I submitted my idea for a civic engagement game to the “Real-World Games for Change” design challenge, and won. The award is sponsored by Games for Change and Come Out & Play, and was the first time these organizations sponsored a challenge like this.

The organizations were looking for a game, designed by independent game designers, that is played in the real-world, be it on the streets or in a park that leaves the world a slightly better place. The critical part of the design challenge: to include a mechanic that drives players to leave an actual positive change on the physical environment where the game was played. They chose our mobile game, Commons, as the winner of the Real-World Games for Change Challenge 2011.

Towards the end of our development / testing phase, we were contacted by Susana Ruiz, a doctoral candidate at USC, as well as a G4C advisory board member, for a research study she is doing commissioned by Intel about mobile civic gaming.

Susana posed some really interesting questions, which I responded to this week.

1. Can you describe Commons – it’s basic gameplay, rule-set and goals?

Commons is a game for urban communities to improve their city through citizen stewardship.

With Commons, you compete to do good, while problems in your city get fixed. Report a problem or recommend an improvement in your neighborhood that you think deserves attention and resources, and show your city some lovin’. Go on short missions around town to earn bonus points, and unlock City awards to level up through the game. Get your ideas voted on by other players to win the game.

In Commons, share the things that you care most about fixing and improving in your neighborhood, and discover new ways to explore your city.

Game Rules

Players can go anywhere within the game’s geographic boundaries, south of Chambers Street, and can travel by any means necessary.

A “City Task” must describe a public place or issue that exists outside in the open air and exterior environs. Inside of buildings, vehicles, or in underground subway stations does not count in this game.

A “City Task” must include 3 things: a text description, a photo, and street intersection or location.

Players can choose whether to travel around as individuals or in groups; winners will be selected based on votes accumulated and will receive prizes.

2. You’ve had a playtest recently in NYC, how did it go? What key observations did your team make about how the players engage with each other, the rules, the city, and community members?

We had a great playtest in NYC on May 21st. We were worried at first that the game experience would be hindered by the fact that people had to share iPhones to play the game because not everyone personally owned an iPhone, but it turned out that there was more synergy and creativity exchanged between players when they played in pairs and in groups of three and four. As a result, we’ve decided to encourage people to play in small teams on game day.

We observed that people enjoyed having companions to bounce ideas off of, craft the wording of submissions together as a team, and share what they love about the neighborhood with each other. To our delight, the digital game almost became a sort of discussion starter, a launch pad, to get people talking amongst themselves about their city.

This underlines one of the original concepts of the Commons game, which is to get people to share and learn about what issues they share in common, and to form civic action groups in accordance with their common concerns and interests.

3. Would you say that location is important to the notion of being civically engaged and empowered? Do you think that mobile and location-aware gaming poses new or unique redefinitions of civics and activism?

Location is a very powerful marker, and oftentimes separates those who have access to information, resources, and power, and those who do not. That is why we still have wars between nation states over border demarcations, and why citizens dispute city and county boundaries, and why neighbors argue about tree lines. I believe that location is incredibly important to the notion of being civically aware and engaged, as it is the cornerstone of ‘belonging’ to a city. One of my favorite talks about the subject of human development and cosmopolitanism is Ethan Zuckerberg’s keynote from CHI 2011, “Desperately Seeking Serendipity”, in which he points out that the majority of our world’s population now lives in cities in part due to the fact that cities are powerful communication technologies where there is a ‘rapid diffusion of new ideas and practices to multiple communities’. This is a great feature of large cities, and I think that the more we as citizens can leverage this communal serendipity feature for our own progress and social good, the better we will make our world.

I think that location-aware gaming merely exposes that marker which we inherently know to be critically important in defining who we are and how we act in society.

The idea for the name of our game – Commons – comes from a sociological theory called “The Tragedy of the Commons” written by Garrett Hardin in 1968, which has been an issue of debate since Classical times. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ (per Wikipedia) is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally in their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. We believe that we citizens have a responsibility to avoid this dilemma, and we should all strive to protect and responsibly maintain our communal resources for the benefit of all.

The game is designed to foster an interesting dynamic, based on the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons, in which players are psychologically pulled between two disparate, yet intertwined worlds, where on the one hand they must compete to win the game and, on the other hand, they must cooperate to have a meaningful impact on their city environment. In the Commons game, players can’t do one without the other.

Excerpts from Ethan Zuckerberg’s keynote:

As of 2008, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. In highly developed countries (the membership of the OECD), the figure is 77%, while in the least developed countries (as classified by the UN), 29% of people live in cities.

Cities are technologies for trade, for learning, for worship, but they’re also a powerful communication technologies. Cities enables realtime communication between different individuals and groups and the rapid diffusion of new ideas and practices to multiple communities. Even in an age of instantaneous digital communications, cities retain their function as a communications technology that enables constant contact with the unfamiliar, strange and different.

4. What do you think are some of the main challenges for designers wishing to create game-rooted experiences that engage a specific site, local inhabitants, and visitors?

I think some of the best “big games” are those designed for a specific site or locality that take into consideration the specificity of the geographic area and its inhabitants. One of my favorite games like this is called Pac-Manhattan, designed by an ITP alum a few years ago, for New York City’s Washington Square Park because the streets and intersections surrounding the park were arranged in a grid similar to the Pac Man software game grid.

However, one of the challenges in designing a site-specific game that I find most interesting is the issue of what you leave behind in the community and the environment after the game is finished. I like to design games that leave a positive impact on the site where it was played. I think this is an important aspect to consider when designing a big game, and especially one that is at the forefront of our collective consciousness in densely populated urban environments, like New York City.

5. What is your perspective on gamification? Proponents may argue that gamification involves the everyday and the urban in new, unexpected and empowering ways. Do you think that there is civic action potential? Do you think there are constraints or even dangers inherent in this trend moving forward?

I don’t think people need attractive game mechanics or dynamics to want to get involved in community service or civic activism, or any other sort of activity, but it does introduce an additional element of fun and competition, which I love, and also I am a really big believer in the social aspect of gaming. Doing activities in a thematic community, or mission-centered perspective, helps keep people focused on the objective while having fun and connecting with each another.

On the flip side, I think it’s pretty difficult to rely solely on gaming (external reward structure) as the primary incentive for getting people to participate in civic engagement or to join a cause – they have to care about it or want to care about it first.

I’m also incredibly interested in persuasive technology and design which is technology designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors through persuasive interaction, not through force. I think there is an opportunity in designing the user experience of games to shape people’s attitudes and behaviors towards social impact.

6. Similarly, do you have a particular view on crowdsourcing – particularly in context to non-profit models, social change and participatory civics?

There is huge payoff in crowdsourcing information for participatory civics and social change, and this also goes back to the importance of location in cities because with crowdsourced data, you can start to see trends and patterns across the masses that may be geo-location specific.

The relationship between citizens and their government is changing. Technology gives citizens a different kind of voice than we’ve had in the past, making each individual’s input count, collectively gathering information from crowds, and connecting people to one another through social interactions that amplify their voices. In designing the Commons game, we wanted to build an e-citizen platform to turn the process of democracy into a game that has lasting social impact on the city and community.


2 Responses to “Commons in Intel sponsored study on mobile civic gaming”  

  1. 1 susana

    thanks so much for taking the time to answer these rather lengthy questions Suzanne; your thoughtful and generous responses provide lots to think about and weigh. best of luck on Sunday’s debut!

  2. 2 suzkita

    Thank you, Susana!! Looking forward to seeing the study when it is finished.

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