-making introduced or amplified by climate change. The Development Report itself served as the centerpiece of this activity.

With an accelerated two month timeframe and a partnership with The Engagement Lab at Emerson College, the project was taken from conceptualization through production; the end result was Risk Horizon, a real-time strategy game about the balancing of three major variables in the development context: protection, insurance, and research. A success by any measure, it was released in October 2014 and within a week was played over 9600 times by 7184 players in 167 countries. MOOC students were required to play the game and asked to produce a 250-word reflection that connected learning in the game to their real world context.

Meta discussions and critical thinking

Because Risk Horizon was a required part of the MOOC, there was some resistance from students who didn’t understand why they were “being forced to play a game.” During the game, there was discussion in the MOOC forums wherein people questioned whether or not it was an appropriate form for their learning to take. These questions were typically met with responses from other students who shared game strategies and advocated for the value of the game as a learning strategy. As the game was a required activity, voluntary participation was not possible, threatening the fortitude of the magic circle, or that other space or state of play wherein players tacitly agree to the rules and norms of the game. This was offset, we believe, by the learning potential that emerged from the tension of it being required. The forum discussions productively focused on the question of “why a game?”, motivating students to step outside the system and critically assess the game design, structure and learning goals. Rarely do learners interrogate the logic of the learning system itself, where they question the balance of goals and incentives, the aesthetics and representation of content, and the morality of having fun while learning; Risk Horizon provided that opportunity for critical thinking towards the structure, as well as reflection about their place within it.

Learning Outcomes from the Game Itself

Beyond the meta-discussion about the game, we were able to identify some key learning outcomes in in gameplay. The data from the game showed that players who did the best distributed their resources more wisely. The research mechanic in the game requires the player to hold their mouse (or finger) over an incoming comet to learn about its estimated severity and chance of collision. The longer the player hovers over the comet, the more “early warning time” the player receives in case of a direct hit. Early warning time allows the player to draw connections between structures to amplify protection against an impending threat. The graph below shows that the players who did best spent more time researching threats. The importance of research was a key goal in the Development Report and it is clearly reflected in the player data.

riskhorizon2

Similarly, the average amount of resources spent on protection rose with each level, (except level 2). This is significant because it shows that players initially over-protected, corrected for that bias in level 2, and then progressively invested more in protection in subsequent levels. This increase in protection demonstrates that players learned how best to play the game the more they played it. This “learning while playing” is an important affordance of game-based pedagogy in that it demonstrates the tolerance of failure and experimentation towards mastery.

The data from Risk Horizon confirms what game-based pedagogy has identified: games are effective vehicles for teaching decision-making within complex systems. In the Global Development MOOC, this was reflected through the learner’s generation of reflective capacity through meta-game analysis, as well as their capacity for balancing and navigating the variables within a complex system. Risk Horizon, as such, was a layered learning activity, one promoting critical thinking and reflective capacity simultaneously.

riskhorizon3

 

07 Oct

Games in Egypt

During the week of the UN’s General Assembly meeting, the UNDP innovation team organized a series of workshops throughout the world as part of a networked event called Shift Week (with the implied meaning of shifting thinking in a range of sectors). Twenty-one workshops were put together on a range of topics from big data to crowdfunding, and took place in a range of countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.

Poster for public event in Cairo

I was invited to give a talk and facilitate a workshop on “games and gamification” in Cairo, Egypt. The goals, at first, were fairly clear: work with Egyptians and a few people from select UNDP country offices (including Cyprus, Macedonia, and Bhutan) to explore how games and game design could impact the work of development. Together with my colleague Steve Walter, managing director of the Engagement Lab, I headed to Cairo. During our four days in the city, we met with several organizations devoted to ITC and entrepreneurship (including TIEC and ITI), gave a talk to the local UNDP staff, presented a public lecture at the Greek Campus near Tahrir Square and provided a two-day workshop at ICECairo, a remarkable maker space in the same neighborhood, for youth throughout Cairo and northern Egypt. Over 600 people signed up for the public lecture and nearly 300 were in attendance, with 128 streaming it online. About 250 people applied to participate in the two-day workshop and 40 were accepted. These 40 people were intensely engaged throughout the workshop, and as a condition of their participation, agreed to devote two-hours a week for the next six months to continued work on their projects.

The overwhelming interest in the topic was exhilarating, if not a bit surprising. Why would so many Egyptians be interested in games for development? As it turns out, they weren’t. Most were interested in gamification as a business strategy. They figured that adding game elements to web development or existing products would enhance interest in their business. So when Steve and I presented a critique of gamification in its typical form as rote application of user experience strategies, and called for a greater emphasis on play as a principle of engagement, at first we were met with some confused, if not disappointed reactions. Many attendees of the public talk wanted to know the step-by-step strategy of gamification. When do you give out points and what online actions should trigger a badge? We challenged those assumptions—there is no simple solution to game design, motivated users are not necessarily engaged in a larger social context—we asserted. But many of the youth in attendance were un- or underemployed and they were looking for business opportunities. Games for development, in their minds, were games that helped them find jobs. They were looking for job skills, not abstractions about game design for development. Development was their employment. Period.

Egypt1

Winning group working on the design of TrashIt

This gave me pause. I never imagined that the development context of games should be focused on job skills. Our talk forwarded a theoretical argument about the centrality of play for civic and political engagement within a critique of gamification. Our workshop, too, resisted the addition of game mechanics to exiting processes in favor of a thoughtful design of playful experiences. With that conceit, we guided participants through the process of ideation, paper prototyping and play testing. They received hands on experience designing analog games, and explored the nuances of how games work and what they can do. Nine groups formed around areas of concern expressed by the participants, ranging from water management and green development to education and social innovation. At the end, participants voted on the best game. The winner was a game called “TrashIt,” a physical/board game about recycling and “upcylcing” for school kids in Egypt. The game was designed to create interactions between students and teachers, and generate creative thinking about how best to reuse materials in the classroom. By the end of the workshop, the game was playable and holds great promise for future development, either as an analog game or something digital and more scalable. The hope is that some members of the group will continue to work on the project and take it to the next phase.

Even though many people expected that they were going to gain immediately applicable job skills from the workshop, that was probably not what they received. They did, however, explore the possibilities of games and game-based thinking for their work and many participants were effusive about the experience. Several people approached us at the end of the workshop to say that they now think completely differently about games and gamification and the possibilities for both development and employment. What we could actually offer to Egyptians was a way of thinking that bridged social and civic solutions to development problems with the emerging markets in the country. While we didn’t disclose the magical checklist of gamified design, we provided a level of critical thinking and design experience that can hopefully lead to the creation of new social enterprises in the country.

As I mentioned, the workshop participants agreed to continue working on their projects for 1-2 hours a week. I imagine there will be some drop-off, but if the majority or even half c

Groups working on initial game designs

Groups working on initial game designs

ontinue at that pace, I have no doubt that something significant will emerge from the two days. While I feel great about the engagement of the participants and the content of the workshop, the real value in us coming from another country and organizing this event in Egypt was not the delivery of new knowledge; instead, the value of the game workshop in Egypt was establishing the context for self organization and networking around common interest and passions. Whether people left the workshop inspired to make games for social impact or to make a gamified website, they also left connected to others with similar interests and now a shared, rather intense experience of designing games.

We went to Egypt to inspire people to think through games as a mechanism for social change. I hope that happened. I know, however, that I was inspired. To talk to people about civic action in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was humbling. Egyptians know political unrest, they know uncertainty and they know the potential power of mobilization. Coming in from the outside, there was nothing we could offer in this regard. But, in our conversations, it is clear that there is palpable fatigue with the existing strategies for political and civic expression. Gathering in Tahrir Square in political protest may not be the most effective strategy anymore. So while we could make no normative assumptions about what a game could or should do in Egypt, we could propose new frameworks, constructs, and processes for the design and application of civic expression and action.  We didn’t leave with the killer game, as perhaps we had naively set out to do. We did leave with a strong desire to work with people in Egypt to aid in the emergence of games and game-based processes that are uniquely Egyptian.

12 Sep

Does play placate?

When people are asked to play a game to address a civic or social problem, are they purposely being distanced from the problem? Games, when they work, put players into a space of play, a space that is outside of everyday life, often independent of the barriers and consequences that comprise the everyday. So, when people play a game to open dialogue about corruption in Moldova, or play a game to facilitate cooperation on peace building efforts in Cyprus, the question is not simply “what is the experience of playing,” but also “what are the reasons for making or deploying the game and creating the social position of ‘player'”?

Students at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change design and playtest a game about corruption in Moldova.

Over the last several years, I have been involved in many game efforts with development and humanitarian organizations, working to develop games for collaboration, understanding, and dialogue all over the world. At the end of the month, I will be leading game design workshops in Egypt and in the Kingdom of Bhutan, each in partnership with the UNDP and local youth leaders to help them conceive of and deploy game-based approaches in their local context. As a game designer and researcher, I am interested in the connection between the game (as intervention) and the stated social problem. But what has been capturing my interest lately is  the political and social context in which a game gets conceived, designed and deployed. This last piece is an under recognized part of any game design process, especially when it’s in partnership with a political or development organization.

What does it mean for a government to make a player? Can players transcend the systems of play in which they operate to exercise real power? Does play placate? Or can the state of play mobilize and empower players to act? I’m going to attempt to answer these questions by looking at the context of game design within organizations. When and why do organizations decide to make games? What are their expectations of a game process? And what are the political or social gains for the game designer (or the organization initiating the design)?

I have interviewed over fifty organizations and game designers to try understand the meta-game design process that informs when, why and how games get designed and played. These questions will be the foundation for the next couple of blog posts, and I’m eager to hear thoughts and opinions on the topic.

24 Feb

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.

11 Sep

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.

31 May

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?

08 May

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.
11 Jun

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.

 

 

24 May

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.

 

18 Mar

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.