12 June 2023

If you’ve recently spent time on Duolingo, claimed airmiles or downloaded an exercise app like Zombies, Run!, you’re familiar with the basic elements of gamification. Commercial enterprises have used features that we typically associate with games – goals and challenges, point scoring, personalisation and rapid, visible feedback for decades to increase consumer engagement.

But what if these same features could be used to improve citizen engagement in local government and participation projects, in order to strengthen democracy and perhaps make it a little – fun? As New York University Global Professor Sgueo points out, the use of games has been part of public life for thousands of years, starting with the famously bloody gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome. Nowadays, there’s less terror and more technology. But the principle behind it is the same –  enjoyment makes citizens more willing to engage.

State of play – academia vs industry

Gamification has been applied across a range of fields from e-learning to health and even personal development. In the field of e-participation, gamification is frequently understood in terms of levels. Some, like Macintosh, have focused on levels of motivation associated with gamification – empowering, engaging and enabling participants. Indeed the role of motivation and resulting user engagement is key to much of the academic research currently being done on gamification in this field. 

In the industry, understandings of gamification tend to focus on the technical aspects. These typically range from lower levels where an awareness of the importance of strong visual features and some basic interactive capabilities are found, to higher levels where apps and platforms more closely resemble a fully fledged video game replete with 3D animation and avatars. There is still a long way to go in this regard. The video gaming industry is half a century ahead in terms of game machines, development practices and the training of programmers and designers, says UK-based gaming expert and author, Adrian Hon.  

Gamification as a spectrum

President and co-founder of the Citizens Foundation in Iceland, Robert Bjarnason, is no stranger to gamification. He worked in the online gaming industry for 15 years. During which time, his team won two BAFTA awards for video games. But when political upheaval in his native Iceland, following the 2008 financial crisis, caused trust in Iceland’s parliament to plummet, Bjarnason felt compelled to act. More than a decade later, Bjarnason and his team at Citizens Foundation have created a variety of citizen participation platforms that employ varying levels of gamification.

“Gamification is like a spectrum – you have different degrees of gamification,” says Bjarnason. The first level, according to him, is associated with visual attractiveness, interactivity, rapid response and fun. One of their most successful platforms to date is My Neighbourhood Participatory Budget Project for the capital city of Reykjavik. It makes use of all of these features and a few more. Started in 2011, this PB project got 70 000 visitors last year which resulted in the addition of 1700 new ideas being accepted by the platform. Participation rates are now between 16% and 20%. “There are few places in the world that have these levels of participation”, maintains Bjarnason. He attributes this promising trend to their use of gamification.

Gamification Level 1 – The Basics

The interface is visually attractive and offers citizens the opportunity to post their own short videos and images. “Which people love”, says Bjarnason. Many participation platforms make use of visual and graphic features in order to enhance user experience. Basic interactivity is also common. However, online comments features bring their own set of challenges, as many of us well know. 

Gamification can also be used to address the problems of conflict online, according to Bjarnason. On the Reykjavik PB platform, participants are not able to interact directly and can not respond directly to existing comments. Rather, they are encouraged to respond to a range of ideas. “So we put people on a bit of a quest, to help us find the best points for and against each suggestion”. This perhaps helps to disarm participants a little, muses Bjarnason. It encourages them to make constructive comments rather than getting angry about existing contributions.

Gamification Level 2 – Intermediate

Greater levels of ownership are typically associated with the next level of gamification. For example, users are given the option to make decisions about which goals or projects they want to pursue and interact accordingly. In the Reykjavik PB platform, participants are given the option to scroll through and swipe left or right on the projects on offer (this is a mobile feature). They are then taken through to a YouTube video which provides further details of the chosen project. The total amount of money available for participation projects in your neighbourhood is also on display. Users can allocate it as they see fit across a range of projects. 

AI is used to provide personalised project placement, placing preference projects closer toward the top. “It’s a little budget game” explains Bjarnason. “They can pull together a budget for their neighbourhood in the most pleasant and fun way possible”. There have now been more than 1000 PB projects implemented in this way in the Reykjavik area.

Gamification Level 3 – Toward a fully fledged video game. 

Higher levels of gamification can be conceived of in different ways. They may simply involve more sophisticated levels of visualisation (e.g. 3D animation) and interaction (e.g. avatars). It can also mean the use of more advanced motivational tactics, designed to draw the user into deeper levels of engagement.

In the city of Valongo, Portugal, local officials have taken inspiration from the video game, Minecraft, in order to engage the youth in a participation project to improve shared spaces in their city neighbourhoods. 

Bjarnason describes two high-level gamification projects –  one of which is an educational game developed in partnership with the University of Iceland in 2019, called Make your Constitution. Developed in the context of a major overhaul of the Icelandic constitution, the game is interactive and uses 3D animation. “It is a constructive way to understand the connection between people’s values on the one hand and how the legalities of a constitution work on the other hand”, he explains.   

Gamification for zoning in Iceland

A second interactive, 3D game is larger in scope and is being developed in partnership with the Icelandic government. It is designed to address a nation-wide issue of zoning that involves 3 municipalities in Iceland which have huge tracts of unspoiled land. There have been heated debates about how this land should be used, explains Bjarnason. In response, they have created a game-inspired participation project, complete with avatars from Icelandic mythology. It also boasts a small aeroplane that allows users to skim virtually over the 3D landscape of the areas in question.

At the bottom of the screen are icons denoting different zoning options e.g. Energy; Farming, Conservation, Tourism etc. Clicking on each icon, allows participants to populate selected areas of land with the chosen activities. Users are also encouraged to make comments regarding their choices. These will be used in the next level of the game. Once participants have allocated a minimum of 75% of the land, they are allowed to move on to the next level. Here they can see the results of choices made by all participants. Areas where there is a lot of disagreement are highlighted and related comments from participants are available for viewing by everyone.  

A Pandora’s box?

“Gamification is all about thinking how the choices you put on the screen are going to affect the user”, says Bjarnason. The issue of motivation is a delicate one. Sara Sinha of Citizen OS in Estonia agrees that simple gamification features like quizzes, scoring systems or digital badges can help engage people. But explains that their organisation is wary of conventional gamification features such as these because of their potential to amplify the voices of some individuals over others. “So we try to use these sparingly,” she says. They are more interested in games that facilitate cooperation rather than simply creating winners and losers.

“Gamifying governance is like opening a Pandora’s box,” says Sgueo. It certainly raises a number of thorny questions such as: What kinds of rewards are both effective and ethical? How does one accurately assess and reward motivation levels and how might games work to exclude some and elevate others? Yet as we all know, once Pandora’s box was opened, there was no turning back. Adrian Hon agrees. “Our democracies are already gamified. Our goal should be to do it better”.

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