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What video games offer democratic participation

[cross-posted from Valuable Games]

As President Obama recognized in his Open Government Directive, transparency is only the first step towards a more vibrant democracy. The bigger problem has always been fostering widespread participation. After all, one of the most vexing problems facing today’s government – regulatory capture of an agency by special interests – flourishes despite, or perhaps even because of, the openness of the administrative state. The rulemaking process is open to the citizenry, but the public just doesn’t care – at least not to the degree of special interests.

The response from civic society is to proliferate an alphabet soup of special interest groups, from the AARP to the NRA. These organizations serve two vital functions: (1) developing expertise and (2) aggregating collective interest, primarily through membership dues (money) as a proxy.
We’ve reached the limits of this corporate, civil-society-as-special-interest, system. New, digitally networked communities suggest a more fluid and inclusive model of public participation. And, I argue, video games are worth studying for their ability to help us overcome the twin problems of expertise and collective action.

Games for crowdsourcing: Projects like Google Image Labeler illustrate how a well-designed game can harness collective intelligence to do productive work. The small amount of work you’re doing for Google is matched by an equally small motivational reward (a score and the fun of playing). While an interest in the project’s goals might lead you to the Image Labeler in the first place, continuing participation is driven by the game, not charity.

If public participation in, say, legislation or regulatory rulemaking faces a similar interest-aggression challenge, the solution might entail a good Web interface that draws on game design principles. Imagine, for example, Pork Invaders redone as a real-world game, with players poring over legislation to zap pork while preserving legitimate spending. (More on how games can also help define “legitimate spending” in a bit).
Perhaps a game-based front end can have enough mass appeal to aggregate across a broad population, which would be a change from the way we currently divide the public into narrowly-defined interests. This would require the platform be built and marketed to a general audience. I can easily see this falling into the purview of emerging journalism.

Games for values discernment: Special interest groups not only develop expertise, but also make judgments on behalf of their constituents. There are several reasons why citizens might delegate their power in this way – lack of expertise, lack of time (see above), but perhaps most of all a reluctance to make difficult decisions. Because the American lawmaking process is adversarial, with groups like the NRDC battling the coal lobby, we citizens often express policy preferences by picking our proxies. Lost in this system is our opportunity – perhaps our need – to weigh difficult decisions ourselves.

Polls are one way to gauge the will of “the people.” But, I think, a well-designed game can also surface citizens’ policy preference, perhaps in the same way that psychologists uncover our cognitive biases through various sleights-of-hand. I’m not suggesting that we trick citizens, but rather couch difficult policy questions in a way that our puny brains can comprehend. (Evolution has left us with a finely-tuned sense of face-to-face morality but not large-system morality; we tend to reach for big-picture comprehension through small-picture metaphors).

Imagine, then, a Kittenwar type of game in which players pick between two interests until a ranked-order list of priorities shakes out. Or, better yet, players distribute resources among different interests, and the game illustrates – in the compelling manner unique to video games – the results of funding a project at various levels. (Underfunding food stamps, for example, might show children becoming malnourished). Budget Hero provides a prototype of this kind of game, but it remains too abstract for players to really understand the consequences of choices. We need games that make policy accessible to the masses, not just fun for the wonks.

The amount of subjectivity inherently built into these games will make their design even more controversial than that of polls. (See this fascinating piece in the NYT Magazine on environmental decisionmaking). But I take for granted that there is no way to construct neutral questions, as the authors of Nudge point out. Confronting citizens with a pile of numbers and data merely biases their responses in a very different way – and arguably, not in one that highlights their core values. If we are to have true citizen participation that results in a more representative democracy, then we must be bold in rethinking the way we ask people to participate.

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  1. John Dorian | April 21, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Well said – while Obama did a great job fostering campaign-level participation, he’s yet to translate that into active incumbent engagement.