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Can Games and Gamification Fix Washington?

Can Games and Gamification Fix Washington?

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Published by: Crowdsourcing.org on May 06, 2011
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Can Games and Gamification Fix Washington?
Posted: 02/ 4/11 12:55 PM ET
Even without protests in Cairo and Tea Party insouciance, there's no doubt thatmost governments eventually lose "sync" with their people. Much like the software process that keeps the contacts, music and photos on our phones up to date withour computers, syncing government with the governed is challenging from asystems perspective. With so many moving parts, money, competing interests andlives at stake, it's no wonder that sometimes the only way to fix things is to do acomplete wipe and reinstall.But could the solution to reforming government -- generally making it moreaccountable, efficient and representative of its people -- be found in technology?Can we move beyond procedural tweaks and yo-yo elections and address some of the fundamental underlying issues that plague our democracy?I mean, if Apple, Google and Microsoft can't even figure out a way to keep our address books current and not duplicated, what hope do we have to achieving thesame in Washington? The answer may lie in using games -- or more specifically,gamification -- to understand why our government is so dysfunctional, and thenwork towards a fix.Gamification is the use of game-thinking and game mechanics to solve problemsand engage audiences, and is being used in fields as diverse as health care,education and advertising to create radical and profound behavior change. Thefirst-ever Gamification Summitwas recently held in San Francisco, and a questionthat was raised several times was, "Why can't it work in Washington?" It can, andin some cases, already does.Here then are three ways we can begin to fix government using gamification.
Understand the Player
The first rule of game design is "know your player". And when we leveragegamification to transform organizations and systems, the first thing we try to
understand is what drives the player to succeed, and what "journey" are they on.There are many cases in the design of the US system of government, where the"rules" are plainly outdated in their understanding of the player's motivation.Take, for instance, the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice. While alwaysgenerally partisan, appointments have increasingly taken on sharply politicalovertones. In the framer's design of the system, they assumed that Presidents would be motivated by legacy and stability rather than short-term political gain, and thattheir picks would act in the best long-term interests of the country. The SCOTUSnomination process carries the weight of our belief in "intrinsic goodness": winnersget instant tenure (something even public school teachers dream about), andCongressional checks and balances are nominal at best; fewer than 10% of nominees have been rejected by the Senate.Since we now know that Presidents will put ideology before the country, the process of nominating a justice must change to reflect this harsh reality. PerhapsJustices should be elected (to 10, 20 year terms, perhaps) or Presidentialnominations must be ratified by a true plurality of the people and reaffirmed periodically. Perhaps Presidents should be limited to one nomination per term, or even the scope of SCOTUS should be reduced.The bottom line: people always try to "game the system", and politicians are nodifferent. To maintain the system's integrity you must be ever vigilant aboutchanging player dynamics and adjust the rules as needed. To whit, tenure isnormally something you "level up" into in game systems -- but in the SCOTUSnominations, it's instant. Perhaps this needs revisiting?
everage Games To Create Connections
Games can be tremendous pedagogical tools - but even more importantly, they canhelp players "model" the world in ways that would be too complex in spreadsheetsor on paper. That kind of systemic thinking has been used by key experts to helpgovernments become more responsive, empowering bureaucrats and constituentsto think clearly about hard problems.
Experts like Luke Hohmann, Founder & CEO of Innovation Gameshave designedreal-world experiences that constituents play to help governments figure out whattheir true priorities are. Instead of merely giving users surveys where data is oftenout of touch with reality, Innovation's games - like the one they just did for the cityof San Jose -- put the electorate in the shoes of their officials, forcing them to makehard, experiential decisions. For example, cutting daycare or road maintenance inlight of massive budget shortfalls might be too complex in Excel or too abstract ona ballot, but when it's made into a game, it gives startling insight both to the enduser and city government, producing extraordinary results.As Hohmann so eloquently said in a recent interview, "When our country wassmall, we had a participatory democracy -- people in town halls hashing out issues. Now with [gamified] technology, small groups of six, seven or eight citizens canattack problems in a way that's very useful."The bottom line: use innovative game techniques to get constituents, bureaucratsand elected officials to see each other's points of view. You can model complexsystems, bring people together in extraordinary ways and have fun doing it.
Gamify The System
After a while, all systems become calcified and stuck, and players can rarely keeptheir enthusiasm going. The same is true of complex and costly government processes and initiatives, but when they go sideways, they tend to take billions of taxpayer dollars with them.Companies like Innocentive and organizations like the XPrize Foundation, believethat game mechanics like challenges and contests can motivate users to achieveextraordinary results. Apparently, Congress agrees, passing legislationinDecember 2010's America COMPETES Act that grants US Government agencies broad authority to use prizes and challenges to solve problems of nationalimportance. This fundamentally gamified tenet of the Obama Administration'sworldview has been steadily gaining steam since 2009, when White House lawyersissued what may have been the government's first position paper on the subject.

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