How Game Design Principles Can Enhance Democracy

Our democracies are already gamified. Our goal should be to do it better.

Vasya Kolotusha for Noema Magazine

Adrian Hon is an author and the CEO and founder of games developer Six to Start. His latest book is “You’ve Been Played” (Basic Books, September 2022).

Gamification — the use of ideas from game design for purposes beyond entertainment — is everywhere. It’s in our smartwatches, cajoling us to walk an extra thousand steps for a digital trophy. It’s in our classrooms, where teachers use apps to reward and punish children with points. And it’s in our jobs, turning the work of Uber drivers and call center staff into quests and missions, where success comes with an achievement and $50 bonus, and failure — well, you can imagine.

Many choose to gamify parts of their lives to make them a little more fun, like learning a new language with Duolingo or going for a run with my own Zombies, Run! app. But the gamification we’re most likely to encounter in our lives is something we have no control over — in our increasingly surveilled and gamified workplaces, for instance, or through the creeping advance of manipulative gamification in financial, insurance, travel and health services.

In my new book, “You’ve Been Played,” I argue that governments must regulate gamification so that it respects workers’ privacy and dignity. Regulators must also ensure that gamified finance apps and video games don’t manipulate users into losing more money than they can afford. Crucially, I believe any gamification intended for schools and colleges must be researched and debated openly before deployment.

But I also believe gamification can strengthen democracies, by designing democratic participation to be accessible and to build consensus. The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment — adaptive difficulty, responsive interfaces, progress indicators and multiplayer systems that encourage co-operative behaviour — can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society.

Wildly popular — and very different — games like Mario Kart, Minecraft and Zelda all have one thing in common: they’re exquisitely designed to be enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible. That doesn’t mean they’re easy. It means they’re incredibly patient in giving beginners all the time and assistance they need to learn the skills required to learn the game and have fun. And they make the learning process itself fun, often eschewing tedious tutorials in favor of a simplified version of the game itself. They recognize and reward players for every bit of progress they make, and when players are ready to venture into multiplayer activities, they encourage good sportsmanship. While all of this effort is at least partly in pursuit of profit, there are clear lessons to be drawn about how to motivate users to engage with systems that could be applied for the greater good.

Fully participating in democracy today — not just voting, but getting involved in local planning and budgeting processes, or building and sharing knowledge — involves navigating increasingly complex systems that desperately need to be made more welcoming and accessible. So while the idea of gamifying democracy may seem to trivialize the deep problems we face today or be another instance of techno-solutionism, that’s not my intention. It’s a recognition that we already live in a digital democracy — one where deliberation takes place on social media that’s gamified to reward and promote the hottest takes and most divisive comments by means of upvotes and karma points; where people learn about the world through the warped lens of conspiracy theories that resemble alternate reality games; and where collective action is enabled and amplified by popularity contests on crowdfunding websites and Reddit.

“The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society.”

Our democracies are already gamified. Our goal should be to do it better. We can look to real-world projects for the way forward: vTaiwan and Decide Madrid are gamified online deliberation platforms designed to tackle low motivation and disengagement. The COVID Tracking Project and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) communities use crowdsourcing and radical transparency to rapidly gather vital information in an age of distrust. And citizen science projects are using game mechanics to engage thousands of volunteers in transcribing ancient scripts and classifying images from outer space.

Though these projects are far from perfect, they show the potential of going beyond gamification’s traditionally thoughtless application of points and badges and leaderboards to create new systems that promote the values upon which democracies are founded. They reject “citizen blaming”, where low participation is attributed to laziness and apathy, and instead recognize that the systems supporting our democracy must be carefully designed to welcome universal participation. The right to vote means little if citizens can’t afford to take time off work to wait for hours in line at the polls. Likewise, the ability to contribute your views to your city’s budgeting process means nothing if the website is too difficult to use or if you don’t believe your voice will be heard.

Game design principles can put the oft-dashed ideals of digital democracy into practice. Here’s how.

Facilitating Deliberation

Before the pandemic, Airbnb was one of the most contentious issues in Edinburgh’s local politics. With almost 9,000 properties in a city of only half a million, everyone knew someone affected by noisy parties or rising house prices (like me). In 2021, the council finally held a consultation on changing the law governing short-term rentals through services like Airbnb. Yet despite all the media coverage and social media interest, the council’s survey attracted just over 3,000 responses — well under 1% of the population.

One way to interpret the low participation is that people weren’t really bothered by Airbnb; if they were, they would’ve answered the online survey. This kind of citizen-blaming explanation for a lack of participation in democracy is all too common. But more often than not, a better explanation can be found in the system’s design. Like many online surveys run by governments, this one wasn’t designed for accessibility, with questions using unfamiliar terms spread across endless pages. By the time I finished the survey — which I was highly motivated to do — I had half a dozen tabs open, including Google Maps. Such surveys do little to build consensus, given that they usually don’t incorporate any deliberation between respondents. And the process of aggregating responses into actions is so slow and opaque, it does even less to build trust in the system; it wasn’t until August 2022 that Edinburgh’s plan to limit short-term rentals was finally approved by the Scottish government.

Many governments seem to believe it’s unimportant to help citizens share their views on how to run society. Cynical politicians may prefer silence, thinking it makes governing easier, but raising the barriers to democratic input only breeds unhappiness over time as citizens feel unrepresented. It also allows any bad actors who are sufficiently resourced and motivated to scale the barriers to have undue influence. That’s what happened in the New Hampshire town of Croydon, where a tiny group of government-slashing Free Staters recently took advantage of the town’s moribund local democracy and managed to pass a resolution cutting the school budget by over 50%, The New York Times reported. The budget was later overturned following a massive effort by a small group of volunteers (mostly moms), demonstrating the town’s previously low democratic participation was not a sign of indifference, but an inevitable consequence of an inaccessible and unengaging democracy.

Simply moving existing democratic processes online is not the solution, either. More citizens may have attended Croydon’s meetings if they were online, but COVID has demonstrated that Zoom meetings are no panacea. We can do better than that.

“Forums must be accessible and engaging if citizens are to voluntarily return — which is where, once again, game design ideas can help.”

Taiwan’s digital deliberation app, vTaiwan, shows one brighter future. Users are depicted as avatars who gradually move between “opinion groups” as they make and respond to comments. The more that users interact, the more they learn where they stand in relation to other users, a little like a real-time multiplayer personality quiz. And to prevent discussion from becoming a popularity contest, a variety of voices from opinion groups are displayed to all users rather than only the most “liked” ones.

The design ideas in vTaiwan aren’t wholly unique in the world of democratic deliberation; well-run citizens’ assemblies do the same thing. Given its fully digital nature, vTaiwan has the potential to implement these good ideas at greater scale, for less cost, and with better accessibility, meaning they can be used for a wider variety of purposes. And while a one-off stint on vTaiwan is unlikely to sway a partisan from their position any more than a single neighborhood meeting, being repeatedly exposed to a range of views that are less polarized than those promoted on social media may do the job. 

If repetition is key, forums must be accessible and engaging if citizens are to voluntarily return — which is where, once again, game design ideas can help. Features to encourage productive conversation like “slow mode” and time outs, which already help prevent fast-typing loudmouths from dominating discussions on platforms like Discord and Discourse, could be useful in gamified digital deliberation.

Participatory budgeting expands on digital deliberation by enabling citizens to decide how to allocate significant amounts of public money — 100 million euros, in the case of Decide Madrid’s platform. The novelty and influence of directing public money isn’t always enough to attract participants, however: according to a 2018 study by Kai Masser and Linda Mory, a participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil attracted less than 3% of the population. In contrast, Potsdam, Germany has seen steadily increasing turnout for its participatory budgeting process, reaching over 10%.

The difference? Potsdam’s process was gamified. In practice, this meant citizens were able to choose between substantially different ways to spend money (rather than, say, what color to paint a shed). The process had simple, transparent and fair rules, deliberation was used at the beginning and majority voting was used at the end. This may strike you as not being particularly gamified at all — how else should you run such a process? — which goes to show just how opaque and constrained other democratic processes can be.

Yet we shouldn’t dismiss the study’s findings as self-evident. Sid Meier, creator of Civilization and arguably the best strategy game designer in the world, believes a good game is simply “a series of interesting decisions.” Of course, it’s not enough to just make an interesting decision — you need to see the outcome. So we shouldn’t expect even gamified participatory budgeting to be a smash hit in its first year or two, especially for large infrastructure projects that take time to spin up.

Crucially, good video games don’t just present interesting decisions; they also eliminate meaningless ones. If an area’s housing needs are so pressing that the government must overrule residents on whether new apartments can be built, then there is little point in pretending to consult them. But, where possible, citizens should make smaller but meaningful political decisions more frequently, because it will help them better deliberate on the bigger decisions.

Why aren’t gamified deliberation and participatory budgeting platforms more popular, at least in places whose politics permit them? One reason is simply that it takes time for new ideas to spread, especially since most governments can’t deploy new platforms as easily as consumers can install new apps.

Another is that the platforms just aren’t that good yet. Limited budgets and inexperienced development teams — at least, compared to those in the video game industry, which has had half a century to build powerful game engines, establish development practices and train programmers and designers — mean the platforms are far less polished than the best, most enticing consumer apps. All of this has opened government-developed platforms up to being “gamed” themselves, allowing skilled interest groups to take advantage of flaws in the platforms to push forward their own agendas. A group of parents were able to leverage their knowledge of Decide Madrid to promote a proposal for a new rugby field, and a recent study by Yu-Shan Tseng describes a vTaiwan participant writing “very clear and broadly agreeable comments” as a way of attracting support for her own interests “at the expense of less-knowledgeable participants.”

“Good video games don’t just present interesting decisions; they also eliminate meaningless ones.”

Improving these platforms so they aren’t dominated by a set of knowledgeable elites will need more time and investment, with stakeholders exercising more than the usual box-ticking approach seen in government procurement. Big charities and nonprofits may be better placed to create innovative solutions, given their higher tolerance for risk and the way they are often able to operate on longer time horizons than many elected governments. But whoever decides to go all-in on funding polished, powerful, customizable gamified deliberative platforms, the prize is enormous: a step away from polarized shouting matches driven by the imperatives of commercial social networks and a step toward a rejuvenated democracy.

Restoring Trust

Citizens in democracies must trust institutions to give them reliable information, which they need to make good choices. Without trust, democracies can become mired in apathy and conspiracy theories like QAnon. At the extreme, citizens begin to distrust elections. Many institutions haven’t been able to keep up with the public’s need for increased transparency, sometimes for political reasons, breeding further distrust. Thankfully, a new breed of institutions is deploying game design principles to simultaneously attract volunteers and build trust.

The COVID Tracking Project was an attempt to compile the most complete data available about COVID-19 in the U.S. During the height of the pandemic, volunteers collected the latest numbers on tests, cases, hospitalizations and patient outcomes every single day, from every state and territory. In the absence of reliable government data, it became one of the best sources not just in the U.S. but in the world.

It was also completely transparent. Visitors could drill down into the raw data collected by volunteers on Google Sheets, view every line of code written on GitHub and ask the organizers questions directly in Slack. Errors and ambiguities in the data were quickly disclosed and explained rather than hidden or ignored. The daily quest to collect the best-quality data and to continually expand and improve the metrics being tracked was game-like in its simplicity and repeatability. And as in the best massively multiplayer online games, volunteers of all backgrounds and skills were welcomed. It was an astonishing achievement.

Open source intelligence (OSINT) groups like Bellingcat, an international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists probing conflicts, crime, and human rights abuses, operate in a similar way. Bellingcat’s volunteers painstakingly pieced together publicly available information to discover how Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 by a Russian missile brigade. The official Dutch-led international joint investigation team later came to the same conclusion. The OSINT community as a whole shares advice and trains volunteers on how to use tools like Photoshop and Google Maps to determine where a fuzzy photo was taken or whether a video was faked, a practice reminiscent of how massive player communities work together to solve fiendishly complicated puzzles in alternate reality games (ARGs).

Even Wikipedia feels gamified. An in-joke among the site’s editors is that it’s really a massively multiplayer online role-playing game where players earn experience points by editing articles, defeat trolls by correcting their vandalism and earn achievements by crafting high quality featured articles. While meant in jest, the description works because Wikipedia is a responsive and transparent website with clear rules. If you spot an error in an article, you really can fix it in 30 seconds — you don’t need find the editor’s email address, write a polite message and hope they reply.

“Gamification doesn’t just give us the digital scaffolding to fulfill the promise of democracy. It can help us build ties and trust in one another.”

Despite its numerous flaws, Wikipedia hosts comparatively reliable and up-to-date information about millions of topics, with better sourcing than many other media organizations. It’s for this reason that Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, argues that Wikipedia’s model of crowdsourcing information from a wide variety of sources “could be useful for [the CDC and] other government agencies that find themselves confronting rumors” and distrust.

Crowdsourcing projects like the ones I’ve described here are far more successful than any gamified democracy project to date, partly because they’ve created robust processes that can accommodate and motivate thousands of volunteers. And for better or worse, they’re also free of the restrictions that government institutions have to operate under. But as good as they are, they can be even better. Editing Wikipedia, let alone contributing to Bellingcat, is a daunting process for any newcomer. Ideas from game design could help them bring in the next million volunteers.

Democracy We’re Proud To Engage In

Let’s say you accept the fact our increasingly digital democracies need to be made more accessible and welcoming. Can’t you achieve that without gamification? After all, some well-designed government websites like GOV.UK let citizens renew their passports, file their taxes and book driving tests online with ease. But that isn’t democracy; it’s service provision. The exact same services could be delivered online even better in China and no one would call that democracy in action.

Democracy requires the whole population to be involved in deliberation and collective decision-making, and this won’t happen unless systems actively foster participation in their design. There’s a reason why Figma, a popular design app, describes its collaboration features as “multiplayer”: it’s because working with colleagues on complex designs feels as seamless and responsive as playing a multiplayer game. One can imagine similarly quick and intuitive game-like ways to comment on proposed maps of new developments with neighbors, enhanced with the kinds of systems that encourage co-operative behaviour between strangers in games like Journey and Elden Ring.

We should build digital democracy systems that are so good, we’re proud and excited to use them. A book warehouse with no signs, no maps and no staff might technically be termed a library, but we would recognize it as inferior to an ideal library: one that’s comfortable to linger in, welcoming to all, with librarians waiting to help you. Gamification at its best is the equivalent of beautification at its best — not merely an improvement of aesthetics, but a way to improve function and communicate what it is we value in our society.

The cost of building and maintaining these systems will be significant, if done well. But the future payoff would be great: a versatile, user-friendly platform could eventually take the place of countless more expensive citizen assemblies. There is little point in creating a one-size-fits-all gamified democracy system when we need systems designed specifically for different applications and sizes of citizenry; a citizen assembly where hundreds of people meet for multiple weeks is run according to a very different system than a jury trial or a town hall meeting. As such, governments should aim to cooperate on open-source solutions that are developed transparently, with rapid iteration based on citizen feedback — a little like video games’ hugely successful early access development phase. Again, this is where nonprofits and charities can have outsized impacts by funding riskier prototypes and monitoring development so that gamified democratic systems aren’t designed to “nudge” citizens toward certain political outcomes.

Of course, my argument relies on governments that are committed to expanding democratic participation rather than enacting a sham they can ignore or use as a rubber stamp. It also requires governments to stop ceding ground to large corporations like Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor, who govern and warp so much of our deliberation, and start building platforms that serve the needs of democracy rather than profit.

Gamification doesn’t just give us the digital scaffolding to fulfill the promise of democracy. It can help us build ties and trust in one another, so that when our democracies encounter new situations where there’s no game to help us, we can still rise to the challenge.