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Making Democracy Fun

Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics

Josh Lerner
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Making Democracy Fun
    Book Description:

    Anyone who has ever been to a public hearing or community meeting would agree that participatory democracy can be boring. Hours of repetitive presentations, alternatingly alarmist or complacent, for or against, accompanied by constant heckling, often with no clear outcome or decision. Is this the best democracy can offer? InMaking Democracy Fun, Josh Lerner offers a novel solution for the sad state of our deliberative democracy: the power of good game design. What if public meetings featured competition and collaboration (such as team challenges), clear rules (presented and modeled in multiple ways), measurable progress (such as scores and levels), and engaging sounds and visuals? These game mechanics would make meetings more effective and more enjoyable -- even fun. Lerner reports that institutions as diverse as the United Nations, the U.S. Army, and grassroots community groups are already using games and game-like processes to encourage participation. Drawing on more than a decade of practical experience and extensive research, he explains how games have been integrated into a variety of public programs in North and South America. He offers rich stories of game techniques in action, in children's councils, social service programs, and participatory budgeting and planning. With these real-world examples in mind, Lerner describes five kinds of games and twenty-six game mechanics that are especially relevant for democracy. He finds that when governments and organizations use games and design their programs to be more like games, public participation becomes more attractive, effective, and transparent. Game design can make democracy fun -- and make it work.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32151-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Should Democracy Be Fun?
    (pp. 1-26)

    Everyone loves democracy—except for most of the time, when they hate it. Despite its wide appeal, democracy has a remarkable ability to be fantastically boring, bitterly painful, and utterly pointless. This ability is so incredible that, in mere hours, democracy can transform a thousand passionate activists into a room full of lifeless faces and empty chairs.

    Case in point: A public hearing on the largest development project in New York City history—Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards.¹ On a late August afternoon in 2006, hundreds of opponents and supporters crammed into a university auditorium, with latecomers lined up outside. Officially, the...

  5. 2 Games, Play, and Democracy
    (pp. 27-48)

    What do games have to do with politics? It depends on whom you ask. For most people, Barack Obama included, games are something that politicians play, a metaphor for electoral politics. For most academics, such as Andrew Colman, games are abstract models used to study political decision-making, in the form of game theory. These two outlooks—games as metaphors and as research method—have dominated discussions about politics and games for decades.

    Not anymore. Games—the ones ordinary people actually play—have become one of the most influential forms of social interaction. Games are pervasive on TV and the Internet,...

  6. 3 What Game Design Can Teach Us about Democracy
    (pp. 49-86)

    When you first land in Norrath, you hear footsteps all around you.¹ People are running back and forth, talking in cryptic words. Since you are weak and hungry, you start by attacking rats, selling their fur to buy food and water. After killing enough rats, you suddenly gain a level of experience. Congratulations—you are quite the rat killer! Alas, as a passing stranger mentions, you will need a sword to beat other foes. Venturing outside the town, toward the weapon shop in Rivervale, you call out for other brave adventurers to join you. None do, and you are promptly...

  7. 4 Not Just Child’s Play: Games in Democratic Processes
    (pp. 87-118)

    1989 was a banner year for democratic insurgency. In China, university students occupied Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic reforms. The Solidarity movement toppled Poland’s Communist regime, sparking a chain of democratic revolutions in Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and other Eastern Bloc countries. The Berlin Wall was the star of the show, bowing down as the iron curtain fell around it. These revolutions were monumental. But the biggestinnovationsin democracy were happening elsewhere.

    In Latin America’s Southern Cone, a radically different form of democracy was growing. In the 1980s, dictatorships collapsed or eroded in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Paraguay....

  8. 5 Rosario Hábitat: Designing Participation Like a Game
    (pp. 119-148)

    Something was wrong with the map. Mario peered down at it for a minute, a blank look of disbelief on his face. He had sat quietly through the workshop introductions, learning how he and a dozen neighbors were about to turn part of theirvilla miseria(shantytown) into a regular city block. He had stood with his tattooed arms folded as the workshop facilitators laid out a giant map of the area on a table, with new streets superimposed over existing lots. Suddenly, Mario erupted. “That new street,” he blurted out, pointing to the map, “is on top of my...

  9. 6 Toronto Community Housing: Game Design in Less Fertile Soils
    (pp. 149-172)

    The journey from Rosario to Toronto is 22 hours longer than I would prefer. During my research, it usually began in the morning with a doorbell buzzing through the dusty open-air patio at the heart of my Rosario apartment. Once inside the airport shuttle van, we weaved through Rosario’s sprawling street grid, where traffic rules are always open to negotiation. At the city’s edge, the scrap wood shacks and horse-drawn carts of avilla miseriafaded into infinitely flat soybean fields. Several hours later, I checked in at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport for an overnight flight to Toronto.

    In Toronto, the...

  10. 7 My Game Design Experiment
    (pp. 173-188)

    In the last chapter we saw that game mechanics can be introduced into democratic processes even in the unfertile soils of Toronto. Yet we also saw how difficult this approach was, as head office staff struggled to embed new participatory practices throughout the housing authority. Knowing that game mechanics work is not enough. If game design is to have more impact on democracy, governments and organizations need effective strategies for applying it.

    To identify such strategies, I ran an experiment. Over two years I led aparticipatory evaluationat Toronto Community Housing, in which I worked with a team of...

  11. 8 Conclusion: A Toolbox for Fixing Democracy
    (pp. 189-210)

    In the past four chapters, we met city builders and puzzle masters, speed daters and blind painters, anti-oppression jokers, and dotmocratic voters. Before that, we learned about game designers and the tricks of their trade. So what, in the end, does all this mean for democracy?

    At the beginning of the book, I posed two questions:Can games make democratic participation more appealing? If so, how?After years of research, I believe the answer to the first question is a firm yes. Most of the time, in the programs I studied, games and game mechanics made participation more enjoyable and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-242)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-266)
  14. Index
    (pp. 267-276)