• Q&A
  • September 19, 2018
  • 13 minutes
  • 1

Governments are using games to engage citizens — but beware before you play

They can be a tool for citizen participation, but raise concerns about privacy and exclusion

In Suining, China, all residents aged 14 and above are graded by a complex social credit system designed to monitor and shape citizens’ behaviour. Did you take care of a sick family member? You earn 50 points. Were you convicted of drunk driving? Fifty are taken away.

Suining served as a testing ground for a mass surveillance system China is currently rolling out nationwide. Citizen behaviour is carefully watched and ranked for “trustworthiness”: Grade-A citizens may get first priority for jobs, skip hospital queues and get discounts on energy bills. Grade-D citizens, meanwhile, can be denied public services, banned from buying plane tickets or even blocked from dating websites.

Critics say China’s social credit system is a glimpse into a dystopian future; a place where all citizens are watched and rated by government, which doles out rewards or punishments accordingly. But at its core, China’s social credit system is one of the most widespread uses of gamification — an “underexplored approach to governance”, according to Gianluca Sgueo, a New York University professor and policy analyst for the European Parliament.

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Sgueo is the author of Games, Power and Democracies, which is one of the first books to analyse how government can use elements of games — such as points, levels, ranking and badges — to encourage civic participation and mould citizens’ behaviour. Sgueo doesn’t extol the tool as a cure-all for what’s broken in the policymaking process. In fact, he writes that in terms of improving interaction between government and the public, gamification has yet to have “any real impact”.

But, Sgueo says, gamification has the potential to bring apathetic citizens into the policymaking process and make decision-making more participatory. Here, he discusses why governments are using gamification wrong, and how the tool can be harnessed to change how citizens interact with government.

You open your book with a description of an episode of the TV show Black Mirror, in which every citizen has a rating that measures their social value. Do you think this is where governments’ use of gamification is heading?

I think there are two threads. One is a good one — not like the Black Mirror episode, but something more positive: gamification as a tool to engage people in policymaking. However, I have to be honest: sometimes the risk is that government, in experimenting with gamification, invades citizens’ privacy and is too intrusive with their lives.

One well-known case is in China. In Suining, your behaviour as a citizen is rated and it affects your social life. You can be denied a permit to go to the hospital or access to other public services if your rating is low. That’s very scary.

The other experiment that is very intrusive, is one in which citizens’ garbage and recycling habits were judged. People were rated by photos of their garbage, which were shared publicly. [BinCam, a Newcastle University project aimed at monitoring individuals’ recycling behaviour, installed a mobile phone inside garbage bins and took a photo every time they were used. People rated the photos on Facebook.] Overall, the trend is more positive, but there are some scary examples like these.

So far, experiments have generally been confined to small subsets of a population. Do you think gamification has the power to bring citizens into decision-making on a larger scale?

That’s the challenge. If you look at the number of people attracted by games — mobile games, video games, the numbers are crazy. The potential to attract people is there; we just need to use it to engage citizens.

The issue is that when we play a game, there is always a moment when we get bored and abandon the game. Let’s say you’re playing a game, but struggling to go to the next level — if it’s too difficult, you abandon it. If it’s too easy, you get bored.

The same principle is applied to gamification and public policy. If there are too many confusing game elements or citizens don’t feel sufficiently engaged after the first time, they just stop trying it.

The example I have in mind is from London. A couple of years ago, the government was struggling with people throwing cigarettes on the ground right before entering the metro instead of throwing them away.

They wanted people to use the bins, but they were too often in a rush. So, what they did is install two bins with [football players] Ronaldo and Messi on them. Above, it was written “Which player is better?” It worked very well for the first few months — people were throwing cigarettes away — but after awhile, they got bored. If citizens don’t find the game interesting anymore, it won’t be effective in the long term.

What are some common mistakes governments make when trying to use gamification?

The first one is to lock in a strategy for the long term. Maybe your game is super cool, but it’s not going to last for too long. There is no game you could play forever with the same level of engagement. Think about Monopoly: I like to play it but I don’t play it every day. In a way, the same thing happens with gamification. In my opinion, the most common mistake is implementing a game that is not easily changed.

The second common mistake is to only go digital. This goes back to the issue of digital divide and exclusion. The best examples of gamification include both offline and online elements. If you just use digital games, you’ll leave out a lot of people. My mother is 65 years old — if the Italian government was to launch a public consultation through digital games, she wouldn’t take the time to see what it’s about. And there are a lot of people like her whose opinion they would miss out on.

Has any one government been able to overcome these challenges?

Not yet, not entirely, and definitively not satisfactorily. The problem of inclusiveness and ethical issues are common to all initiatives of gamification. The first is a natural consequence of the digital nature of nearly all cases of gamified public policy.

One exception to the rule is the case of Macon Money, [from Macon, Georgia] a game designed for community engagement. It’s a virtual currency distributed to residents — but the interesting thing is that to redeem the value of Macon dollars, you have to find someone who has the other half of your coin. It was posted in the local newspaper who had what half, and the two people were forced to meet an interact. They could redeem the money in local stores.

This type of thing wouldn’t work in a city like Rome or London, but in a small city like Macon it helps neighbours socialise and stay informed on civic affairs. It’s meant to engage both the digitally illiterate and people who have no interest in community affairs.

Finally, ethical concerns are common to every nudging initiative, including gamification. In the final chapter of the book I describe attempts from think tanks and researchers to develop ethically neutral algorithms that could be used to counterweight ethical biases in gamification. At present, however, these initiatives are in the trial phase.

What would you say is the most successful example of a government using gamification to involve citizens in policymaking?

The municipalities of Madrid and Barcelona have both adopted platforms for engaging people in policymaking: Decide Madrid and Decidim Barcelona, which means “We Decide” in Catalan.

The platforms have implemented simple elements to give points to people who participate more. So if your ideas and comments aren’t successful — as in, they don’t make it into government — you still get points for participation. It’s not just about using the platform to convince the municipality to adopt your ideas; it’s about contributing and how you are rewarded with a system of points. The result is that more people are willing to participate. It’s very simple, very basic but very successful, which shows the promise of these types of platforms.

You say that gamification alone is not a game-changer, and that it’s yet to have any real impact in terms of advancing interactions between citizens and government. Why should governments even try to use this tool?

Because of the promise they see in it. They see an easy way to get a response from citizens. They see a low-cost way — which is not actually a reasonable way if you want to do it seriously. And they see in it probably the only escape we can find in this age where distrust for government is so spread.

I’m not saying that gamification is useless. I’m saying in most examples that I’ve analysed while writing this book, I could spot some, let’s say, naive approaches from government. In other very few cases, I saw gamification used as part of a broader strategy. These three factors — underestimating costs; overestimation of results; and the lack of a proper strategy — are probably the reasons for which governments are using it without much of a result. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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