Let’s play: What policymakers can learn from game design

Originally posted on: Technologies of Governance, November 9, 2008,

Let's play: What policy-makers can learn from game designAt 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:

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:

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.