Tap into playfulness to engage the public, says Engagement Lab's Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon, Director, Engagement Lab, Emerson College
Eric Gordon, director of Emerson College's Engagement Lab

Story by Richard Percy

What do smartphone games have to do with civic engagement? And read more because you should know why journalists care

Eric Gordon, director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College and faculty associate for the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, visited the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s Agora Journalism Center in October to answer those questions. Gordon studies civic media and public engagement in the developing world and has served as an expert advisor for the UN Development Program, International Red Cross, World Bank and municipal governments throughout the United States.

The Agora Journalism Center invited Gordon to the SOJC’s George S. Turnbull Portland Center to talk about the commonalities between his unique perspective on civic engagement and the center’s mission to “articulate a vision and practice of journalism inextricably linked to the health of our democracy.” An audience of nearly 100 SOJC students and faculty, alumni, journalists and community engagement practitioners attended the event, which addressed how people learn and make meaning in the digital age and how to increase public participation in order to improve the civic ecosystem.

“Eric Gordon is a thought leader in media and civic engagement,” said Regina Lawrence, executive director of the Agora Journalism Center and the Turnbull Center. “The Agora Journalism Center was thrilled that Eric wanted to talk with our faculty, students and community here in Portland to share his ideas and learn what we are also doing to promote and support media innovation in service to civic engagement.”

In addition to its work to create media innovations that connect journalists with their communities through civic engagement, the Agora Journalism Center also strives to empower communities in the hopes that they will help inform media innovations. The idea is to build a reciprocal relationship, maintained by trust and empathy.

But where does it all begin? What’s the best way to inspire engagement?

In his studies, Gordon pays particular attention to how playfulness can facilitate civic participation. He writes that his interest in playfulness stems from the observation that it is a trait that can elevate someone above the toil of everyday life. Drawing on his research, he designed a series of award-winning “engagement games” and authored two books, “Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World” (with Adriana de Souza e Silva) and “The Urban Spectator: American Concept Cities From Kodak to Google.” He also co-edited “Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice” with Engagement Lab co-founder Paul Mihailidis.

The “Civic Media” book serves as a companion to Gordon and Mihailidis’s Civic Media Project, an online collection of short case studies from around the globe that sheds light on how digital technology can both advance and hinder civic engagement. According to the Civic Media Project website, to play means to explore alternative futures, identities and methods with few or no consequences for failure. The conclusion is that play can lead to increased creativity and catalyze imaginative approaches to serious problems.

Apps and online tools are not just distractions, Gordon said during his talk at the Agora Journalism Center. Instead, they can be exercisers of the imagination and convenient means for increasing civic engagement.

After all, if people engage in something — whether through a game or some other way — they are showing concern for its outcomes and opening themselves up to perspectives outside of their own. In the digital age, engagement like this has become much easier, so it’s more important than ever to do it mindfully and with good intent.

Thanks to apps like Periscope, Twitter and Facebook Live, journalists are not the only people creating newsworthy digital content. Gordon and the Agora Journalism Center hope to bridge the gap between the traditional storytellers and the communities wanting to tell their own stories.

“Eric left us all with inspiration for how media — everything from news stories to interactive games — can be designed for greater and more meaningful public engagement,” said Lawrence. “His work is reshaping how scholars and practitioners study and design media to improve how people interact with each other and with their communities.”

The respect, it appears, is mutual. After the event, Gordon tweeted, “Thanks for the generosity. U of O is doing important work in understanding the connection between journalism and civics.”

Richard Percy is a digital content creator planning to graduate next spring from the SOJC’s Multimedia Journalism Master’s program. He currently produces story packages that promote the mission of the George S. Turnbull Center in Portland as an SOJC Communications intern. He is also a freelance nonfiction writer and videographer whose work has appeared in The Portland Mercury, OPB State of Wonder and OregonLive. See a sampling of Richard’s work at www.richardpercy.com.