Fixing Politics with Games and such…

Technology has been used all throughout the ages to enhance political structures and the functioning of governments. There is an ever-flowing line of inventions, from writing to print, the telegraph to the telephone, the television and the internet, which all had immeasurable effects on the functioning of governments around the world. In today’s world I believe that the new media platform of gaming is becoming more and more relevant to society and could provide an enhanced platform for global political participation.

If you adhere to, as most humans tend to do, some form of Hobbesian social contract; you would probably agree that subjecting yourself absolutely to certain sovereign powers can be quite frustrating. This is just a roundabout way of saying that politics tends to suck. Now, I would like to believe that the level of discomfort within civil society today is caused by the rigidity of the political system as a whole.

This rigidity, I believe, comes from a system that is based on outdated command and control hierarchies. These hierarchies worked relatively well in the past, but needs to be updated to fit with today’s rapidly changing world.  A potential update to civil governance can be found in the phenomena of serious games and/or gamification of society (discussed in Gaming for a better tomorrow).

Serious games refer to all games that aim to solve bigger problems than merely entertainment. How I see it, is that there are three main archetypes of serious games, namely:

  1. Educational/informative games – teaches you something or informs you about a specific issue (Evoke, Obama STEM challenge, Freedom HIV/Aids)
  2. Simulations and scenarios – using games to simulate reality and prepare for potential futures (Conflict: Middle East Political Simulator, Government Simulation Games, Cyber Nation)
  3. Practical application and/or Crowdsourcing – using the “fun” aspects of gaming to engage people more fully into a certain task (British MP’s, ETERNA)

Most research on the link between gaming and political science has been based on improving learning through gaming, or creating government simulation games (Archetype 1&2). I believe however, that the biggest potential for improving political management lies within the third category of practical application games.

The key strength of this category lies  with its potential to include the assets of gamification into normal life. Gamification believes in the notion of homo ludens, man the player, and that we can improve life by including fun elements from games into life.

Playing politics

One area of politics that serious games and gamification would be able to improve is the realm of political participation. In today’s world we as citizens are quite far removed from the governmental decision making processes.  This, in the recent past, has been a matter of necessity as it would have been impossible to conduct a Greek forum-like assembly with millions or even billions of people participating. Not anymore!

With the rise of games and it’s increased capability to bring more and more people together  (think of World of Warcraft or Second Life) it becomes possible to create a type of forum where a deeper (more inclusive) form of political participation can take place. If millions of players can, as Jane McGonigal proposes in Reality is Broken, be harnessed to participate in real world political decision making, it would vastly increase the legitimacy of the decisions that are taken.

In political science we have a radical model of democracy that is a bit idyllic, but could become possible with this new level of participation. This model is called discursive democracy and calls for an extremely high level of citizen participation. According to this model, it is unfair that billions of people are indirectly represented by a small number of leaders that might even have gained their position via illicit means.

Discursive democrats believe in a process of collective reasoning. In this process citizens  address  public  problems  collaboratively  by collectively  reasoning to  find  the best solution to  solve specific problems. This necessitates a type of forum where discussion can take place and I believe online games could offer such a forum. Discursive democrats believe inclusive discussions would lead to more rational and fair decisions and would therefore increase the legitimacy of the decision and ultimately the functioning of the world.

How to achieve this

This is just one idea where games might aid governance structures and work towards a social contract that is more friendly to us, the humble subjects. Research into this field is still in its infancy, but I believe that it has great potential. There are leaders such as Jane McGonigal that allow us to imagine what great possibilities lie in our future. What is needed now however, is the good old scientific method and novel research examining and developing the potential of homo ludens, man the player.



  1. 1
    Bazooka Games on Monday 16 April, 20:10 PM #

    Very interesting. I have been having thoughts about initiating a project related to some of the examples above. I will have to read what McGonical has to say about reality.

    • 2
      Barend Lutz on Tuesday 17 April, 11:13 AM #

      Thanks Bazooka Games, the McGonigal book is quite idealistic, but a great read.

      For future research I am specifically interested in a forum for improving discursive decision making in international organizations such as the UN.

      At the moment I am focussing on identifying how people actually feel about democracy- via Twitter sentiment analysis.

  2. 3
    Hugo on Saturday 21 April, 22:57 PM #

    Switzerland has a direct democracy: all citizens get to vote on just about everything. I haven’t got deep insight into the whole process, but I think parties still come up with the proposals, and work together to present the pros and cons on the ballots.

    In this context, I find it harder to figure out what “gamification” can contribute. If I understand the post’s intentions correctly, it’s to attempt to drive the entire process from “grass roots”, mass participation? The problem with not relying on elected proportional representatives is that those with vested interests participate, while those that don’t care so much don’t speak up to have their voices heard, thereby resulting in radicalization or polarisation. Gamification is then proposed as a way to raise the interest of the otherwise disinterested middle-ground citizens?

  3. 4
    Barend Lutz on Monday 23 April, 13:34 PM #

    Yes Hugo, you aunderstand my argument correctly. The gamification could be used to lure disinterested citizens into the democratic process. The benefit does not however only come from gamification, but also from the system on which the new participatory structure is built, namely a online gamified forum.

    I think the direct democracy in Switzerland should be something for states to strive towards. I wonder however how feasible such a system would be on a bigger scale (say the USA). Perhaps it is possible, but I would argue that it would be more effective and manageable if you could turn this direct democratic system into an type of online forum. (Switzerland is already working on a online voting structure).

    Switzetland is not perfect. There is a low level of salience between voter participation and the effect his/her vote has on government decisions. This in turn, combined with being asked to vote on average 7 times a year has lead to a high level of voter apathy in the country (+-52% voter turnout).

    Now the gamification comes to play – if you could use this established direct democracy and add incentives provided by positive aspects of gamification you could potentially increase voter participation. (As they did in the British MP’s Game).

    Because these gamified forums takes place online, I would argue, they are more easily accessible, structured and more difficult for the government to ignore. Say, 100 000 people sign your online petition the government would have to listen.

    So yes, I agree that a country such as Switzerland is already well on its way to a functioning direct democracy, but I believe that the system behind this democracy can be enhanced with technology (online forum) and gamification principles.

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