Narratives and gaming: design principles in civic engagement

communities / Article

Earlier this month, Knight Foundation, as part of its Technology for Engagement Initiative, gathered thought leaders to talk about the best ways to use new tools and platforms to bring communities together around important issues. Here, author Charles Tsai and Dave Timko talk with Games for Change co-founder Benjamin Stokes and others on design principles for engagement. A full report is forthcoming.

At Knight’s recent Technology for Engagement Summit, innovators, academics and funders took time to examine some of the recent successes in civic engagement and what we can learn from them. Do they hint at design principles for the tools we develop for engagement?

Recent bright spots point to increased uses of narratives and gaming. This is no surprise. If engagement is about sustaining action and involvement beyond one-off events, then engagement will naturally take the form of stories or games. They provide meaningful structures for sustained actions.

They can motivate action better than facts and figures. Just witness the challenge in getting people to exercise, eat healthfully and recycle. Compare that to how immersed children are in gaming: the average American will have played 10,000 hours of games by the time he or she reaches age 21.

Narratives are cleverly used by three recent initiatives that succeeded in spreading quickly, person to person: the Harry Potter Alliance, Kony 2012 and Caine’s Arcade.

Each one relies on an unfolding narrative to hook people. You’re not just told a good story, you’re part of one. You don’t just donate or sign petitions, you’re writing the next or last chapter of a powerful story.

 The Harry Potter Alliance asks fans who grew up with the books to imagine the young wizard in this world. What evil would he fight and how can you raise your own “Dumbledore’s Army” to help him? This simple reframing, a practice dubbed “cultural acupuncture,” helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of youth to action. Together, they’ve sent five cargo planes of aid to Haiti and donated more than 88,000 books around the world. 

The alliance’s success gave founder Andrew Slack this epiphany: “Fantasy is not an escape from the soul of our world but an invitation to go deeper into it.”

Similarly, Invisible Children, the organization that launched Kony 2012, uses narrative to give youth, even privileged American teens, the sense that they are on the frontlines, not the sidelines, of an epic struggle taking place half a world away. Their awareness campaigns have involved teens pretending to be captured (“Rescue Me”) or pretending to be running from threat (“Global Night Commute”). The stories help add more drama to what might otherwise be mundane activities - writing letters, raising money and sending tweets.

The power of stories lie in their potential to end happily. That’s the power filmmaker Nirvan Mullick tried to tap into when he asked Los Angeles residents to form a flash mob at a game arcade created by a shy nine-year-old boy, Caine Monroy. Caine had spent a whole summer making arcade games out of cardboard boxes. But since the arcade is situated in his dad’s used auto parts store in an industrial part of LA, he could not get any customers.

Through Facebook and Reddit, Mullick found volunteers to create the ending that Caine’s story deserved.

Except that wasn’t the end. When Mullick posted his short film about Caine online, it quickly became a viral sensation as well. Almost three millions views later, fans donated more than $200,000 to Caine’s college fund. Both MIT and UCLA reached out to him with offers. And children around the world are making their own cardboard arcade games.

Pulling people into powerful narratives - fictional or real - has long been a tactic of leaders and activists. It’s also the fundamental design principle in today’s video games.  Developers go to great pains to make players feel as if they’re on some epic mission (i.e., to save planet earth), when in reality, they’re simply manipulating some pixels on the screen.

Narrative is just one of many  “mechanics” that today’s game developers use to make video games as engaging - or addictive - as they can be. Their success has caught the attention of everyone, including educators, entrepreneurs and even social innovators, who are constantly looking for better ways to sustain engagement of their constituents.

Summit participant Benjamin Stokes co-founded Games for Change in 2004 out of the belief that games can inspire better engagement tools.

We already see that happening.

Participatory Chinatown uses a 3-D immersive video game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood in the city’s master planning process.  Players complete missions - find a job, find a place to live, find a place to socialize - and then give input on how they would like their community to develop.

Games don’t always have to be played online. “Alternate reality games,” which are played in the real world have become popular with social innovators who want to bring about engagement in the real world.

Examples include Re:activism, a game in New York that re-enacts labor history through street performance in order to engage people in social issues of today, and ParTour, a game in LA that uses “touring” as a way to bring people together, map their community and improve their city.

Macon Money, another Knight-funded project, uses the “treasure hunt” mechanic to build community. It sends thousands of residents half of a bond. Their challenge is to find a matching half in their town so they can redeem the whole bond for currency that they can spend on local businesses.

Stokes predicts success of future engagement tools will depend on understanding and mastering social patterns and structures of human participation. That means game thinking will inevitably play a bigger role.

“The more we want to engage citizens in real problems and complex issues, the more engagement mechanics will be crucial,” said Stokes.

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