11 Jun

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.

14 May

Participatory Chinatown Launches

Participatory Chinatown launched on May 3 in Boston’s Chinatown.  It’s a 3-D interactive game designed to augment the traditional community meeting.  Instead of the traditional model of people responding to a powerpoint presentation about the neighborhood, participants in this meeting played a multiplayer game about the neighborhood just as they sat next to each other to discuss the issues they care about.  During our launch, we had over 50 people gathered around 40 computers.  Each player, or team of players, was assigned a character. Some characters are new to the neighborhood and country, with poor english skills and seeking employment.  Others have advanced degrees and good jobs and are seeking luxury apartments close to the office.


Whatever the specific situation, each character is on one of three quests: to find a job, to find a place to live, or to find a place to socialize.  The players walk through the streets of Chinatown and are tasked with making the best decisions possible for their character.

After the players made decisions for their characters, the facilitator asked players to discuss how they felt about their experiences.  The room erupted in conversation as people spoke about their characters’ problems.   This conversation was then transformed by the faciliator to the specifics of the area being considered as part of the Chinatown Master Plan.  The second part of the game asks players to make decisions as themselves – no longer as their characters.  They are asked to prioritize their personal values for the neighborhood, choosing from labels such as ‘walkability,’ ‘identity,’ ‘affordability,’ ‘connections,’ etc.  From these priorities, people are informed with which of three planning scenarios their preferences most closely align – either residential, commercial, or mixed-use.  The values of the room are calculated and all the players enter into one of these scenarios where they can view what the area might look like and answer questions about their values.

All of the input provided during both parts of the game are saved and streamed to the website, where players can return to follow the status of their comments and continue the conversation.

The goal of Participatory Chinatown is to get people talking about their neighborhood in ways that involve a range of experiences.  Instead of coming to a meeting with a few pet peeves, playing the game gets people to think outside of their comfort zone and participate in a conversation that transforms the abstract concepts of urbanism into the everyday experiences of the characters in the game.

Perhaps most importantly, Participatory Chinatown extended not only the what of the conversation, but the who.  The mean age of participants was 30.  For a community meeting, let alone a community meeting about a master plan, that’s incredibly low.  By integrating a game into the planning process, Participatory Chinatown succeeded in bringing people into the process that are typically excluded.  In addition to the young participants, we also worked with 18 local youth to help design the game.  The youth helped make the characters by interviewing people in the neighborhood; they helped build the 3-D environments by photographing the neighborhood.  They were involved from the very beginning of the process.  And during the actual meetings, they functioned as “technology interpreters” and helped people play the game and operate the computers.

Participatory Chinatown changes the nature of the community meeting.  It makes democracy fun without being frivolous.   There is much more to do to realize the full potential of games for urban planning, but this is a good start.

16 Apr

Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.  When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided.  In other words, we have the capacity to participate in local affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus, but instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc.  Just because focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed.  So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory chinatown project.  We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting.  It is intended to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience.  It is clear how the game can create a deep experience – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context.  However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.

The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking.  It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention.  Through the creation of a deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere.  We have devised many, less time consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again.  Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game.  Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking.  The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking.  In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment.  The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life.  Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.

24 Nov

Net-Local Tweeting

So there is a lot of buzz about Twitter’s new location API released today.  Not quite yet a feature of Twitter.com, the now available API will allow developers to collect location metadata from each tweet, expanding the utility of individual tweets beyond the list of one’s followers.  Who’s tweeting nearby can actually be an interesting search string.  Location data will not be included in the tweet itself, but will travel along with the tweet, just like a time stamp.  This is going to be an opt-in technology – so how widely its effects will be felt is still to be determined.

Despite the immediate scale of its saturation, location-based tweeting is a big move in a digital culture still cozying up to location awareness.  The thing that is most compelling about Twitter’s new feature is its behind-the-scene-ness.  Location is not going to be a central feature of tweeting; it’s going to be just another piece of information captured along with digital activity.  By placing location in the background, it stands to more expeditiously bring location data into the center of the Internet.  When location data ceases to be something we protect as a representation of personal privacy, the Internet can rid itself of its aspatial qualities and better integrate itself into the everyday life of individuals and communities.

There are privacy concerns here and I have no doubt that the debates about this new feature will disproportionately focus on them.  But it is important that just as we consider protecting the limits of the person (in that we shield the individual from contextual intrusion), that we also consider the extensibility of the person (in that we understand the potential of integrating the person with their context).  Twitter might be the service that normalizes location awareness in our social media tools.  It also just might be the service that normalizes location awareness in our personal interactions with our surroundings.

13 Aug

3-D Worlds for Land Use Planning

Holly St. Clair writes about the Participatory Chinatown project in an article for the American Planning Association newsletter.  In explaining what PC will do for the planning process, she says:

The emphasis is not just on the computer simulation, but rather on the conversations and learning or rather deliberation that happens in between gaming sessions. Participants are facing each other playing navigating their avatars through quests. The 3-D virtual environment augments the deliberation with additional information, tracking decisions impacts and results of decisions and helping to participants experience the space.  These new 3-D virtual environments are fun but not frivolous. They can help create an understanding grounded in experience and create a common ground for to continue conversations. These virtual works can help participants understand complex urban issues by literally walking in someone elses shoes.

The full article is available here.

22 Jul

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.

27 Jun

Communicative Cities Conference

comm cities

I just returned from a very interesting conference called Communicative Cities: Integrating Technology and Place in Columbus, OH.  The main goal of the conference was to explore the concept of the “communicative city” and question exactly how cities communicate (as singular entities or as facilitating containers of social activity).  The presentations ran the gamut from Peter Hecht’s rather dystopian talk about the risks of cell phone use in public spaces to Andrew Miller’s presentation of strategic integrations of social media into urban life.  In all, the conference seemed to veer more prominently towards suspicion, doubt and lamentation of the potentially caustic effects of social media on the urban public sphere.  Many concluded that the use of cellular devices disconnected people from their environment, causing them to not pay attention and as a result, put themselves at risk.   Keith Hampton echoed this concern with a good deal of empirical evidence, noting that cell phone users are less likely to notice their surroundings than are readers of books or even laptop users.  The recurring theme was distraction.  Of course, within this discourse of distraction is the normative assumption that somehow outside of technological mediation, we pay absolute attention.  Sure, cell phones fragment attentional focus, but was it not fragmented before?  The over stimulation produced by the city has been a theme in critical theory for well over a hundred years.  The city fragments attention.  New portable media technologies – laptops, cell phones, portable gaming systems, iPods  – continue this tradition.  So, the question is really about the quality of distraction, not so much the quantity.  What is the nature of this distraction prompted by portable technologies, and does the individualized nature of the distractional technology somehow transform distraction from a public event to a private one?

I believe that personal attention is important to consider when evaluating the urban public sphere.  But instead of lamenting its loss, we need to consider the nature of its fragmentation.  The manner in which we pay attention to the urban environment is different, but instead of assigning moral value and counting losses, shouldn’t we in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, identify opportunities?  Benjamin understood that while modernism threatened aura, it opened opportunities for democratic access.  When we lament the loss of attention in the city, we’re really lamenting the loss of aura.  We’re suggesting that people aren’t paying attention and they can no longer experience the real city.  We need to consider that the real city is not what we assume; and as it always does, the city will emerge alongside technological and cultural changes.

Attention is transformed with each technology.  And if you look at the history of technologies in the city, changes in attention are designed into the form of the city.  Consider the carbon arc light and its role in urban form, the motor car, the street car, or the portable camera, radio, television, and video cameras.  Technologies manipulate our attention and urban spaces are eventually designed to accommodate the changes in attentional structures.  What we see with the inundation of portable technologies in our cities is not a threat to the public sphere; it is an opportunity.

Many of the conference participants, myself included, tried to steer the conversation towards the opportunities of digital design for the communicative city.  Kyle Ezell and Mike Reed presented an early version of their sensory planning tool.  This tool, as far as I could understand it, is meant to aggregate many existing social media data sources into a single platform to assist in a particular planning task.  The presentation was a bit disorganized, making it rather hard to follow, but my basic understanding of the tool is that it wants to work with the myriad technologies of urban distraction to formulate an attentive public on particular issues.

I hope that the debate about communicative cities moves more in the direction of discovering opportunities within the new landscape of distraction and less in the direction of legislating normative behaviors in public space.

19 Jun

Community Engagement Games

We just finished our mock-up of the Neighborhood of Tomorrow game.   The game tries to do something a little different than most location-based games.  Instead of encouraging urban mobility and networking, this game is about location and social cohesiveness.   It asks players to focus their attention on their geographical neighborhood.  This is a tall order when so many people in urban neighborhoods see their own block as mere transit to their living rooms.    The goal of NOT is to get people who share a geographic community to work together to devise their ideal neighborhood 5 years in the future.  They do this by posing and accepting challenges, reviewing current businesses and services and proposing new ones, and organizing their neighbors to get things done.   The game is about community engagement in that it requires people to collaborate and cooperate to achieve common goals.  And the goal of the game is to build stronger communities by providing a playful space capable of increasing weak ties within geographical neighborhoods.

Community Engagement Games are a subset of Location Based Games.  While they are “about” a location, game-play emphasizes local attention over mobility, and local knowledge over located information.  It is about collaborative knowledge production for a geographical community and not cooperative data collection for a geographic space.  These are big differences.  While each has its function, I believe that community engagement games are better equipped to address real urban problems, because they look inward and not outward.

14 May

Urban Spectator

Here’s the cover of my book.  It’s finally going to come out, even though it’s still months away.  The book looks at something I call possessive spectatorship in the American city, a way of looking that doubles as a kind of collecting.  I trace this idea from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, culminating in a discussion of what I call the digital possessive, which is manifested in the Database city – a city with no content other than to grant access to content.  The book covers a good span of American urban history, but I’m careful not to characterize the book as an urban history.  It does not  really tell the history of the American city; however, that history is a backdrop to a history of urban spectatorship.

13 May

Paying Attention to the Local

While new mobile technologies are often characterized as distractions from the world around us – just consider the outcry over train operators texting while driving – they are, in fact, technologies of attention.  They get us to pay attention to them.  Actually, that’s not true.  We don’t pay attention to our devices, we pay attention to what our devices mediate.  We pay attention to our girlfriend (as is the case of the Green Line operator in Boston); we pay attention to restaurant reviews; we pay attention to that latest iPhone app.  These little devices have the remarkable capacity to organize our attentional allocation away from the living, breathing world around us and towards miniaturized icons and intermittent text.  It’s remarkable when you consider how critics of modernity lamented the presence of the very large and present in our urban landscapes as defilers of focus.  And crtics of post-modernity (if that’s what we want to call it) lament the presence of the very small and distant as instigators of distraction.

But the truth is – these very small devices don’t only distract us from the world that is in some a priori manner; they focus us on certain things that are equally constructive of our worlds.  I am not saying they can’t take us away from where we are; in fact, that’s very possible, even probable.  But that is just one of their capabilities.  Mobile technologies can also draw our attention to things that matter in the environment.  Consider Wikitude.  They can attach our focus to the world around us, even if that happens by pulling information from the web or connecting to a friend not physically present.   It is all a matter of design.  Mobile technologies should be considered tools for the urban attentional architect.  How can they be used to draw attention to certain things while not precluding experience outside of their mediating power?  How can they make a user aware of the architectural significance of a building, while encouraging an interaction unmediated by the device?  Mobile technologies do not have to dominate any given experience.  Properly designed, urban experience can be a complex interweaving of networked information, face-to-face encounters and the presence of physical structures.  Urban architecture is not just physical.  It is attentional.  What we pay attention to in the urban environment is subject to design well beyond the boundaries of buildings.   But architects and technologists are largely ignoring this aspect of urban experience.  I wonder if there can be a role for attentional architects in the future of urban design.