Reading up on the Knight Foundation’s Technology for Engagement Inititative as they’ve just announced their first round of five projects to receive funding, I came across Boston, MA-based Engagement Game Lab. From their mission statement:

The Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College is devoted to forging a place for games in urban civic life.  The faculty, students, and affiliates of the lab are actively engaged in building digital games that pursue this goal, as well as researching their efficacy and effectiveness.

In a recent blog post, they make a brief mention of a previous project and their use of Second Life,which I thought was worth capturing (emphasis mine): Community PlanIt: Where We Are, Where We’re Going

In Hub2, we used the Second Life multi-user virtual environment within an urban planning process (Allston’s Library Park) to help augment stakeholders’ sense of the development area, its challenges, and its considerations. Users could walk around the environment, make suggestions, and instantly see their creations come to life. One notable feature of Hub2 was the elements of role-play incorporated into the process. For example, perhaps a resident would have to use the park as a person in a wheelchair, or as a mother walking her daughter outside the library to read. Having people “become” someone else really helped create a sense of empathy for others who would use the park.

This — the fact that one can have very real experiences in a virtual environment, either as oneself or somebody else — is one aspect about Second Life that has always fascinated me and which to this day, sadly, many nay-sayers don’t seem to fully appreciate.

On the very first day of our recent IAP2 training, we learned that empathy may be the most important tool practitioners can apply towards designing and managing public participation efforts and leading them to success. The above is a great example how immersive environments such as Second Life can support certain public participation objectives.

By the way, here’s Community PlanIt’s project blurb:

Community PlanIt is a fun, new way for stakeholders to plan for the future. It combines a mobile role-playing game with a social software platform, and is adaptable to any local planning process. Residents begin participating online weeks—or months—before the community meets for a large, live, public event. They share comments, pictures, and videos of their neighborhood and answer important questions about its future. During the event, the community plays a game, in the neighborhood, with mobile devices. After that, they leave with the tools they need to continue the dialogue.

Sounds cool. Of course, the first question that comes to my mind is: Will any of this have any real impact? What are the decisions at stake? Who are the decision makers? What level of influence do these “stakeholders” actually have? And most importantly, does the game take into account any of these questions?

Other than that, I can’t wait to try it out. We definitely need to play more with games.