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Boston's Chinatown Goes Sim City
Community meetings attract younger participants with simulation videos funded by MacArthur grant
A screengrab of the virtual Chinatown.
Courtesy Participatory Chinatown

A roomful of gray hair is par for the course at most community planning meetings. The luring of a new generation of participants has long stymied community developers and planning commissioners. So a diverse group in Boston decided that if young people weren’t likely to show up at community meetings, they’d join them on their turf by making community planning play like a video game.

A $170,000 MacArthur Foundation grant was awarded last year to the team aiming to integrate computer gaming into the planning process. Using Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood as a testing ground, Eric Gordon, a New Media professor at Emerson College and software developer Muzzy Lane led members of the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in creating a game set in a virtual replica of the real Chinatown. In May, they launched the game at local planning meetings across the actual neighborhood.

Participants play as one of 15 characters, each with a goal and a life story modeled after interviews with real-life denizens of Chinatown. They include “Mei Soohoo,” who immigrated recently to help look after her grandchildren and wants to find housing near other senior citizens, as well as a Tufts dental student “Evan Mira,” who wishes he could find an inexpensive place to hang out and study late at night. In the shoes of Mei, Evan, or one of the 13 other avatars, participants explore the virtual neighborhood and collect points for the progress they make toward finding the housing, job, or social space their character wants.

Afterwards, participants discuss the constraints they encountered as their character and the tradeoffs the neighborhood faces. For example, more commercial zoning will create jobs, but at the expense of space for affordable housing. “One of the goals of this process was to get people to think about their own personal preferences in relation to their character’s preferences,” Gordon said. “If someone said, ‘We need more Starbucks on the corner’ or something, other people in the room might respond, ‘Well, how would your character, Hong Yee, feel about that?’”

The time is ripe for such discussions. Boston’s Chinatown is in flux, with expensive real estate accumulating and tourist hotels opening. Expansions of the Tufts and Emerson campuses are in the works, with developers closely eyeing the adjacent under-utilized industrial land to the south.

With the launch of the game, those discussions not only engage a wider swath of society—the mean age at meetings is now a mere 30 years—but are also sparking far more enthusiasm. “I never heard anyone cheer at a community planning meeting before,” said ACDC’s executive director Janelle Chan.

Julia Galef