How Game Design Principles Can Enhance Democracy

Essay by Adrian Hon: “Gamification — the use of ideas from game design for purposes beyond entertainment — is everywhere. It’s in our smartwatches, cajoling us to walk an extra thousand steps for a digital trophy. It’s in our classrooms, where teachers use apps to reward and punish children with points. And it’s in our jobs, turning the work of Uber drivers and call center staff into quests and missions, where success comes with an achievement and $50 bonus, and failure — well, you can imagine.

Many choose to gamify parts of their lives to make them a little more fun, like learning a new language with Duolingo or going for a run with my own Zombies, Run! app. But the gamification we’re most likely to encounter in our lives is something we have no control over — in our increasingly surveilled and gamified workplaces, for instance, or through the creeping advance of manipulative gamification in financial, insurance, travel and health services.

In my new book, “You’ve Been Played,” I argue that governments must regulate gamification so that it respects workers’ privacy and dignity. Regulators must also ensure that gamified finance apps and video games don’t manipulate users into losing more money than they can afford. Crucially, I believe any gamification intended for schools and colleges must be researched and debated openly before deployment.

But I also believe gamification can strengthen democracies, by designing democratic participation to be accessible and to build consensus. The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment — adaptive difficulty, responsive interfaces, progress indicators and multiplayer systems that encourage co-operative behaviour — can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society…

Fully participating in democracy today — not just voting, but getting involved in local planning and budgeting processes, or building and sharing knowledge — involves navigating increasingly complex systems that desperately need to be made more welcoming and accessible. So while the idea of gamifying democracy may seem to trivialize the deep problems we face today or be another instance of techno-solutionism, that’s not my intention. It’s a recognition that we already live in a digital democracy — one where deliberation takes place on social media that’s gamified to reward and promote the hottest takes and most divisive comments by means of upvotes and karma points; where people learn about the world through the warped lens of conspiracy theories that resemble alternate reality games; and where collective action is enabled and amplified by popularity contests on crowdfunding websites and Reddit.

“The same game design ideas that have made video games the 21st century’s dominant form of entertainment can be harnessed in the service of democracies and civil society.”…(more)”

The Data Liberation Project 

About: “The Data Liberation Project is a new initiative I’m launching today to identify, obtain, reformat, clean, document, publish, and disseminate government datasets of public interest. Vast troves of government data are inaccessible to the people and communities who need them most. These datasets are inaccessible. The Process:

  • Identify: Through its own research, as well as through consultations with journalists, community groups, government-data experts, and others, the Data Liberation Project aims to identify a large number of datasets worth pursuing.
  • Obtain: The Data Liberation Project plans to use a wide range of methods to obtain the datasets, including via Freedom of Information Act requests, intervening in lawsuits, web-scraping, and advanced document parsing. To improve public knowledge about government data systems, the Data Liberation Project also files FOIA requests for essential metadata, such as database schemas, record layouts, data dictionaries, user guides, and glossaries.
  • Reformat: Many datasets are delivered to journalists and the public in difficult-to-use formats. Some may follow arcane conventions or require proprietary software to access, for instance. The Data Liberation Project will convert these datasets into open formats, and restructure them so that they can be more easily examined.
  • Clean: The Data Liberation Project will not alter the raw records it receives. But when the messiness of datasets inhibits their usefulness, the project will create secondary, “clean” versions of datasets that fix these problems.
  • Document: Datasets are meaningless without context, and practically useless without documentation. The Data Liberation Project will gather official documentation for each dataset into a central location. It will also fill observed gaps in the documentation through its own research, interviews, and analysis.
  • Disseminate: The Data Liberation Project will not expect reporters and other members of the public simply to stumble upon these datasets. Instead, it will reach out to the newsrooms and communities that stand to benefit most from the data. The project will host hands-on workshops, webinars, and other events to help others to understand and use the data.”…(More)”

OECD Guidelines for Citizen Participation Processes

OECD: “The OECD Guidelines for Citizen Participation Processes are intended for any public official or public institution interested in carrying out a citizen participation process. The guidelines describe ten steps for designing, planning, implementing and evaluating a citizen participation process, and discuss eight different methods for involving citizens: information and data, open meetings, public consultations, open innovation, citizen science, civic monitoring, participatory budgeting and representative deliberative processes. The guidelines are illustrated with examples as well as practical guidance built on evidence gathered by the OECD. Finally, nine guiding principles are presented to help ensure the quality of these processes…(More)”.

Towards a permanent citizens’ participatory mechanism in the EU

Report by Alberto Alemanno: “This study, commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the AFCO Committee, examines the EU participatory system and its existing participatory channels against mounting citizens’ expectations for greater participation in EU decision making in the aftermath of the Conference on the Future of Europe. It proposes the creation of a permanent deliberative mechanism entailing the participation of randomly selected citizens tasked to provide advice upon some of the proposals originating from either existing participation channels or the EU institutions, in an attempt at making the EU more democratically responsive…(More)”

Citizens can effectively monitor the integrity of their elections: Evidence from Colombia

Paper by Natalia Garbiras-Díaz and Mateo Montenegro: “ICT-enabled monitoring tools effectively encourage citizens to oversee their elections and reduce fraud

Despite many efforts by governments and international organizations to guarantee free and fair elections, in many democracies, electoral integrity continues to be threatened. Irregularities including fraud, vote buying or voter intimidation reduce political accountability, which can distort the allocation of public goods and services (Hicken 2011, Khemani 2015). 

But why is it so hard to prevent and curb electoral irregularities? While traditional strategies such as the deployment of electoral observers and auditors have proven effective (Hyde 2010, Enikolopov et al. 2013, Leefers and Vicente 2019), these are difficult to scale up and involve large investments in the training, security and transportation of personnel to remote and developing areas.

In Garbiras-Díaz and Montenegro (2022), we designed and implemented a large-scale field experiment during the election period in Colombia to study an innovative and light-touch strategy that circumvents many of these costs. We examine whether citizens can effectively oversee elections through online platforms, and demonstrate that delegating monitoring to citizens can provide a cost-effective alternative to more traditional strategies. Moreover, with growing access to the internet in developing countries reducing the barriers to online monitoring, this strategy is scalable and can be particularly impactful. Our results show how citizens can be encouraged to monitor elections, and, more importantly, illustrate how this form of monitoring can prevent politicians from using electoral irregularities to undermine the integrity of elections…(More)”.

All Democracy Is Global

Article by  Larry Diamond: “The world is mired in a deep, diffuse, and protracted democratic recession. According to Freedom House, 2021 was the 16th consecutive year in which more countries declined in freedom than gained. Tunisia, the sole democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protests that began in 2010, is morphing into a dictatorship. In countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Hungary, and Turkey, elections have long ceased to be democratic. Autocrats in Algeria, Belarus, Ethiopia, Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe have clung to power despite mounting public demands for democratization. In Africa, seven democracies have slid back into autocracy since 2015, including Benin and Burkina Faso.

Democracy is looking shaky even in countries that hold free and fair elections. In emerging-market behemoths such as Brazil, India, and Mexico, democratic institutions and norms are under attack. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has made threats of an autogolpe (self-coup) and a possible return to military rule if he does not win reelection in October. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has steadily chipped away at press freedoms, minority rights, judicial independence, the integrity of the civil service, and the autonomy of civil society. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has attempted to silence critics and remove democratic checks and balances.

Democratic prospects have risen and fallen in decades past, but they now confront a formidable new problem: democracy is at risk in the very country that has traditionally been its most ardent champion. Over the past dozen years, the United States has experienced one of the biggest declines in political rights and civil liberties of any country measured by the Freedom House annual survey. The Economist now ranks the United States as a “flawed democracy” behind Spain, Costa Rica, and Chile. U.S. President Donald Trump deserves much of the blame: he abused presidential power on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history and, after being voted out of office, propagated the “Big Lie” of election fraud and incited the violent rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. But American democracy was in peril before Trump assumed office, with rising polarization exposing acute flaws in American democratic institutions. The Electoral College, the representational structure of the Senate, the Senate filibuster, the brazen gerrymandering of House districts, and lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court have all made it possible for a political minority to exert prolonged outsize influence.

Can a country in the throes of its own democratic decay do anything to arrest the broader global decline? For many, the answer is no…(More)”.

Why its Time for a New Approach to Civic Tech

Article by Anthony Zacharzewski: “…It’s true that there has been some recent innovation around this theme, including tools designed to support audio and video-based deliberation…However, the needs of modern participation and democracy are changing in a far more fundamental way, and the civic tech field needs to do more to keep pace.

For years, civic tech has focused on the things that digital tools do well – data, numbers, and text. It has often emphasised written comments, voting ideas up and down, and the statistical analysis of responses. And perhaps most tellingly, it has focused on single events, whether participatory budgeting processes or major events such as the Conference on the Future of Europe. 

Many of these approaches are essentially digitised versions of physical processes, but we are starting to realise now that one-off processes are not enough. Rather, civic tech tools need to bring people into longer-term conversations, with wider participation. 

This is where the next generation of civic tech tools needs to focus. 

Today, it is easy for a participant in a participatory budgeting process to use a polished digital interface to suggest an idea or to vote.

However, nothing on these platforms enables people to stay in the democratic conversation once they have had their say, to stay informed on the issues in their area, or to find opportunities to participate elsewhere. Even platforms such as Decidim and Consul, which allow people to participate in multiple different processes, still have a fundamentally process- and discussion-based model…(More)”

Designing Digital Participatory Budgeting Platforms: Urban Biking Activism in Madrid

Paper by Maria Menendez-Blanco & Pernille Bjørn: “Civic technologies have the potential to support participation and influence decision-making in governmental processes. Digital participatory budgeting platforms are examples of civic technologies designed to support citizens in making proposals and allocating budgets. Investigating the empirical case of urban biking activists in Madrid, we explore how the design of the digital platform Decide Madrid impacted the collaborative practices involved in digital participatory budgeting. We found that the design of the platform made the interaction competitive, where individuals sought to gain votes for their single proposals, rather than consider the relations across proposals and the larger context of the city decisions, even if the institutional process rewarded collective support. In this way, the platforms’ design led to forms of individualistic, competitive, and static participation, therefore limiting the possibilities for empowering citizens in scoping and self-regulating participatory budgeting collaboratively. We argue that for digital participatory budgeting platforms to support cooperative engagements they must be revisable and reviewable while supporting accountability among participants and visibility of proposals and activities…(More)”.

Democratic innovation and digital participation

Nesta Report: “Overcoming barriers in democratic innovations to harness the collective intelligence of citizens for a 21st-century democracy.

This report sets out the need for democratic innovations and digital participation tools to move beyond one-off pilots toward more embedded and inclusive systems of decision-making.

This is the first comprehensive analysis of the barriers experienced by democratic innovators around the world. Alongside the barriers, we have captured the enablers that can help advance these innovations and tools to their full potential.

The report is published alongside the advancing democratic innovation toolkit which supports institutions, practitioners and technologists to diagnose the barriers that they face and identify the enablers they can use to address them.

This report is based on insights from global examples of digital democratic innovation, and in particular, three pilots from the COLDIGIT project: a citizens’ assembly in Trondheim, Norway; participatory budgeting in Gothenburg, Sweden; and participatory budgeting in Helsinki, Finland.

The work is a collaboration between Nesta, Digidem Lab, University of Gothenburg, University of Helsinki and SINTEF funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)….(More)”.

The End of Real Social Networks

Essay by Daron Acemoglu: “Social media platforms are not only creating echo chambers, propagating falsehoods, and facilitating the circulation of extremist ideas. Previous media innovations, dating back at least to the printing press, did that, too, but none of them shook the very foundations of human communication and social interaction.

CAMBRIDGE – Not only are billions of people around the world glued to their mobile phones, but the information they consume has changed dramatically – and not for the better. On dominant social-media platforms like Facebook, researchers have documented that falsehoods spread faster and more widely than similar content that includes accurate information. Though users are not demanding misinformation, the algorithms that determine what people see tend to favor sensational, inaccurate, and misleading content, because that is what generates “engagement” and thus advertising revenue.

As the internet activist Eli Pariser noted in 2011, Facebook also creates filter bubbles, whereby individuals are more likely to be presented with content that reinforces their own ideological leanings and confirms their own biases. And more recent research has demonstrated that this process has a major influence on the type of information users see.

Even leaving aside Facebook’s algorithmic choices, the broader social-media ecosystem allows people to find subcommunities that align with their interests. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are the only person in your community with an interest in ornithology, you no longer have to be alone, because you can now connect with ornithology enthusiasts from around the world. But, of course, the same applies to the lone extremist who can now use the same platforms to access or propagate hate speech and conspiracy theories.

No one disputes that social-media platforms have been a major conduit for hate speech, disinformation, and propaganda. Reddit and YouTube are breeding grounds for right-wing extremism. The Oath Keepers used Facebook, especially, to organize their role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol. Former US President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets were found to have fueled violence against minorities in the US.

True, some find such observations alarmist, noting that large players like Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google/Alphabet) do much more to police hate speech and misinformation than their smaller rivals do, especially now that better moderation practices have been developed. Moreover, other researchers have challenged the finding that falsehoods spread faster on Facebook and Twitter, at least when compared to other media.

Still others argue that even if the current social-media environment is treacherous, the problem is transitory. After all, novel communication tools have always been misused. Martin Luther used the printing press to promote not just Protestantism but also virulent anti-Semitism. Radio proved to be a powerful tool in the hands of demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin in the US and the Nazis in Germany. Both print and broadcast outlets remain full of misinformation to this day, but society has adjusted to these media and managed to contain their negative effects…(More)”.