CivicsLab

Creativity versus Feasibility | January 23, 2010

My job for this game is to write the design documents. My love is the creative part, my interest is public policy but those two are not always easy to combine. Public policy is not very exciting to many people. Sure, people pay attention to big events- presidential campaigns, wars, big stimulus packages to educational institutions, etc. But most people are not very interested in the little details of how public policy happens. Even as engrossed in public policy and urban planning as I am, sometimes it still requires quite a few cups of coffee for me to finish reading about the effects of certain decisions the player can make.

When we first began to brainstorm for this game, the sky was the limit. This was the easy part.

Then, I began trying to figure out how to make some of these things happen in our game. Often some of the decisions in our game are quite complicated in real life. They often have to be approved by committees and then go through various vetting and negotiations processes. Creating committees in the game is not difficult in terms of programming but it is most definitely boring. I want to make this fun and yes, maybe some of the effects of certain decisions may not be as close to reality as some policy wonks would like, but this is for nine-to-thirteen year olds.

Deciding on what to put in a game that is both fun and feasible has been a huge challenge.

When we first wrote the proposals, our first true love was the idea of a vertical farm. Indeed, we have kept the vertical farm. My heart and soul are attached to the vertical farm. On the flipside of that, I am also entirely guesstimating on the effects of a vertical farm in Pittsburgh. Precedent is not a helpful indicator when it comes to vertical farms.  However, I decided to do my best and just hope it works out.

But then I came across a solar-powered highway last week. A solar powered highway is undeniably awesome. But just understanding the technicalities of it seems rather complicated, much less figuring out what the effects of a solar powered highway would be were it to be  built in a former industrial town. I could guesstimate but it is really even worth putting a solar powered highway? I am not sure. As exciting as it would be in the game, is it really a feasible option?

I was watching the news the night of the special election in Massachusetts. I kept going from analyzing the fact that so many channels were using what I termed, “web 2.0 boxes”, to focusing on what the anchors were actually saying. Do the boxes matter? Did the first 1% of election results matter? It is this type of repetitive type of thinking that goes on in my head all day-except with public policy decisions and fun. (Really. Go watch the news. You will see the use of these squares. They have not always been used like they are now being used.)

I was invited by my mentor from the summer, Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, to go tour the new Penguins arena. The arena is still under construction. Some citizens are very upset about the location of the arena for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons include the historical and racial context-  the first arena ruined a vibrant area where famous jazz players of the 20th century spent time, also, it was predominantly African-American area. Then there is the fact that an energy company named, “Consol Energy”, is the sponsor of the arena. On the other hand, Pittsburgh is a big sports town and the Pens won the Stanley Cup last year. In terms of having a fun city, you don’t really want to get rid of a hockey arena. When I toured the arena, they gave us a booklet of 3-d models depicting what the arena will look like when it is finished. First, I had all of the thoughts about varying opinions of the arena going through my head, then suddenly I found myself doing an unintentional analysis of the 3-d models. I turned to someone else in the group to joke about the fact that someone hadn’t used certain keystrokes to make sure the pictures of people were enlarged to be proportional. They gave me a strange look as if to say, “What? How is that important at all? ” Actually, the reason I noticed them was because there were many white, blond women who looked like they were supermodels. I could only imagine what the activists who had been upset about the arena because of its historical- socio-economic-racial- context would say about the pictures. Although not all of the pictures of people were white, the majority were. But then again, these 3-d models were supposed to depict what the actual structure of the arena would look like. Still, the 3-d models of the people do not depict what the people in the surrounding neighborhood look like, at all.

Then I began to think about possible alternatives to having the arena where it is now. This type of thinking is what our game is trying to promote. My first thought was whether we could have put the arena somewhere else. Personally, I would rather have it in the city so that the city receives the tax dollars from sports fans. I live in the city and taxes are pretty high- although the cost of living here is really not very high, at all. I am still trying to determine where the arena could have been built. No solution so far.  My mentor walked over to me to ask how I thought the arena could better help nearby restaurants. Many people like to go out to eat and then to the Penguins games. Another puzzle! In fact, if she had not brought it up, I would never have really thought about it that way. I did think about the fact that people come into the city, go to the games and leave again. I had not thought to myself, “What could we do to make it more helpful to the nearby restaurants?”. I still have not come to a conclusion on this question, either.

Personally, I have not been to a Pens game since I was in 3rd grade. I would rather go to an art gallery event,  see a movie, or just hang out with friends and play video games. But after studying how public policy is made, I have noticed that this type of thinking seems to be  how bad public policy is created. “I think this is right for me, so it must be right for everyone else”. Quantitative analysis combined with citizen input can be difficult to do but it has become clear to me how necessary both are.

The puzzles abound but until they are solved, it leaves space for creativity to collide with feasibility and duke it out until they come to a conclusion.

I saw Shepard Fairey’s exhibit today at the Andy Warhol Museum. While I was perusing the bookstore, I bought a book about shapes and how famous artists have used them in creative ways. The artist Ellsworth Kelly (who uses squares) “bases his paintings on personal experiences”. This seems rather similar to the way interface designers for news agencies are using squares. Reporters and commentators are placed in squares to discuss events taking place. Perhaps Ellsworth Kelly has taken a normal object (feasibility) to express his personal experiences (creativity). When the two collide, we are left pondering something in a new way.

-Laura-

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Focusing on the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, CivicsLab puts elementary and middle school students in virtual control of decision-making in their communities to encourage civic participation, critical thinking, and sense of place. In CivicsLab, players will assume positions of power in the community from an urban, suburban or rural perspective and explore how decisions-based on social need and demand, proper planning (as defined by our civic experts), political pressure, and most importantly, their imaginations-might impact the community. Through manipulation of real mapping information and current data sets, students navigate social and political pressures to explore the cause and effect of civic investment and public policy as they attempt to create a sustainable future for their region.

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