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Participatory Chinatown

We built a character-driven virtual world that allowed residents to explore Chinatown.

Participants could consider different development scenarios. They also joined a discussion with decision makers. In the virtual world, they took on the role of a resident completing tasks in Chinatown as they tried to complete tasks. They also thought about the future of the neighborhood from new perspectives.

A local community center hosted the project. Dozens of people could play play at the same time. This added a face-to-face, collaborative atmosphere.

Why we did this

The 46-acre Chinatown neighborhood holds a master planning process every 10 years. This gives the community a chance to assess recent growth and figure out priorities for the future.

As a rapidly changing part of the City with plenty of history, it’s important to engage as many people as possible. Participatory Chinatown took place along with community meetings about the master plan.

The project was a collaboration between:

The experiment

Our hypothesis? Building a virtual world that allows users to consider issues from many viewpoints will engage more people. It will also lead to a more balanced set of priorities for Chinatown’s 10-year master plan.

We launched Participatory Chinatown on May 3, 2010, in a Chinatown community center. Community members gathered at laptops to take on the role of one of 15 virtual residents. These virtual resident each had:

  • a specific background
  • a set of goals and values, and
  • individual circumstances that affected the tasks they were taking on.

For example, the character Joe Wong was a father of four who immigrated to Boston from China 15 years ago. He was looking for a new job, but his limited English fluency limits his prospects.

Players collected information about different locations and opportunities throughout the neighborhood. They then then made a decision for their character.

The community meeting brought the dynamics of virtual Chinatown into the physical room. We also created an active discussion among the group. Through the virtual characters, participants thought about the future from different viewpoints.

Results and lessons learned

Enthusiastic participants

At the meeting, 48 people showed up to play Participatory Chinatown. So many people came that we had to form teams. Their enthusiasm helped them connect to and understand the issues in the master plan.

Many opinions

By stepping into the shoes of different characters, participants gave a variety of opinions about Chinatown’s future.

Other projects

This project emerged from the Hub2 project, and evolved into Community PlanIt.