Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Narratives and gaming: design principles in civic engagement

June 12, 2012, 7:39 a.m., Posted by Charles Tsai

Earlier this month, Knight Foundation, as part of its Technology for Engagement Initiative, gathered thought leaders to talk about the best ways to use new tools and platforms to bring communities together around important issues. Here, author Charles Tsai and Dave Timko talk with Games for Change co-founder Benjamin Stokes and others on design principles for engagement. A full report is forthcoming.

At Knight’s recent Technology for Engagement Summit, innovators, academics and funders took time to examine some of the recent successes in civic engagement and what we can learn from them. Do they hint at design principles for the tools we develop for engagement?

Recent bright spots point to increased uses of narratives and gaming. This is no surprise. If engagement is about sustaining action and involvement beyond one-off events, then engagement will naturally take the form of stories or games. They provide meaningful structures for sustained actions.

They can motivate action better than facts and figures. Just witness the challenge in getting people to exercise, eat healthfully and recycle. Compare that to how immersed children are in gaming: the average American will have played 10,000 hours of games by the time he or she reaches age 21.

Narratives are cleverly used by three recent initiatives that succeeded in spreading quickly, person to person: the Harry Potter AllianceKony 2012 and Caine’s Arcade.

Each one relies on an unfolding narrative to hook people. You’re not just told a good story, you’re part of one. You don’t just donate or sign petitions, you’re writing the next or last chapter of a powerful story.

 The Harry Potter Alliance asks fans who grew up with the books to imagine the young wizard in this world. What evil would he fight and how can you raise your own “Dumbledore’s Army” to help him? This simple reframing, a practice dubbed “cultural acupuncture,” helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of youth to action. Together, they’ve sent five cargo planes of aid to Haiti and donated more than 88,000 books around the world. 

The alliance’s success gave founder Andrew Slack this epiphany: “Fantasy is not an escape from the soul of our world but an invitation to go deeper into it.”

Matching nonprofits with developers, new platform aims to leverage tech for social good

June 11, 2012, 12:08 p.m., Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller


Photo Credit: Code for America

A new online platform intended to use technology for social good is currently in the development stage.

SocialCoding4Good, a project from the Palo Alto-based Benetech, is designed to engage software developers, technical writers and other IT professionals with social causes that need their tech help.

The platform aims to increase awareness of this new type of volunteerism by matching humanitarian organizations that work on issues like disaster relief, human rights and education with the ideas, skills and time of product developers.

The project is supported with seed funding from Knight Foundation through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

About the foundation’s support for the project, Knight’s Program Director in Silicon Valley, Judith Kleinberg says:

Friending your neighbor vs. mowing her lawn: how technology can deepen engagement

June 11, 2012, 9:44 a.m., Posted by Charles Tsai

Earlier this month, Knight Foundation, as part of its Technology for Engagement Initiative, gathered thought leaders to talk about the best ways to use new tools and platforms to bring communities together around important issues. Here, author Charles Tsai writes and videographer Dave Timko contribute the first post in a series on the opportunities and challenges uncovered. A full report is forthcoming.

For many parents, educators and sociologists, the term “Technology for Engagement” may seem like an oxymoron, much like “Fast Food for Health.”

When we see how much time we spend on smart phones, video games, Facebook and YouTube, it’s hard not to worry about how disengaged we are from one another, from community, from the “real world.” The consequence of this digital revolution is summed up in the title of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together. The MIT sociologist describes how we seem to demand more from our technology and less from each other. The result: we’ve let technology diminish us.

Civic technologists and social innovators believe it doesn’t have to be this way. After all, technology is simply a tool. We can use it however we want or make better ones. 

But how can technology be used to deepen engagement so citizens become more involved with one another and more active in their communities?

That was the main question Knight Foundation posed at the recent Technology for Engagement Summit, sponsored by Knight at the MIT Media Lab. The rare “unconference” brought together more than 60 innovators, funders and thought leaders to speak across sectors about challenges in this nascent field and identify a way forward.

An initial challenge involved the term, “technology for engagement” - what it means and what a working definition might look like.

Technology for Engagement, the group said, should create and support opportunities and capacities for people to transact with others for the common good.

To that end, such tools should: 

  • connect people
  • build relationships
  • increase participation in governance
  • facilitate discovery
  • surface common needs and shared values
  • enhance the ability to act