Civics, Gaming, and the Commons

This past weekend, we inaugurated a new competition soliciting “civic games.” Hopefully it will become an annual contest, but for now the most vexing question coming from game designers is: “What makes a game civic?”

Our definition of civics offers little help: we argue that civics is an expansive conception of politics, understood as a response to questions like: “How can we make democracy work like it should?” or “How can we enhance citizens’ abilities to act as equal co-creators of our shared world?” You are a citizen of a group (regardless of your legal status) if you seriously ask: “What should we do?” (more) Civic activities include deliberation, community organizing, social entrepreneurship, protest, and–in a pinch!–electoral politics.

But what makes a game civic? Given how much game theory there is beyond the prisoner’s dilemma, I can’t summarize the different ways that a game can be civic here, but I want to point out some things:

  1. A game can teach a civic skill.
  2. A game can raise awareness of a civic issue.
  3. A game can produce a civic experience.
  4. A game can promote a civic cause.
  5. A game can encourage engagement in a civic activity.

The most popular game in the world, Monopoly, began as a “civic” game: Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game designed to convey the basic injustice of rentier capitalism and promote the economic ideas of the utopian reformer Henry George. That’s an auspicious beginning to build on.

A game that teaches you a technique-for instance, how to act during a protest–might be a good candidate. The same goes for a game that lets people safely practice affirmative, enthusiastic consent for future sexual encounters. But there’s also a trend to “gamify” everyday life. The FitBit, for instance, allows you to compete to walk more than friends and family.

This is a weird kind of game: the activity is walking, but the “gamification” and challenges are designed to cause us to walk more, because we enjoy incentives even when we know they’re artificial. So civic “gamification” might encourage calling and writing one’s political representatives, or attending protests and demonstrations.

Not all civic games will be fun, even though that’s one of the categories against which it can be judged. To return to Monopoly, it’s precisely the monotony most people experience that is the core civic lesson of the game. The game is rigged in favor of early winners, which is why we should maybe avoid actual monopolies. But since people tend to prefer to play fun games, it seems like “unfun” can be a recipe for reduced impact that’s hard to overcome.

Finally, I think that civics is fundamentally about finding ways for people to take an ownership-stake in their shared world, which as I’ve written is closely tied to the idea that there are certain kinds of commonly-held resources that encourage civic engagement. Increasingly the “commons” is being depleted, as more and more things become purely private, controlled by large corporations. This makes us less efficacious as citizens because we practice politics less.

Whenever I talk about this connection I like to mention an essay Elinor Ostrom wrote for Scandanvian Political Studies, “Crowding Out Citizenship.” She argues that current public policy is based on a theory of collective inaction, which assumes that most citizens are rational actors unable to sacrifice their individual self-interest in pursuit of the public good. Moreover, collective inaction theories assume that citizens lack sufficient knowledge to design appropriate institutions on their own, so this work must be left up to experts.

By centralizing institutional design and reserving meaningful contributions for experts, we will tend to “crowd out” the motivations that make it possible for citizens to act in pro-social and collaborative ways. The study of civic agency aims to reverse the “crowding out” effect. Instead, local self-managed communities arrange to “crowd in” pro-social attitudes and expertise. Our knowledge and power as citizens is weakest when external interventions render us irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is also true: when we are forced to manage our affairs together, we develop the wisdom and the strength to do so.

I’m encouraged to think that we can combat this by increasing the responsible usage of common-pool resources. (A standard tension or contradiction in the literature is that common-pool resources can be over-used, yet they require users to survive and thrive!) So for instance, Wikipedia is a massive common-pool resource whose use tends to encourage its expansion. In gaming, there’s a similar kind of open-source movement around games that can be “hacked” or altered for new purposes. The most famous example of this is probably OSR D&D and Pathfinder. Both take advantage of the limits on copyright law (you can’t copyright rules) or open sourced licensing inside a familiar “operating system” to create new things.

A less famous–but more salutary–example is the game Apocalypse World. The game itself encourages less of a hierarchy between the storyteller role (the Game Master or Master of Ceremonies) and the players, as well as creating more opportunities for collaborative storytelling among the players themselves in a post-apocalyptic world where the close bonds of community are paramount to survival. What’s more, the game has become a kind of hub for LGBT-friendly gamers, a smaller community within the world of games that is a little less white, a little less male, and a little less heteronormative. And the game has produced a common-pool resource that is now managed by that community: literally dozens of very different games have been created within a deliberately simple system created by Vincent and Meguey Baker.

Anyway, I believe that we are inaugurating a fruitful period of cross-pollination between game designers and civics practitioners.  I’m excited to see what happens when these two communities meet.

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