Commons: Real-World Games for Change

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jun 27, 2011

Have you ever had a problem with your neighborhood and wanted to rally your community around finding a solution? Commons, a mobile mapping and reporting game, does just that. Commons is an iPhone app that allows players to locate their position on a map and then guides the players through a series of challenges to report and comment on their neighborhood. Reports can be voted on, so users who submit the best reports or images can win badges that show their involvement. The first real-world gameplay happened lower Manhattan in New York City on June 19th at the Come Out and Play Festival.

The game was designed for the Real-World Games for Change Challenge, a partnership competition hosted by the Games for Change, an organization that promotes the development and use of games for social impact and good, and Come Out and Play, an annual outdoor public games festival. 

More than 50 teams entered the competition, which asked entrants to submit a game that takes place in New York City’s lower Manhattan neighborhood and that would have a positive impact and change on a neighborhood. Commons beat out more than 50 other submissions to take the $5000 prize and the chance to be played in real life during the Come Out and Play Festival. 

Developers and designers Suzanne Kirkpatrick, Jamie Lin, and Nien Lam presented their winning game at the eighth annual Games for Change Festival on June 21st to explain how they came up with the idea and the real-world impact it could have. 

Kirkpatrick explains that the group was inspired by New York City’s 311 system, a help line that allows New York City residents to report problems (such as potholes or noise complaints), request services (such as better handicap accessibility), and access information (such as street cleaning schedules). Kirkpatrick says that the call-in nature of the service means that there is a great potential for overlap in subject matter (i.e., many people on one block could call in about a broken traffic light), but that they would not be able to know if neighbors shared their concerns as the service lacks a social aspect. She says, “What if people could see and comment on other people’s reports in real time?,” adding that it would be an opportunity to take citizen reporting social.

Nien Lam added that the mobile component of the game was key; users can send messages, take photographs, and record and upload their location in order to best document the problem. They decided to develop the game as an iPhone app because the smartphone operating system allowed them to record and share data easily. Lam said that mobiles are a great platform for games, because it’s the equivalent of players having small computers with them at all times. Unfortunately, of course, not everyone has an iPhone, limiting the use of the app to just iPhone users.

The first day of gameplay came on June 19th, and brought 27 teams of two or more people to lower Manhattan. Each team had an iPhone, and spent 2.5 hours explore the neighborhood and reporting on issues and voting up other submissions, eventually gathering 350 reports during the span of the game. The game asked guided questions to get players involved (such as, “How would you make the waterfront more fun?” or “How would you help out a tourist in the South Street Seaport?”). Players won badges for activities such as having the most highly rated submission or submitting the most reports, and results update in real time so that other players can see what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Lin explained that the game is a “fun, collaborative way of finding problems and finding solutions.” The game is available in the Apple app store, and the group says that for the future they would both like to integrate the system with New York City’s 311 service, and see the project expand to other areas and cities. 

While we applaud the creativity of the game developers, we have a few questions that were not answered. For one thing, apps are limited to smart phone users and while the number of users with smartphones is rising, it is by no means universal yet, especially not in areas other than affluent American cities. Limiting the use of the app to the iOS/iPhone, of course, limits access further (although the group is currently working to expand Commons to other operating systems). The 311 line gets around this by having an SMS function with which residents can text in questions to a shortcode (311NYC) to get immediate feedback and info. We also wonder what, in the end, the point of the social interaction around neighborhood limitations is, especially when it is to report shortcomings such as broken street lights or potholes. Don't residents, in the end, just want those issues fixed in a speedy manner rather than having any kind of social interactions around these problems? While improvements such as a playground or park cleanup might be useful to rally people around, isn't fixing a pothoie simply something that residents report to have that problem speedly addressed by the city? We are not sure that everything needs to be either 'social' or "gameified" and reporting problems might just be one of those instances.

Commons: Real-World Games for Change data sheet 6006 Views
Countries: United States

Some thoughts from the Creator of Commons

Thanks for the write-up, we're really excited about the launch of Commons.  Now that the NYC game challenge is complete, we're looking forward to building a more open-ended version of the Commons app that will allow for an ongoing experience that people can use in their daily lives to and from work, school, and home. 

You ask some really great questions about the vision and future design of Commons as a mobile, social citizen reporting tool. Good thoughts.

Initially, we built Commons on the iOS platform because that's the programming language (ObjC) that we knew how to use as grad students on a budget, and because the number of iPhone owners in NYC is fairly deep, and the camera hardware is really great for taking good photographs of citizens' environments.  However, that said, we knew from day one that Commons should be a global app for any city or neighborhood, anywhere in the world.  And, according to @mobithinking's global mobile statistics for 2011, even though smartphone sales are showing the strongest growth, feature phone sales still outnumber smartphones 4:1.  So, it is our goal to build the next version of Commons as a cross-platform app on iOS, Android, and (possibly) RIM in cities where it makes sense, with SMS integration and interoperability with Open311 technologies and read/write APIs for each city.

We hope that Commons will challenge the ways in which people think about their role in their communities, and in civic life in general. We hope it will transform the way that we as citizens engage with one another about the issues and places we share in common, and how we approach solving many of our own problems before government even gets involved. 

Commons provides a fun and constructive outlet for what is usually a frustrating experience of complaining about how broken your city is. And it goes way beyond reporting a pothole -- in fact, if you report a pothole in the game, you most likely won't win very many votes or kudos from your fellow neighbors because the game is designed to reward creative solutions and collaborative problem-solving.  We already have apps and websites for reporting potholes, like SeeClickFix and FixMyStreet in the UK, and like the NYC Daily Pothole, so we're not aiming to create another one. 

In our 3 playtests and on actual game day, players said they really liked the social mechanics and voting aspect of the game, and how ‘community leaders’ seem to naturally emerge from the streams of activity.

I don’t think people need attractive game mechanics to want to get involved in community service or town hall meetings, or any other sort of activity. On the other hand, elements of fun and competitive play introduce opportunities for serendipitous social interactions and competing to do good, which I love.  Doing activities with a thematic approach, or mission-centered perspective, helps keep people focused on the objective while having fun and making each individual’s input count. 

I’m also incredibly interested in persuasive technology and design, which is technology designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors through persuasive interaction, not through force. I think there is an opportunity in designing the user experience of games to shape people’s attitudes and behaviors towards social impact.

An excerpt from my speech at the Games for Change conference:

Thanks to technology, democracy is becoming real-time. It’s becoming interactive. Citizens have a voice like never before.

Platforms like Commons give us a glimpse into a future where the will of the people is expressed every minute of every day, and ballot boxes, polling booths, and annual elections are a thing of the past.

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