17 May 2012

Games, campaigning and policy-making

This post is an aggregation of a few similar pieces I've written recently on the theme of games and politics. For Political Innovation on their use in making public-policy. For The Web Psychologist on how they help us understand behaviours in social media. And for IMSL on their role in encouraging ideological extremism.

In 1998, the media and political commentator Neal Gabler published “Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality”. His central thesis was that the entertainment industry has become so dominant that its products, especially film and TV narratives, are the prism through which we analyse and plan our real lives, expecting story arcs and characterisations to play out as “normal”. 

As twentieth century cultural history, it is an interesting work. But Gabler overstates much of the supposed influence of the screen – small or large – on our lives and never really sufficiently disentangles artistic cause and imitating effect.
In any case, in the first decade of this century, the influence has moved away from Hollywood, and north to Palo Alto and Seattle. Online and digital forms of media and entertainment now hold sway over the way that we interact and behave.

Each week, across the world, three billion hours per week are spent gaming. Many organisations, from the most successful commercial brands, to educational establishments of all levels, are trying to address how this dedication to playing can be harnessed to influence and motivate. The answer has come in the form of gamification: the application of game mechanics to non-game activities or environments.

One of the best breakdowns of what makes a game a game is given by Jane McGonigal, the American academic and game designer based out of California, in 2011’s Reality Is Broken.   She defines a game as needing a goal – a final aim and win condition for which players strive. There also have to be barriers – such as rules or time limits or other restrictions; feedback – points, scores or rewards; and that it’s voluntary – everyone agrees to and about the other three elements (and to take part in the first place).  Laid out like that, it’s possible to perceive many an everyday activity as a ‘game’, or as having the potential to be turned into a game. Life: The Game is all around us.

Nowhere is this truer than on the web. And nowhere is this truer on the web than with social media platforms.  McGonigal’s four basic elements are clearly matched. There are goals: to communicate, connect and promote. There are rules and restrictions: etiquettes, how much time you have, competition with all the other data. The feedback is quite clear: the number of your friends or followers, retweets, likes, shares, badges, statuses, comments, and the basic traffic statistics. On some platforms, this is even more explicit. Apps like foursquare and SCVNGR are game mechanics in themselves.

Within these ‘games’, influential behaviour can easily be applied. Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion are the basis for much of this. Especially reciprocity, getting people to commit and be consistent, and reinforcing social proof. The starkest example of gamification influencing people on the web is extremist websites, at both the jihadi and white supremacist ends of the spectrum. Studies by Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine have identified game mechanics that keep people engaged in these spaces, such as: reputation points; differentiated avatars, and font colours and sizes; access to restricted parts of the site (a good example of Cialdini’s scarcity motivator at work); fundamentalism metres; promotions to Administrator or Moderator statuses; and platforms for collecting and trading photographs, videos and documents. Their conclusion is that:

"like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition"
It is no wonder that mainstream campaigners and policy-makers are beginning to get in on the gamification act.

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is about to release the sci-fi MacGuffin-sounding Dashboard: its online and mobile data-mining and campaigning app. It will take the game mechanics of internet phenomena such as Farmville and apply them to fundraising, canvassing, knocking-up and voter registration.

And it’s not just about getting elected. A better understanding of games can also help us once we’re governing and communicating after an election is won. In April, Jude Ower, of games-for-good enterprise PlayMob, led the latest of Political Innovation’s Translation Layer Events.

At least three significant uses of games by policy-makers were identified: simulating and testing proposals, gamification to support ‘nudge’ approaches, and as a communication tool (especially when addressing the concerns of young people).
None of this is new, of course (anyone remember the bronze, silver and gold rose badges you could get in the mid-90s for signing up new Labour Party members?), but the immediacy, mobility and social nature of the web, immeasurably amplifies the power of gamified approaches, whether we’re delivering leaflets or delivering public services.

For more on using games and game mechanics, please visit the website for my day job with The Game Trainers.

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