Participatory Chinatown is part of an Urban Planning project by Engagment Lab aimed at researching creative ways in which multiple generations of residents in the gentrifying area of an ethnic neighborhood, Chinatown, are engaged to participate in planning the future of their urban space together. In a virtual game using avatars of various socio-economic status in order for residents to gain empathy to different contexts, residents of the Boston Chinatown were asked to first explore their surroundings, engage in common tasks such as finding a place to live or a job within the given limitation of their avatar identity, then asked to decide upon some planning element that would effect their virtual neighborhood, all while sitting in a room together with other participants.

The project was lead by a Dr. Eric Gordon of Emerson University in collaboration with the Asian Community Development Corporation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation for winning a competition in Digital Media and Learning. Professor Gordon began by describing the how he and like minded urban planners met in Second Life several years earlier and began discussing ways to achieve net locality, ways to use mobile media to create a localize civic engagement. Eventually they decided a virtual gaming environment similar to Second Life would be ideal and a team applied for and received the MacArthur grant to initiate the idea.

When asked about targeted goals Dr Gordon stressed that Engagement Labs was not looking for a specified learning outcome but rather had specific questions they wanted answered. They were concerned with the idea of empathy and moral decisions within community meetings. Our interest was to engage the public in collective decision making. We wanted a synchronous space where everyone could to show up at same time. It became a qualitative research. They have now created another project answering similar questions called Community Planet that is more about a text based social network.

At this point Dr. Gordon conceded that there can be other options than recreating an entire 3d virtual world. They developed Participatory Chinatown with proprietary software recreating a 3d virtualChinatownspace modeled after the real Boston Chinatown believing that it would be more robust. However it became difficult to maintain after some time and it was not flexible with the web and certain platforms and now it is no longer playable.  Therefore, in hindsight, either building it in Second Life or utilizing the recent open source software Unity or something that would be compatible with HTML5 may have been a better option.

On that note, games may not always be the best solution, he continued, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish,. Engagement Labs wanted to play with perception they encountered that games are for kids and that games were frivolous. People believed games appealed only to boys, although statistically over 50% gamers are girls. They needed to contend with theBostonPublic Schoolsystem where the word “games” is a turn off for adults. In the end, however, games are just one tool in the box applied thoughtfully and carefully.

The downside in games though is that one has to simplify a complex situation in urban dynamics. We worked with only 15 characters they had to simplify into categories, jobs, social status, and place to live. It was the right thing to do at the time, a multiple player game in a co-present environment in which participants debrief about their character’s actions and decisions, then forced back to their own reality. Many began complaining, “it doesn’t happen like that”, so it opened kind of dialogue with others in the community expanding their baseline of engagement.

In Chinatown there is a culture of the deference of youth to elders, so youth did not have a central voice. Therefore the game centralizing the role of youth became part of the process, getting them involved and making them central for the communication. In this context, adults began deferring to the youth as the technology interpretor and the context of the dialogue evolved to become intergenerational. Games are frivolous for etc

Toward the end of the project, we noticed the adults more careful of their identity and how they framed their questions while the students were already cautious. A mutual surveillance (themselves and the adults had developed but it was better than segregation. In the end, the project was about dealing with diversity and accommodating people for collective decision making and it benefited in engaging upcoming younger generations interested in public conversation.

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