By Monica Jerbi
Can serious online games empower youth to develop the civic knowledge, awareness, and motivation they need to become engaged citizens who work together to improve their communities? The beta release of OurCity—a new free Facebook city-building and civic education game—is being piloted in Jordan for the next few months to find out the answer.
OurCity is the product of a partnership between NetHope, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), E-Line Media, Arizona State University’s Center for Games and Impact, and local Jordanian companies and nongovernmental organizations. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN–Habitat) has also provided funding to support the game in Jordan.
"OurCity includes 'real world' activities for players, such as volunteer opportunities, and multiple in-game civic engagement features. The goal is to help young people develop the civic knowledge, awareness, and motivation they need to become engaged citizens who work together to make communities stronger, healthier, and better able to meet the needs of the people who live in them,” said NetHope Program Manager Sherry Youssef. “In this beta period we are seeking feedback about the civic engagement features and anything else to help us make sure we balance entertainment value with serious civic education learning."
A soft release of the game’s English beta version took place in December, and the beta game is now being rolled out in Arabic and English to a wider audience.
In the game, players serve as mayor of a virtual Jordanian city and are tasked with developing it while maintaining the happiness of citizens. Players add buildings to the city and increase its population while managing challenges, such as providing energy, education, and healthcare; dealing with transportation issues; and ensuring sustainable growth. They also participate in various quests exploring ways to improve the city and receive rewards for engaging “citizens” in the game and for participating in “real world” events, such as service learning or volunteer activities organized by local Jordanian partners.
Civic engagement features currently in game include:
- Talking to citizens: Speech bubbles appear over the heads of city citizens indicating they have something to say. Each citizen offers a different perspective on a city-management topic, and multiple citizens state their circumstances and how the decision will affect them. The goal is to show players that their opinions should be heard, and that they can have agency in government decision-making.
- Decision quests: These quests involve making decisions that directly affect the lives of citizens, especially when either choice could be viewed as correct. The quests often juxtapose matters of budget or economic growth with public services or infrastructural change. To make a choice, the player may be required to perform an action, such as build a structure, or simply select from one of the available options in the dialog. The goal is to emulate the tough decisions a municipality may need to make to meet the public’s needs from a big picture perspective.
- City Hall meetings and committees: This task type asks the player to convene with the people at City Hall to gather their thoughts and opinions on the topic at hand, and in some cases to form a committee to oversee special projects. This task's goal is to emphasize the importance of City Hall meetings as an avenue of municipal government communication and increasing public approval.
- Public approval: This feature functions as a measuring stick showing how players' decisions as mayor impact the public's perception of them. The goal of public approval is to provide players with feedback about their decisions and actions throughout the game. While the feature does not have any mechanical effect on gameplay, whenever players are awarded public approval gains, they are also awarded with “energy,” further reinforcing the desired behavior.
- Idea gem: Idea gems are thoughts or desires that have a strong resonance with the public—positive ideas that spread through the community and encourage change. When an idea gem quest is active, a light bulb appears over the head of a single citizen, indicating the person has an idea. Clicking on it spreads the idea through a section of the city. The goal is to show players that they can affect positive change in their communities, and that their ideas are worth sharing. Idea gems are accompanied by gains in public approval, showing that they have value.
- Video micro-engagement: This quest type asks players to view a short YouTube video provided by an OurCity partner—typically one to five minutes long. Videos cover a number of topics but are focused on reinforcing the game’s learning goals. Players are generally given video micro-engagement quests after completing another quest covering a similar topic. The goal is to provide ideas and real-world information in a short, engaging, and easily consumed format.
- “Did You Know” (DYK) moments: At various points in the game, players are provided with pop-ups, entitled “Did You Know” moments, that deliver useful “real world” information related to game content. For example, when the game introduces the concept of providing feedback to municipal officials, a “Did You Know” moment reveals information about an actual Jordanian program’s app designed to assist citizens in sending feedback to municipal officials. These DYK moments help to link concepts in the game to the real world.
- Real world activities: As noted earlier, another important feature of the game is providing information to players on actual events or activities organized by local Jordanian partners. Players are encouraged to participate in these civic events and receive “in-game” rewards for doing so.
The OurCity beta release can be played on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/games/jordan_our_city/. It is available in English and Arabic depending on an individual’s personal Facebook language settings. Comments and feedback about the game can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.