Blog Post

Augmented Deliberation

Participatory Chinatown


The central premise of the Participatory Chinatown project is the staging of what we call augmented deliberation.  We introduce augmented deliberation as a possible design solution that addresses uniquely difficult contexts where deliberation is complicated by one or many external factors, including language barriers, power differentials, visualization and challenges with communicating professional discourses.  It is specifically relevant in the context of urban planning, because the prospect of communicating complex urban concepts associated with rather abstract spatial dynamics is a significant challenge - one that requires creative solutions.  Augmented deliberation is the process whereby a group of people deliberate in a face-to-face setting while they are simultaneously immersed in virtual environments. It consists of three design values: 1) it is a multimedia group communication process which balances the specific affordances of digital technologies with the established qualities of face-to-face group deliberation; 2) it emphasizes the power of experience; and 3) it promotes sustainability and reproducibility through digital tracking.

The Participatory Chinatown project, which is the second iteration of Hub2, is coming close to realizing the goal of augmented deliberation.  We are in the process of designing a 3D game that will run in a web browser.  The goal of this game is to get participants playing a role whereby they accomplish everyday tasks in their neighborhood.  The game board is the existing space of Bostons Chinatown.  Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize.  In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation.  Once the players have had  the opportunity to explore and complete their quest, they are then asked a simple question: what does the neighborhood need now?  They are then given the opportunity to make decisions both individually and collectively as a means of providing input into the process and, perhaps more importantly, to give them the sense that they are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the neighborhood.  They will have the opportunity to go back into the game to play different quests and to read and write comments about the neighborhood.

Augmented deliberation is the process.   The game is the form that we happen to be investigating.  We believe that providing the game scaffolding is going be very useful for getting citizens to deliberate over the complex matters of physical urban transformation.  Specifcally, the qualities of immersion and role play.  We are spending a good deal of time trying to make the game fun and engaging; this is the incentive for participation.  But we remain aware of the potential pitfalls in this kind of project.  If the serious work of community planning is fun, will it be misinterpreted by the community as frivilous?  We will see.



Having worked on a number of text-based character-playing simulations (with deliberation around a scenario being a major goal), this all very interesting to me.  I'm sure there are a zillion worthwhile topics one could investigate with this, but two sets of questions come immediately to my mind:

How "realistic" does the environment need to be in order to facilitate deliberation well?  Could an "interactive slide show" or a cartoon-drawn world accomplish some of the same purposes?  In other words, what is it about the virtual environment that is essential to render concretely, and what can be left to the imagination?

What sort of distribution of roles makes for the best deliberation? (And for that matter, what is "the best" kinds of deliberation?)  What might participants learn by playing a role very different than their real selves, compared to a role that is fairly similar?


These are great questions, some of which we are planning to research.  First, how realistic does the environment need to be?  In our previous experience, the level of realism has proven to be essential.  When people are immersed in very real environments, they feel as though it is done - that it is not under consideration.  When they are immersed in more cartoony environments, they feel as though there are open questions and are more ready to offer suggestions.  Our game will start with a very realistic rendition of chinatown and then move to an area populated with polygons that will suggest a future construction site.  It is in this area, where players will have the opportunity to provide their understandings of future directions.

Your second question is also a topic of research for us: the effectiveness of role play when the character is similar versus different from the player.  We're going to try the game in a few ways.  In one iteration, we're going to let the players choose their character (which we assume will mean they will choose a character similar to themselves) and in other iteration we will assign them characters.  We will then study how the identification (or lack of same) with that character affects their experience of the game and their desire to continue playing and to continue being involved in the neighborhood.

Thanks for your thoughtful questions.


Very interesting -- I'll look forward to hearing how it turns out.  In the character-play work I've done, most often I've found myself, oddly enough, working harder to encourage disagreement than agreement.  If that sounds strange, the reason is that often the players are too eager to solve the problem amicably, and in doing so they ignore the real-world constraints that led to the problem in the first place.  For example, in our Arab-Israeli Conflict Simulation, we've found that any group of high school or college students can solve the conflict easily -- so long as they ignore the history and interests of real Israelis and Palestinians.  Getting players to be faithful to their assigned character, not just the role, is usually key, because it means understanding the context that drives that character.


Very interesting.  In the context of urban planning, meetings are typically quite contentious as people come into the situation with existing issues.  They want more affordable housing or they want a park for their kids to play.  The point of the role play, is to remove them from these perspectives, if only momentarily, so that they might be able to be a bit more amicable in the discussion.  Different than your experience with the Arab-Israeli Conflict Simulation, where players have to put themselves in character to get the job done, we're asking people to remove themselves from their personal character, step into another, so that they can get the job done.  I think this is a fascinating issue.  What's easier - removing oneself from one's personal biases or faithfully placing oneself into other biases?  And I wonder if one is easier to accomplish than the other.