Mission Possible: Civic Engagement at Emerson

Using games to better society is a relatively new concept, and Emerson wants in.

Photo by Nydia Hartono

160 Boylston Street: from the outside, it doesn’t look like much. As students we walk past it every day, but our eyes often glaze over the building, opting to focus instead on our destination—whether it be Piano Row on one side or Boloco on the other. If the location is known for anything, it’s the dusty antique shop on the first floor. Take a short (albeit eerie) elevator ride up to the fourth floor, however, and you will find a different kind of treasure.

The Engagement Lab at Emerson College is many things at once. Simply put by Brandon Sichling, a VMA graduate student, it is “an applied research lab for civic engagement.” While concise, this definition feels unsatisfying. Yet attempting to sum up all of the work done by the team in just one sentence is not an easy task.

The fourth floor of 160 Boylston serves as a workplace for the Engagement Lab staff and student lab assistants, as well as for Emerson faculty who are employing the lab’s resources in various projects. The lab has been used as a space for the VMA topics class Games and Social Change, a course taught by the lab director, Professor Eric Gordon. The purpose of the Engagement Lab is to design and study technological avenues of civic engagement. Civic media, which includes interactive games, aims to benefit specific communities by discussing and resolving key issues.

Professor Catherine D’Ignazio, one of four new faculty members who are Fellows at the Engagement Lab, believes that civic media is an emerging field. “All of us are working to define it in our own ways. There’s a connection there between the accessibility and availability of information, and then the participation in public processes…the varying ways that people can participate in their community to basically change the world for the better,” says D’Ignazio. She points out questions that civic media raises, such as: “How do people have the right information to make good public decisions?” and “How do you get people engaged around certain public issues that really matter, that really need participation to move forward?”

Many important and inventive games have been developed as a result of the work being done at the Engagement Lab. These games range from role-playing (Civic Seed, designed in cooperation with Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service) to real-time strategy (Risk Horizon, designed in partnership with the World Bank). The lab has also developed in-person games such as @Stake, a role-playing/tabletop card game, and Boda Boda, an in-person game designed in partnership with the Red Cross in Uganda as part of a safety and first aid certification course for drivers of motorcycle taxis. UpRiver is a multi-phase game, meaning it is played on a digital platform as well as in-person. “I think there’s a difference between just kind of plopping a game on top of something that you want people to know—that’s what you might call gamification—versus designing a game from the ground up to be more meaningful, engaging and participatory,” says D’Ignazio.

The lab’s most prominent game initiative is Community PlanIt, an innovative way of evaluating public opinion. In today’s digital era, holding a town meeting seems like an antiquated ritual. Community PlanIt has revolutionized the basic idea of a community meeting through online, interactive games. Participants play individually by answering questions, and can then contribute their rewards to worthy causes—solutions to civic problems. Coming up with these causes is another key part of the game.

Community PlanIt is being utilized in cities across the country, such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles. It is also used internationally in Moldova, and will soon be implemented in Bhutan. According to Christina Wilson, Project Manager at the Engagement Lab, Community PlanIt is ideal for “policymaking or other planning processes that require broad community input.”

“The ongoing research question of Community PlanIt is to see how digital technologies can help facilitate a more participatory planning process,” says D’Ignazio. “Many people in these planning processes voice the ideal of having it be participatory and including many voices. It’s [an issue of] how to engage people and how to collect all of that really amazing wisdom that the community has.”

Last month, the Engagement Lab launched a Community PlanIt game just for Emerson College, called Emerson UnCommon. Beginning on Sept. 22, students, faculty, and staff were challenged to answer a series of questions while earning coins for their responses. The coins were then pledged to the cause(s) of the player’s choice. By participating in Emerson UnCommon, students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to submit their own causes or simply vote for those proposed by others. The causes are projects that benefit the Emerson community—anything that is connected to a department, student housing, or a club recognized by Student Government. These causes will help advance Emerson’s five strategic priorities: academic excellence, civic engagement, internationalization and global engagement, innovation, and financial strength and stewardship.

The three winning causes are to receive $1,000 in funding so that the ideas can be implemented on campus. In his email to the Emerson community, President Lee Pelton described participation in the game as a “remarkable opportunity to make your voice heard in an important all-campus conversation.” According to Wilson, it’s the first time a game has been used to do planning on a college campus.

The hope for Emerson Uncommon was, in D’Ignazio’s words, to “open up that planning process and explore…people’s current relationships with Emerson, and how [we can] dream together. How do we envision a future together and [also] meet people where they are?”

Animation and motion media major Alex Eby ‘16 is a student lab assistant. She describes Community PlanIt as bringing together individual opinions on community matters. “Everyone gets a chance to voice their opinions for these certain issues. Students, teenagers, teachers, adults, they’re all using their own voices together in this one game,” says Eby. In the end, the data is analyzed in order to find out what the community thinks, and to come up with solutions.

Registration for Emerson UnCommon opened Sept. 10, and game play lasted three weeks. There were three missions, and each mission took place over the course of one week. The game is set to end Oct. 13.

The students, faculty, and staff in the Engagement Lab research and develop all of the games. For each project there is a specific team. While larger projects like Community PlanIt involve everybody at the lab in one way or another, there are also smaller projects that involve a few faculty and staff and one or two students. “Every lab assistant has different tasks,” says Eby. “I’m their graphics person. I do a lot of graphic design, mostly for Community PlanIt. I’ve also worked on editing videos and commercials.” After hearing about the Engagement Lab during her first year at Emerson, Eby attended an information session where she found an opportunity to help in the lab. Sean Vaccaro ‘17, a film major, also found out about the lab his first semester on campus. Interested in game production at another school, he was able to pursue this passion while still studying film at Emerson. “I ended up finding the Engagement Lab online, asked if I could help around, and eventually got hired. I do graphics posters, edit videos, and [shoot] some…footage. I have had the opportunity to write music for some of the games,” says Vaccaro. While the lab assistants tend to be VMA majors, the Engagement Lab is looking to expand their reach and involve new types of people and platforms. “If you have an interest, they’ll find a way to incorporate it. We’re trying to incorporate all kinds of media here,” says Vaccaro.

According to Professor D’Ignazio, the Engagement Lab is expanding its focus from just games into other areas of research pertaining to civic media and civic discourse. “At the moment, I’d characterize the Engagement Lab’s situation as very much in flux in a really positive and creative way,” says D’Ignazio.

Photo by Nydia Hartono