Over the past year, we were really excited (here & here) about the prospect of gamification in planning. Dr. Eric Gordon, professor at Emerson College and founder of the Engagement Game Lab (EGL), gave us some of his time to answer some questions about EGL and the past, present, and future of gamification. We really think Eric and his team are doing fascinating and fun work, we hope you do too!
Tell me a little about yourself and how you ended up doing this work?
My Ph.D. studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts focused on emerging media and urbanism. I was interested in how new media forms constructed the idea of the city in American popular culture. My dissertation work was the foundation of my first book, The Urban Spectator: American Concept-cities from Kodak to Google. But this work led me to consider just how new media not only shaped the idea of the city, but was capable of shaping the practice of the city. When I moved to Boston in 2004 to take a job as a professor at Emerson College, I began talking to people in City Hall about some of these ideas. In 2007, in partnership with the City and Gene Koo at Harvard’s Berkman Center, we got our first project off the ground. It was called Hub2, and it sought to use the virtual world Second Life to engage local communities in Boston in thinking about urban planning. I explored these ideas in depth in my most recent book, co-authored with Adriana de Souza e Silva, called Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. From there, I began to do many other projects and in 2010 formed the Engagement Game Lab.
What was the highlight of 2011 for you at the Engagement Game Lab?
In 2011, we implemented our most recent game, Community PlanIt, with the Boston Public Schools. Through this mission-based online game system, we engaged about 500 people throughout the city to discuss what makes a quality school. It was great to see it in action and to understand how these sorts of systems can scale up.
How do you think the field of planning is responding to your approaches and gamification in general?
It depends on what you mean by the field of planning. There are lots of people very interested in this approach. But, as large organizations are inherently conservative, there has certainly been some push back. The main criticism is the validity of the data that an approach like this creates. If it’s a game, it must not be serious. And if it’s online, it must not be equitable. So, overcoming these hurdles of perception will be a challenge. There is considerable evidence to suggest that this general approach works. That people, if given the time and incentive, will participate more often and more thoughtfully. There is also evidence to suggest that games can create a productive context for problem solving and learning. So to answer your question, I think people are interested, but unconvinced. I feel like it’s my job to do some convincing.
Where are there places for growth in this approach as it relates to planning and civic engagement?
We are just in the beginning stages of all this. We need to figure out how to translate online interactions to offline engagement most effectively. We need to figure out how to make these sorts of projects sustainable, by getting legitimate buy-in from partner organizations and support from funders. We need to figure out how to create the appropriate pathways for sharing and scaling, so that a great project in Boston can be implemented in Chicago for half the price.
What are some of your favorite tools or games that haven’t come out of the Engagement Game Lab?
There are a number of recent projects that I think are quite good. There are organization tools like CommonDeeds that have great potential. There are games like Spent out of Durham, NC, that effectively communicates the everyday hardships of poverty. And then there is the community conversation software, Engage Omaha, that is really promising. But, the promise is not in the single tool, it’s in an emerging ecosystem of tools for planning and civic engagement, where there is real promise to change what it means to be in a city and a community.
I want to thank Eric for being our first interview of the 2012 and responding very thoughtfully. I’ll second the last notion about the importance of building an emerging ecosystem of tools for planning and civic engagement. This is the exact conversation we’re having with our partners in the Open Source Planning Tools group (which is more about open source, open data, and collaboration creating opportunities for such an ecosystem). You can read a little more about that here in a previous blog post.