What the Democratic Process Can Learn From Good Game Design

Implementing game mechanics, such as collaborative competition, can make the democratic process more effective and even enjoyable.

| October 2014

  • One way the democratic process can thrive is if it embraces certain game mechanics, such as engaging visual and sound effects.
    Photo by Fotolia/Minerva Studio
  • “Making Democracy Fun,” by Josh Lerner, examines the ways that game design can improve the democratic process and encourage participation.
    Cover courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

Making Democracy Fun (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2014), by Josh Lerner, offers a novel solution for the state of our deliberative democracy: the power of good game design. What if public meetings featured competition and collaboration, clear rules, measurable progress and engaging sounds and visuals? The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “Should Democracy Be Fun?," recalls a typical, ineffective public hearing in Brooklyn and explains how a Venezuelan assembly took a different route in the democratic process.

Everyone loves democracy—except for most of the time, when they hate it. Despite its wide appeal, democracy has a remarkable ability to be fantastically boring, bitterly painful, and utterly pointless. This ability is so incredible that, in mere hours, democracy can transform a thousand passionate activists into a room full of lifeless faces and empty chairs.

Case in point: A public hearing on the largest development project in New York City history—Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards. On a late August afternoon in 2006, hundreds of opponents and supporters crammed into a university auditorium, with latecomers lined up outside. Officially, the hearing’s goal was to collect input on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Study. In other words, to help determine if the developer could plant a new basketball stadium and 16 soaring apartment towers in the middle of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods. And if so, how?

The hearing was a nasty battle. Opponents protested that they only had 66 days to review 4,000 pages of technical documents. They warned about endless traffic jams and sketchy guarantees of affordable housing, claiming that the new apartments would just be “rich folks’ housing.” Unions and other supporters praised the new jobs, housing, and basketball team that the project vowed to deliver. Amid the chaos, the hearing organizers called in the police to remove an outspoken critic. Speakers faced constant heckling and threats. “The bulldozers are coming,” boasted an ironworker, “and if you don’t get out of the way, they’re going to bulldoze right over you.”

The Atlantic Yards hearing was about as much fun as, well, your average municipal hearing. After listening to waves of repetitive presentations and canned rhetoric, most of the crowd left early. Those who remained looked dazed. Many walked away frustrated, after signing up to present and not having time to speak. Thousands of other ‘concerned citizens’ had, no doubt, opted to stay home entirely, to avoid a futile shouting match. In the end, the hearing also failed to deliver a clear sense of how to improve the Environmental Impact Study.

The problems that plagued the Atlantic Yards hearing are typical of democratic participation. Governments and organizations are calling on citizens to engage more actively in political processes, beyond voting in elections. In most cases, though, participation is dominated by the ‘usual suspects’ and extreme voices, and widely dismissed as pointless. It rarely resolves conflicts or changes decisions. For most people, these opportunities to participate are simply not very attractive, compared with the countless other ways to pass time.

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