Using Games to Frame a Process for Civic Engagement

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

By Christina Crawley

We were recently very lucky to catch Eric Gordon, the Founding Director of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College in Boston, for a special Brown-Bag Lunch (BBL) on "Games and Citizen Participation" while he was here in Washington DC. Supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, Eric and his colleagues at the Engagement Game Lab spend their time finding ways to turn “one-off” citizen participation into continued engagement and civic learning. And how do they do this? They make games!

According to Eric, “there is often a lack of objectives as to why we want people to participate – or these objectives are simply not known or communicated. People talk about ‘engaging the community’ but that’s not really what’s happening. Data is being extracted, but there is little thinking about how the groups and participants are affected.” Basically, many means of acquiring civic engagement are simply for the sake of it.

CommunityPlanIt, the Lab's game that's gotten the most traction so far, is a municipal-level game that uses civic participation for local planning, from school planning to city-wide master planning which has had good participation rates from Detroit to Boston. Check out the Community PlanIt Video (above). 

Through trial and error, from games that never scaled to games that got a good amount of participation, some interesting observations about civic engagement from the games that Eric and his colleagues have developed include:

  • People often don’t trust those who are running the game, especially if it’s the government.
  • People put a great deal of trust into other players and the opinions of other players is often more important than the content of the game.
  • Young people (i.e., non-voters) and adults rarely engage with one another, however, they seem to like the fact that the other is there.
  • Games are perceived differently from one country to the next (e.g., the United States vs Sweden) because systems of privacy and government are simply different.

It was really great having Eric over – and we look forward to hearing how the Engagement Game Lab develops. OpenGov gaming certainly sounds good to me!

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