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US Deputy CTO Beth Noveck on gaming and open governance

The Obama administration is looking seriously into how games and virtual technologies can advance national policy priorities, from energy use to financial literacy to citizen diplomacy, announced White House Deputy CTO Beth Noveck at the United States Institute of Peace‘s presentation, “Smart Tools for Smart Power: Simulations and Serious Games for Peacekeeping.” As one of the Obama administration’s lead personnel on government openness, Noveck focused on citizen collaboration and civic engagement, but as founder of the State of Play conferences at New York Law School, she also spoke to games and virtual worlds in their own right.

Beth NoveckSome of the key areas that the Administration is exploring include:

  • How might web-based games spur development or help to deepen the ties between the US and the Muslim world?
  • Can games tackle major ed challenges – learning readiness, dropout rates, literacy, STEM
  • Topical priorities: STEM, child obesity, adult basic skills, youth entrepreneurship, energy audits

As far as the power of games, Noveck mostly focused on virtual technologies, noting that “seeing oneself on the screen is critical… When we see ourselves – what does that mean for our ability to coordinate socially? What does it mean for decisionmaking and peacemaking?” She notes that it’s “amazing” to be able to sit in certain White House meetings where everyone is at least familiar with the concept of World of Warcraft. (No one asked if Obama himself is among them)

Weighing in on a long-standing argument in the “Serious Games” movement, Noveck noted that “serious games” should neither mean dull nor pedantic. She does state, as do many educators speaking to learning, that there ought to be many means of civic engagement as there are people who want to engage, so that there’s not just one single path to getting involved.

Noveck also spoke to strategies for how the government can undertake these initiatives, specifically, how to foster partnerships or other mechanisms (contests?) and how to measure impacts and outcomes. One recurring issue whenever White House technology is discussed is how the government can afford to take the risk of experimentation, especially given that gaming is considered highly risky (thus the need for the “serious games” appellation). One of the strategies is likely to foster “copycats” who improve upon the rudimentary experiments that the White House fosters, which Noveck says is already happening. At a minimum, there is hope that the CTO’s office can be a hub of innovation where civic-minded people and organizations can gather to share innovative ideas and make them happen — perhaps even, Noveck suggested in answer to a question, a “center for gaming.” (“Let’s talk,” she said to the questioner).

Related posts:

Cross-posted at Valuable Games

Social media pitfalls for law schools

A number of the yellow flags raised over the White House’s extensive use of social media might also be relevant to law schools. Specifically, what duty of privacy must law schools respect when they, or their professors / staff befriend students?

Note that on Facebook law schools should set up “pages,” not “profiles,” so that students are “fans” rather than “friends” and therefore are shielded from sharing their private information with schools. However, professors are likely to have profiles, not pages. Of particular concern is that schools not inadvertently violate FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) by disclosing information about students through lax or careless privacy settings. What happens, for example, if a prof sets up a “group” for students in her Torts class, and students begin discussing class topics without realizing that the group is semi-visible to others?

For anyone interested in this topic and other issues related to social media amd law schools, please come to the dedicated workshop at the CALI Conference for Law School Computing.

Social Media Best Practices Workshop at CALI Conference 2009

CALI is pleased to announce that it is convening a workshop to help law schools develop sensible guidelines for their students on the use of social media (e.g. MySpace and Facebook). A few examples of bad online behavior has made some schools understandably wary of technologies that might expose their students in an unflattering (and unemployable) light. Yet social media are growing in importance as networking tools that can connect lawyers with potential employers and clients in positive ways.

The Social Media Best Practices Workshop builds on the work of Laura Bergus (Iowa College of Law), who felt that her own school was accentuating the negative and ignoring the positive value of online social media. Ms. Bergus, a guest blogger on Social Media Law Student, began a campaign to reform her school’s policies and won the buy-in of her administration. This triggered the thought that other schools might also be seeking better policies and guidelines for their students.

Our goal for the Workshop is to generate best practice suggestions for law schools. We also hope to start a nationwide discussion among law schools on how to approach social media and its potential interaction with students’ current performance and future career prospects.

Professor John Palfrey (Harvard’s Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources), who is a keynote speaker at the conference, will be contributing to this workshop. Prof. Palfrey is co-author of Born Digital and known for his expertise on both the perils and promise of social media for young people.

Steve Langerud, Assistant Dean for Career Services for Iowa College of Law, will also be joining the workshop. Dean Langerud has been working closely with Ms. Bergus on developing new media guidelines for their school.

Sign up now for the 2009 CALI Conference for Law School Computing®.

[Correction: Laura Bergus is not “Social Media Law Student;” that’s Rex Gradeless at SLU Law — Laura is a guest blogger on that site. Thanks to Jim Milles for pointing this out.]

What video games offer democratic participation

[cross-posted from Valuable Games]

As President Obama recognized in his Open Government Directive, transparency is only the first step towards a more vibrant democracy. The bigger problem has always been fostering widespread participation. After all, one of the most vexing problems facing today’s government – regulatory capture of an agency by special interests – flourishes despite, or perhaps even because of, the openness of the administrative state. The rulemaking process is open to the citizenry, but the public just doesn’t care – at least not to the degree of special interests.

The response from civic society is to proliferate an alphabet soup of special interest groups, from the AARP to the NRA. These organizations serve two vital functions: (1) developing expertise and (2) aggregating collective interest, primarily through membership dues (money) as a proxy.
We’ve reached the limits of this corporate, civil-society-as-special-interest, system. New, digitally networked communities suggest a more fluid and inclusive model of public participation. And, I argue, video games are worth studying for their ability to help us overcome the twin problems of expertise and collective action.
Continue reading ›

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Hub2 wins MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition

I’m very excited and honored that Hub2 has won one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning prizes, alongside our partners the Asian Community Development Corporation and Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Hub2 offers a robust process for community constituents to participate meaningfully in the design of their public spaces. This iteration of the project is called “Participatory Chinatown.” Read more about Hub2’s previous work.

Hub2 participant

Hub2 uses virtual 3D technology to enable community members to experience, not just look at, architectural designs. The project strives to augment typical community deliberation about neighborhood planning, recognizing that few laypeople possess the technical skills needed to translate inert design documents into vivid spaces. Instead of just looking at and verbally talking about design proposals, participants manipulate avatars through 3D simulations of the proposal, removing the need to translate from design to words and back again. We think of this process as providing a different language for community deliberation.

In 2009 we intend to build on last year’s success with Harvard’s Honan Library Park in Allston. One of the key innovations we will expand is the practice of putting participants into specific roles as a way to test the design proposals. This practice emerged from our realization that abstract interaction with a virtual space, even if bound by an avatar, doesn’t provide most laypeople with a robust enough experience to evaluate the experience, except perhaps aesthetically. Instead we assigned participants to characters who have to perform tasks like walking a dog, buying groceries, signing up for an ESL class, or getting to work. This role-playing serves three purposes: (1) to enable participants to evaluate the appropriateness of the space for these different purposes; (2) to give them different perspectives on the design that may not match their own; and (3) to immerse them in and provide a grounded view of the proposed space.

We began to realize that we were essentially asking participants to play video games as a way to give them some compelling reason to interact with the proposed design. So this year, with the help of MacArthur funding, we are highlighting and enhancing these game-like elements. We’ve been meeting with the folks at MIT’s Education Arcade to design the Hub2-Boston Chinatown project explicitly as a game – a game that is ostensibly about architectural design but really about civic engagement and citizen empowerment.

There are myriad research questions that this project might advance, for example: What elements of game design encourage players to adopt alternate perspectives? What level of realism or abstraction makes a space that is already semi-real believable (see, e.g. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City or Fallout 3’s Washington DC)? Then there are practical challenges, like what the scope of community input will be given the state of the existing Chinatown master plan, whom we will recruit to the sessions and what will entice them there, and how we will overcome multiple language barriers. (I should mention that I wrote my college thesis on politics and land use issues in Boston’s Chinatown). As with last year, we also plan to retain a retinue of youth “interpretors” to mediate between the computers and less technically proficient participants.

With all of these exciting questions and challenges ahead of us, we’re very happy to have the support of our community partners and the MacArthur Foundation to advance this vital civic engagement project.

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Engineering a better virtual town hall

President Obama and his new media team are rightfully receiving kudos for their inaugural online town hall. Roundup at Personal Democracy Forum. It’s a brave step forward in a system that’s naturally (and understandably) conservative. Because it was a pilot, there’s room to improve, as the first commenter on the linked PDF post points out. Moving forward, the new media team should focus on re-tuning the technology to hit the core values and purposes of town halls and citizen participation:

1. Patch vulnerabilities. Whether or not you believe legalizing marijuana is a top-echelon issue facing the country, most of the top-rated MJ questions had little or passing relevance to the categories they dominated. The last category of question listed, “Budget,” became a veritable honeypot for swarms of legalization advocates (the first seven of the top ten questions were on that topic), with only the addition of the word “tax” differentiating it from similar questions voted up in the “health care” and “green jobs” categories. I’m inclined to believe this was an authentic grassroots movement, but astroturf campaigns could easily engineer bot or mechanical turk attacks. What’s particularly pernicious about crowd-sourced moderation is that the campaign wins either way: at a minimum, thousands of Americans will be forced to read their submissions, even if only to vote them down.

2. Nuance the moderation: I voted on some 40+ questions and quickly began to realize that a straight up/down/abuse vote wasn’t capturing my opinion. For one thing, it became clear that if I wanted my interests to rise, I should vote against everything else (much like the way voters game multi-choice elections with bullet voting). It’s important for the system designers to realize that they are developing a game — a set of rules that determines winners and losers. For another, I found I had more specific things to say about each one: that a question was off-topic, or didn’t really ask a question, or was too generic, etc. In fact, I guess what I really wanted was:

3. Allow interaction: If the White House wants real civic engagement, it shouldn’t be conceived as spokes on a single hub (citizen -> President). The beauty of the Internet, like democracy, is that it’s many-to-many. I recognize that allowing citizens to talk to each other opens huge and difficult problems that make the deluge of posts demanding to see the President’s birth certificate seem trivial by comparison. Perhaps it’s up to civil society to pick up where Open for Questions leaves off — given enough lead time, citizen associations can build their own online events off the town hall to host more robust discussions that can’t happen in the Presidential site. Still, this experiment is one of the closest things to a true public commons on the Web we’ve seen so far, and it’d be a shame if the only way to run it were a state monopoly that shunts citizen discussion off to private spaces.

4. More personality: One of the strengths of the town hall format is connecting abstract public policy to the lives of real, visible people. The format of Open for Questions (very limited space, no nuanced voting), however, favored generic questions that failed to give a strong sense of the person asking and her specific circumstances are. I felt a very strong difference in affect between Obama’s interaction with online questions (which was practically a press conference) and his live, in-person questions (which felt much warmer and more personal). This is, in part, because there was no person Obama had to make eye contact with and get verbal or nonverbal feedback from.

5. …Or focus on the Internet’s strengths. Scratch that last suggestion. Maybe nothing will ever beat the face-to-face conversation for warmth and authenticity. Why not focus the online town hall on the very kinds of questions that town halls are terrible at: those best answered nonverbally (whether numbers, charts, or time-lapse illustrations) or which require the President to draw on his advisors and not just the talking points he’s memorized. (We want the President to manage a team, not to be a one-man savant, after all). Stretch the new media team’s capabilities and see if they can create interactive charts, videos, or even games to frame or illustrate the President and his team’s responses.

Finally, let us acknowledge what has just happened: President Obama and his team have engaged over 93,000 people in an online town hall conversation. I hope this is just the first step towards an even more robust system of citizen engagement.

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Hub2 in the Globe again

This article on Second Life as a virtual meeting space mentions Hub2, though it’s hard to exactly piece the logic together, other than “academics are more willing to take risks than businesses,” which isn’t the interesting point. The interesting point is that running good meetings requires architecting space — whether real, virtual, or temporal. If more people who ran meetings gave more thought to what makes meetings work, the word “meeting” would not be greeted with such dread in the workplace.

Our major innovation at Hub2 wasn’t using Second Life; it was giving clear thought to how to engineer an experience that would lead to useful outcomes.

The pay-what-you-feel model

From Profs. Lydia Loren and Joe Miller (both of Lewis & Clark Law School), a pay-what-you-feel casebook on intellectual property. According to Prof. Loren:

Joe Miller and I have written a new IP Survey book and we are looking for some “beta testers” to try it out next semester. The book is entirely in digital form. If a student would like a hard copy they are free to print out the book or any part of it. Also, there is a full digital statutory supplement that comes with the book – at no extra charge to the students. You can view a table of contents online.

We are offering this book through a new publishing company that we started, called Semaphore Press, using a “radiohead” distribution model: students are given a suggested price of $30 for the book, but can elect to pay something different (more or less). They can even not pay anything by clicking on the “Freeride” button. You can read more about the publishing company and its philosophy at As a professor interested in reviewing the book, you can always click on the “freeride” button at the bottom of the payment page to take a look at the entire book (or any part).

Prof. Miller is using this book this fall at the University of Georgia and I’m using it at Lewis & Clark (in two separate sections). We have found that students like the flexibility that the digital format offers. One student even prepared audio files of the different chapters so that he could listen to the book while commuting. And, we also found that students appreciate the reasonable pricing of the book, with a majority of them opting to pay the suggested price.

Let us know if you are interested in adopting this book. While neither you nor your school’s bookstore needs to “order” anything from us, we would like to know who is adopting the book so we can continue to evaluate the book, the distribution model, and in general seek feedback from the beta testers! We also have a survey that we would appreciate having students complete at the end of the term. We are also happy to share our power point files and syllabi.

Here, again, is the link to Intellectual Property Law: Cases & Materials. Try it out — you’ll see that the site is designed so that users are strongly channeled through the “pay something” page. I wonder if the authors’ pay rate will remain high as the relationship between them and the students attenuates (e.g. if profs at other schools assign this book)? I guess we’ll find out soon.

Not to be outdone, Prof. Thomas Field of Franklin Pierce School of Law mentions that he offers a free textbook for download via SSRN: Fundamentals of Intellectual Property: Cases & Materials. The digital version is free; a microprint costs around $16-17 right now.

Teachers won’t take it any more!

“It” is the filthy lucre of publishing royalties.

Well, I exaggerate: Here’s yet another example of a professor bucking the publishing system and getting materials out there, for free. Noel Capon, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, is releasing “Managing Marketing in the 21st Century” Radiohead-style: students (or I suppose, anyone) pay what they feel like. That could — and probably is, in most cases — nothing. Nonetheless, Prof. Capon feels that the benefits of getting his work out there beats the hassle of dealing with unresponsive publishers.

“After all these bad experiences, I decided to publish it myself… The leading book in my field is north of $150. It’s just out of sight. It’s become this major social issue now.”

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Survey on new/lapsed voters

New survey out from the Wall Street Journal / NBC / MySpace. Full report. The WSJ’s read on this was that new voters were less likely than the poll of all voters to vote this November (“very interested” = 49% vs. 70%). However, what I find interesting is that this question is on a 10-pt scale, and that the 10,9,8 votes 78% for new voters vs. 87% for all voters. I wonder if new voters are simply less willing to pick the most extreme possibility.

Other interesting data:

  • 28% of new/lapsed voters have watched a homemade video about the election on YouTube, vs. 22% of all voters.
  • 25% have sent a text message, vs. 16%
  • 21% have joined an online social networking group for either campaign, vs. 8%
  • The spread of confidence across internet media, MSM, fed gv’t and financial industry are interesting as well. New voters have little confidence in any of these, but have the most (least least?) confidence in Internet media.
  • Despite this, they claim to get and trust the news from cable news channel above MSM and print/online newspapers. Despite stereotypes they don’t rank late night shows, social networking, or blogs very highly. (However, I tend to distrust self-reporting on whom the respondents “trust.” Peer influence, e.g. through social networks and blogs, would be very hard for someone to recognize on themselves.)
  • Despite a stereotype that young people don’t join (and these are mostly young voters, though there’s no cross-tab), 23% identify themselves as “strong Democrat,” the largest percentage of any of the other options (19% identify as “strictly independent”).
  • 65% of respondents use Internet network (MS, FB, etc.), and 35% have a cell phone but no landline.
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