The upcoming release of the Hollywood version of the birth and rise of Facebook seems like just another reminder that online social networks have taken the world by storm. Struggling to catch up with the rest of society, many government agencies are rushing to develop their ability to reach out to citizens via these platforms – and rightly so. Yet, even as governments move to deploy social networking services effectively, another technological trend seems to be on the horizon for connecting people – games.
Video and online games have been around for decades, but more recently, there’s been a focus on using games not just for entertainment – but as tools for learning and collaboration. A host of games have already been developed and used to involve people in larger social issues. But paired with social networking services and location-aware technology, games have even more potential to educate and influence citizens on civic issues such as traffic, urban planning, public finance, and climate change.
What makes games so useful is that the dynamics imbedded in most games are powerful psychological devices that can easily motivate people. These dynamics – such as asking players to be at a certain place at a certain time or to complete a series of tasks to accumulate rewards – incentivize participation in what ordinarily might be throughout of as dull activities. Put simply, it makes them more fun.
Governments can use these dynamics when designing the processes they use to interact with citizens. For example, imagine a game designed for citizens of a town where people get points for voting in local elections, or attending a council meeting, or visiting a local park. Accumulated points would infer a level of social status on the most active players (which is displayed via online social networks). Points could also serve as currency for certain goods (such as free or discounted local services such as recreation permits or parking). In this way, games can add a new dimension to traditional civic life, which can help engage people who may not have previously been motivated.
Community planning lends itself particularly well to the dynamic of communal discovery, where players work together to solve a challenge (in this case, how a place should change or grow). Understanding this, the Engagement Game Lab in Boston is working on Community PlanIt – a location-based game that involves people together with the neighbors in thinking about planning through gameplay and role-playing. The bigger idea beyond just creating a neighborhood plan is that through the process of the game, the members of the community will develop stronger connections to the place and eachother.
Of course, games also have a danger of oversimplifying policy issues – especially when it comes to simulation games. Any planner will tell you that the Euclidian zoning embedded in the popular SimCity series is anathema to modern day planners who have embraced mixed-use development. Similarly, games designed to allow players to develop policy scenarios (such as budget balancers) typically provide a limited set of options that might exclude some choices deliberately. And technology access and adoption remains an issue for the latest location based games that rely on mobile phones and ubiquitous wireless broadband internet.
Still, even with the potential drawbacks, governments interested in leveraging technology would be wise to already be thinking beyond social networking – and more about how to engage people with games. Giving people something fun to do – even when the subject matter is more serious – is a near guaranteed recipe for more citizen involvement.