Let’s play: What policymakers can learn from game design
Originally posted on: Technologies of Governance, November 9, 2008,
At first sight, the jobs of policy-makers and game designers could not be more different. On the one hand, a world of law and regulation, trying to stabilize financial markets, tackle global warming, fight crime, regulate traffic, and make network industries work. On the other hand, a world of board games, sports, and ego shooters, ranging from Monopoly, Quake, and Baseball to Poker, UNO, and Tic-Tac-Toe. A closer look, however, reveals some striking parallels between the two. As regulators slowly move from direct to indirect modes of regulation, they face a challenge that has long bothered game developers around the world: how to design environments for beneficial human interaction?
I made this non-obvious connection the topic of a workshop I taught this weekend to a group of 21 students from law, economics, philosophy, and neuroscience. The workshop was titled “Just a Game? What Regulators Can Learn from Game Designers” and was part of the Annual Meeting of the German National Academic Foundation in the UK.
The idea for the workshop was inspired by a number of people I had met over the summer. In August, I had the opportunity to attend a session on “Game Design as a Value-Conscious Practice” at the “Values in Computer and Information System Design” workshop at Santa Clara University. In this session, Mary Flanagan and Tracy Fullerton presented a “playcentric approach” to game design, focusing on how social values are embedded in different kinds of games. Similar issues are tackled by the NSF-funded Values at Play project, which aims “to harness the power of video games in the service of humanistic principles.” The research group led by Helen Nissenbaum and Mary Flanagan has not only produced substantial research but also a number of fascinating games.
Building on these insights and linking them to public policy, I divided the workshop in two parts:
- In Part I, I introduced a conceptual framework for analyzing games. Building on students’ own experiences and memories of different games, we (a) identified the formal and dramatic elements of games, (b) discussed the mechanisms and dynamics that emerge from them, and (c) had a closer look at how values are embedded in this process. The framework was largely adopted from Tracy Fullerton’s terrific “Game Design Workshop“. Tracy is a game designer and professor at the USC School of Cinematics – and if you’re remotely interested in the field, I strongly recommend you have a look at her work.
- In Part II, we put theory into practice. Students split up into groups of three to five, picked a game, and familiarized themselves with it. The groups were then supposed to redesign the game according to a randomly assigned human value and a social issue. For example, one group had chosen Yahtzee and was assigned the human value of “humility” and the social issue of “discrimination.” After some trial-and-error and discussion, they came up with a new game called Ultimate Yahtzee by adding – among other things – the interesting twist that players did not know until the very last round for whom they were actually playing. Another group had picked the game of Draughts (also known as Checkers in the U.S.) and tailored it to “food policy” and “community.” They developed Fight for Food, a board-based strategy game, in which players compete by building food supply chains into chartered territory.
The workshop was not only great fun, but also an excellent learning experience. While people were cautious not to take the analogy too far, a number of interesting insights emerged. For example:
- Like regulation, game design can get messy very quickly. Some groups observed that when they changed one element and were not satisfied with the outcome, they changed another one in response – up to a point where the flow of the game was just right and balanced, but the rules and procedures too complex for a human being to remember. Such trade-offs and processes of juridification are more than familiar to policy designers and legal theorists. Just think about tax law, and you will get the idea.
- Some mentioned that it was only through the games that they had realized how crucial dramatic elements like stories and characters were for engaging people in a game. Since there was no way of forcing people into playing, most groups experimented with different premises and story lines to capture the players’ imagination. The situation is actually not too different in an increasing number of policy contexts: when centralized enforcement is not possible or just too costly, motivation becomes a key factor.
- Generally, the boundaries between games and actual policy problems turned out to be much less clear than initially assumed. Especially in infrastructure-based environments, the analogy seemed to have some force. Examples mentioned were forms of cooperation in digitally networked environments like eBay and Wikipedia, but also international financial markets and traffic regulation.
Overall, playing with games turned out to be a fun and useful exercise for understanding public policy and generating new ideas. It would be interesting to see what other groups and audiences could take away from such a workshop.