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.

Is this the best that democracy can offer? Is democratic participation destined to be an undesirable civic chore for all but the most passionate citizens? To borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, perhaps the problem with democracy is that it takes up “too many evenings.” Scholars of democracy offer few alternatives to this view. Even when proposing reforms, they generally accept that, for most people, participating in democracy will be a costly sacrifice. As the political philosopher Iris Marion Young concluded, “Democracy is hard to love.” Some champions of participation suggest redesigning the institutions of democracy, to open up new spaces for engagement. Yet too often, these new spaces are no more enticing than the old ones.

After spending too many evenings suffering through public hearings, I glimpsed a different approach in an unlikely place. In July 2006 I was in Venezuela, researching a new national initiative to develop community councils.  One Sunday afternoon in Caracas, a local organizer invited me to the parking lot in front of a huge dilapidated apartment block. Tenants had been working for months to prepare for this day, when they hoped to launch a new council for their building. If successful, they would gain control over government money for community projects. But first, the law had presented a series of obstacles. The organizers had to complete a building census, hold elections for two commissions, and draw at least 20 percent of the tenants to the founding assembly, when they would elect dozens of spokespeople for the council. And that was just to start the council.

I thought the council was a tough sell, considering these demanding requirements and the general mistrust of government promises in Venezuela. I was wrong. Over 400 people turned out for the assembly, well over the 20 percent threshold. But what really struck me was that people seemed to be enjoying themselves. They were laughing, hugging, chatting, dancing, and—most impressively—lingering. The assembly did not feel like a sacrifice or chore, but rather like something that people actually wanted to attend. Democracy felt fun.

Still skeptical, I wondered if the assembly was fun only because it was in Latin America. Were people in Venezuela and other Latin countries just more likely, as Celia Cruz sang, to embrace life as a carnaval? Perhaps, but I later toiled through other community meetings in Venezuela that were deathly boring, so there had to be other reasons.

Political Games

To better understand what could make an activity fun, I turned to the experts: game designers. I had some game designer friends, and over the years they had preached about the importance of level design, clear rules, and playtesting. As we talked more, I learned about a wider galaxy of concepts and mechanics that game designers use to craft enjoyable experiences, such as magic circles, artificial conflict, quantifiable yet uncertain outcomes, status indicators, feedback loops, hidden information, choice points, vivid visuals, sound effects, and core mechanics.

I also began to realize that, in a sense, the Venezuelan assembly was fun because it was designed like a good game. The legal regulations created two compelling artificial conflicts: tenants strived to overcome the requirements for forming a council, and to do so before other neighborhoods. Winners received a big monetary reward, but the results were uncertain and depended on reaching a certain score (number of votes). Organizers felt a sense of progress as they advanced through multiple levels of the council process (census, commissions, founding assembly). At the assembly, the vote count provided a constant status indicator for this progress. The experience was more engaging thanks to vivid sights, sounds, and sensations (posters, music, and food).

Once I looked at public participation through the lens of game design, I began to question what I thought I knew about democracy. I reflected back on my experience as an urban planner and facilitator, designing and leading scores of workshops and meetings for community development programs in North America, Latin America, and Europe. I revisited the lessons learned from years researching participatory democracy in a dozen countries. And I realized, more so than ever before, why some meetings worked better than others. I glimpsed the power of good game design.

In the case of Atlantic Yards, game design concepts explain why the hearing was not fun, and how it was designed to fail. The organizers made conflict more antagonistic, asking presenters to explicitly identify as either for or against the development. They offered no opportunities to tackle problems collaboratively. They did not announce the hearing rules in advance, and the facilitator ignored rules about speaking time limits for many politicians and project supporters. People did not really know what they could accomplish by attending, and they had no way to measure progress toward any particular outcomes. There were almost no engaging visuals or sound effects. Combined, these design choices doomed the hearing.

People may be tuning out public hearings—and politics more broadly— but they are tuning in to games. Each week, people around the world log three billion hours playing video games. In the United States, 97 percent of youth play computer and video games. So do 70 percent of top corporate executives—while at work!  Video game revenues have surpassed those of music and movies. Professional sports—and their fantasy offspring—generate even more money. And these games are not necessarily steering people away from public life. Many of the most popular video games entice millions of players to talk, play, and work together. So why are most people more interested in games than in democratic processes that directly impact their lives?

The answer is simple. Games are designed to be enjoyable, and democracy is not. Game designers work tirelessly to craft enjoyable experiences, drawing on the rich lessons of game design theory and practice. Designers of democratic processes are in fact largely unaware of these lessons. Most political practitioners and scholars have an entirely different understanding of games. Politicians, activists, and pundits generally think of games as metaphors for electoral politics. For political scientists, games are abstract methodological models for analyzing decisions—“game theory.”

In recent years, however, games are beginning to play a different role in politics. Increasingly, institutions as diverse as the United Nations, US Army, and grassroots community groups are using games and gamelike processes to engage people in political issues. Their motivations are varied. In some cases, champions of participatory democracy hope to empower citizens. In other cases, political leaders aim to educate the masses or win them over to a particular cause. And while some programs are inserting digital and nondigital games into campaigns and meetings, others are designing these processes to be more like a game, as in the Venezuelan assembly. In this book, I unravel these experiences and ask: Can games make democratic participation more appealing? If so, how?

On my quest for answers, I began by exploring the world of game design. I dove into the research on games, participated in game design conferences and online groups, and interviewed game developers. I even went so far—at the urging of several designers—as to play (and analyze) dozens of real live games. Yes, game research has perks.

Next, I set out in search of existing political programs that used games. I uncovered many hotspots in Latin America, but none more prolific than the Argentine city of Rosario. The first city in the world to pass an ordinance endorsing game-playing as a public policy strategy, Rosario has integrated games and game techniques into dozens of municipal programs for over a decade. I studied three programs that exemplify how the city uses games: Children’s Councils (youth participation), Rosario Hábitat (participatory planning), and Theater of the Oppressed workshops (policy implementation).

To see if political games would grow in less fertile soils, I traveled to the other end of the Americas. In Canada, I studied participatory budgeting (PB) at Toronto Community Housing (TCH), where thousands of public housing tenants have decided how to spend $9 million annually via assemblies designed like game shows. At TCH, I also designed a participatory evaluation process, using games and game mechanics to engage tenants and staff in improving PB. The evaluation grew into an adventure of its own, as I learned about the art of game design by designing my own games.

During over a year of research in Rosario and Toronto, I observed 40 meetings that used games or game mechanics, interviewed 81 meeting participants and 38 staff, and surveyed 464 participants. Through this research, I hoped to pose the key questions and issues to consider when using games for democratic participation, and when studying these efforts. Throughout, I tried to engage both the design perspective and the participant perspective. In other words, I explored how designers of democratic processes could apply the lessons of game design and how participants experienced these processes.

I found that game design can make democracy fun—and make it work. When governments and organizations used games and designed their programs more like a game, they tended to make participation not only more attractive, but also more effective, transparent, and fair. But I also found that this approach can backfire—manipulating citizens or trivializing their efforts—unless facilitators effectively weave together certain games and game mechanics. To maximize the fun and minimize the dangers, I propose that governments and organizations redesign democratic processes to include 5 kinds of games and 26 game mechanics. When appropriate, they should use animation, team-building, capacity-building, analysis, and decision-making games. But, more important, they should design democracy to be more like a game, by drawing on game mechanics that engage the senses, establish legitimate rules, generate collaborative competition, link participation to measurable outcomes, and create experiences designed for participants.

Reprinted with permission from Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics, by Josh Lerner, and published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2014.

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