Interview: Eric Gordon

@ericbot / faculty page
Conducted June 14, 2011 by Benjamin Stokes

Community PlanIt is an upcoming browser and mobile game for city and community planning, featuring missions in physical spaces and a currency to reflect players’ values. Currently in beta, this game builds on the success of Participatory Chinatown, which was voted into the Top 5 Social Impact Games of 2010 by the Games for Change community. Both games come from the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, which is directed by Gordon. Gordon’s most recent book is Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World, with Adriana de Souza e Silva.

What’s the latest?

We’re beta testing this week, and running pilots over the summer, including with the Boston Public Schools. (For the latest, see the project blog.)

Where did the idea come from?

We wanted to augment the basic town hall meeting, extending it with games and experiences to involve people in urban planning. We wanted to do something similar to the project that preceded it — Participatory Chinatown, which was a 3D game, but required intensive technology and labor. So this version would be lighter, so that any planning initiative could use it.

Is the mechanic similar to other mission-based civic games, like Interrobang or Akoha?

Yes, in many ways. It is a mission-based system, where the goal might be to debate public safety, or landscaping, or traffic patterns. A curator will pick a number of missions and give them a timeframe, like a few days. Then the user can tackle the missions, or propose their own challenges. Players earn coins that they can “spend” on particular civic values, both pre-selected and user proposed. So it’s essentially a spending game. But a player earns coins by contributing their thoughts and opinions about a local planning issue. And all information is placed in a community context, so the player always knows where they stand in relation to the larger community.

How is it mobile?

It is a location-based game, meant to be about and take place in a specific location. Over time we will roll-out more location awareness. We can map IP addresses to geographic points. Place-based check-ins will be one way players can provide evidence of completing a challenge, such as in a challenge to “meet at the library at a certain time.” Eventually we also hope to allow players to walk paths through space with their GPS-enabled mobile, mapping paths like the route between where you live and work.

You seem to have goals both for the community, and for expert planners?

The primary objective is a kind of community efficacy. We want to create a sense among users that they have some power to act within the community. Too often in official planning processes, individuals are not able to see how their opinion fits within the nuances of the debate and how their actions can affect the planning process. The other goal is to alter expectations of city officials or whoever is organizing the planning process. The official discourse is “we’ll engage the community” but planners often conflate the need to get feedback with the responsibility of enabling community engagement.

The civic action is real?

As distinct from activist training games, ours is about doing. It is not metaphorical; it *is* the planning process itself. It is part planning tool, and part game. We’ve received interest beyond urban planning contexts — the school system is interested, and I’ve received calls from hospitals… all sorts of geographically-oriented communities that need some way of scaffolding conversation and engagement.

Is the learning distinctive?

The learning in Community PlanIt is not for some future action, but for the now. I’m not shy about calling it learning. I see the goal of this platform as being the creation of a situation or context where learning happens… and that is what leads to engagement. Learning is what motivates the investment of participants.

Empowerment comes from the learning – from feeling like you know something and can share that knowledge with someone elseā€¦ that’s learning! In order to satisfy everyone’s needs, there has to be some teaching and learning going on. We’ve been talking about civic learning from the beginning.