Citizens use iPhone game ‘Commons’ to help repair NY during ‘Come Out & Play’, ‘River to River’ fest

Reporting potholes? There’s an app for that.

Commons, an iPhone app and urban game in which players suggest ways to improve the city’s outdoor spaces, held its first public event in lower Manhattan Sunday.

The game was part of the River to River Festival, a free New York arts festival, and was held in conjunction with Come Out and Play, an urban street games festival, and Games for Change, an organization which supports games for social impact.

The Commons event kicked off in Foley Square at Federal Plaza and Centre Street, where players downloaded the special Commons iPhone app created for today’s competition.

“We designed this to be played for this  two  or  three  hour experience as part of the Come Out and Play Festival,” said Nien Lam, one of the game designers and lead developer.

To play, users opened the app and selected the first open game “district” on the map – City Hall.  Players then chose from a list of “City Tasks” to complete.

“For City Hall, for example, there’s one task: ‘What do you think is great about City Hall,'” said Lam.  Tasks are divided into three categories: report a problem, recommend an improvement, and show appreciation.

For each report, players take a photo of the problem or area where they’d like to see an improvement, then add a description.  Their entry is uploaded to the Commons system with GPS coordinates pulled from the phone.

Reports are voted on by other users, so that the best and most interesting suggestions rise to the top and earn more points.

As players earn points, they open more districts to explore, including Brooklyn Bridge, Tribeca, the East and West Financial Districts, and Battery Park.

Suzanne Kirkpatrick, creator and lead game designer of Commons, said that the app arose out of a desire to make citizen reporting more social.

“The idea was to create a tool where citizens could share about the space they share in common,” said Kirkpatrick.

“One of the cool things about this so far for me is that I came as an individual and met two really interesting people,” said Benjamin Stokes, a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg.

“Technology is always a part of our lives, and there are technologies that can make us less social,” Stokes said.  With Commons however, he said that the real and virtual worlds “come together here where we’re being more social and connecting with each other and the city.”

“That’s something not enough New Yorkers do,” said Whitney Kam Lee, one of Stokes’ game partners.

Together, Stokes’ team reported dangerous gaps in the sidewalk outside City Hall, as well as a pair of confusing signs that directed bicycles along a path while also telling bicyclists to dismount.

Stokes said that the mobile app and gaming format of Commons gave players a unique and powerful way to look at things they pass everyday on the street.

“Sometimes spaces that we walk through all the time, we need an excuse to look at them with new eyes and feel like there’s something we can say to somebody,” said Stokes.

According to Lam, “A lot of people wish they had a platform to say certain things,” and Commons gives them that opportunity.

Lam and Kirkpatrick said that all of the reports taken during today’s game will be forwarded to city officials at 311.

Though today’s game is a one-time experiment, Kirkpatrick said, “I would love to see this as a larger platform or tool out there that any city, any country could use.”

Commons was the first game of the River to River Festival, which is running until July 16.

Now in its  10th year, the River to River Festival is a free summer arts festival featuring music, film, dance theater, art and games in downtown Manhattan.  This year’s festival marks the introduction of games and interactive play elements.  More information on festival events can be found online at rivertorivernyc.com.

The Come  Out and Play street games festival is also running until July 16.  More information on upcoming games can be found online at comeoutandplay.org.

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