Lab launches civic engagement game

by Martha Schick / Beacon Staff • September 18, 2014

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Community Plannit
Community Plannit

In a college full of meetings, panels, and serious discussions, Emerson is trying a new way to plan for the future: a game.

Emerson Uncommon, a game designed to get people engaged in decisions that are usually decided by boards or administrators, will be available to play Sept. 22 for the Emerson community. It’s a part of Community PlanIt, a project from Emerson’s Engagement Lab which focuses on applying civic research to games.

In the game, players will be able to vote for causes they believe deserve funding, and the top three causes will receive $1,000 to promoting on-campus change. The game will start with some causes preloaded in the “Cause Bank,” but players will be able to add their own causes once they begin playing, according to Christina Wilson, the project manager for Emerson UnCommon.  

Money from the game must go toward an Emerson goal, according Wilson. This could be helping a student group get an event off the ground, or putting money toward an abroad volunteer trip.

“These games are oriented towards pro-social activity, so these aren’t the kind of games to see how many people you can kill,” said Thomas Cooper, a visual and media arts professor. “This is the opposite end of the spectrum, where you’re competing towards the best ideas to solve problems and to create a better Emerson.”

Students, faculty, staff, and alumni can sign up online now. There will be three online “missions” to participate in, starting on Sept. 22, Sept. 29, and Oct. 6 and lasting a week each, according to the website. 

The Community PlanIt platform, which provides the basis for the game, was created by the Engagement Lab in 2010 has been used across the world to get communities involved in education and planning. According to the Engagement Lab website, its platform was used in Lambton, Ontario to plan resource use in small farms and local food; in Malmo, Sweden to discuss the development of a town square; and in Los Angeles, Calif. to discuss the use of social media in Augustus Hawkins High School. 

“Usually, we’ll work with governments or [nongovernmental organizations], and this is the first time we’ve worked with a college or university,” said Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Lab [CQ]and an associate professor  at Emerson. “It’s a different type of setting for us, but it makes perfect sense to be using the game here.”

Miranda Banks, a researcher at the Engagement Lab and an assistant professor, said she is excited to bring the game to Emerson and use it in her classes.

“One of the amazing things is having brought this game from everywhere, from Detroit to Moldova,” Banks said. “Now it’s finally coming back to its home base.”

Donna Heiland, vice president and special assistant to the president, said she originally brought the idea of working with Engagement Lab to President M. Lee Pelton after seeing its presentation about another game in January at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

She said that after taking the idea to Pelton, she spoke to the President’s Council, a group of close faculty and administrator advisors, who decided to pursue working with the Lab.

“[The Lab’s] ways of drawing large communities into very significant planning processes was innovative, effective, something that we wanted to do,” Heiland said.

Paul Mihailidis, associate director of the Lab and an assistant professor, and Banks will be using the game as a competition between their classes. According to Mihailidis, students and other competitors will be able to become leaders and earn points, which will be integrated into his curriculum.

“[Community PlanIt] is a social system that’s compressed into three weeks,” Gordon said. “The experience … is so concentrated that it is kind of intense and intimate.”