Thomas Jefferson once hailed town hall meetings the “wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government.” But in many 21st century towns and cities, town hall meetings are barely even attended. And if they are, it’s often the same people showing up, from the same demographic groups. But Eric Gordon, Berkman fellow and founder of the Engagement Game Lab wants to change that. With games like Hub2, Participatory Chinatown and Community PlanIt, he wants to increase civic participation by gamifying planning processes. In this podcast, Youth and Media Research Assistant Luisa Beck had the chance to talk with Eric about his interest in games, civic engagement and how his lab has managed to combine the two.
Luisa learned that Eric became interested in games for civic engagement through his interest in the connection between media and urbanism. In his scholarly work, he was studying how people navigate urban spaces and how media frames those spaces, both historically and in the present. He started thinking about that theoretical and historical work in an interventionist way.
The first project Eric worked on, Hub 2, used the online platform Second Life as a tool to help people navigate and make decisions about the development of a park in Allston. During the game’s design and implementation process, Eric explored the affordances of how mixed reality could augment deliberation. Entering a virtual space gave people a baseline understanding of how designed spaces might look in the future and how they might navigate them.
Eric’s second project was called Participatory Chinatown. It was an extension of the Hub2 idea, but instead of using Second Life, his team decided to partner with the Asian Community Development Cooperation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to build a game around the Chinatown master planning process. To develop the game’s content, youth from an organization called “A-VOYCE” photographed Chinatown neighborhoods. These photographs became the skins for 3D models of Chinatown. The youth also created composite characters for the game based on real-life interviews they did with people in their communities.
The Engagement Game Lab’s most recent game is called Community Plan It. Its challenges are designed so that players generate comments about the planning process, while also learning something about their city. Those comments are then collected, shared with city planners and officials, and made publicly available online. When the game is over, players can pledge the coins they earn during the game to a local cause they care about. It has had many successes in cities such as Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia. But Eric explains that there are still quite a few challenges: CPI is great at generating data, but what Eric wants to find now are ways of empowering people to deliver their own data to city officials in ways that are so compelling that they can’t be ignored.