CivCity: The gamification of civic engagement

Election nights are among the most hectic at any news outlet–even more so when the outlet has only two reporters. But Ann Arbor Chronicle publishers Mary Morgan and Dave Askins solved that problem by turning election reporting into a community game–and now they want to do the same with a variety of civic activities.

Last summer Morgan and Askins collaborated with the Ann Arbor District Library, offering 1,000 points in the library's online Summer Game to anyone who reported election results from voting machine paper tapes. The Summer Game offers kids and their families points that may be traded in for prizes when they do a wide range of activities, including reading books and attending community events. Askins says the strong reaction to the election component of last year's game was inspiring.

"You had kids with their parents going to the polls to shut them down, something that they never would have thought in a million years to do," he says. "Imagine literally thousands of kinds of opportunities like that, where people are incentivized to go and do something and to report some tidbit of information. If you have enough people doing it and it's done in an organized way, what you get out of that is going to be really amazing."

After closing up the Chronicle on its sixth anniversary last September, Morgan and Askins are starting up a new project to multiply the kind of opportunities Askins describes. The CivCity Initiative aims to increase civic engagement among Ann Arborites of all ages through a variety of programs aimed at making involvement in local government easy and fun. The organization's 501(c)3 nonprofit status is currently pending. Morgan says CivCity continues the Chronicle's mission of informing the public on local government, while recognizing and improving upon the fact that the Chronicle was essentially preaching to a choir of political aficionados.

"We didn't really evangelize about getting involved," Morgan says. "We just sort of hoped that it would happen because people would be more informed. I think that was probably pretty naive. We served a base of people, but mostly people who were already engaged."

"Cracking the nut of civic apathy"

CivCity's website and Twitter feed refer to the mission of "cracking the nut of civic apathy." CivCity stakeholders say disinterest in governance has intensified in recent years due to increased demands on people's time, and it's especially bad at the local level–even in a well-educated town like Ann Arbor.

"I think we take a lot for granted," says CivCity board member Linh Song. "The lifestyle here can be pretty comfortable…I think a lot of folks just kind of check out and think, 'Well, you know, Ann Arbor kind of takes care of itself. We don't have to pay attention.' But I'm hoping that's changing."

Morgan and Askins have ideas for a wide variety of programs to help effect that change, but their fledgling organization is taking it one step at a time. One of CivCity's first projects is an online game called CivCity Quest, expanding upon the way the Chronicle "gamified" election results last summer. CivCity Quest would use the AADL's Summer Game template to create a "playful" online competition for players to participate in various civic activities, from doing neighborhood cleanup to attending public meetings.

"By doing really well, what that means is, yeah, you're doing a lot for the game but you're also actually contributing a lot to the community because you're so engaged," Morgan says.

Another key planned project for CivCity is Civic Ticker, a new way of delivering timely updates on various developments in local government. The Ticker would be tied to ArborWiki or a similar local wiki page, delivering a news feed as wiki entries were updated.

"If you had literally hundreds of people who each had their own bit of ArborWiki, pages for which they would be stewards, things that they would pay attention to and that they would update in real-time fashion as they happened…we would have a way of using the online encyclopedia as a news and information tool," Askins says. "It turns the notion of archiving completely on its head."

Influence in the hands of too few

Morgan says "there's no one silver bullet" to solving low civic engagement, and CivCity has a broad range of potential future initiatives in mind. But the project has experienced some difficulty getting off the ground in the first place. An initial $100,000 fundraising campaign brought in only $25,000, and as a result Askins' development of Civic Ticker is currently on hold. Morgan chalks that shortfall up to both the generalized belief that civic apathy is unstoppable, as well as a more locally specific variety of cynicism.

"There are people who are already engaged who are perfectly happy with a very small pool of influencers," she says. "Maybe 200 people in this community know how the system works, know the key players. It would make their life harder if there were more people involved, so they don't really have any motivation to support something that's focused on civic engagement because they're not really interested."

Although Askins says he's "disappointed" with CivCity's fundraising shortfall, he's still hopeful that momentum will build as the organization makes it case to the community and begins making its presence known. He says he identifies with those who don't want anything to do with local government.

"It's not that the CivCity Initiative aspires to make people care about these issues inherently, that somehow people are going to say, 'Hey! I love local government. Let me sit down and do local government issues for a while,'" Askins says. "We want to make it so that it's unavoidable, so that folks become aware and conversant in local government issues without even realizing it."

And if the initiative takes hold here in Ann Arbor, organizers say that's just the beginning. Morgan hopes that CivCity might spread beyond Ann Arbor by passing on templates for successful programs to "champions" in new cities.

"I think the worst possible approach would be for me to go and say, 'Oh, Detroit, here's how you can solve your civic engagement problems,' because I don't know Detroit intimately," Morgan says. "But there are people who do know Detroit intimately, and they can achieve great things."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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