Design for Neighborliness

This morning, the boy sent me this post about what works for political campaigns.  I don’t know where the information is coming from, but if I can track down a more reliable source than MetaFilter, this sounds like a problem that game design techniques can help solve.

Here’s the problem, as laid out behind the link! The things that people want to do for national campaigns are not the things that are actually effective at getting votes. People want to do things that are well-structured, like stuff envelopes. Campaigns need people to do things that are ill-structured, like go have personal conversations with their neighbors.

I can imagine game techniques helping here in three ways.

First, games are great at structuring problems, even when things look very open-ended. I remember the first time I played Super Mario 64. At first I was bewildered. Where were my side-scrolling levels? What was I supposed to do next? Slowly, the game’s system of capabilities and rewards revealed themselves to me, until I started seeing the open-ended landscape of possibility as a place where I had power and could take directed action. (Doug Church has a great description of how this works.)

Second, playfulness can help people overcome social anxiety. Research shows this works in therapeutic settings (with kids,  for example), but what I’m thinking of is actually people’s remarkable willingness to do ridiculous things with strangers in a playful context. If you look at Come Out and Play, just for example, you can find people coming together playfully to do some truly odd stuff. Admittedly that’s easier to do when everyone agrees to play together, but experiences like Midnight Madness certainly had me approaching strangers for help and advice.

Finally, I wonder whether this approach could change how people feel about their ability to impact the political system. One of the things I study is how people understand complex systems, and the short answer is that most of us don’t. Even when we understand them abstractly, as soon as we stop using our logical minds, our cognitive shortcuts lead us into all kinds of misunderstandings. Game design techniques could try to turn those shortcuts to our advantage, instead of leaving people with a sense of hopelessness and despair about our political process. (And yes! Feelings matter!)

If I were teaching this semester, this is a problem I’d definitely set my students.  It has great research ties to social psychology, the sociology of community, group dynamics and more, as well as being a terrific design constraint. Given its possible extensions into social and mobile gaming, I might even make it a semester-long project and get my students to create prototypes. Maybe next time I’m teaching!

2 comments

  1. Sacha Chua says:

    Rahaf Harfoush gave a presentation on how the Obama campaign used social media to encourage action. Each action people reported – calling people, knocking on doors, organizing get-togethers – earned them activity points. More points were awarded for offline interactions than online interactions. Points were public, which encouraged people to compete. Points expired, too, which meant people had to stay active.

    Not only was did this activity points system spur a lot of online and offline action, it also gave the organizers a great way to identify more active people and focus the campaign’s resources on them. Just like you could unlock resources in a game by defeating challenges, reaching a certain threshold of points might mean being invited to a teleconference call or getting extra campaign material.

    You can check out some of my some rough notes from the talk. You can also reach out to Rahaf Harfoush or see how other organizations are applying game design to real life (ex: Akoha, FourSquare badges). Have fun!

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the pointers to the Obama campaign material! I’ll definitely follow up on that. I’m familiar with a lot of the existing “gamification” stuff and, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t let my students get away with a lot of the sloppy thinking I see. It sounds like the Obama campaign was doing something a little more sophisticated, though. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised!!

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