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Eric Gordon: How Games Promote Lifelong Learning and Civic Engagement

Eric Gordon studies civic media, mediated cities, and playful engagement as an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College in Boston and as Executive Director of the Engagement Lab. We talked to him about his investigations into games and social media and asked, "Can playing a game lead to civic change?" (Interview posted: May 1, 2014)

In his role as the Executive Director of the Engagement Lab, Eric leads play-based projects, spanning everything from community engagement in eric gordonDetroit to disaster preparedness in Zambia. As he explains, the projects are "designed not just to facilitate official processes, education, and real-world action, but to natively be real-world actions themselves.

Through participatory action research in the United States, Europe, and Africa, Eric and his team are partnering with communities and organizations to understand how and where technology, play, and civic life intersect.

We interviewed Eric in May 2014. We asked him about the relationship between learning and civic action as well as about the issues that can arise when games and play are combined with serious work. We also discussed the emergence of "net locality"--what it means for information-literate citizens today and tomorrow.

PIL: Your team has created "engagement games," such as Participatory Chinatown and Community PlanIt, that bring various stakeholders together to plan a community's future in a playful way. You've described these platforms as creating a context for learning, which "motivates the investment of participants." Could you provide an example of learning in an engagement game? As lifelong learning becomes an increasingly important focus in adult education, how do you envision engagement games contributing to this area?

Eric: The idea of an engagement game is a provocation. Can a game, typically conceived as a system wherein players operate outside of the rules of everyday life, be meaningfully incorporated into the rules of civic processes (i.e., community meetings, citizen consultations, reporting, etc.)? Participation in these everyday contexts of civic life is often associated with routine obligations and isolated actions. So my research asks: Can games break these routines and reframe actions within playable systems designed for learning? One of the ways I've explored this question is through specific case studies of the Engagement Lab's Community PlanIt (CPI) platform. CPI is a social game designed to structure learning and participation in policy decision-making. The game is always implemented within existing planning processes, such as public consultation around urban, education, or employment policies. We have run over 12 CPI games throughout North America and Europe in contexts such as Detroit, as part of their master planning process, and in the Republic of Moldova, as part of a United Nations Development Program process on youth employment policies in that country. All within a limited time frame of three weeks, players answer questions and complete challenges in order to accumulate game currency that can be pledged to real-world causes. At the game's end, each of the top three local causes win money for implementation (typically ranging from $500-$1000).

In CPI, learning happens in two primary ways: applying newly acquired knowledge to trivia barriers (which unlock new game challenges) and reflecting on one's personal responses in a social context. These rather simple principles reframe civic obligation as an opportunity for learning. To play the game is to agree to a certain artificiality (i.e. game rules and constraints) that has the goal of learning baked into it. The player/citizen can be a dutiful citizen, but operating within the rules of the game, she can give herself permission to be a learner and not just someone sharing an opinion fully formed.

PIL: In a recent interview, you talk about the tension between "play" and civic life, especially when there is work to be done or a change that needs to happen. Why are citizen players and organizations dismissive of activities as "just play" instead of potential civic action? How have you seen this tension affect projects you've worked on? What needs to happen in this situation so that powerful, political change may take place in imaginative, exploratory ways?

Eric: When people play, they have a different level of responsibility for their actions. When someone says something mean to another person, and then says, "I'm just playing," they are excusing their actions by reframing them as non-serious, apart from the norms and rules of everyday life. Likewise, in a game, when players agree to play, they are entering into what has been described as the "magic circle"--a safely disconnected space wherein player actions are couched within the unique conditions of the game. Celebrating your friend's bankruptcy would likely not be acceptable outside of the game Monopoly, for instance. But neither would it be acceptable for a young man to come to a public meeting in Chinatown and role play as a mother of three, as was possible in our Participatory Chinatown game. By distancing the player from their actions, play, and specifically the permission to play within a game, opens up opportunities to experiment with learning or to explore identities that would simply not be available outside of a play context.

Of course, from the perspective of a government or NGO who is looking for "reliable data" in a serious process, they might understand play as an obfuscation of data or a dangerous reframing of a process as non-serious. For a governmental organization to commit to a game-based approach, they have to embrace the learning and engagement benefits that a game could provide (in addition to the data collection benefits), and have some tolerance for the messiness of play.

Games have a very strong reputation. Some adults assume games are for kids and associate them with time-wasting activity. When they learn of a game that is part of a "serious" civic process, they question its value, sometimes writing it off as "not for them," or, even corrupting the validity of the larger process. At the same time, others are energized by the concept of playing a game for real-world impact. Not surprisingly, young people and those new to public engagement processes, are more likely to embrace the game as a novel way into previously unavailable civic activities. So, when entering a game into "serious work," these perceptions will nearly always coexist. The introduction of a game shouldn't preclude dialogue about the form; instead, it should create conversation about what it means to meaningfully participate in civic life.

PIL: PIL has found some students adding game elements to their work, such as writing a research paper in record time as if they were competing in a race. Other students interviewed have mentioned rewarding themselves with a "Facebook Break" for every 15 or 30 minutes they spent working on homework. Some librarians have even described the work of a research paper as a kind of play. As librarians and educators utilize more games and play, what do they need to know about games versus gamification? What suggestions do you have for creating meaningful, playful experiences in libraries and schools?

Eric: Gamification is getting a lot of attention these days as a means of making boring processes fun and more efficient. By adding game mechanics, such as points and badges, to existing actions, it is possible to motivate people to do more of those actions. Think about fitness apps and how they reward users for exercising or eating healthy. Earning points for taking a five-mile run, for instance, provides individualized feedback to the user while situating that feedback within a competitive social context. But there is a fundamental difference between the gamified design of systems and the design of games for systems. Gamified design is the addition of game mechanics to motivate actions that exist independently in a non-game system. Game design for systems, on the other hand, is the realigning of the system into something playable, where players can be "in the game." Gamification is about increased efficiency. But games, almost by definition, are not efficient. In a game, players agree to take actions within a system with unnecessary obstacles. Golf players, for example, hit a little ball with a long stick to get it in a hole, when it would be way easier to pick up the ball and drop it in the hole. Golf is inefficient, but without obstacles, it wouldn't be a game, it would simply be an activity. So, gamification motivates actions within systems; Games motivate play within systems. These are very different goals and should be considered different processes.

In the case of libraries and schools, increased activity should not be the end goal--increased learning should be. Games can be useful as a means of reframing activities like homework into playable systems designed for reflection, experimentation, and mastery. Schools and libraries should be using games and game-design approaches to help young people engage with material in ways that encourages experimentation and exploration as opposed to completion.

PIL: You and co-author Adriana de Souza e Silva described "an emerging form of location awareness" called net locality in your 2011 book of the same name. The two of you wrote, "net locality is not the product of specific technologies, but is instead emerging out of a cultural need to contextualize ourselves within a growing network of information." What's an example of how this works? As our physical and virtual worlds become increasingly entwined, what do learners need to understand about mobile technologies and location-based services? What is the upside to net locality? What is the downside? How can we be prepared to navigate tomorrow's information-layered reality?

Eric: Online and offline are becoming useless distinctions. If we are not connected at any moment, we are potentially connected. As such, we interact with information not from an abstracted cyberspace, but from a physical location, whether it's a home, office, or sidewalk. Location is sometimes used as an automatic filter (i.e., Google uses location to filter search results) or a selected filter (i.e., searching for a nearby restaurant on Yelp). Our physical location impacts the data with which we interact and our devices impact the kinds of data we can create (consider apps like Foursquare or hardware like Google Glass). Net locality describes a culture of social computing that is oriented around location. It has significant implications for how we think about urban spaces in particular, as physical co-location is defined by the potential data richness of shared spaces.

The discourse of the smart city, or the data-rich city has captured the imagination of educators and policy makers. But net locality is not just about big data. It's about the orientation of that data to the individual or community; it's about the ways in which that data becomes available and usable to an actual human. As data becomes bigger and bigger, location becomes more and more important for human interaction. It should be seen as more than just a data point; location is the orientation of the user within large systems of urban and community life.

This is where my work on games and my work on location come together. I am not just interested in mobile games (games playable on mobile phones), but in games built around and within location-based systems (i.e., cities, neighborhoods, schools).

PIL: What is your vision for the future of playful civic learning? Where do you want to take your work next? Is there a dream project you are looking forward to tackling in the future?

Eric: Play opens up a space of possibility that is shockingly absent in "official" civic life. I want to see a reorientation of civic processes where learning, creativity, and discovery are built into systems instead of designed out of them. Schools and libraries should be important nodes in building out playable systems designed for values beyond expediency.

My dream research project is focused on understanding the efficacy of playable civic systems on large urban scales, and within different national contexts. Specifically, I want to conduct a multi-national study on how player perceptions of play and games impact effectiveness of civic learning, and how tensions between gamification and game design impact organizations' design and use of game-based approaches. As I work toward being able to do research on this scale, I am continuing to design new engagement games for a variety of civic contexts--including climate change, public health, and safety. So while larger research questions of games and play in civic life remain the foundation of my work, the piece that I find most satisfying is designing games and working with organizations to get them played.


Eric Gordon lives in the Boston area. He is an Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts and Executive Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, an applied research lab that designs and studies playful approaches to civic engagement. He is also a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Eric is the co-author (with Adriana de Souza e Silva) of the book Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and the author of The Urban Spectator: American Concept-cities from Kodak to Google (Darmouth, 2010).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of educating and preparing college students to succeed in school, the workplace, and as lifelong learners in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives. PIL is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington's iSchool.

This interview with Eric Gordon was made possible with the generous support of a research grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons:

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Eric Gordon: "How Games Promote Lifelong Learning and Civic Engagement" (email interview), by Sarah Evans and Alison J. Head, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 19 (1 May 2014), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Layout and design by Kirsten Hostetler.