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Gaming: A New Way to Engage Citizens in Problem-Solving

Using gaming to increase engagement was propelled by the Engagement Lab, a research unit housed at Boston’s Emerson College that focuses on the development and study of games, technology and new media to improve civic interaction.

Sometimes there’s no better way to kill citizen engagement than by actually engaging citizens. As the meeting minutes accumulate, public comment swivels into monolog and there’s only so much agendized minutiae one can take.

It’s a Catch-22 that’s tripped up governments for years: how to pull in public feedback without repelling residents in the process. However, in the last few years Boston and numerous other cities have moved to another source for engagement, and that vehicle is gaming. The switch was propelled by the Engagement Lab, a research unit housed at Boston’s Emerson College that focuses on the development and study of games, technology and new media to improve civic interaction.

At the helm of the lab is Director Eric Gordon. He’s an author of two technology opinion books, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and most notably, a devout fanatic of video games of a socially minded sort. Gordon founded the lab in 2011 as an associate professor in the department of Visual and Media Arts, following a successful collaboration with the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. 

“I think the story is that I’ve been doing this work since 2007 … that was when I connected with [Nigel Jacob, co-chair at the New Urban Mechanics office]. We were trying to use what we thought was a cutting-edge tool, to not just represent the city, but to actually use it as a means to foster deliberation and decision-making.”

Gordon refers to the city’s Hub2 project, a series of digital workshops that put residents into the skins of video game characters to experience a proposed city park. Organized with the virtual social simulator game Second Life, the endeavor set 120 participants loose in the digital environment. Players plodded their polygonal feet across pixelated lawns, between wire-framed gazebos and past 3-D modeled shrubbery. More than digital loitering, it was a game with assigned roles and tasks. What’s it like to park a car in this space? To walk through a garden? To enter and exit the park? Players were told to go find out. In the end, the city harvested pointed commentary grounded in an actual experience instead of conjecture and loose understandings. 

“We had people inhabiting Second Life space while they were in a physical room together as a way to foster deliberation about spatial issues, that under normal circumstances, were very difficult to understand,” Gordon said.

After that, everything snowballed. 

Gordon started to seriously invest his research in gamification as a civic tool. Ideas were conjured and sketched, city and university resources were channeled and a series of projects began to materialize leading to the founding of the Engagement Lab in 2011. Today, the lab has nine games listed in its playbook, a set of workshops and courses, books and guides for reference, and a group of Emerson faculty and staff members to support research and development. Growth continues but its purpose remains the same: to study gamification and develop digital tools that answer civic needs. 

Funding for the lab streams from multiple points, such as software users including the Red Cross and World Bank, to government jurisdictions purchasing services, to philanthropic grant providers like the MacArthur and Knight foundations. 

“Eric was really successful using that platform and built up a terrific reputation in terms of being able to effectively engage communities in civil dialog,” Jacob said.

Community PlanIt is likely the flagship game thus far. The online platform slices up the typical community questionnaire and fashions it instead into an online game that pairs question answering with social comment sharing while rewarding users by funding causes they care about. Here’s how it works: An organization selects an issue for feedback, questions are written and players sign up to participate. Once started, players begin answering questions in return for Super Mario Brothers-like gold coins, which they can pledge to a list of charitable or community causes. Following three weeks of play, the causes with the largest coffers of gold coins are funded with real money, typically $1,000 or more.

Boston continues to run the game for a number of topics with questions picked from current city issues. The game has drawn cities nationally and internationally with more than 25,000 players signing up since its launch. Beyond Boston, metropolises like Philadelphia and Los Angeles have also joined in, with others on the way. 

“I think people love it,” Jacob said. “The users love the idea of being able to engage in a very different way. Especially this mechanism that appeals broadly to young people who are typically not active members of civic deliberation in the more conventional vein.”

Yet for city officials, the lab’s data-centric games offer insights more difficult to glean from older engagement methods. The games supply user data that can be observed under a broad collection of microscopes. According to Gordon, data can be analyzed by themes in the commentary, repetition of words, time spent considering an issue, opinions based on demographics qualities, and the data points only increase with every mission. A distinguishing quality here, however, is that unlike common covert consumer metrics, participants want their actions and voices to be understood and represented. 

“In a lot of ways it really facilitates two-way collaboration with the community and it gives people an intuitive sense of what the community sees as important,” Gordon said.

This isn’t to say games are always the best approach for civic solutions. Gordon and Jacob see them as another approach to solving serious challenges. But the games serve as safe havens for experimentation, funnels to reduce complexities and magnets to gravitate interest ­— all traits often elusive in government. 

“There are so many ways of approaching things through game systems or bringing the primary aspect of play into civic process,” Gordon said. “The way that I use it is focused on using game play as an entry point into difficult conversations, as a place where big complex systems can be simplified into playable systems, and as a place where risk taking and failure are acceptable.”