Anyone who has sat through a community planning meeting knows—well, they’re not always exciting, and not always terribly involving. The traditional civic decision-making process can be a turn-off, even if you care deeply about the issues involved.
The goal of Community PlanIt—a game built around local issues that’s now been played in several cities—is to engage people more, challenge them for their thoughts, and bring new residents into the process.
It works like this: A group—say, a planning commission or small business—puts up a few hundred dollars for community investment. Players register on the Community PlanIt platform, and take part in three "missions." To win pledgeable "coins," they complete "challenges" within each mission. Then the projects with the most pledged coins get real cash to spend.
The Engagement Lab, which is based at Emerson College, recently completed a three-week game with the University/Southwest (USW) district of Philadelphia. The missions were "Your USW," "A Better USW," and "Making It Happen," and challenges included uploading photos or video to describe street corner improvement, and answering trivia questions about the number of transit services in the area. Many of the challenges pushed players to give opinions, and encouraged dialogue.
By the end of the game, the three winning projects were "Help 'Green’ Lea Elementary School" (41,150 coins), "The Woodlands Tree Fund" (23,356), and "Tune Up Neighborhood Bike Works" (23,073)—each of which got $500. The individual winner was "Tom H." who collected 1,750 coins.
Eric Gordon, who leads Engagement Game Lab , says the Philadelphia game had about 900 players, and the Detroit one about 1,000. The Lab has already run games in Detroit and Salem, Massachusetts, and will visit Boston, L.A., and Mälmo, Sweden, soon.
He says the games attract people who wouldn’t normally attend meetings: 58% of the 4,000 players in Salem, and 70% of the players in Detroit, had never participated formally before.
"The adult players say they don’t go to town hall meetings, because they are inconvenient, and it’s not necessarily the best way to get your voice heard, or even to learn about what’s going on."
About half the players so far have been under 18. Gordon says younger people add a lot of competitive spirit, and are important for encouraging others to play. "This is their first introduction to anything to do with civic engagement. They provide really meaningful input into these issues. And not only that, they also tend to motivate the adults."
But the point isn’t just engagement: Gordon says the games are also a way to educate about local issues, gain feedback from people who actually experience them on a daily basis (his team produces comprehensive post-game reports), and to encourage dialogue. "There’s also a social piece, where people learn from each other." Players get extra coins if they reply to other people’s ideas, or if they get replies or likes for their own comments.
"I don’t think that civic involvement needs to be hard work," Gordon says. "We’re trying to make it more fun by paying attention to user-experience, which is something that’s not always paid attention to within the town hall meeting format."