Emerson Engagement Lab creates games for social change

by Kaylee Anzick / Beacon Correspondent • September 19, 2013

The EGL meets at 2 Boylston St.
The EGL meets at 2 Boylston St.

Although social media, video games, and the internet are often blamed for deteriorating relationships, Emerson’s Engagement Game Lab is determined to use these resources to inspire social change and civic involvement.

 EGL strives to use digital tools to bridge the gap between individual citizens and their communities, creating simple computer games that foster civic unity and encourage community action, according to the group’s leaders.

 One of the games, Community PlanIt, is, according to Jesse Baldwin-Philippi, researcher and visiting professor a “platform for deliberation and debate.”

 In Community PlanIt, one of the group’s largest projects, cities pay for and implement interactive debate games in which local citizens can hash out civic problems, she explained. As players participate, they earn digital coins, which they can later use as money to pledge towards real world organizations, she added.

 This project has been used in Philadelphia, Detroit, Cape Cod, and Sweden, said Baldwin-Philippi. In response to certain city issues, participants in the game can post opinions, explore those of others, and choose the solutions that they most agree with.

 In 2010, a game called Participatory Chinatown was launched. The program allowed residents of the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston to enter a virtual world in which they played as one of 15 characters and had the task of finding a job, housing, or a place to socialize in the area, according to the EGL’s website.

 Participatory Chinatown reflects the broader mission of the EGL— to use technology in innovative ways to get people involved in their communities.

 The EGL is also developing a project called Habit@ to help revitalize Dudley Square, working to bring commercial life back to this Boston neighborhood. A series of technology will be implemented in Dudley Square, and these tools, including Community PlanIt, will be used to explore the effectiveness of having multiple digital resources in an area, said Baldwin-Philippi.

 Aside from these examples, the EGL has many other games, both finished and in progress. All the games are designed, coded, and written by staff, according to the EGL’s website.

Fundamentally, EGL’s games are about individuals and they work on a personal level, said Baldwin-Philippi. By improving and informing citizens on an individual basis, she said, the games can help empower citizens and create a functioning community. 

The EGL is currently funded through grants from various organizations, most notably from the MacArthur Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, according to Baldwin-Philippi and the EGL’s website. 

 To create the best interpersonal interactive experience possible, the EGL said it relies on volunteers. Every year, about six Emerson students work on staff, but Managing Director Stephen Walter said other students are welcome to visit or help with projects.

 Junior and senior undergraduate students can enroll in two Emerson classes related to the work done at the EGL: Games and Social Change, taught by Gordon, and Civic Media, taught by Baldwin-Philippi. According to Walter, both these classes help students learn more about the EGL’s mission and also how to apply that mission to their own studies and careers.

 A third related class called Cyberactivism: Crashing the System investigates how the internet can be used to create societal change. The classes help students become involved with the EGL as lab assistants, said Baldwin-Philippi.

 Baldwin-Philippi said the EGL will move to a new location. At this new space, the EGL staff said it hopes to host different events such as game nights in order to encourage even more student participation.