19 thoughts on “Video games and democratic participation

  1. Pingback: video vidi visum : virtual : What video games offer democratic participation

  2. Thank; you’re exploiting two different aspects of games (or views of what games are). On the one hand is the notion of homo ludens, that people’s energy is harnessed by things that are fun. On the other hand is the John Nash kind of games as a way of modeling how people apportion resources. I don’t know whether serious policy debate can be packages as fun, but both directions are promising.

  3. The rulemaking process is open to the citizenry, but the public just doesn’t care – at least not to the degree of special interests.

    Sorry I have to disagree. People are disinterested because they cannot contribute to meaningful government.

    Use the IT structures we have now to give people real say on real issues. Why not ? Publish the information needed, all of it.

    Allow citizens an active role in all levels of government, even those of us who still have jobs and are supporting families can read up on the issues in the evening and vote. That would start to make lobbiest jobs much harder and surely that is a win for all of us.

    I make games for a living. I don’t believe they are the answer. I do believe more direct interaction with actual law making and policy making is the answer.

  4. Colin, I may have been somewhat flippant in writing that “the public just doesn’t care.” What I mean is that individual citizens rarely have the motivation to get involved in agency rulemaking, often because by the time the laws reach this stage, they’ve reached a level of narrow specificity and complexity that the motivational (not just technological) barriers to entry are too high.

    The few high-profile rulemaking efforts, such as declaring CO2 as a pollutant, are by far the exception, not the rule. Rulemaking illustrates the principle, “the devil is in the details.”

  5. Interesting stuff, Gene. I agree that the participation barrier is a huge one to overcome in American politics, and would agree that most of the tools we see deployed to help with government transparency are oriented towards either journalists or policy wonks. It’s hard to imagine the average citizen weighing in on the questions thread associated with each piece of legislation on govtrack.us… though that feature is certainly one that invites novel forms of participation.

    I wonder whether the tools that Tom Steinberg and friends at MySociety in the UK are developing are useful to consider in this context. Those tools tend not to interface directly with legislation or with big issues, but focus instead on soliciting input from users and getting them involved, via baby steps, in civic participation. These can be direct, like FixMyStreet, which uses local input to prioritize problems which need government attention, or pretty oblique, like “Scenic or Not”  scenic.mysociety.org) which has users rating how attractive different photos of Britain are, helping develop a crowdsourced map of scenic Britain.

    These techniques don’t get you to the sort of prioritization of issues that a “kittenwar” of social priorities might (love the idea, though suspect it could easily escalate into real war, if people take it seriously and start lobbying for votes in the system), but do encourage and reward participation. I think there’s a ton to be said for setting the bar quite low, and I wonder if games aren’t sometimes too high a barrier to participation. Interested to think about whether some types of participation which require no more than a few seconds, but might expand to take up much more of your attention, can be harnessed and directed towards social purposes.

  6. Very much agree with the premise of this post. We’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a public video game for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

    The concept is the “Screener Game” where the public is able to play the role of an airport screener and the game is about identifying prohibited items. It would work in a manner similar to the Google Image Labeler game in that you would be playing with/against someone on the Internet.


  7. @ Ethan – Wonderful thoughts, thanks for sharing them here. I want to underline that in this piece I’m primarily thinking about how we can export game design principles to other interfaces (digital or “real”) rather than build what would be universally accepted as a “video game.” So I think that we might well be able to build something that requires only seconds of time, though in some ways that might bring us back to the original problem of attention. My feeling is that these kinds of widgets should be integrated into news media; very few people (and a skewed bunch at that) would visit the equivalent of Wii’s “Everybody Votes” on some regular basis.

    Neil — I think Ian Bogost has described something very similar to your idea — see http://www.watercoolergames.org/archives/000065.shtml — and I think he may even have built it for the NY Times during that short-lived partnership they had. Ian’s point is mostly rhetorical, to illustrate the shortcomings of our approach to security, but I suppose it could also be educational. Whether something like how TSA should conduct screening is amenable to mass public input is a rather different question. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  8. @Gene

    Also, thinking out of the box; the value proposition to TSA is that (with approved, declassified images) we would be able to demonstrate to the public just how hard it is for screeners to detect some of these prohibited items — trust me, it’s a difficult skill to master.

    And two, (waaay outside of the box) imagine a TSA game where the “top players” were able to be part of our “virtual” screening workforce. If we were able to post real x-ray images in real-time, and we have 50 screeners looking at the same image at the same time, we would be able to “crowdsource” airport screening. Meaning, if 40 out of 50 virtual screeners were able to “flag” an image for further inspection, it’s a pretty good bet that the passenger bag needs to be physically inspected.


  9. http://www.newyorker.com/online/video/conference/2008/mcgonigal
    I feel almost silly posting this here, as it seems likely to me that you’ve already seen it. It’s Jane McGonigal’s New Yorker talk last year about game design. I think that her ideas about creating real-world games from imagined scenarios is directly relevant to the frustrations you express in your post.

    Ultimately, whether people don’t care enough or aren’t skilled enough to pursue meaningful watchdogging is moot, insofar as the result is the same: a more-open culture where politicos and lobbyists continue to get away with the same games they always have. However, McGonigal’s games need not be based on imaginary scenarios in the era of open government / open culture. You mention journalism. There are thousands of high school newspapers in this country that are neither online nor dedicated to the overseeing the inner-workings of local government. I spent my time as editor of my high school’s newspaper covering things inside my high school, like sporting events and club meetings–not because I wasn’t motivated or ambitious, but because that was the nature of the gig. But take a community like East St. Louis as an example. To put a Google News Alert on the term “East St. Louis” is to invite a daily frustration into your RSS. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch & the St. Louis Beacon don’t even try to cover it, and it’s clear that the Belleville News Democrat covers it by phone, sometimes. However, East St. Louis High School has a newspaper class. If their newspaper were online, and a framework of competitive, remote collaboration were facilitated, perhaps in this way, eager, watchdog journalists could be trained, publicized and protected in such a way that made it a challenging, competitive endeavor…to win an award or a scholarship or something like that.

    The places in this country that most need the sort of enthused, participatory oversight you lament in your post as insufficient are the same ones that continue to be the most overlooked. Perhaps real world games for crowd sourcing and values discernment could be developed in these places by tapping the vast human potential a collaborative digital network of student journalists could produce.

  10. I am not sure games as they are nowadays would be able to promote democratic logics.
    Ok, they can try to develop democratic issues. The political games movement can be a good example as how a game can be a message (from September 12th to food force or other topics). But the problem solving proposed by the game creator is often a “scientifization” of the social (i.e. Habermass), as every problem is a matter of organization, in an unhistorical context. Or in other words political videogames or editorial games are promoting short-term approach, communication as the main topic, and denies the complexity of the social.
    I agree with you on that. Moreover, independent games, as they are not produced by institutions, are focused on denunciation more than proposing alternative politics.
    Transparency cannot be a way to solve problems, but only a way to expose them. The communication ideology is the main theme in political videogames, transforming political debate (which is construction) into discussion (which is not productive). The decision making in videogames is not present, this is only choice making. So producers must think how to simulate a complex decision-making.
    The main thing is that videogames are framing public participation: I mean that the code and the rules are very strong norms which cannot allow “democratic” participation. When an individual plays, he must accept the whole games, the norm package and the interactions. From a legal point of view, EULA in MMO forbids political issues, narrow the way a player can create things (there are third parties program available). Only an open-source game should be a way to promote democratic participation. The conflict resolution is not a participative one as laws are regulating these worlds. As far as I can remember, Muds where the last democratic games as they were co-produced by the creators and the players. When they turned into MOO, issues happened (a virtual rape i.e. Jordan Dibbell), the creators refused to resolve the conflict, and the players were not able to solve this dramatic situation. Consequence: game regulation was externalized to legal frames and procedures.
    From a ludic point of view: rules are the code, breaking the rules is signing your condemnation. Cheaters are banned. From a participative point of view videogames are so structurally determined: the interaction system is defining the field of possibilities. So here is the point, how such a totalitarian dispositive could allow democratic issues?
    Moreover the videogames rationality and ideology (competition, performance and rational-legal domination) is a stronger rationality than democratic ones. Even when there are social components as in MMO: the guild organization is based on a military discipline. Ok you can do role play, even political role play (for example in Eve On-line), but the game is framing political debates, actions, participation and moreover, the democratic play is a simulacra.
    So games as digital worlds can be good political playgrounds, if the political participation is correctly framed. Game as an interactionnist structure is interesting too. But games as ludic activities cannot be political, especially because of the rupture between the producers and the public due to the industrialization process. The main difference between traditional games and videogames is that the players are no longer part of the social structure: playing is not a social ritual (as it was in traditional games) it is just leisure and consumption of pre-determined political system. I would argue in my PhD that mainstream games are legitimizing the legal-rational domination, but moreover are libertarian which is not compatible with democratic issues.

    Some links to my researches on these topics:
    On political participation in MMO:
    On political games – in French (but I can send an English version):

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  12. Nice post, Gene. I can imagine getting stars and bonuses (and being heard by the peers) might make people voice their opinions. Still, there is a question of what drives performance of people in games – do they really choose responsibly, or just playing around with the system?

  13. Thanks Gen. Its a nice post. In fact it video games can become an important media to teach people about humanity if it contains the reality.

  14. Nice post, I agree with you. There is a new MMO simulation strategy game that is really close to what the real world is: erepublik. Is built around the idea of a social network, infact the core of the game is the social generated content by the players (eCitizens). They can create newspapers, companies, parties…a lot of players are identifying erepublik as a real simulation of what you can encounter in your real life, if you want to succeed in the game you need to negotiate with real people. Many players have written about the teaching of the game in their real life, I think it is a good example of what you are saying in this post.

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  17. I agree, Obama did a great job fostering campaign-level participation, but he’s yet to translate that into active engagement.

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