Why We Engage: How Theories of Human Behavior Contribute to Our Understanding of Civic Engagement in a Digital Era

Eric Gordon

For the last several years, the Engagement Game Lab has been doing research on the civic impacts of digital tools for democracy and community engagement. We have developed several games and tools and have taken a case study approach to understanding how they impact civic life. One of our game projects, Community PlanIt, has been played in over ten cities in North America and Europe, with each implementation providing unique insights into the intersections between civic technologies and community.

In 2010, a video game was used to inform the master planning process in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

But as we got deeper into this work, we felt increasingly without an academic home. There are individual scholars working in this area, including people like Marcus FothStephen ColemanEthan Zuckerman, and several academic centers such as the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the GovLab at NYU, but there is no coherent literature or connective tissue. So as we continued to explore the intersections of technology and civic engagement and sought to properly ground the work within academic literatures, it became difficult to achieve clarity on the desired outcomes of our investigations. Was our goal to understand the nuances of the media or the intricacies of democratic process? And what kind of questions, through what academic literatures, could produce the best answers?

I’m trained as a media theorist with a focus on location-based media, but my questions about the media quickly got entangled with questions about democracy and civic life. My colleague and collaborator Jesse Baldwin-Philippi is a political communication scholar who specializes in campaigns and civic engagement, but she was confronted with disciplinary limitations as well. What happens when democratic processes are augmented by digital communication? What are the political, civic and social conditions that necessitate new tools and new approaches? How is trust generated and distributed differently across digital networks than across physical ones?

These questions fundamentally cut across disciplines. So we set out to review the literature on human behavior and civic engagement across multiple fields in the social sciences, including communications, social psychology, behavioral economics and sociology, with the goal of establishing a groundwork on which the field of civic media can be built. Despite our grand aspirations, however, the document we produced did not end up defining a field; but it does, I hope, bring together some foundational research and terms that can spark debate in what is clearly an emerging field. This literature review is meant to clarify common questions and concerns, and provide some background into the rich literature that preceded our current moment of crisis where we are collectively confronted with the need to understand how digital media is transforming democracy and civic life.

Download lit review