Research note. Games, Powers & Democracies

by Gianluca Sgueo

Residents of Santa Monica, in California, can swipe left or right on a Tinder-like website, to like or dislike the municipal council’s proposed changes to their local neighbourhoods. Citizens of Boston share information on traffic, criminality, Wi-Fi availability and waste management with the office of the mayor. In so doing, they help to evaluate the performance of their city, which is rated on a graded scale, and shared on a publicly accessible digital dashboard. In New Mexico, residents of Albuquerque can monitor ‘acts of [civic] kindness’ with a dedicated app.

Across the pond, Europe is no exception. Dubliners receive up to €200 in vouchers by helping the city council monitor public toilets and fountains located in the city parks. Madrid residents with ideas about how to improve community life can share them online via a dedicated website. Ideas with enough interest and ‘likes’, may be voted on by the municipal council and actually implemented. Similarly, residents of Barcelona can join an online consultation forum, present their ideas on issues regarding local public services, and rate those of others by supporting or opposing them. Heading east, we meet Muscovites who are rewarded with points every time they vote on a dedicated e-voting platform. Points can be redeemed to pay parking tickets and metro fares, or to enter contests to win opera tickets. In the Chinese city of Suining, citizens are rewarded or deducted points according to their social behaviour. Do you take care of a family member? You earn fifty points. Have you been convicted for drunk driving? Fifty points are deducted. Depending on your overall grade, you could be given priority in employment, or even denied access to some social services.

Moving beyond national borders, the story continues. If you resist the temptation to use your mobile phone for fifteen minutes, or correctly guess the meaning of a fancy English word, you can trigger donations sponsored by the United Nations. Are you good at coming up with solutions to tackle global problems like famine, climate change or diversity? There is a game for that, too. All you have to do is to engage in a weekly game called Evoke, and liaise with players from all over the world. You might have a chance to have your ideas evaluated (and implemented) by the World Bank’s officials, in Washington.

Games, Powers & Democracies’ (Gianluca Sgueo, Bocconi University Press, 2018) is an investigation of strategies of ‘gamification’ by national and supranational regulators. The book offers a comparative overview of several forms of governance that attempt to innovate through entailing game elements. Beyond that, the book aims at exploring the potential – but also at understanding the limits – of the use of gamification in the public sector. It is worth remembering that gamified governance’s legal, societal, political and cultural challenges remain unexplored. Almost no empirical testing has been done on the number of legal regimes interested in this phenomenon, and to identify what kind of capabilities public regulators must develop to leverage the benefits of gamification and deliver public outcomes effectively. To date, no research has attempted to determine if and how gamification strategies differentiate across policy stages and areas.

According to author, gamified governance sounds promising under four banners: first, it falls within the Arthur Stinchcombe’s ideal of social adaptation of public regulators to change; second, it offers a chance for public regulators to gain the trust of citizens, and thus be perceived as legitimate; third, it adapts policy-making to budgetary and regulatory challenges; fourth, and foremost, it is in line with citizens’ demanding needs.

Yet gamification embodies a number of weaknesses, both practical and theoretical in nature. Put practically, gamified governance does not provide public regulators with clear outcomes (at least, not in the short term). Beyond the promise of high citizen engagement and consequent enhanced legitimacy, gamifying regulatory powers may actually conceal a fiasco. Hence, the dilemma faced by public regulators: should gamification be incorporated into decision-making procedures? And, if so, how? The differences in scale, political contexts and types of issue related with the use of gamification in governance prevent, at least for now, the identification of a unitary and transferable model. On this point, Sabino Cassese reminds us that the freedom of choosing laws and regulators does not necessarily imply that rules can be chosen, too. The mechanisation of rules is imperfect. The supply and demand (of such rules) do not always, nor necessarily, meet. For this reason, Cassese considers ‘public arena’ a more appropriate definition. Hence the interest of ‘Games, Powers & Democracies’ in understanding whether, and under which circumstances, gamification can be institutionalised in order to have a more systemic impact – or whether gamified governance should be described in line with the concept of public arena.

Let us admit, even if for just a second, that gamification could be institutionalised. This does not mean that it could also be used to promote civic responsiveness. Here is the second practical dilemma: the usability of gamification as an incentive for arousing interest and enhancing participation in governance. Academics respond positively to this problem. Richard Thaler once argued that governments typically use two incentives to encourage good civic behaviour: exhortation and fines. Fun-boosting tricks, he claimed, add a third incentive. By the numbers, Thaler would be right. Gaming is geographically and socially pervasive. Games, and particularly video games, evolved from teenage entertainment into a legitimate social practice involving adults as much as teenagers. The Entertainment Software Association reports that 58% of Americans play video games on a regular basis, with the average gamer being 38 years old. The Interactive Software Federation of Europe shows that an average of 48% of Europeans play video games, and 25% of them do so at least once a week. But, unfortunately, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Gamification can indeed be used as a way to limit, and not encourage, participatory pressures from the citizenry. Gamification used to discourage citizens from engaging may perhaps help public regulators to deliver effective decisions, but they are certainly not inclusive. Second, increased use of gamification could lead participants to behave as consumers, expecting fun and engagement as a permanent, rather than occasional, component of participatory processes. Once citizens get used to fun-incentives they may no longer respond to different stimuli, leaving public regulators with no choice but to gamify policy-making.

On a more theoretical level, the dilemmas faced by public regulators raise questions about the evolution of the exercise of public powers in the national and supranational arenas. Two broad questions remain unanswered. First, does gamification have the same disruptive potential of what Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin once deemed ‘experimental governance’ to describe nascent forms of governance in the EU? And, if this is so, is gamified governance destined to revolutionise civil society participation in policy-making? As tempting as it may be to answer enthusiastically in the affirmative, we should keep in mind two caveats. First, games (video games in particular) are far from being democratic. Game dynamics are designed and modelled to meet the needs and please the expectations of certain categories of users. Players are in competition with each other for most of the time they play. At first glance, implementing gamification strategies into policy-making in order to make it more inclusive may not seem a smart strategy.

Second, to giving a realistic answer to the question on the revolutionising potential of gamified governance compels us to reflect on what civic engagement is. Clicking ‘like’ for someone’s idea, swiping left to dislike a project, or giving your municipality a five-star rating because it keeps the neighbourhood clean: this is, in a nutshell, the kind of engagement nurtured by gamified governance. Shall we treat it as participation? Or shall we argue that insights from cases of gamified governance means that traditional definitions of democratic participation no longer hold? Opting for the former option is objectively unrealistic. Yet opting for the latter option would implicitly lead us to admit that weaker, or simpler, forms of participation exist next to stronger, or more complex, forms of civic engagement—and thus accept that gamification, at best, nurtures a second-class civic spirit.

‘Games, Powers and Democracies’ is divided in six chapters. The first chapter introduces the readers to the concept of gamification and discusses its uses in governmental venues. The second chapter reviews the landscape of gamification, and provide examples of its application within several sectors, including business companies, civic organisations, media outlets and universities. Chapters 3 and 4 shift the focus to the analysis of gamification in national and supranational governance, respectively. Both chapters present nomenclatures of gamification types, modelled on the case studies analysed. Building on Chapters 3 and 4, the fifth and sixth chapters venture beyond the empirical analysis to address the impact of gamification strategies on the exercise of public power in domestic and supranational contexts. To begin, Chapter 5 analyses the three main typologies of publics that are (potentially) engaged through gamified public policies—namely: ‘policy-entrepreneurs’, ‘citizen-activists’ and ‘citizen-lobbyists’. Depending on the typology of participants in gamified public policies, public regulators may experience benefits or drawbacks. To simplify a complex argument, gamification may impact on the quality of public policies, benefiting from the interactions established between policy-makers and citizens-players. Drawbacks, in turn, may include the ‘capture’ of the regulators by dominant interest groups, or issues commonly associated with collective deliberation. Chapter 5 attempts to assess the impact that the public(s) engaged with gamified policy-making may have on the transformations of governance. It does so through three conceptual frameworks: prosumerism, collective intelligence and network theory. These concepts offer different perspectives to shed light on the actual impact that gamification may have on governance. Chapter 6 shifts to analysing the risks related with the use of gamification in policy-making. The first is the nurturing of an elite concept of participatory democracy, the second is related to costs and a third consists of the distorted perception of the public. Fourth and fifth risks concern linguistic and privacy issues, respectively.