Participatory Chinatown (Boston, 2010)

Participatory Chinatown (Boston, 2010)

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Problem and Purpose

A mixed online-offline engagement process, the goal of Participatory Chinatown was to engage more Chinatown stakeholders in the 2010 Chinatown Master Planning Process. To help make planning concepts and scenarios more intuitive, proposed scenarios for Chinatown were built into fully immersive 3D environments that participants could walk through and discuss, both in person and with in-game comments. From its website, Participatory Chinatown describes itself as "a 3-D immersive game designed to be part of the master planning process for Boston's Chinatown." The project designers invite participants to "assume the role of one of 15 virtual residents [and] work to complete their 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. Your comments and decisions will be shared with real life decision-makers."[1]


Participating in community planning processes is not always an easy task for immigrant populations. Additionally, much of urban planning--even looking at 3D pictures or maps--requires a certain amount of planning literacy that not all stakeholders possess. The goal of participatory planning, then, is to include as many community members as possible, and to structure the meetings to be engaging and inclusive for those members. Participatory Chinatown used a digital game platform to make planning more intuitive, fun, and engaging.

Originating Entities and Funding

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Participant Recruitment and Selection

The project took place in one of Boston's densest immigrant communities, Chinatown, to help open up urban planning and bring new faces into the process. The process was open to all citizens of Boston, and New England-area but recruitment specifically targetted Asian residents who utilize the Chinatown neighborhood for cultural resources, as well as health and human services. In order to create online profiles of 15 virtual community members, youth from Chinatown's A-VOYCE program were interviewed. Additionally, the youth served as "technological interpreters" during the game, giving them a sense of ownership in the project and fostering an atmosphere of inter-generational collaboration. Approximately 450 people participated in the process. 

Methods and Tools Used

Participatory Chinatown was an exercise in participatory planning which employed a mixture of in-person and online engagement methods and tools. Specifically, the process combined elements of digital worlds such as Second Life with the engaging mechanics of digital games to transform the way people think and deliberate about community issues. To help make planning concepts and scenarios more intuitive, proposed scenarios for Chinatown were built into fully immersive 3D environments that participants could walk through and discuss, both in person and with in-game comments. In-person elements thus included role-playing in groups, collaborative decision making, and future scenario discussions while online components incude single-player video gaming, commenting and up/down voting.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The game can be played either as a multi-player experience where players gather in a physical meeting hall with provided, networked computers, or as a single-player experience on the web. The game is available in both English and Chinese. The game was launched for community members on May 3, 2010, and again for community members and interested industry professionals on May 5, 2010. Both nights, the community room was filled to capacity with participants, while many others logged in from home.

Participatory Chinatown has four main engagement methods:

Immersive Role-Play

Participants gather in a room to play a multiplayer game about their neighborhood. Each player, or team of players, is assigned a character—there are fifteen in all. Each character is on one of three quests: to find a job, to find a place to live, or to find a place to socialize. Some characters are new to the neighborhood and country, with poor English skills; others have advanced degrees and good jobs and are seeking luxury apartments close to the office; others just need a place to hang out after work. Whatever the quest, players walk their characters through the streets of Chinatown, talking to other players and non-player characters and collecting resources. Once they have seen the neighborhood and collected resources, they are tasked with making the best decision possible for their character. But competition, economic factors, language skills and the weather, might affect how well they fare.

Face-to-Face Discussion and Collaboration

Players collaborate with the people physically sitting next to them. By sharing both the virtual and physical environments, players are encouraged to speak with others in the room, to share resources, and ask their neighbors for assistance. After part one of the game, where players make decisions for their characters, the facilitator organizes a conversation that gets players to speak as their characters about the issues facing the neighborhood. The players are also given the opportunity to “speak across” quests. So, even though they only have experience with one of three quests, through conversation, the intersection of the central components of neighborhood life (work, live and play) becomes clear.

Future-Scenario Deliberations 

The second part of the game asks players to return to their own identities, this time prioritizing a list of values for the neighborhood’s future development. The conversation that develops in the room is meant to bring the collective experiences of the game to bear on real planning decisions. Players inhabit virtual models of a future scenario and discuss, both by typing in the game and conversing with their neighbors, what they want for the neighborhood. This “augmented deliberation” brings together the affordances of face-to-face talk with virtual immersion. Deliberation begins from a place of common experience and leads to collaborative decision making.

Continuing the Conversation Online

The game is available in a single player version on the website. Players are invited to continue playing the game, this time as a different character, or by an investigating a different future scenario. In addition to this, comments left in the game are streamed to the website, where the community can respond, add another comment, or simply follow the discussion. Comments can be voted on and the most popular of them will rise to the top of the list and receive greatest attention. While most neighborhood planning processes tend to be a series of isolated meetings, this game seeks to provide continuity and sustainability for a community’s conversation.

Influence, Outcomes and Effects

The project allowed people to take the perspective of others in the community, and think about how planning decisions affect Chinatown's diverse population. Also, in a community with a high mean age of attendees to most planning meetings, it reduced the mean age to 30 years old and diversified the participants in the process.

The dialogue and comments from the meeting were provided to the 2010 Chinatown Master Planning Committee, and will be included in the community's final master plan.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Specific Effort Made to Include Disadvantaged Groups

Extensive effort to address disadvantaged groups

Participatory Chinatown was available in both Chinese and English language formats, and users could work together in both English and Chinese simultaneously. All technology was provided for stakeholders, and youth "technological interpreters," as well as translators, were available to help diminish technological and language barriers.

Specific Effort Made to Strengthen Democratic Capacities

Participatory Chinatown was designed to bring new faces into urban planning, and to help transform the community planning meeting room into a space where all views are given notice. The game mechanics within the project fostered an atmosphere of fun and collaboration, and all stakeholders in the room were able to speak from their shared experiences within the game. This created a baseline for participation that allowed everyone to participate equally.


Secondary Sources



Participatory Chinatown homepage

Participatory Chinatown Characters page article


The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Andreas Hoffelder.



Boston , MA
United States
42° 21' 30.3516" N, 71° 3' 35.1828" W
Massachusetts US


Montag, Mai 3, 2010
Mittwoch, Mai 12, 2010
Anzahl der Sitzungstage: 
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Gesamtanzahl der Teilnehmer: 
Zielgruppe (Bevölkerungsgruppen): 
Andere: Demografie: 
Chinese Americans
Zielgruppe: Teilnehmer: 


Falls ja,waren sie ...: 
In Person, online oder beides: 
In Person
Falls abgestimmt wird...: 
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Wer hat das Projekt oder die Initiative bezahlt?: 
MacArthur Foundation / HASTAC
Wer war in erster Linie verantwortlich, um diese Initiative zu organisieren?: 
Art der organisierenden Instanz: 
Wer hat die Initiative noch unterstützt?: 
Asian Community Development Corporation, Emerson College
Art der unterstützenden Instanzen: 


US$170 000.00
Durchschnittliches Jahresbudget: 
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Anzahl der Vollzeitmitarbeiter: 
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Anzahl der Teilzeitmitarbeiter: 
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Art der Mitarbeiter: 
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Anzahl der Freiwilligen: 
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