About Participatory Chinatown

Participatory Chinatown is a multiplayer game designed to be played in a large physical space. Players assume the role of a fictional character in the Chinatown neighborhood and they go on one of three missions: find a job, find a place to live, or find a place to socialize. In the first part of the game, players assume the role of their characters. In the second part of the game, they can act as themselves, and they are asked to prioritize values for the planning process. The players' comments and decisions are shared with decision-makers in the community to help with the development of the neighborhood.


Since 1990, Chinatown, a 46-acre neighborhood in Boston has been engaged in several master-planning processes to determine the future growth pattern of the neighborhood. Located in downtown Boston, Chinatown has presented a challenging context for planning: as an ethnically and socio-economically diverse area in the shadow of the rapidly gentrifying financial and theater districts, the neighborood has had to embrace gentrification while struggling to maintain its unique identity both as a Chinese community and as a welcoming place for new immigrants. Over the course of the last several decades, the Chinatown community has engaged in countless community meetings meant to engage the residents of the neighborhood in the decision-making process. Every ten years, the process starts again, so that the community may assess past changes and plan for the future. Collection of community input for the most recently completed 2010 master plan was facilitated by five public meetings between July 2009 and June 2010.

The resulting plan was meant to guide conversation for the coming decade. In addition to the traditional mechanism of engaging the community in town-hall style meetings, Participatory Chinatown was introduced into the process, in order to create better learning and increase diversity of participants.

The Event

The game launched on the eventing of 3 may 2010 in a large community room in Boston's Chinatown, where 48 people from the community gatheresd to play. The conversation and digital interactions taking place at communal play tables was the focal point of each player's experience. In addition to the physical proximity of players sharing a table, each table represented a multi-player game where players could interact in a shared virtual environment. The meeting was facilitated in such a way that the small group interactions at the tables and in the virtual Chinatown were periodically shared with the front of the room. This was meant to produce a dynamic environment that could extend the virtual game environment experience into the physical room. To address Chinatown's diverse language needs, the game was playable in either English or Chinese, and a translator was present throughout the meeting.

In the game, you assume the role of one of 15 virtual residents and work to complete your assigned quest - finding a job, housing, or place to socialize. But look out! Sometimes language skills, income level, or other circumstances can make your task more challenging. Whatever your experience, you'll then be tasked with considering the future of the neighborhood by walking through and commenting on proposed development sites. Every one of your comments and decisions will be shared with real life decision-makers. Participatory Chinatown is a multi-user game designed to be played in real time, in a shared physical space.

The community's knowledge that this public meeting would be based around the Participatory Chinatown game attracted different people to the meeting; it also created different expectations of what was to happen at the meeting. It is unknown to what extent the novelty of a "game meeting" played into Participatory Chinatown's attendance or energetic participation; the high attendance at the meeting actually required some participants to share a single laptop, and thus a single character. Rather than diminishing the experience, this seeming to promote greater cooperation and deliberation as the two players had to come to a consensus about the decisions to make for their shared character.

The game cultivated the player connection to character in two ways: 1) through the explication of biographical detail in narrative form, and 2) through the experience of moving an avatar with a specific biography through a familiar environment.

Participatory Chinatown demonstrated that an immersive, role-playing experience can give participants in a community meeting a strong feeling of connection to the neighborhood and a deep understanding of the issues in play. Players were willing to participate in the game, because it quickly became clear to them how the exercise was enhancing their sense of connection to the local context. The game did not feel peripheral to their civic participation, but rather part of it.

Walking the (virtual) neighborhood in someone else's shoes was a recognizable and enjoyable tactic to immerse players in a context of decision-making that is often not clear in the traditional meeting. The in-game characters introduced the players to details about the neighborhood, including its physical boundaries and demographic specificity. But, more importantly, the characters assured that each player would be introduced to a diversity of perspectives about the neighborhood's "objective" issues.

Participatory Chinatown News

Participatory Research as Path to Equitable Transportation

Participatory Research as Path to Equitable Transportation

Presents Participatory Chinatown as one new mean of gathering resident input for feedback and to ori...

Boston Globe Editorial on Participatory Chinatown

Boston Globe Editorial on Participatory Chinatown

Editorial piece explaining the concept of the game, how it is a departure from previous planning eng...